A Glorious Mess, But a Mess

When my book group read the novel, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, we were surprised at how breathtakingly beautiful it could be, yet how “boring and muddled” at the same time.

Eng’s book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and won the Man Asian Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. This seemed incredible to us.

“What were they thinking?” members of the group asked about judges of these awards — and about critics who praised the novel but never mentioned its serious flaws.

Tan Twan Eng

Tan Twan Eng

This is why I love book groups — we get to take the book apart put it back together again. We talk about what works and what doesn’t, and by the end, so many points of view are expressed that the book changes — deepens, opens, enlarges — before our eyes.

On the Good Side

One of Eng’s talents lies in capturing a moment so vividly that you can almost hear the camera click. This is one, set in the stillness of a Japanese garden deep in a Malaysian forest:

“In the shallows, a gray heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music.”

Reading quotes aloud lets us sink collectively into the gorgeousness — pardon my teenage hyperbole — of the author’s writing style.

This one below prompted gasps of admiration, even though everyone had already read it. On a makeshift runway at the end of World War II, when Japan knows it’s lost the war, a reluctant kamikaze pilot revs up the engines for a suicide mission.

“The plane began to move, held back by the bomb hanging underneath, a bird carrying a cancerous growth.”

"The Garden of Evening Mists," U.S. paperback edition

“The Garden of Evening Mists,” U.S. paperback edition

These quiet reflections can be missed in the heat of a violent story, but what pops out over and over is Eng’s unbelievable vocabulary. He seems to have a gift for inserting a single, sometimes exotic, always completely unexpected word in an otherwise matter-of-fact sentence.

Here, for instance, is what happens when Yun Ling, the narrator of the novel, takes a breath in cold weather:

“I fill my lungs to the brim and exhale. Seeing my own breath shape this cobweb of air that only a second ago had been inside me …”

There’s nothing unusual about watching one’s breath take shape in the chilly air, but the word “cobweb” is so visual and unusual that it transports us right into the scene.

Eng tosses these linguistic bon-bons into sentences all over the place — “the kitchen chimney scribbling smoke over the treetops,” for example. Or “the lights in the garden came on, dizzying the flying insects.” Rather than refer to the sides of mountains, the narrator chooses a more tactile, even voluptuous word:

“The mountains are as I have always remembered them, the first light of morning melting down their flanks.”

Here’s the last glimpse of a morning sky: “The world was growing brighter, bleaching away the moon and stars.” At twilight, “above the trees, the line of mountains serrated the sky.” Water pouring over a cliff “broaden(ed) into a white feather as it fell ….”

Sometimes Eng changes the point of view — as below, from human to insect — before we realize what’s happening:

“At dusk a moth, its wings as wide as my palm, staggered around the verandah’s light bulb, searching for a way into the heart of the sun.”

At other times, Eng deliberately confuses visual and audible words so that the sound of a bird’s wings, which humans almost never hear, inspires the sight of natural forces we never see. This occurs when a pair of storks fly off a treetop as the narrator watches:

“It was so quiet I could almost hear every downward sweep of their wings, fanning the thin mists into tidal patterns.”

On the Bad Side

So while we admired Eng’s artistic precision, it was a huge disappointment to watch this potentially stunning work of fiction turn clumsy, amateurish and awkward. Eng’s characters are at times stiff and wooden, the story ragged, the dialogue inauthentic and the writing so heavy-handed that it drags the whole novel down.

"The Garden of Evening Mists," U.S. hardcover

“The Garden of Evening Mists,” hardcover edition

Most irritating to me, the stickler of the group, is Eng’s dependence on sentences that begin with present-participle phrases (the “ing” version of a verb), like this:

Going behind a stand of bougainvillea trees, I enter a bower of low-hanging branches … ”

Wincing at the pain in my knees, I kneel at the oldest gravestone … ”

There’s nothing wrong with one or two of these “ing” phrases in a novel, but Eng has developed a kind of addiction to them that lands two or three on a page.

Soaking my hands one evening, I heard..”

Wrapping a hand towel around my left hand, I went…”

Gesturing them to the rattan chairs, I went …”

I’m not saying that readers throw up their hands and say, “Oh no, participial phrases, shoot me now!” Quite the opposite — most people don’t see the problem and just keep reading. In time, however, a sing-songy rhythm emerges that makes the best writing sound childish. Our eye grows weary of sameness of style; even poetic writing will sound as sluggish as mud.

