“I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a spider making a web,” said Dan. “But I have, Bonnie, and it takes a long time and there’s a lot of going back and forth, and even when this web is done, somebody might come along and destroy it just by their hat hitting it. Know what I mean?”
– Sheriff Dan Norman, The End of Vandalism.
Over the past week I’ve been rereading the above-quoted novel, by Tom Drury, because a chapter from it, “Accident at the Sugar Beet,” was featured on this month’s New Yorker Fiction Podcast, and I was reminded of how much I enjoyed it years ago.
Published in the magazine in 1992, “Accident at the Sugar Beet” became the fourth chapter of Drury’s debut novel, published in 1994. If The End of Vandalism had been published today, it might have been marketed as a book of linked stories, those being more in fashion these days than during the 1990s. But even calling Drury’s work in Vandalism a story feels a bit reductive.
Listen to “Accident at the Sugar Beet”—or read it—if you really want to know what I mean, but I feel as if the movement of character and incident in the piece is not the typical build to epiphany that so many stories rely upon, but operates according to some more complex and elegant pattern, something like the spiderweb that character Dan Norman describes in the passage quoted above.
The Fiction Podcast is currently sponsored by Squarespace, which seems a decent match for the New Yorker’s audience: educated, thoughtful, stylish, creative. I don’t mind listening to the short ad beforehand. At the price of those few seconds, the story feels like a bargain. I am mindful, too, that in its original magazine appearance, the story played its part in the promotion of the racquet clubs, luxury hotels, NPR, and Rabbit corkscrews that are supposed to appeal to that same demographic.
If I begin to feel as though I paid too little for Drury’s story (the form is economical, but the details are generous) I just as often feel, with web content, as though the reverse is true. Too often, it seems to me, we’re offered content that feels as thin as it is insistent. And sometimes we pay more for it than we should, even when we feel like we’re getting it for free.
Two guests at a recent Re/code session dance around that issue a bit as they discuss the evolution of the video content that surrounds us. John August is a screenwriter whose credits include Go and Frankenweenie. Ze Frank is a former video blogger who now heads up the video production division of BuzzFeed: BuzzFeed Motion Pictures.
You’ve probably seen BuzzFeed’s video work. Among other things, they were the group behind the Obama “selfie stick” video from a few weeks ago. In the Code/Media talk, Frank speaks about two different types of contemporary content venues, which he calls The Garden (a more traditional, curated venue such as a movie theater or a subscription-video service like Netflix) and The Stream (a social-feed free-for-all, where viral videos bump up against articles, blog posts, your friends’ Instagrams, etc).
Frank is, naturally, resistant to ascribe more value to one than to the other. He points to a BuzzFeed production called “Weird Things All Couples Fight About” as a good example of the kind of video that works well in The Stream.
According to August—who works in what he calls long form and what Frank would call The Garden—this video is basically “popcorn,” the implication being that you can eat one bit after another but it will never add up to a meal. There’s nothing larger at stake between the couple in this video. Defending the video, Frank claims that viewers themselves provide their own stakes, when the video connects them “to someone they care about.” But more often, I think, I find myself downing bit after bit of stream content, only to find that I’ve lost an hour or two that I’d rather have spent doing something more satisfying.
I must admit that I found “Weird Things” more enjoyable than I expected: The actors have chemistry, and the female character’s explanation for why the utensils in a dishwasher basket shouldn’t point up was surprising and funny. Connections, of a diverting sort, can be made.
But then I think about Drury’s novel: its meandering amazements mined from seeming mundanity and the deep consolations it offers. And other powerful novels, short stories, and essays I’ve read over the years, which resonate again and again as life deals new experiences and challenges, triumphs and losses. I spent many hours rereading The End of Vandalism. I regret none of them.
Maybe a couple’s marriage unravels without recourse as they struggle to get through the day-to-day. A pregnant woman at full term finds her unborn child has died, and she must suffer through the delivery anyway. Maybe a best friend is murdered. The world comes to an end. A young man comes to terms with a far-from-perfect father. A woman who has been unable to conceive with her husband is raped, and decides to carry the resulting pregnancy to term.
I’m not saying that we should only read, or watch, serious things. Distraction through laughter or racketing suspense can be great, and necessary, medicine. The End of Vandalism, too, has plenty of funny moments, like this scene in which Dan’s wife Louise watches a nature documentary on TV:
The narration of the movie was from the point of view of the male bear.
“And so, inevitably, our winter sleep comes to an end,” he said. “The warmth of the sun calls us from our den.”
“Quite the articulate bear,” said Louise.
Still, if you find that you’ve gone through half a lifetime or so having fought no battle tougher than the one over the silverware basket, consider yourself lucky. Or perilously overdue. Or maybe you just haven’t been paying attention.
If you could use some catharsis, go out and find these stories: “Son of the Wolfman” by Michael Chabon, “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard, “The Brief History of the Dead” by Kevin Brockmeier, “The Ant of the Self” by Z.Z. Packer, and “Living to be a Hundred” by Robert Boswell. And read The End of Vandalism, and anything else your trusted coterie recommends.
Popcorn content is good for killing time, for disconnecting. But only well-told stories, true or not, can connect one person to another and remind us of how life is actually lived. Maybe it’s time we stop thinking about how content grabs us, and more about how content sustains us. Not because we might get more clicks, or more sales, but because being fed, body and soul, gives us strength to keep rebuilding our webs.