?

Log in

No account? Create an account

gnimmel

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
11:34 am: Not the Protagonist
I'm reading the Decameron at the moment. It's bizarrely hard going.
To explain a little further: the Decameron is a set of one hundred stories, told by ten storytellers over ten days, written around the time of the Black Death. Translated, it's actually surprisingly readable and snappy. It was the go-to source for plots for any number of later writers, including Chaucer and Shakespeare. The stories mostly comprise series of jolly japes involving lovers, nuns, saucy friars, etc. But... well.


Here's an example of a story in the section Happiness after Cruel Adventures, somewhat paraphrased: There is a man who is in love with a woman who has expressed a strong interest in staying away from him. So he boards the ship she is on on her way to Rhodes for her wedding, kills a bunch of people and kidnaps her. But then his ship is blown ashore in Rhodes, and he is unsurprisingly imprisoned. But an inhabitant of Rhodes who also wants to abduct someone recognises his abducting skill, busts him out of jail, they kidnap the women they are after and make off with them. Happy ending. Except I'm sitting here thinking What??? Not to mention that the Decameron is massively in favour of cheating on people, to the extent that refusing someone who propositions you to cheat, even if you loathe them, is considered a bit of an off act, and one which is typically rewarded by a Bad Fate. And robbery, and deceit in general: man, that's awesome[1]. Now, I know that these are just stories, and sometimes people get what they want and obtain a happy ending for themselves by being arseholes, and the real world is complex and ambiguous. And I chose to read the Decameron specifically because I like the moral ambiguity and happy/not-happy ending of All's Well that Ends Well, which Shakespeare lifted directly from Tale 9 on Day 3.

The thing is, there is story after story like this. And because of the framing convention, after each story you also have all ten storytellers praising its truth and beauty and the wisdom of the protagonists. And then sometimes the book's narrator drops in too, and reports on how elegantly the tellers have captured real life. It's a bit like, well. One of the things about the interwebs is that no matter what you believe it's very easy to find people who agree with you. So you get little enclaves of people bonding together over their shared opinions, and reinforcing those opinions, and furiously agreeing, and after a while the centre of percieved normality starts to look distinctly off-centre. Like that. Like I've wandered into a chatroom where the prevailing view is that everyone is out to fuck over everyone else and take all they can get and that's awesome. And after each pronouncement on the subject there's a chorus of "Ho ho, no political correctness here", and "Man, that's beautiful" and then one of the moderators will drop in with a hearty "Yeah, tell it like it is, brother!".

I don't know. I suppose the main thing these stories have in common is that they are great for the main protagonist (apart from the ones that end sadly). I think it may be similar to my problem with romantic comedies of the sort where the heroine's initial beau is shown to have some minor personality flaw and thereafter more-or-less any humiliation of him is justified in order to get the heroine jiggy with the actual True Luurve Interest[2]. It's all awesome for the stars of the show. The thing is, I don't identify with the protagonist. I don't have a strong sense of being the central person in my own strongly-plotted
story. It feels much more as if I'm a bit-part player in other people's stories, the background figure who crosses the stage once or twice of some movie-worthy life. That's who I identify with: out of all those intertwining threads. The sailors on the boat who were killed, perhaps. Stop the plot, rotate ninety degrees: here's the news coming home to their families. Twist a second time: the husband-to-be, angry and powerless and left behind in Rhodes. Here's the guy whose only function was to be spanged in the face by a stray slapstick plank, laughing about it in the pub fifty years later, after an unremarkable life. Sitting next to him is the proverbial spare wheel of the romantic comedy, still bitter. And the barman: well, it's probably better not to ask. Ninety degrees again: henchman's goon, shot in the leg as the hero scales the building. Long crawl to safety. Reconstructive surgery and a desk job. Still limps. Won't tell grandchildren about his past.

I think I'd like to live in a world where the bit-part players are also human. Of course that's not necessarily conducive to good storytelling[3], and most of the time suspension of disbelief works just fine on issues like these, and if you think about that stuff for too long you start wondering Hey, isn't that genocide about the bit after the War of the Ring where Aragorn and his buddies go off to kill any remaining orcs that can be found[4]. But the whole relentless pile-on aspect of the Decameron makes it more difficult to ignore. Ho hum. Will persevere, with the vague hope of slightly more humorous naughty nun stories and/or me somehow becoming less po-faced.

[1] Admittedly I am coming at these stories from a place fairly untouched by either devastating plague or arranged marriage, amongst other things which were part of their original context.
[2] As opposed to horror-film morality, where minor personal flaws make you more deserving of death. Because, as we all know, if something bad happens to someone then they must have done something to deserve it. Oh yeah. Tell it like it is, brother.
[3] Which is not to say that a lot of authors don't manage it just fine; Neil Gaiman is quite good at it, for example.
[4] Assuming that modern Earth is meant to be the eventual evolution of Middle Earth, it seems fair to suggest that either they or something later succeeded. Unless the Loch Ness monster is actually the last surviving Watcher in the Water, or Bigfoot a clan of nearly-extinct trolls scratching out a mountain existence.