For Eng the problem gets worse when he breaks the rules of grammar by creating that bad boy of English grammar, the DDM (Dreaded Dangling Modifier). This is simply the “ing” word describing the wrong thing, as in this sentence: .

Turning (the envelope) over, a thin wooden stick…fell out onto my desk.”

Well, it ain’t the stick that’s turning the envelope over, it’s the narrator. A simple fix, following the author’s sentence construction, might read like this:

“Turning (the envelope) over, I saw a thin wooden stick fall out onto my desk.”

Again, most readers aren’t conscious of the Dreaded Dangling Modifier, but they’ll stumble over it just the same, and after a while, confusion will register. The sad part here is how easily Eng’s sentences could be corrected, perhaps like this (again following the author’s sentence construction):

Mistake: “Entering Tanah Rata, the sight of the former Royal Army Hospital filled me with disquiet … ”

Suggested fix: “Entering Tanah Rata, I was filled with disquiet at the sight of the former Army Hospital … ”

Mistake: “Being the only child…my father’s main purpose in life was cultivating the fortune… ”

Suggested fix: “Being the only child, my father discovered that his main purpose in life was to cultivate the fortune… ”

Mistake: “Sinking lower into the tub, the stiffness in my body slowly dissolved… ”

Suggested fix: “Sinking lower into the tub, I felt the stiffness in my body …”

"The Garden of Evening Mists," British paperback

“The Garden of Evening Mists,” British paperback

Some book group members looked at these sentences and said, “Sheesh! Where was the editor?” Who could blame them? DDMs are fixable problems that a professional should spot and correct immediately.

Still, I’ve always felt that question isn’t appropriate because in a way it’s none of our business. As critics and readers, we don’t know how bad the manuscript was when the author turned it in. It could have had a thousand DDMs, most of them caught and fixed by heroic editors, but a few allowed to remain since they were cherished by the author, who refused to have them corrected. Hard to believe but this happens.

Or it could be that the publishing house just doesn’t care. In the midst of huge upheavals facing the book industry, especially the corporate-takeover era that initially cut editorial budgets and inflated marketing departments, fewer and fewer editors get to read the manuscript all the way through, let alone try to maintain editorial standards. Typos should never exist in a published book. But in the paperback edition with an Author’s Commentary in the back, this sentence makes to sound as though nobody’s even decided on British or American spelling:

Yun Ling realises realizes this when she leads a group of visitors ….

To me, the greater tragedy is the trickle-down effect. In the current issue of Essence, a magazine for young African American women that I’ve admired for years (it’s way too commercial now but that’s another story), two bylined columns about the subject of “body love” begin with DDM mistakes:

Mistake: “As a kid, my feet seemed to grow faster than my body.”

Suggested fix: “As a kid, I noticed my feet growing faster…”

Mistake: “At 5 feet 10 inches barefoot, people naturally assume I’m an athlete.”

Suggested fix: “At 5 feet 10 inches barefoot, I am often mistaken for an athlete.”

These are the lead sentences in an important feature for the magazine, and sure, readers may not notice the tiny bit of confusion created by DDMs, but the lack of clarity will have an effect. In magazines, you have no time to horse around! If you don’t sweep every story clean of mistakes, readers will go off and play Candy Crush in a second.

Eng's first novel, "The Gift of Rain"

Eng’s first novel, “The Gift of Rain”

The great joy of the Internet, I think, is that we’re all writers of record somehow. We send out a tweet or text or an article or a book as do millions of others, and one way to separate our message from the chaos around is to write clearly and accurately, even gracefully, with our readers’ needs in mind.

Premature Awards

For book industry observers, this brings up a related problem concerning judges of literary prizes who want to encourage young writers by giving them prizes too early. These judges forget that awards exist to celebrate excellence, not to help authors get better.

In fact the reverse is what happens. You can’t expect promising writers to improve if they’re given the kind of accolades that Eng received when his first book, The Gift of Rain, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Maybe that’s the reason The Garden of Evening Mists is such a mess — a glorious mess, mind you, and well worth reading, but in terms of literary awards, a mess that shouldn’t even be in the running.

And Yet

And yet, how my book group rooted for Tan Twan Eng! We loved his potential so much that we’d like to sit him down and say, “No more dangling modifiers for you! Get rid of those participial phrases and concentrate on your friggin’ gifts!”

