Serial Thriller

I have been greatly enjoying, as I wrote last week, the television series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” This has gotten me thinking about the pleasure of serial forms of art–namely what we find in literature and television. Many great works by canonical authors were serialized in newspapers, such as those by Dickens or Tolstoy. A neuroscientist or psychologist could explain the psycho-physiological processes in the brain, but I’d like to take a literary stab at explaining why we like episodic entertainment. Why is this such an important, time-tested way of engaging with an audience? 

-A premise that hooks us in. There is something that grabs the reader from the get-go. The stakes are high, there is something about the situation that makes us want to know more.

-Investment in the characters. How else do we get into a story if not through the characters? Is the character an underdog or victim? Hero(ine)? Or is it an ensemble cast, perhaps a family that has some sort of a crisis? We need to feel allied with these persons immediately, or at least one, so that it is enough for us to want to follow her/his/their journey(s).

-An intriguing plot. This is very crucial. How does the writer unfold the story neatly, little by little, with expert pacing? How does each episode or chapter or section deliver just the right amount of drama at the right time? It takes extreme skill as a writer to know exactly how much to give the reader or viewer, the right “dose,” so to speak.

-An engaging story. This is closely tied to the premise, but even if the premise is strong, if the story doesn’t deliver and hook us in, we will lose interest.

-Knowing when to cut us off. I almost feel that the writer has to take us up to the top of a mountain to the point where we could fall over the cliff, and then to stop that particular episode or chapter. That way, we are completely hooked and the greatest amount of dramatic tension is generated.

-Multiple plot lines, most often. We are reading character A’s journey toward getting married, but also about character B’s illness and impending death. Alternating A’s and B’s plot lines keeps us very intrigued, so that way when the episode drops off with A, the writer picks up with B.

-Playing with our anticipation and expectations. We are waiting for next week’s installment, wondering if Mr. X will be sentenced to jail or if Mrs. Y will get the opportunity she has been longing for. The wait gives us a chance to reflect on the various possible outcomes, and when we get the next installment, we might be completely surprised as to what happens.

What could we criticize about this kind of art? Well, one could easily say it is formulaic, and that would be very true. Make sure the right amount of dramatic tension happens in each part of the series, a classic Freytag’s Triangle. Some might argue that it is teasing the reader or viewer, and perhaps even a weakness on the writer’s part, not being able to continue with the story or plot line, but having to break it up. It also relies on very traditional narrative forms, and so metafiction or non-traditional narratives would not work well. Finally, each segment or episode has to fit a particular length or time limit, and this might not always be useful. Sometimes a particular scene has to be drawn out to give it more emotional weight. So this serial/episodic manner of telling a story relies heavily on structure. 

There is room for both, the traditional and nontraditional narratives. We like both for different reasons. In the modern world, we see serialization globally, be it in telenovelas, Hindu myths made into TV series, or dramas on Netflix. Traditional narratives and serials give us a deep-rooted sense of familiarity, the artistic equivalent of comfort food, be it macaroni and cheese, rice and lentils, or kimchi jjigae.

The Razor’s Edge: A Collection of Unlikely Philosophers

I recently reread W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, and this time, I truly understood what makes it a classic and a work of genius, despite its evident flaws. The book is, at its core, the story of a group of friends and a couple of relatives (as told by a rather elusive narrator) whose primary concern centers around the seemingly aimless Larry Darrell whose primary is “to loaf.” However, his loafing also includes a spiritual quest to find a greater meaning in life than being invited to elegant parties, making lots of money, having a lucrative job, or marriage. He is the object of, first, ridicule, then great worry, as his spiritual quest seems to lead to an apathy for the more pragmatic and necessary matters of life. Larry also appears unable to form deep attachments with people, probably the result of the early loss of his parents coupled with his experiences in the First World War, where he saw death all around him and his dear friend killed. It was Larry’s quest that jumped out at me most profoundly the first time I read the book; however, this time, I was able to better understand that all of the characters are on some sort of quest of their own, however mundane and non-spiritual. It is not so easy to pass judgment on the other characters or to laud only Larry for being more “deep” than the others. For the sake of argument, I present some additional perspectives.

