Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Problem with Thrillers in General

I recently read that Glenn Beck loves the thriller genre so much he has become the "Oprah" whose word sells them. This is a major problem for me, since I write thrillers (like Bad Company and Black Science) yet despise the demagogic right-wing extremist Beck. And since Beck is the supreme champion of the thriller in America right now, this means there must be something fundamentally wrong with the thriller as such. Might there be something wrong with even the left-wing political thriller as practiced by the likes of Costa-Gavras and Oliver Stone as well?

My task in this entry is to figure out what the problem is, and find a solution for it. In other words: how do I make Bad Company and Black Science the kind of thriller that Glenn Beck will hate?

If I want to be able to pull this off, I'll need to become something of a scholar of the genre myself. I'll have to explain the mechanics of the genre and its structural political liabilities. Fortunately, I have an excellent starting point, the right textbook: The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock by Charles Derry, which contains a complete theory of this school of fiction (though focusing on movies rather than novels). By necessity, this post deals with genre theory.

Derry defines the suspense thriller in terms of psychoanalyst Michael Balint's theory of thrills. Balint asks, Why do some people chase thrills and others avoid them like the plague? Thrill seekers he calls "philobats"; thrill avoiders he calls "ocnophiles". These are fundamental aspects of personality or temperament. The suspense thriller is that genre or school of fiction that deals with the conflict between the two complementary tendencies of this dialectic. Derry writes:
All suspense thrillers, basically, are working out what is the proper psychological dynamic between our relationship to thrills how we balance the objects and safe things in our life which give our life continuity and the new adventures that come out of the void.

The idea is that for the typical human personality, it's appropriate for us to have a balance between these two tendencies. There's enough retaining of the comfortable objects that we aren't killing ourselves everyday, but also not to become so agrophobic that we're afraid to experience life and go out and find new adventures.
This broad description makes the thriller an umbrella genre, so he divides it into six major subgenres and several minor and hybrid ones. The important ones for the sake of my argument he identifies by their major plot themes: 1) murderous passions, 2) the innocent on the run, 3) moral confrontation, and 4) the struggle against political injustice (the political thriller).

The thriller of murderous passions involves a romantic triangle destroyed by murder. Derry points out that the potential for the political thriller's revolutionary struggle exists here, but the characters are too self-centered to think about things like that. Typically, two people want each other, but one of them is married; so typically they kill the spouse. Typically, they get caught, sometimes ironically punished for a crime they didn't commit (or a completely unrelated crime), but it's really Nemesis punishing them justly for the crime they did commit. Such a violent crime is the pettiest form of individual terrorism, and of course the petty terrorists who murder for love or lust are destroyed by the far more powerful terrorists who run the State.

The innocent-on-the-run thriller can point toward (or become) a thriller of moral confrontation or a political thriller, but doesn't have to (Silver Streak is neither). It doesn't even have to conform to the Hitchcockian motif of the "wrong man" accused of someone else's crime. All that needs to happen is for an innocent to run afoul of some crook or political conspirator and get pursued by both the crooks and the cops. Hitchcock's "wrong man" thriller North by Northwest is the most famous example of this subgenre. Derry classes the conspiracy thriller The Parallax View as that rare innocent-on-the-run thriller in which the villains score a decisive victory. The Parallax View illustrates one of the fatal weaknesses of the political thriller: the system is too powerful and deadly for one person to overcome.

The thriller of moral confrontation is what Beck means by thriller. He conflates the entire thriller genre with this particular subgenre. In a sense, he's right, but not the way he means. Anyway, the moral confrontation subgenre is about a confrontation between good and evil. The moral battle lines are clearly drawn, nowhere more than in an openly religious thriller like Night of the Hunter, with its Christian theme of true and false prophets. Taking such openly Christian thrillers as his model (and horror fiction typically gets more religious still), Beck sees the thriller as an essentially religious genre about the moral confrontation of good against evil. In its most religious form (to take another Evangelical example), this means Armageddon thrillers such as Left Behind. But in this subgenre, there's always the danger that the roles can be reversed, that like Anakin Skywalker the hero can be drawn to the dark side due to the violence of their resistance to evil. This is the source of the famous Hitchcock ambivalence, expressed through the Romantic theme of the double: Uncle Charlie and his namesake niece in Shadow of a Doubt, the two loves of Alicia Huberman in Notorious, Guy Haines and the psychopath infatuated with him in Strangers on a Train, and, most famously, the two sides of Norman Bates (that 20th-century Jekyll-and-Hyde) in Psycho. James Barrie warns about this same danger in his final stage direction in Peter Pan, in which he urges the director to not raise the curtain lest Peter reappear with an eyepatch and a hook, for Captain Hook is Peter's double, what he will become if he doesn't grow up. That stage direction perfectly illustrates the second fatal weakness of the political thriller: when the lone hero (Peter Pan) or the revolutionary vanguard (the Lost Boys) substitute themselves for mass resistance, they end up villains (Captain Hook) in their turn.