P.S. I can’t leave The Garden of Evening Mists without providing one delicious chunk of Eng’s stunning narrative, warts and all (with a real beaut of a DDM in the middle). It’s too long at the end of this already too-long column, so i’ll post it next time.

 

Use Your Words, Not Your Fists

Let’s say you’re the publisher at the New York Times and you know that an executive editor is slamming her fist into the newsroom walls so hard that holes appear in the plaster. These holes are so unsightly that other employees have placed wall maps over them to cover the damage.

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the New York Times

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the New York Times

It’s not a rumor — the editor is known for this behavior, and you know it keeps happening. The company has a Workplace Violence Prevention Program* that states even the threat of violence can be grounds for dismissal, so of course you, the head of the New York Times, are gravely concerned.

*Note to reader: These days just about every major company has this kind of policy. I’m assuming the Times does, too, but don’t know for sure.

So: to the question: Should you fire this person?

Let’s add that you call this editor into your office and say, “Your admirable work here means nothing now! Don’t you realize we have a policy against any violence in the workplace, and that this policy leaves me no choice? Personally, I can’t believe you’ve been slamming your fists in the walls here, at America’s newspaper of record! People here are dedicated to the power of words (not fists).”

I bring this up because as we know, it isn’t a woman who’s been slamming her fist in the walls at the New York Times — it’s Dean Baquet, the former managing editor who worked for Jill Abramson, and who’s now replaced Jill as top editor.

Dean Baquet

Dean Baquet

Of course, nothing was said about Dean’s fist-slamming when publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. fired Jill a few weeks ago. No, most of the talk (some of it by Arthur) concerned Jill’s behavior — she consulted a lawyer over salary matters; she hired a co-managing editor without checking with Dean; she was “difficult,” “stubborn and condescending,” and so forth.

When people questioned whether Jill was fired because she was a woman, Dean came forward. He granted an interview to National Public Radio to assure listeners that this was not so. The “turmoil” surrounding his promotion was over, he said. And he wanted to make an unequivocal statement.

“I do not believe Jill was fired over gender,” he said.

So there you have it, and thank you, Dean.

More important, here’s what he really meant:

“I get to stay because I’m a man.”

Oh, excuse me, did my finger slip on the font-size key? Well, let’s leave that statement as big as it is, because what other reason could there be? Dean admitted he’s been throwing fits as well as fists in the newsroom for some time now, and everybody knew about it.

Am I going out on a limb here to say out loud what we all know is true? That a woman would never have been able to get away with actions like that? Shoving your fist through a wall because your boss overruled you? And doing it a LOT? And not being embarrassed by a newsroom covered with wall maps to hide behavior that’s in direct contradiction to workplace policy?

Oh, all right, Dean says. Now that punching walls is out in the open, he’s going to be a good guy and open up about it.

“I feel bad about that,” he told Politico magazine. “The newsroom doesn’t need to see one of its leaders have a tantrum.” Gee, ya think?

Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson

Then, coming to Jill’s defense like the fair-minded man he sees himself to be, Dean said: “I think there’s a really easy caricature that some people have bought into, of the bitchy woman character and the guy who is sort of calmer. That, I think, is a little bit of an unfair caricature.”

Isn’t that sweet. He’s not saying Jill’s the “bitchy woman” — that’s what others have said. He’s the humble guy accepting that second role, the one where he’s the … well, he’s characterized as … Wait a minute, Dean sees himself as The guy who is sort of calmer?

Maybe Dean is just a selective puncher. When it comes to why he’s sometimes capable of slugging things and sometimes not, he says this: “In each case, I was mad at somebody above me in rank. It’s not an excuse, but it is a fact.”

Well, Arthur, you old publisher on the top of the Times’ power chain, I’d watch my chin if I were you.

 

Reading the News Critically

I’m not a fan of former Secretary of Labor (2001-2009) Elaine Chao, but I don’t like snarky put-downs masquerading as news stories, either.

Elaine Chao and then president George Bush

Elaine Chao with president George Bush

Take the front-page article in the New York Times last week by Jason Horowitz about Chao and her husband, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who’s currently up for re-election.

“At Harvard Business School,” it begins, “Elaine L. Chao kept card files on her classmates, then later kept tabs on their careers.”

Fine. Not sure what it means, and “kept tabs” is never explained, but okay.

Sentence #2: “As labor secretary, (Chao) had gold-colored coins minted with her name in bas-relief, and employed a Veep-like staff member who carried around her bag.”