Comments

[User Picture]
From:phlebas
Date:March 17th, 2010 12:15 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I have the same issue with that romantic plot trope, though it isn't by any means restricted to romcoms - possibly I just identify more with the Incumbent Dull Fiancé than the Exciting Hero Type.
Have you seen Everyone Says I Love You?
[User Picture]
From:gnimmel
Date:March 17th, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Yes, that sort of thing is a standard plot trope all over the place (especially the bit where dull fiancee gets left at the altar, grrr). I haven't seen Everyone Says I Love You - does it conform to the stereotype or excitingly destroy it?
[User Picture]
From:phlebas
Date:March 17th, 2010 01:47 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I think it subverts it rather nicely - Edward Norton puts in a delightful performance as the lovely-but-dull guy who's dumped for someone more exciting.
[User Picture]
From:bluedevi
Date:March 17th, 2010 09:27 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I love this post. Even as a deeply gullible early-teenager, seeing the film with my mum who kept gushing about how lovely it all was, I had serious misgivings about the treatment of the poor fiancé in Sleepless In Seattle. What, the fact that he kept talking about Duluth (or whatever it was) was a dumping offence?

Have you ever read The Invisibles comic series by Grant Morrison? It starts out as simple kiddie-anarchist forces-of-order-vs-forces-of-chaos fun, but the point where it becomes truly awesome and meaningful is where he does a whole issue from the point of view of a random enemy mook who got shot in Issue 1.
[User Picture]
From:friend_of_tofu
Date:March 17th, 2010 12:17 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Excellent post. Have you considered watching Pasolini's film of The Decamaron? That might incline you enjoying it
more, I don't know.
[User Picture]
From:gnimmel
Date:March 17th, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC)
(Link)
It might be on our LoveFilm to-watch list (there's some Pasolini on the list anyhow, I forget which). I will put it on if it's not there!
[User Picture]
From:friend_of_tofu
Date:March 17th, 2010 02:07 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I quite enjoyed it, there was a sort of cheerful ordinariness to it which you might approve of.
[User Picture]
From:the_lady_lily
Date:March 17th, 2010 01:00 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I haven't actually read the Decameron yet, although it is on the List.

I can definitely accept that the morality context would be troubling in a piling-it-on sort of way. I think a similar problem kind of manifests in the rest of Boccaccio's writing as well - it's the sheer morality-breaking element without much of a thought for the consequences. The anti-Dante in some ways, actually.

What I plan to read post-Decameron is Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley, which apparently is a modern rework/inspired thingie and which the New Yorker was very keen on; I don't know if that would be appealling as something to give a different angle or not.
[User Picture]
From:gnimmel
Date:March 17th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I've already got some post-Decameron reading planned - Dan Simmons' Hyperion, which is structured broadly similarly. But I think the content is rather different. The other thing I've read which has a similar structure is, um, the 120 Days of Sodom. However that book knew very well it was promoting a highly, er, individual morality and was less interested in hammering home that this is how everyone is.
[User Picture]
From:gnimmel
Date:March 17th, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Yes, it does veer between silly and cute and You What?? quite a lot (and all of the stories are then praised equally).

I guess a lot of the missing context in the cheating thing may be arranged marriage, FWIW. That and life being typically crappy and short, which somewhat changes the balance of what people are willing to do for themselves and to each other. Part of my problem may be that the translation is quite modern-sounding - much more so than Chaucer or Shakespeare. So there's not the sort of linguistic distance that suggests a cultural distance as well.
[User Picture]
From:caulkhead
Date:March 17th, 2010 11:15 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I think there's something of the same attitude in the Roman de Renard (disclaimer; it's fifteen years since I read it!), which dates from a similar period; deception is Good in itself, even when the end of it... isn't.

[User Picture]
From:ashfae
Date:March 17th, 2010 02:53 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Oh, the Decameron. I adored the story of How To Put the Devil Into Hell, which delighted my friends and I beyond reason in high school and with which I have some hilarious associations, but found the rest mostly forgettable.
[User Picture]
From:the_alchemist
Date:March 17th, 2010 07:41 pm (UTC)
(Link)
The thing is, I don't identify with the protagonist. I don't have a strong sense of being the central person in my own strongly-plotted story. It feels much more as if I'm a bit-part player in other people's stories, the background figure who crosses the stage once or twice of some movie-worthy life.

Mmm... yes. I think this is why I like fanfiction.
[User Picture]
From:the_elyan
Date:March 17th, 2010 08:22 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Well, perhaps there is an opportunity for a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead sort of interweave. As the_alchemist, this is where the bottomless well of fanfic comes in...
[User Picture]
From:feanelwa
Date:March 18th, 2010 01:49 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Those little corners of the internet (and Yorkshire) where people are all, yeah, that's a beautiful story of how people are all shit - they want to hear more about how other people are apparently shit to make their own minds shut up about the millions of shitty things they've done. The world becomes complicated, and they become on the wrong side of it, if they drop the assumption that everybody is just some Person A in a game theory problem.
[User Picture]
From:pinkdormouse
Date:March 20th, 2010 10:05 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I seem to be subverting that modern romantic trope in a lot of my plot outlines. Ie the protagonist meets someone that is right for them, bar the one 'flaw'(1), tries being with a second person without that flaw, then for whatever reason ends up back with the first person. And my rejected potential-lover characters generally get a reasonably happy ending too, usually staying frends with the protagonist and all that.

(1) where 'flaw' includes being of the previously unpreferred gender, being significantly older or younger than the protagonist, working on the opposite side of the law, etc.
Powered by LiveJournal.com