This leads us to the most epic subgenre of suspense fiction, the political thriller. This subgenre presents a moral confrontation against authority, which is typically depicted as oppressive, murderous, and inherently unjust. Costa-Gavras can be considered the Hitchcock of the political thriller, but without the moral ambivalence. You can find the Hitchcockian ambivalence in the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, which by their very nature are political. But the greatest danger in writing a political thriller is the temptation to preach. This is as much a danger in left- (and right-) wing political thrillers as it is in religious thrillers of moral confrontation. Political thriller writers have an unfortunate tendency to fall into the trap of didacticism that ensnared Ayn Rand and ruined her fiction. This temptation can be irresistible if you make a lone hero or a heroic vanguard your protagonist(s) and pit them against antagonists you're tempted to turn into supervillains.

To sum up the point on my previous post on the problem with political thrillers: a solo hero or a small group of heroes is trying to liberate an entire people from oppression. This, in the real world, is impossible, owing to the contradiction inherent to substitutionism, which is the belief that a single person or a small group can act as a substitute for mass revolutionary action. This is the fatal flaw not only of conventional revolutionism, but of traditional authoritarian government, representative democracy, trade unionism, etc. The problem with political thrillers (and the revolutionaries and reformers they glorify) is that they neglect the important concept that Ayn Rand called the sanction of the victim. Basically, through faith or fear, people accept the domination of outside authority, in this case the State. The victims sanction their rulers' oppression. What Rand meant by her metaphor of Atlas (the Titan who holds the world on his back) shrugging is the victims withdrawing their sanction, robbing the authority of its power. Such an authority crumbles; the fall of the Soviet Union is the canonical example. When revolutionaries (and the heroes of political thrillers) neglect the importance of the victims' sanction, they fall victim themselves to utopianism and substitutionism, and thus find themselves faced with the temptation of tyranny, which they may not be able to resist (see: Peter Pan/Captain Hook above). For what is a tyrant but one who substitutes himself for the people's power and uses it against them? Not even Spanner (in my manga project of the same name) herself can succeed in bringing down the United Corporations and prevent the rise of a successor tyranny if she doesn't make her main focus convincing the Cartel's billion or so victims to withdraw their sanction. In his "Open Letter to Ayn Rand", Roy Childs identified the sanction of the victim as the most important element of anarchist political theory, and by extension of revolutionary theory in general.

And now we come back to Glenn Beck. The thriller genre can be easily bent to right-wing statist propaganda because most thrillers, even the left-wing political thrillers, rely on lone heroes doing heroic things in substitutionist fashion, or lone victims resisting monstrous coercion (usually that of a brilliant psychopath) alone or needing to be saved by such a lone hero (usually a cop). Costa-Gavras might as well be making movies about left-wing versions of John Galt and his crew. Note that in Atlas Shrugged, the vast majority of the people are not just doomed but damned, and only the deserving capitalist elite survives. Butler Shaffer wrote a harshly critical essay about that, going so far as to compare it to the infamous Nazi screed The Turner Diaries, which openly advocates genocide. Is it any wonder that Beck, despite his fanatical Mormonism, loudly proclaims himself a huge fan of Ayn Rand?

How, then, can I piss off Glenn Beck? How do I get his goat, in his favorite genre? It's not enough for me to insert a villain (Spanner's Bram Savage) into my comics or novels. I have to get to the root of the genre itself. I have to get away from Hitchcock, which none of the political thriller writers so far have done. Above all, I have to get away from Ayn Rand. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand overcompensated for her populus ex machina mistake in The Fountainhead by discarding the people altogether, in Turner Diaries and Left Behind fashion. This is substitutionism in its most extreme form. My solution is to incorporate the crucial concept of the sanction of the victim and its opposite, substitutionism, into the political thriller. My villains are the most ruthless substitutionists, whether they claim to be revolutionary or not; my heroes are those who strive to disrupt the sanction of the victims.