Goodness. Somebody carried her bag when she was a Cabinet member? I wonder if Secretary of State John Kerry ever tells an assistant to carry his briefcase when he shakes hands with, you know, the Pope or Vladimir Putin or Angela Merkel. I bet his career would topple.

New York Times article, May 13, 2014

New York Times article, May 13, 2014

The word Veep in the article refers to the TV comedy show about the Vice President of the United States, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus as petty, narcissistic, manipulative and incompetent. Because she’s followed around by silly and obsequious assistants, the NYT’s mention of Chao and her “Veep-like staff member” is meant to be disparaging. There are no quotes, no sources, no photos to support this contention because hey, this is gossip disguised as news. It’s simply too catty for attribution.

As to the “gold colored coins,” these were given out at a competition among rescue teams at the Mine Safety and Health Administration — an agency Chao directed as Labor Secretary. I doubt she “minted” these souvenirs like a despot starting a new currency. But putting her name in “bas-relief”? I dunno, maybe it was an act of hubris. If so, let’s see it! How many taxpayers dollars were spent on the things? Show us the budget!

In fact, the purpose of this piece is not to provide proof of any claims but to show, according to the headline, how Senator Mitch McConnell is “Girding for a Fight” in his reelection campaign and “Enlists His Wife” to help him.

No news there, right? A lot of politicians ask their spouses to help with campaigns — it would be odd if McConnell didn’t. And it must be a plus that Chao, “renowned for her strong sense of self,” whatever that means (and “renowned” by whom?), “can recite the names of people who have donated to her husband – and how much they gave, friends say.”

Oh, those friends, how they gossip. “Those who have encountered Ms. Chao describe her as an unapologetically ambitious operator with an expansive network, a short fuse, and a seemingly inexhaustible drive to get to the top and stay there.”

Chao and McConnell after winning the primary May 21

Chao and McConnell after winning the primary May 21

In the context of the article, this has an accusatory ring, making Chao sound ruthless and Machiavellian. But why? For someone in politics, isn’t being “an unapologetically ambitious operator” a compliment? And as to “a short fuse,” everybody from Bill Clinton to John McCain is said to have one of those, so it must be okay for a woman to have one, too, right? (Why, look at Jill Abramson, the first woman editor of the New York Times! Or wait a minute….)

But then we learn the worst. Elaine Chao may attend football games at Louisville, but “she wears dark sunglasses so that she can furtively doze off.” Whoa, who said that? Would you call the source reliable? Is there a source or did the reporter make it up?

At a time when newspapers are dying, and journalistic standards continue to fade into the chaos of Internet voices all shouting at once, it’s important to recognize “news” stories that replace fact with innuendo and sources with generalities like “those who,” and “friends say.”

Most of the time, I’m grateful for the New York Times. Regardless of its own management chaos, it’s accurately portrayed as the nation’s newspaper/website of record. But that means you don’t put a hit piece on the front page of the news section. If you do, you should be called on it.

 

A Thought While Reading ‘The Goldfinch’

I’m not sure The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt deserves the Pulitzer Prize. It’s way too long (771 pages), and the pace mires down way too often. Early promises aren’t fulfilled, the characters are more adored than developed, and parts of the narrative turn preachy and patronizing.

'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown; $30)

‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown; $30)

Yet I loved the reading of it for the most part. Observations and insights are so rich that I don’t really care what the story is about, especially when it comes to themes about art and the flow of people’s lives around art objects.

Take the narrator’s mother, a self-taught art buff who’s rushing Theo, her 13-year-old son, through an exhibit of Dutch Masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It’s hard to like this character’s air of false cosmopolitanism (“Oh, drat,” she exclaims at the first sign of rain). But her regard for these paintings is so exuberant and her knowledge so intriguing that (like other people in the museum) I want to sidle up close to hear everything she has to say.

“They really knew how to work this edge, the Dutch painters — ripeness sliding into rot,” she says gaily as they move quickly toward the Rembrandt painting at the heart of the show, The Anatomy Lesson.

Theo has viewed this image on the exhibit poster so many times that he now sees only “the same old corpse with the flayed arm,” but his mother reveals much more as they slow down before it.

The men in the painting are “very naturalistic,” she begins.

'The Anatomy Lesson'

‘The Anatomy Lesson’

“But then — she traced the corpse, midair, with her finger — “the body isn’t painted in a very natural way at all, if you look at it. Weird glow coming off it, do you see? Alien autopsy, almost. See how it lights up the faces of the men looking down at it? Like it’s shining with its own light source? He’s painting it with that radioactive quality because he wants to draw our eye to it — make it jump out at us.”

