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Archive for March, 2015

basketball championshipSometimes certain themes seem to weave through seasons of my life. At the moment, that theme is … no, not basketball: grace. I don’t know why, but it keeps cropping up. In books I’m reading, news articles I come across, songs I hear on the radio, and even conversations.

This evening, it was through a portion of a book I was reading during a lull in my busy day. The title of the book? “What’s So Amazing about Grace?” As I turn page after page, and read story after story, it seems that the answer is: everything.

The author, Philip Yancey, compares one aspect of grace to basketball players during March Madness. I’ve never watched a single game of basketball, but I have heard mention of March Madness over the past few weeks, and thought the author’s rendering of grace perfect for this time of year:

Each year in spring, I fall victim to what the sports announcers diagnose as “March Madness.” I cannot resist the temptation to tune in to the final basketball game, in which the sole survivors of a sixty-four-team tournament meet for the NCAA championship. That most important game always seems to come down to one eighteen-year-old kid standing on a freethrow line with one second left on the clock.

He dribbles nervously. If he misses these two foul shots, he knows, he will be the goat of his campus, the goat of his state. Twenty years from now he’ll be in counseling, reliving this moment. If he makes these shots, he’ll be a hero. His picture will be on the front page. He could probably run for governor.

He takes another dribble and the other team calls time, to rattle him. He stands on the sideline, weighing his entire future. Everything depends on him. His teammates pat him encouragingly, but say nothing.

One year, I remember, I left the room to answer a phone call just as the kid was setting himself to shoot. Worry lines creased his forehead. He was biting his lower lip. His left leg quivered at the knee. Twenty thousands fans were yelling, waving banners and handkerchiefs to distract him.

The phone call took longer than expected, and when I returned I saw a new sight. This same kid, his hair drenched with Gatorade, was now riding atop the shoulders of his teammates, cutting the cords of a basketball net. He had not a care in the world. His grin filled the entire screen.

Those two freeze-frames — the same kid crouching at the free throw line and then celebrating on his friends’ shoulder — came to symbolize for me the difference between ungrace and grace.

The world runs by ungrace. Everything depends on what I do. I have to make the shot.

Jesus’ kingdom calls us to another way, one that depends not on our performance but his own. We do not have to achieve but merely follow. He has already earned for us the costly victory of God’s acceptance.

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the strangerThe Stranger – Analysis of a Character

Why do people read books? Is it for entertainment? Is it to escape the world for an hour or two? Is it to invoke imagination, or to experience life through another’s eyes? Reading is for all these reasons at some time or another, but more than that, we read books for the characters we discover within the pages.

If there was no character, there would be no story. As members of humankind, we crave connection with others – and connection with a character – hoping to discover that we are not alone in the way we think or relate to others or see the world; believing that if a faulty character can develop and transform throughout the chapters, maybe we can too. If there is no change in a character, no growth or progress, there is no satisfaction at the end of a story. Mersault, from The Stranger, is one of these unchanged characters.

During the first couple of pages in chapter two, it’s hard to determine whether The Stranger reads like a novel, or more like someone’s personal diary. All the character speaks of is what happened that day, nothing too interesting; nothing that has much bearing on the rest of the story. While reading, “After lunch I was a little bored and I wandered around the apartment. I washed my hands and then I went out onto the balcony” (21), one wonders if the author is outlining this basic material to get to the good stuff about to take place, or whether these mundane details are the story in itself.

When realizing that this emotionless telling really is the story, the next question is, “Is the author going to portray the character arc of this young man? In the beginning of the story, he is detached and disinterested; will he develop into a character with feeling and passion?” The story continues from beginning to end without this anticipated character development taking place.

As the story progresses, the narrative character, Meursault, portrays no backbone, no sense of moral values, and no perspective on much of anything. It is not that I expect a hero. Readers are not necessarily looking for Prince Charming or Superman, but simply someone relatable and likeable – someone with whom they can connect. Author Nancy Lamb explains one reason that readers want to read about realistic characters when she states, “Almost nothing yanks readers out of a story faster than when they feel a character’s actions are inauthentic. If readers can’t believe in or don’t understand your hero, they have absolutely no reason to invest in your story” (140). This makes it clear why it is difficult to invest in a story like The Stranger, and a character like Meursault.

