08 February 2013

coldest city, liar's kiss & the art of the twist

Reading list:     
The Coldest City (Antony Johnston/ Sam Hart)
Liar's Kiss (Erick Skillman/ Jhomar Soriano)

Viewing list:     
Homeland Season 2
The Game

The Game is an old movie - it came out sometime in the mid-1990's and featured Michael Douglas as a bored rich man who is given the gift of a "game" sponsored by this mysterious company.  The premise is that this company comes in and completely screws up someone's life - destroys their credit, ruins their relationships, steals all their money - and the experience of dealing with it all causes the person to remember what it's like to really be alive.  It's all for pretend, of course - except what if it's not?  What if the company actually DOES steal all your money and leave you for dead?  How would you ever call them on it?  So Douglas rambles through this plot, with neither he nor the viewer knowing until the very end whether it's really a game or whether it's for real.

[SPOILER ALERT]  Turns out it's a game - he was never really in danger after all.  Except - if you watch the whole movie, that doesn't make any sense.  Douglas is placed in too many situations in which no one could possibly be assured of his safety or predict his reactions.  At one point he's left for dead in Mexico with no ID.  These situations convince the viewer that Douglas' plight can't possibly be a game, because no one could ever conceivably plan something like that.  Except they did.  Because they say so at the end.

The Game is an okay flick if you don't think about it too much.  The point of the movie is to enjoy the journey, regardless of the destination.  If you go back and re-watch the movie knowing the ending, you see all the flaws.  Ultimately the movie betrays its own premise, or at least one of its premises - the idea that this is a logical, coherent narrative - in favor of a twist ending.  It convinces you with everything short of charts and graphs that the Game is real, then handwaves it all away.

The Twist can be one of the more rewarding staples of popular fiction, but it is also among the hardest to pull off.  The most recent season of Homeland fell in love with The Twist, to its detriment.  Every few episodes they'd pull the rug out from under the viewer - [AGAIN, SPOILER ALERT] Brody's been outed as a terrorist - oh no wait, the CIA has turned him and made him a double agent - oh no wait, Abu Nazir has his hooks in him again.  And while skillful scripters can keep the narrative coherent through all those twists, eventually the characters have been turned around so many times that they've lost their identities.  They're reduced to plot devices spinning in whatever direction the story needs them to go, rather than being the vehicles driving the story.

The problems with Homeland are compounded by the fact that it's an ongoing show.  Carrie and Brody and Saul and Brody's super-hot wife will all be back next season, and we need to buy into them as characters on a continuing basis.  Michael Douglas' character's story is over at the end of The Game, so to some extent the narrative can get away with betraying his character as the curtain falls.  On the other hand, a finite story invites a different type of scrutiny and analysis than does an episodic TV show.  The disappointments of Homeland Season 2 don't change the fact that Homeland Season 1 was superb.  You can't really analyze The Game, though, without analyzing the ending.

This does circle around to comics eventually.  Recently I happened to read two original graphic novels that struck me as being very similar, not so much in substance but very much so as regards plot structure.  The Coldest City is a spy thriller from Oni Press, published in 2012 and set amidst the final days before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  It features a British agent dispatched to determine whether a NOC list exists and/or represents a security threat.  It's very much from the John LeCarre school of spy thrillers, which is to say it's slower paced, less action-packed and more cerebral than, say, a Bond movie.  Liar's Kiss is a bit older - it's a Top Shelf book that I picked up during one of their Comixology sales and just got around to reading.  Liar's Kiss stars PI NAME, who is supposed to be surveilling his client's wife to test her fidelity, but who is in fact sleeping with her instead.  His client then turns up dead and the widow is the prime suspect.  Both books fall pretty squarely into the noir category.

And perhaps more germane to this missive, the two books have the same plot twist at the end.  [SERIOUSLY, SPOILERS!  ARE YOU NOT PAYING ATTENTION?]  The POV/ lead character is secretly the bad guy all along.  It's the old Keyser Sose twist writ large - the bad guy hides in plain sight.  The two books treat the Twist a bit differently.  Liar's Kiss drops a few hints along the way - it's actually pretty clever.  There are these lines of dialog throughout the book that just don't make a lot of sense when you read them, but you (or at least I) write them off as the creators flubbing a scene.  Turns out they're not - but at the same time, it's still not really a narrative that plays fair with the reader.  At the end, once the Twist is revealed, they give us the rest of the backstory, the context that lends credibility to the reveal.  But most of it is backstory no one could ever have figured out - the reader had essentially no chance of "playing along" with the story.  You can explain away ANY twist if you have unlimited license to add backstory of which the reader is unaware.  I can recall a message board discussion of Identity Crisis wherein one poster had concluded that Jason Todd was the killer (and keep in mind this was when JT was still dead).  The theory involved JT being the secret child of Ralph & Sue Dibny and being a ghost who possessed Alfred and all this other stuff that was nowhere near the actual comics - but if you accepted this massive amount of imaginary backstory you could draw a line to him being the killer.  Liar's Kiss does this on a smaller scale - no bastard ghosts floating around this story but it's a conclusion that relies very much on an after-the-fact justification (and.. well.. a Watchmen homage).

Coldest City, on the other hand, makes virtually no attempt at self-justification.  It springs the reveal and then ends.  It's much more akin to The Game, inasmuch as it ends rather abruptly, before the reader really has much time to work through the implications of The Twist.  It's almost as if the creators wanted to get off stage quickly, before the reader has a chance to go back, re-read, and see if The Twist really works plot-wise.  Of course the reader can do that at any time, but somehow it's different once you've finished the book.  The reading of the book is an experience, and it ends once the reading is complete.  You can go back and re-analyze the work and/or the experience but you can't take back the punch to the gut that you felt when the reveal hit you.  It's pretty effective, even if it is a cheat.

Both books are flawed in that both of them set up mysteries that are not entirely internally sound.  Coldest City feels like the more polished of the two - maybe *because* it takes so few pains to explain the twist.  Liar's Kiss was a little more satisfying a read for me, though, because even though the backstory was delivered in a less-than-ideal way, it's there.  It's been said that detectives have a deep-seated loathing of mysteries, and I'd posit that many admirers of mystery fiction see themselves as (amateur) detectives, such that explanation usually will trump ambiguity.  Not to say that everything needs to be tied with a bow or spelled out - both books have a fair degree of ambiguity in their endings but Liar's Kiss lays out the bad guy's motivation in a way that Coldest City does not.

Anyway, they're both pretty good books and are both on Comixology way below cover price, even with the Top Shelf sale long over.  

Incidentally, Abu Nazir is both the best and the worst terrorist in the history of the world.  Clearly as shown on the S2 finale he pulled off a terrible but impressive coup.  He also managed, Clark Kent-style, to slip into the USA undetected by shaving, which is pretty impressive as well.  On the other hand he has a sleeper agent who is a US Congressman, and who is on the short list to become the next Vice President of the United States, and he has him shuttling tailors around like a gofer. Probably not the best use of an asset like that.  

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