The novel itself never shows us a picture of anything, but we end up sharing her fascination with the flayed arm because Tartt articulates the mother’s excitement about it so perfectly.

Closeup of the flayed arm in 'The Anatomy Lesson'

Closeup of the flayed arm in ‘The Anatomy Lesson’

“See how (the artist Fabritius) calls attention to it by painting it so big, all out of proportion to the rest of the body? He’s even turned it around so the thumb is on the wrong side, do you see? Well, he didn’t do that by mistake. The skin is off the hand — we see it immediately, something very wrong — but by reversing the thumb he makes it look even more wrong, it registers subliminally even if we can’t put our finger on it, something really out of order, not right. Very clever trick.”

Okay, a trick (it looks okay to me), but why would the artist do that? we wonder, waiting for Theo to ask this very question. However at that moment, the boy’s attention has wandered to a girl nearby with bright red hair and “golden honeybee brown eyes” — a girl who is “too thin, all elbows, and in a way almost plain, yet there was something about her too that made my stomach go watery.”

This happens before his mother moves smoothly on to the real gem she wants Theo to see, The Goldfinch of the novel’s title. It’s “a small picture, the smallest in the exhibition,” Theo tells us —

image of 'The Goldfinch'

image of ‘The Goldfinch’

although he’s also inclining his head to get another glimpse of the girl and the grandfatherly man accompanying her — “and the simplest: a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.”

It doesn’t register at first, but that small looping chain and “twig of an ankle” will return to our memory in a subliminal way for the next 700 pages. As will dozens (I’m still counting) of other references, each looked at first from an odd angle and later more provocatively, causing us to remember and wonder each time we leave the page or screen.

For instance, Tartt knows enough about Amsterdam and Las Vegas to take us to these cities in vivid, visual detail. But she is eloquent about New York City, particularly when Theo finds his bleak mood reflected in a simple walk down Lexington Ave. Though he bypasses subway stations to “clear my mind” (to further mess up his mind, is what he means), the city is there, as always, it seems, to mirror anyone’s deepening despair.

“… weaving in and out of crowds I had a strange feeling of being already dead, of moving in a vaster sidewalk grayness than the street or even the city could encompass, my soul disconnected from my body and drifting among other souls in a mist somewhere between past and present, Walk Don’t Walk, individual pedestrians floating up strangely isolated and lonely before my eyes, blank faces plugged into earbuds and staring straight ahead, lips moving silently, and the city noise dampened and deafened, under crushing, granite-colored skies that muffled the noise from the street, garbage and newsprint, concrete and drizzle, a dirty winter grayness weighing like a stone.”

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt

Tartt doesn’t allow many lengthy sentences in The Goldfinch and seems to dismiss stream-of-consciousness as a cheap trick. So this passage is a rare surprise. It’s risky and wordy and malaise-ridden — and for some readers incredibly true.

Again I wouldn’t give a literary award for The Goldfinch, but when the writing is enthralling on every page, you have to say the author deserves a lot of credit.

 

 

 

 

On Language: Tatyana Fazlalizadeh Changes the World

Is it possible to change the language?

Can you convince the world to stop (or to start) using certain words? Or does the culture have to evolve by itself, and take a long time doing it, before old words filter out and new words filter in?

I used to think you could never tell people how to speak or what to say. In the street, for example, you can’t say, “Stop calling me a bitch,” and expect the men following you to apologize and stop using the word. They’re more likely to laugh and use it again, or taunt and heckle, or move closer. Better to just look down, say nothing and get out of there fast.

Until, that is, something like the image below appears out of nowhere with an unequivocal message, Stop telling WOMEN to smile.

Poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: 'Stop telling WOMEN to smile'

Poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: ‘Stop telling WOMEN to smile’

It’s one of a series of posters by artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh that began showing up on buildings throughout Brooklyn in 2012. I saw my first in Oakland, California, a month ago, and it took my breath away. The gaze is unapologetic, direct, powerful and as clear as its challenge-in-print.

Fazlalizadeh has made dozens of these posters by now. The process usually begins, she told The Guardian in a video interview, with a conversation in which she asks women how it feels to walk in the street alone (“uncomfortable and unsafe” is where most of them start). She takes a photo and draws their portrait, pulls a concise statement out of the discussion and creates the poster so fast that she’s out pasting up copies before the ink dries. (She also makes her own paste.)

