It’s very odd how familiar sound can be, how our brains make connections between sounds and particular things and memories. Every time I began a new chapter of S-Town and was greeted by Brian Reed’s voice, something in my brain screamed “NPR!” I’m not sure if it’s the particular tone quality of his voice or his style of speaking, but something about the sound of S-Town immediately reminds me of hearing NPR played in the car while one of my parents was driving, myself more often than not begging them to switch the radio to music. The fact that my brain made this connection is not surprising as Brian Reed is also a producer for This American Life, a radio show broadcast on public radio stations similar to NPR. As I listened to S-Town, however, I found that the long-form content was very different from the brief-er snippets I associated with public radio.
As someone who is not a frequent listener of podcasts, I was very skeptical of S-Town. I wondered what this podcast could offer me that was better than reading the same story in a book or long article. What I found, however, was that the presence of the real voices of the characters made all the difference in my reaction to the story. Often times, the things said by John or Tyler seemed so shocking that I almost wondered if I would not have believed if I had read them in print form. The difference with this form of media, though, is that you have no choice but to believe what you are hearing, as you are literally hearing them say it in the exact moment. The presence of their voices in my ear almost made me feel more connected to the characters. At the end of the second episode, when Skylar called Brian to tell him that John committed suicide, I felt equally shocked. It was hard to imagine that this man, who’s voice I had heard so clearly, ranting and raving about this and that, was dead, never to speak again. I think that I felt this more strongly that if I had simply been reading about a character, hearing about him through the lens of the author’s words.
I was fascinated by the way that Reed chose to tell the story, guiding us, as listeners, through it. He often looped back around to things that had happened previously, rather than presenting things exactly chronologically. It worked well, though, grouping elements of the story together in the way that made the most sense. The only part of the seven part series that I felt disappointed with was the final episode, where Reed reveals that John’s depression may have been a result of extreme exposure to mercury. My initial reaction was that this felt like a cheap solution, a way to explain away his suicide, rather than address the lack of mental health resources in the deep south. The thing is, though, that’s what really happened. If this had been a work of fiction, my annoyance might be justified, but Reed is reporting the facts and John was exposed to huge amounts of mercury, which is known to cause depression and paranoia.
While I am not sure I will become a regular listener of podcasts, S-Town has given me a new appreciation to the genre and the unique ways in which it can tell stories better than traditional print media.
I first discovered The OA two years ago, when it first dropped on Netflix. I mostly decided to watch it because of its co-creator and star Brit Marling, who’s film Another Earth I had loved many years prior, but immediately it seemed to fit into the genre of science-fiction/fantasy TV shows I had previously loved. I binged the show over the course of a week, feeling more excitement as the storyline escalated with each episode and telling family and friends how brilliant I thought it was. Then I reached the final episode, which left me feeling empty and disappointed. It wasn’t just the lack of conclusion (as that is now common in TV shows that want a follow-season) but the treatment of the issue of school shootings that caused a funny feeling to settle in the pit of my stomach. I put the show and my disappointment out of my mind, until a few weeks ago when I watched the show all over again.
Immediately, I remember why I liked the show so much. While many people may not like this type of show to begin with, I loved the twists and dramatic reveals in the first few episodes, like the early-on reveal that Prairie used to be blind and the devastating realization that Hap had tricked her when the clever camera-work revealed that Prairie was not enclosed in a cell. I watched the show with a more critical eye this time, however, and early on I was struck by the portrayal of the afterlife in the show and the figure of Khatun who guides Prairie each time she dies and comes back. I am someone who doesn’t particularly align with any religion and isn’t particularly concerned with what comes after death, but I became curious as to how people are varying faiths felt about the statements the show makes about the afterlife, and whether the character of Khatun felt appropriative in any way.
I still think one of the show’s primary strengths is its ability to intertwine multiple narratives, but this time around I noticed that some stories were not completely fleshed out. The stories of Steve and French’s home-life were intriguing and I felt that they sometimes rivaled the interesting-ness of the story that Prairie was telling about the four movements. However, the character of Jesse is left completely unexplored save for one scene with his sister where he reveals that their mother committed suicide, and all we know about Buck besides his clear isolation and loneliness at school is that his parents still called him Michelle. I found myself longing for more of these stories and a little less of the crazy stuff about opening a portal through dancing.
When I reached the final episode, I felt apprehensive, remembering how much I had disliked it the first time around. I was curious if my negative reaction would be even stronger, given that even more horrible, tragic school shooting have occurred since the series’ premiere and my original viewing of it. I had forgotten how intriguing, dramatic, and tragic most of the final episode was, however, with the reveal of how Prairie really got away and French’s devastating realization that the story may have all been made up. The beautiful structure of this final episode was ruined by the final shooting scene, which sunk it down like a rock died around it. I found myself wondering, was there not any other event they could have used to complete the story the way they wanted to, with the gang completing the movements and Prairie taken away in an ambulance?
Upon this second viewing of the series, I found it to be artistic and intelligent, though deeply flawed in some placed. For now, I am curious to watch the second season later this month to see if the show redeems itself or just shoots off in a completely different, wild direction like the trailer suggests.
For some people, Herman Melville’s Pierre; or the Ambiguities may be the perfect book. These people would have to be those will an abundance of time of their hands and absolutely nothing better to do.
Pierre, which was Melville’s follow-up to the poorly received Moby Dick, is roughly 450 pages in some editions, which doesn’t seem like that many compared to some other popular books. It is shorter than the last four Harry Potter books, and about the same length as each of the three Lord of the Rings books. The problem with Pierre, however, is not just the length. The problem is that not much happens in these 400-some pages. There is an incredible about of exposition before the novel’s first interesting plot – when Pierre learns of the existence of his half-sister Isabel. Even after this dramatic reveal, there are chapters and chapters in which Pierre does nothing but think, debating what to do about Isabel and his mother’s certain disapproval.
In Melville’s defense, however, a little research shows that he did not intend Pierre to be a plot driven novel. His intention in writing a novel that is a psychological study on a particular character is noble enough, the problem is that Pierre is just… kind of weird. Having repressed sexual feelings for the recently discovered illegitimate daughter of your deceased father is not a growing pain that many people can relate to, whether it be in 2019 or 1852. Despite that the fact that novel spends most over its pages examining Pierre’s psyche, readers are left with no clear psychological explanation for the novel’s abrupt ending, which clouds the novel’s true genre and purpose.
While Pierre; or, The Ambiguities is certainly an odd and not particularly effective novel, the fact that it was not well-received at the time, neither critically or commercially, shows that not much as changed in all these years about the American public’s taste in literature in terms of length, pacing, and content.