**SPOILER**? Part 2, Taboos, Shutter Island, and Shadow of the Wind

Mysteries of all kinds have reveals in them–in fact one might argue that virtually each piece of literature has some reveal in it–but there are few great reveals.  I argued last week that Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, John Sayles’ Lone Star, Loren Estelman’s The Master Executioner, and William Hjorstberg’s Falling Angel contained great reveals and that M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense has a good reveal in it. I also suggested that knowing the reveal in a really good work does NOT ruin the study of it but can enhance it.

I should have mentioned that Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island contains a very good reveal when the “detective” finds that what he must come to grips with is the death of his own wife.  For several years this novel was far and away the most popular assigned summer reading at my school; interestingly my father who is a wonderful reader felt that the novel cheated–my son who is also a quite a fine reader suggested that I should have included the novel in the first entry on great reveals (and I do so now because of his suggestion).  Reveals can cause different reactions in different readers and every reader has certainly felt cheated at some point in his or her reading career–exploring why that is can be fun (and hard work to really analyze why something didn’t work for yourself or someone else–that’s what great conversations are for).

Perhaps part of the difference in response by my father and my son to Shutter Island is generational (or really, “experiential,” is perhaps the better term)–maybe if you have many more texts and plots in your mental storage you are less prone to reacting to another one unless it brings something truly remarkable to your consciousness.  I know that the more I read the less I find anything absolutely exceptional and also the less I find anything without some redeeming feature.  I am occasionally accused of elevating the pedestrian to undeserved heights (like a “sophist making the worse appear the better”). 

I think that reveals are most memorable when what is revealed is the breaking of some powerful taboo.  I notice that the texts I have chosen for great reveals contain patricide, incest (multiple occasions), killing of a spouse, killing of a child, and the search for yourself as a killer (twice at least).  Perhaps the more profound the taboo the greater the shock of the reveal.  I’ve always regarded O’Brien’s betrayal of Winston in 1984 and the discovery that Younger Bear saves the eponymous Little Big Man’s/Jack Crabb’s life at the massacre of Greasy Grass as wonderful, surprising moments but not great reveals (and I love both texts which are the subjects of future blogs)–possibly because no serious taboo has been broken (when O’Brien betrays Winston it is a sense of injustice we feel; when Younger Bear saves Crabb it is a sense of relief we feel).  (Off the cuff I’d say that there are few great reveals in Shakespeare [I’ll need to think more about this], e.g., in Hamlet the ghost tells us in the reveal in the opening scene–no surprises for the audience.)

Four years ago I read Shadow of the Wind by Carlo Ruiz Zafon and then stopped reading for about 5 weeks–by far the longest hiatus of reading in my adult life. I stopped because I could not bear to pick up another book.  (I continued my class reading and newspapers, periodicals and the like but I stopped reading books for five nearly five weeks.) I shared this peculiar reaction with my friend and colleague, Pat Smith (a tremendous teacher) and asked him–as I have on so many occasions–to read the book.  His reaction to the novel, while not quite as extreme as mine, was nonetheless dramatic and in fact Pat is going to teach the novel this year to his World Literature students (I think as a way to wrestle with some of its questions).  I am waiting until next year to teach it because I am afraid I don’t have the book under enough control to know how to begin (so I’ll participate vicariously through his teaching this year).

The novel opens with a young boy, the ten-year-old Daniel Sempre, being taken by his father to the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” where he will pick a book (or the book will choose him) and change his life.  500 pages later Daniel’s ten-year old son is about to be taken by Daniel to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books to choose a book.  In between–what a story!  It is melodrama of the highest order. There are several wonderful ekphrases (an ekphrases is a work of art inside the work of art).