The women in these posters turn to confront their adversaries directly. My name is not BABY, Shorty, Sexy, Sweetie, Honey, Pretty, Boo, Sweetheart, Ma, says one. The message is so bold and so true that the paper and the wall behind it tend to disappear.

'My outfit is NOT an invitation'

‘My outfit is NOT an invitation’

You are not ENTITLED to my space, says another. The words have their own power, but it’s the gaze that nails you. No, you can’t talk to me for a MINUTE. Without a physical body to threaten or diminish, the poster arrests, shocks, resists and lingers in memory.

We know this because men began trying to reply, in writing and on the posters themselves, almost as soon as Fazlalizadeh began putting them up.

The poster on the left reads: 'WOMEN do not owe you their time or conversation'

The poster on the left reads: ‘WOMEN do not owe you their time or conversation’

“Really,” the exasperated women in these posters seem to say, “do I have to make this message so obvious?” Many of the handwritten responses are angry and combative, but the project hit a new dimension when male feminists picked up on Fazlalizadeh’s subtle humor.

'STOP telling women to smile' 'START giving them reasons to!'

‘STOP telling women to smile. START giving them reasons to!’

This young man to the right takes her point, for example, and suggests a way to have fun with it, too. Soon Fazlalizedah began collecting what might be called DIY poster-selfies from a new and responsive fan base.

Today you can buy posters and t-shirts from Project STWTS to help support Fazlalizedah’s work, and the Internet has already done its job by spreading the word internationally.

But she is still a lone person trying to change the world. Which brings us back to the question: Can you tell people to stop using certain words because it’s just the right thing to do? I still think the answer in most cases is no. (Remember the Equal Rights Amendment? We won’t go into that now.) But there is this: Every time a person chances upon the unwavering stare and message of one of her posters, Tatyana Fazlalizedah shows us the power of art. And art, as we know, can change the world.

Future posts: More On Language from Pussy Riot to BanBossy.com

You could try co-opting the power of words like “bitch” or “dyke” by embracing them as your own, but when they’re hurled at you in hatred, these words still have the power to hurt and offend.

The Art of the Movie Tie-in — Part II

Here we are again looking at the movie tie-in edition of 12 Years a Slave, which shows actor Chiwetel Ejiofor running for his life as the slave Solomon Northup. The photo so beautifully communicates Northup’s excruciating fear that it was chosen as the “brand” for both movie and tie-in edition.

12 Years a Slave, 2013 movie tie-in

12 Years a Slave, 2013 movie tie-in from Penguin Books

It’s okay with me that this specific scene isn’t in the movie (more about this later), but I wish the publisher had at least hinted on the cover that the original book is more than an extension of the movie experience.

To me, that’s the art of the movie tie-in, showing that print can sometimes be better, wilder and more adventurous, more escapist and engaging, more colorful and even more intimate and immediate than any movie on a screen.

A Pivotal Episode (Not in the Movie)

What’s in the book that doesn’t appear in the movie?

No motion picture can capture the entirety of a book, but in the case of 12 Years a Slave I was surprised to see a key passage omitted that occurs about 90 pages in. This occurs when Northup clashes for a second time with the vicious white carpenter, John Tibeats. The movie shows us the first conflict (Northup’s near-hanging) but leaves out this more riveting episode, when Tibeats comes after him with a hatchet, and Northup has no choice but to run for it.

Behind him Solomon hears Tibeats release the plantation’s dogs — each a “savage breed” of hound and pit bull “trained to attack a negro” and capable of running faster than a slave can run.

We’ve learned by now that the swamp is eerily silent, so it’s doubly terrifying for Northup to “hear [the bloodhounds] crashing and plunging through the palmettoes, their loud, eager yells making the whole swamp clamorous with the sound.”

The dogs are 80 feet behind him when Northup reaches the swamp, hoping they’ll lose his scent in the murky green water. “Most slaves are not allowed to learn the art of swimming,” he writes, which is why plantation owners used swamps to keep slaves from escaping. But Northup learned to swim as a child in the North and is relieved to feel his ankles, knees and chest sinking into the thick marsh water as he plows ahead.

But now the real danger begins. “Great slimy reptiles” loom out of the water everywhere — poisonous water moccasins slithering over every “log and bog,” and “alligators great and small, lying in the water or on pieces of floodwood,” inches away. (more…)