When he states, “When I had to give up my studies, I learned very quickly that none of it really mattered” (41), a measure of insight can be gained from the moment. It might explain why Meursault is such a disconnected character; he had to give up his dreams. As a result of that moment, perhaps he convinced himself nothing mattered. Perhaps that is why he puts forth the idea that, “People never change their lives. In any case, one life is as good as the other” (41) Perhaps it is why, when his girlfriend asks if she wants him to marry her, he said that “It didn’t make any difference and we could if she wanted to” (41) It is almost as though he has forced himself to close off his mind and heart, his soul even, from anything that might seek to touch it, warm it, or bring it to life.

The act of murder, and the whole blazing afternoon, is a masterful rendering written in a manner true to this narrative character. Meursault conveys, “I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I been happy. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness” (51). Looking at the facts of Meursault’s character thus far, questions arise as to the motive of the shooting. Was it the sun? Was it his inability to grieve for his mother, which was then projected into anger? Was it the fact that he didn’t care about anything at all – or did he simply want to prove that he didn’t care? The reader expects insight into the narrative character’s motives, his reasoning, or if nothing else, his perspective of the event in hindsight; however, Meursault refuses to offer that insight. His unreliable narrative remains silent regarding his motivation, and his character is unchanged.

The unfeeling narration continues, like the metronomic drumming of a leaky tap. “My heart felt nothing” (105), when his eyes met Marie’s in the courtroom. “Remembering Marie meant nothing to me” (115), when he thought of her not long before his death. “What he was talking about didn’t interest me” (116), when the chaplain spoke to him about God. Yet again, one wonders if the character is only trying to convince himself of his unfeeling nature, but the story itself drags because there is no connection between the character and the heart of the reader. The Art and Craft of Storytelling indicates the importance of this connection: “Readers like to identify with the characters they are reading about. If your reader can’t empathize with the character in some way, you risk losing your audience” (Lamb 140).

The reader trundles toward the end of the book, looking for some insight, some hope that Meursault will develop as a character. Finally, three pages from the end, his detached façade cracks, and raging emotions pours out as Meursault narrates, “I started yelling at the top of my lungs, and I insulted him and told him not to waste his prayers on me. I grabbed him by the collar of his cassock. I was pouring out on him everything that was in my heart, cries of anger and cries of joy” (120). But at the end of the emotional outburst, the narrative character remains unchanged, bloody but unbowed. He experiences no character arc, but a simple resignation without repentance.

Meursault’s insight is poetic, yet mislaid, when he states, “As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself” (122). No reader wants to hear of an indifferent world, knowing deep down that the world groans beneath the sorrow of a fallen nature. It cries to be delivered with every drop of blood spilled upon its broken surface. Instead of opening his eyes, Meursault further blinds himself with a subtler insight that excuses his own detachment from life and love and all things beautiful.

This lack of character growth is not only frustrating, but it also blatantly ignores the deep desire of the reader to connect with a character. This brings the reader to wonder, not as much about the motives of the narrative character as wonder about the motives of the author. What self-seeking author would disregard the reason for which so many readers pore through books, and choose to leave a character unmoved by the end of the book?

One article regarding characters in story writing states, “There are two types of characters in every story—pebble people and putty people. If you take a pebble and throw it against a wall, it’ll bounce off the wall unchanged. But if you throw a ball of putty against a wall hard enough, it will change shape. … Your main character needs to be a putty person. When you throw him into the crisis of the story, he is forever changed … He’ll always be a different shape at the end of the story than he was at the beginning. If he’s not, readers won’t be satisfied” (James).

Readers want to read about putty people, because they know that they are also made of putty, with feet of clay. Meursault, however, was a pebble. His rock-like character made The Stranger incomplete at best. At worst, it served as a reflection of our deepest fears – that we will reach the end of life unchanged, unmoved, and refusing to admit that we so often have feet of clay and hearts of stone.

 

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage International, 1989. Print.