A brief digression here–ekphrases are fascinating and not often studied.  I’m certain that the study of ekphrases and the consciousness of them can help make students more effective and mature readers because they become  consistently aware that: 1) someone is telling a story and 2) there is an audience–and this consciousness helps you develop self-reflection in your reading.  (Just these two insights–someone is telling a story and there is an audience for a story are tremendously valuable observations–more about this in a later blog.) Ekphrases often reveal the author’s or artist’s attitude toward art itself or allow one to comment on the nature and uses of art–so whether we are contemplating the urn in Keats’ great Ode (a wonderful ekphrasis) or thinking about cartoons while watching “Itchy and Scratchy” inside of a cartoon–The Simpsons, we have the chance to reflect on art and watch the artists try things out.  We also get to consider the flexibility of particular genres.  The great Russian theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, designated the novel the “meta-genre” because it could encompass so many other genres (to test this imagine a Novel whose main character is a playwright who writes a play inside the novel along with short stories and poetry and even doodles and drawings and a musical score–all are possible and have been done–now try to imagine a short story in which the main character is a novelist and his novel is inserted into the story–it can’t be done).  Early in the history of the novel both Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy had experimented substantially with the form–and indeed many of my examples from above are drawn from them. Both limits and opportunities for film, tv, the graphic novel, pulp stories of every genre, drama, the opera, the symphony and the lyric song–not to mention painting, sculpture and other arts–are exposed when considering how they might contain ekphrases. I spend lots of time with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and ekphrases because he presents us with so many “artists” inside the work clamoring to be heard and “read” correctly.

There is a novel that is referred to inside The Shadow of the Wind called the Shadow of the Wind written by an author, presumed dead, Julian Carax, whose transcendent love for Penelope was forbidden by her family.  The novel contains several tremendous reveals–two in particular deserve mention.  Julian is taken by a rich man from poverty and placed in a wealthy school (the plot is positively Dickensian–only better)–he has all kinds of ability and so this seems particularly justified and he becomes excellent friends with the rich man’s son.  Penelope is the daughter.  Julian, as it turns out, is also the son of the man who has lifted him from poverty and so he is half-brother to his friend, Penelope is also his half-sister and when she ends up pregnant by him (and then is horrifically killed [allowed to die and the baby dies!]) the reader has shock after flinch-inducing, brain-numbing shock–and all perfectly paced and presented.  Julian is not dead, of course, merely horribly scarred (both inside and out).  Old scores are settled; the past is illuminated and its fearsome control on the present is broken–a small village worth of great characters get to tell different stories (ekphrases)–there is a found text in the form of  a letter that explains lots of the mysteries; there is a terrific villain (Inspector Fumero); Barcelona is beautifully rendered; and nearly every page has a lovely, quotable passage [“Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart” or “A secret’s worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept” or “Women have an infallible instinct for knowing when a man has fallen madly in love with them” or “Childhood devotions make unfaithful and fickle lovers” or “The words with which a child’s heart is poisoned, through malice or through ignorance, remain branded in his memory, and sooner or later they burn his soul” {every parent, teacher, and coach should remember that one} or “Making money isn’t hard in itself, what’s hard is to earn it doing something worth devoting one’s life to” or “Destiny is usually just around the corner. Like a thief, a hooker, or a lottery vendor: its three most common personifications. But what destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.”])

Daniel is at first thwarted in his great love for Beatrice (how Dantean is that name!) and yet they marry after overcoming many obstacles and–as much as this sort of realism can do–live happily ever after.

I think that next week I’ll discuss some theories of first-person narration that I have developed and test them against some well-known first-person narrated texts–and various political claims.

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6 Comments

Filed under books and learning, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

6 responses to “**SPOILER**? Part 2, Taboos, Shutter Island, and Shadow of the Wind

  1. A movie with perhaps a stronger reveal than Shutter Island — The Others, directed by Alenjandro Amenabar. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Great for Halloween season. (I guessed the Shutter Island reveal when he went to the cave and spoke to the crazy woman there — would have been better to wait a bit longer.) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0230600/

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0230600/

    • Hi Professor Gerhardt, Thanks for the suggestion on the movie. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never seen the movie Shutter Island and so my comments only apply to the novel; I’m not sure how close they are. I will look for The Others. All best, Dan

  2. I wonder if you have read You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers – it has one of the strangest reveals I can remember. Eggers has played with narrative form a lot, with varying success (for me), but even though I’m not sure how I feel about the book as a whole, I remain really intrigued by the pivot in the story — it essentially lets the reader decide how much weight the reveal should carry.

    Really enjoying the blog. (And Shutter Island is definitely one of my favorite reveals.)

    Brian Wilson, DMHS ’92

    • Hi Brian, I am sorry that I do not know this work of Egger’s (I only know his non-fiction stuff). But I am happy to know about it and will look for it. Thanks for reading along with the blog!

  3. Pingback: “Once upon a time….:” Horizons of Expectation and two Japanese Short Stories | pulpteacher

  4. I honestly an thankful for all of the grueling labor that you’ve put into keeping this blog available for your followers. I really hope this stays around for a very long time.

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