And so in Spanner I borrow the "dakini" motif from Tibetan Buddhism: the dakinis are malign Hindu goddesses related to the Greek sirens transformed by the spread of Buddhism to northwest India into bodhisattvas who act as Hermes-style heralds of enlightenment. In effect, a vanguard of those demonic daughters of Kali called Matrikas, the sirens' and Valkyries' even more savage Indian cousins, were transformed by the Buddha into daughters of Hermes. The word "dakini" is a feminine noun form derived from the Sanskrit root dak- which means "call", which implies a herald role. The spread of Buddhism to Tibet came just in time to save the dakinis from being murdered by the all-destroying Arab crusaders of Islam who destroyed Buddhism in India. One important minor character in Spanner is a Mongolian Buddhist monk who identifies Spanner's main character Shira as the avatar of one dakini in particular, a love goddess named Kurukulla (to whom she has an amazing resemblance) relegated by Brahmanic Hinduism to the role of a minor aspect of the Great Goddess depicted as a beautiful dancing kumari. Kurukulla's Tibetan name, Rigjyedma, means "she who is the cause of knowledge". In esoteric Buddhism, the sky-dancing dakinis represent the freedom of emptiness (śūnyatā). As a herald of enlightenment and freedom, the dakini disrupts everything a person is attached to; "question reality" is her motto. If someone gets to attached to the dakini herself, or, even worse, tries to trap her, she flies away. What better pagan metaphor to attach to the hoverboard-riding, parkour-loving, capoeira-fighting young anarchist prankster whose handle is Brit for monkeywrench? And her purpose is specifically to destroy the sanction by which authority wields absolute power over its victims. That is why Shira Thomas is called Spanner.

For the Dictel Saga prequels, it's trickier. Shira is not yet Spanner, but only a supporting character. Here's my admittedly idiosyncratic solution: Take a corporation, a for-profit private army led by a trio of right-wing synarchist utopians, which spins itself as the heroic savior of America and whose very existence is based on revolutionary substitutionism, also known as vanguardism. Using the central Christian tenet of "original sin", meaning that human nature is inherently evil, Dictel Corporation crusades to save Western civilization from not just Islam but democracy (i.e., political humanism). The Becket brothers who own Dictel use their incestuous relationship with the corporate media to spin nasty scandals around its opponents and critics. Most conveniently, they latch onto the passionate forbidden love of two of their nieces (the sisters Charlie and Desiree Thomas, Shira's older half-sisters) for each other, and use it as a domino-theory weapon against (personal) freedom itself: moral liberalism, they insist, leads to moral depravity; continue to permit the sins of fornication, adultery, and sodomy, and eventually you will allow incest (that of their despised nieces, for example), followed by pedophilia, bestiality, and necrophilia in due course. The dominoes, they insist, must fall. Needless to say, they turn their sexually incorrect nieces into implacable enemies. The people are trapped in the middle, forced to choose between a sexual (a)morality they still find repulsive (consensual incest) and a tyrannical order that people have come to find immoral. The question is: what are you willing to sanction in the name of morality? I know for a fact that Beck would choose tyranny at once. Surely he hates The Scarlet Letter (his sympathy is with the cruelly moralistic Puritan punishers and against the adulterous heroes who defy them); he probably also hates Romeo and Juliet too (here the forbidden lovers are guilty of treason, a no-no); so of course he'll have to rage against my Bad Company, whose heroes are not just forbidden lovers (in this case, sisters committing lesbian incest) but traitors (against the Republican imperial order which Dictel tries to defend by invading America and which Beck continues to worship) and rebels against God (whom their psychologist aunt Willa defines as the collectively projected superego or inner tyrant).