Larry cannot stand the bourgeois—-no, that is not the proper word, for the characters are from the elite upper classes—-moneyed, convention-driven atmosphere of his social circles. His friends are not necessarily old money, but they are not necessarily nouveau riche either. The adults’ goals are to see their children married well and prosperously settled; this is as much for maintaining a lifestyle as it is for social image. Larry is engaged to the beautiful and desired Isabel, who at first glance seems to be merely a bubbly socialite. But Larry’s desire to loaf and not have a concrete goal that he is striving towards is his ultimate downfall: Isabel’s eyes, a man must have a sense of direction with regard to his work in order for a marriage to work.

Isabel is, indeed, a woman who desires money and position, but her desires are not based on merely following convention. She has thought through her point of view, her *philosophy* of marriage, even (if one can indulge in that word) and has made up her mind to break off her engagement to Larry. This is absolutely heartbreaking to Isabel and, to some degree, Larry. We see that Isabel is not shallow, though her choices may seem to be; this is evidenced in long passages with the narrator (a sort of doppelgänger for Maugham himself) in which she discusses her concerns in detail. She thinks through things and has her reasons for doing what others might regard as selfish, but she tries as best as she can to understand Larry. If she cannot truly understand him, then she is at least sympathetic. Letting him go is not easy for her, but she is wise enough to realize that he has a particular quest. She is a stronger woman than the reader may realize.

Isabel is by nature curious, and even mildly reflective. She wants to talk to the narrator about her decisions. She wants to go “slumming” to see the seedy nightlife of Paris, so as not to be stuck in her usual circles, but unfortunately this decision the puts another woman in Larry’s life. She is the counterpart to Larry the Philosopher: where Larry questions and then chooses to remain abstract, unattached, and searching, Isabel questions and then chooses that which is concrete, connected, and certain. Her marriage to Gray Maturin is fundamentally a successful one, though she is still madly in love with Larry. Even her motives, as explained to the narrator at the end, for preventing the marriage of Larry and Sophie are carefully thought out; she made a decision to destroy one person (Sophie) in order to save another person (Larry) in the long run.

Elliott, Isabel’s uncle, is undoubtedly the most snobby and shallow individual in the book. His self-worth is based on the approval of others in the upper echelons of society. He lives or dies for invitations to swanky soirées, has very particular opinions on romantic matches and marriages, and spends lavishly on homes and clothes. He passes judgment harshly on others, and seems to rather loathe himself. And yet, at his core, he is a good ol’ Midwestern boy who is close to his family and wants the best for them. When Isabel and Gray suffer from the stock market crash, he sets up a new life for them in Paris. He is continually trying to introduce those close to him into high society for their benefit, in order to foster their social mobility. Elliott is an unabashed social climber—-he makes no bones about it. His ultimate goal is to be recognized by society and by the church. Though he ultimately felt that the former, he succeeds at the latter.

One last example of unlikely philosophers is Gray Maturin and his father Henry. Henry loses his fortune due to his innate nobility: as Maugham writes, “instead of letting [his clients] take a loss, he supported their accounts out of his own pocket… he could never hold up his head again if the little people who trusted him lost their all.” Shortly after, he dies. Gray takes over the business, tries to make good, but he also suffers. Depressed and suffering from debilitating headaches, he still remains the ever-devoted, loving husband and father. He appreciates the beauty of nature, as Isabel describes one such scene when they were out at their plantation, and is overall the most kindhearted character in the book, as we only see his goodness (and his bulk!) described throughout. He is open to healing, as Larry teaches him to cure himself of his headaches. In the end, Gray is eager to return to America and to get back to work. He is always glad to see Larry, his old childhood friend, even though his wife has always desired him and was once engaged to him. We never see Gray’s motives and we seldom hear him speak in the novel, but we are left with the impression that he is a man of integrity, a good heart, and character. He, too, has made certain choices as to how to live his life, and generally seems to be at peace with them.

These are but a few examples of the philosophical threads that flow through this flawed yet brilliantly insightful novel. The true signs of a classic, in my opinion, include tremendous insight into human nature, the ability to view and analyze the work from a multiplicity of points of view and analyze (gender, class, social commentary, philosophy, etc.), and to find new meaning in it when read at different stages in one’s life. We need more novels like this, that get us to think about the fundamental questions of human nature and how we choose our life philosophies.