James, Steven. “The 5 Essential Story Ingredients.” WritersDigest.com. Writer’s Digest, 9 May 2014. Web. 3 Feb. 2015.

Lamb, Nancy. The Art and Craft of Storytelling. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008. Print.

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The StrangerAs I mentioned in a blog post a couple weeks ago, I read The Stranger, by Albert Camus, in a Literature class this semester. The professor asked us to keep a dialectical journal. I already posted my journal of the first part. Here is my dialogue with the second half of the book.

 

Page 63 “Right after my arrest I was questioned several times, but it was just so they could find out who I was, which didn’t take long. The first time, at the police station, nobody seemed very interested in my case. A week later, however the examining magistrate looked me over with curiosity.”

The author seems every bit as unconcerned as the narrator. He ignores details the reader would obviously be interested in, such as what happens immediately after the murder, what was Marie’s response … even what his own response was (if anything). Most likely, since the narrative character doesn’t care about much of anything, his response was most likely as frustrating as everything else I’ve read about him so far.

 

Page 63 “Then he wanted to know if I had hired an attorney. I admitted I hadn’t and inquired whether it was really necessary to have one.”

Mersault hasn’t gotten an attorney and wonders whether he really needs one; this is after a week has passed. What has he been doing all week? If the author doesn’t care to fill in these important gaps that the reader would clearly like to know, why should the reader care to finish the story?

Page 65 “I probably did love Maman, but that didn’t mean anything.”

I’m sorry, what??? I don’t know if I’m more frustrated with the character – which means that the author did a very good job of creating an unlikeable character – or more frustrated with the author for writing such a disagreeable character into existence. At first, I thought Mersault must have narcissistic personality disorder. But it is more that he has absolutely no emotions whatsoever. Even Spock was far more emotional (and far more likeable) than this narrative character.

 

Page 68 “He was waving his crucifix almost directly over my head. To tell the truth, I had found it very hard to follow his reasoning, first because I was hot and there were big flies in his office that kept landing on my face, and also because he was scaring me a little. … But from across the table he had already thrust the crucifix in my face and was screaming irrationally, ‘I am a Christian.’”

I think I realize what I do not like about this character. He is so dispassionate that he is altogether unnatural as a character. Every character has problems, but he seems so unemotional that he has no soul whatsoever. And of course every contemporary story needs the dangerous “religious freak.” This one brandishes a crucifix, forcing it in Mersault’s face and screaming irrationally. All Mersault can think of is the heat and how to get rid of someone he doesn’t want to listen to. It’s kind of interesting (and also irritating) that from the standpoint of faith, this character does seem almost soulless, if that were possible – which it isn’t. There is no depth. Even in this charged encounter, he is more concerned with the heat and the flies.

 

Page 78 “I thought it was unfair treatment. ‘But,’ he [the guard] said, ‘that’s exactly why you’re in prison.’ ‘What do you mean that’s why?’ ‘Well, yes—freedom, that’s why. They’re taken away your freedom.’ I’d never thought about that.”

There is no remorse from Mersault. No awareness that he killed a man. He ended a life. And the only concern he has is being treated unfairly in prison. Why he even sided with Raymond rather than the abused woman, in the beginning, makes no sense to me. Why write a book about such a repugnant character?

 

Page 89-90 “ … for the first time in years I had this stupid urge to cry, because I could feel how much all these people hated me.”

Maybe a cry would have done him good. It might have woken those emotions asleep or suppressed for so long.

 

Page 100 “I would have liked to have tried explaining to him cordially, almost affectionately, that I had never been able to truly feel remorse for anything.”

Do such people truly exist? I don’t think so. In my opinion, when writing – even if you want to make a unique statement or be different in your writing style – at least create a character that is real. If you want to create an alien, write sci-fi.

 

Page 114 “Everybody knows that life isn’t worth living.”

No, I don’t know that. I know that life is the greatest gift. Every morning our eyes wake to beauty and love, joy and sorrow, is a gift. Even the shortest life, or the most difficult, is worth the living, because the world is blessed by every life. The soul is enriched by every smile, by every tear. Life is worth living.

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