It'll take a lot of effort, thought, and out-of-the-box creativity to come up with the kind of thriller that will get a hysterical bad review from Glenn Beck, the new Oprah of the thriller. By championing the thriller, Beck has reduced the genre to a discredited vehicle of hysterical right-wing propaganda, little more than men's action-adventure (i.e. commando novel series like The Executioner) combined with horror (a notoriously conservative genre in its own right). To write a thriller that Beck will hate, you have to shake up the very foundation of the genre, which boils down to substitutionism. The villain of the thriller is necessarily a tyrant, or a conspiratorial faction whose goal is tyranny. The antiheroes of the thriller of murderous passions, as Derry points out, are too self-centered to realize that they're trapped in a system that's strangling them, so they let it destroy them. The heroes of the thriller of moral confrontation may be fighting for the system, like Beck himself (a self-described hero who fights for the conservative order against a liberal humanist "conspiracy" that doesn't exist).

The heroes of political thrillers are supposed to be fighting against the system. But they'll be either destroyed or assimilated by the system if they don't know about the sanction of the victim. Surely Glenn Beck knows about this particular Objectivist concept. But his words are full of substitutionism: he preaches the gospel of the savior on the white horse. I criticize his left-wing counterparts for just that error! But like Rand herself, Beck is the guru of a cult. He, and the neoconservative movement he speaks for, relies on conning or coercing the victims to give him (and them) their sanction, all to (re-)establish their dominion. If he succeeds in reducing the thriller genre to Mack Bolan plus Stephen King by way of Tim LaHaye and Lyndon LaRouche — his own approach to thriller writing, as exemplified by his own right-wing conspiracy thriller — he may succeed in discrediting the genre itself as the plaything of right-wing conspiracy nuts. I grew out of his kind of conspiracy theory decades ago. What makes a conspiracy? Nothing but substitutionism, which political passion like that shared by Glenn Beck and Dictel's Becket brothers (no relation) can only make worse.

Dictel Corporation is my harsh satire on vanguardism: a right-wing version of a left-wing revolutionary vanguard in the form of a "security contractor" run by Friends Of Bush. Dictel's failure to "rescue" America from the "liberal conspiracy" in Bad Company leads to the rise of the "TEA Party" movement and a host of new right-wing revolutionary vanguards, one of which is led by Fox News superstar Glenn Beck. Fox News itself sees itself as such a vanguard! But remember that vanguardism established the horrific Stalinist tyrannies and destroyed the Left. The very vanguardism I criticize, Beck indulges in, particularly in his own novel, whose hero joins — get this — a revolutionary vanguard!

I could go on like this forever. I'll just repeat the point of my criticism of political thrillers one more time: they place a lone hero (who is John Galt?) or a heroic vanguard (the revolutionaries of Costa-Gavras — or Beck) in a savior relationship to a passive people. Beck makes the same mistake on the Right that Costa-Gavras and Stone make on the Left. Dealing with the political thriller's central motif of truth versus spin, they have to at least pay lip service to the sanction of the victim; but they don't go far enough with it. The people can't be content with transferring their sanction from the vanguard that rules them to the vanguard that wants to rule them. If they want to be free, they have to withdraw their victim's sanction altogether. They need to take control of their own lives and stop being controlled by others. That's why the hero of my Spanner is trickster Shira Thomas and not disgruntled warrior Will Becket; it's also why my Bad Company and Black Science take the form of detective novels in which the aim is to keep Dictel Corporation from getting away with murder and seizing power.

Glenn Beck has made himself the messiah of thrillers; he's even written one, and you know he'll write a whole lot more novels like The Overton Window. As for me, I'm still struggling with my own novel and only now getting back to writing (and preparing to draw) my manga. The critics won't be scribbling stuff like "Bad Company is like The Overton Window, only completely different" unless I actually finish the thing. Ah, let the editing begin...

Back to Spanner’s World...

1 comment:

  1. You write: "Political thriller writers have an unfortunate tendency to fall into the trap of didacticism that ensnared Ayn Rand and ruined her fiction."

    Happily for all of us who enjoy her fiction, that simply isn't true. Yes, her characters do give some long speeches, but readers who are paying attention soon realize that clues to the mystery are provided in those speeches.

    Of course, I don't think of Rand's fiction as "thrillers" but, rather, novels or, in the case of Atlas Shrugged, a mystery. Sadly, many people don't bother to read AS for the mystery but instead simply look to trash what they think are Rand's beliefs (and they are frequently wrong).

    I wish we had many more writers of her caliber. Reading would be so much more interesting.