Vonnegut, The Wire, and Narrative

This is one of these introspective Sunday posts that have little or no OpenNMS content. As usual, feel free to skip.

Many years ago I was lucky enough to see Kurt Vonnegut give a talk on narrative. He went to a whiteboard and drew some axes. On one was time and the other ranged from “bad” to “good”.

First, he examined the story of Cinderella. The story starts with her father remarrying due to her mother’s death (bad). She has to deal with her evil step-mother and step-sisters (worse). Then she meets her fairy godmother (better). She goes to the ball (good). She dances with the Prince (great). Then the spell breaks and she has to flee (bad), etc.

The line he drew was a curvy swing from bad to good and back, eventually ending with good. Quite a few of our popular stories, movies and shows have a curve very similar.

Then he talked about Native American narrative. This was much more along the lines of walking through the woods, seeing a stream, spotting a deer, etc. The line he drew was almost completely straight, and pretty much neutral between good and bad.

With these two graphs on the board, he then examined one of the most classic stories of all time: Hamlet.

Hamlet starts out with the death of Hamlet’s father and his uncle’s ascension as king. (bad) Then his father’s ghost tells him that he was murdered by his brother (bad). To see if the ghost is right, Hamlet stages a play about murder and watches his uncle’s reaction. When his uncle leaves the room he believes the ghost is right (bad). Then he accidentally kills his girlfriend’s father (bad), she kills herself (bad) and everyone dies at the end (bad).

It was a straight line, very much like the Native American one, only, well, bad.

I don’t remember anything more about the talk, but it struck me that the serious stories, the real stories, sort of plod along without these great swings.

Which brings me to The Wire. The Wire was an HBO television series set in Baltimore, Maryland (USA). It consists of 60 one-hour episodes over five seasons, and has been called the greatest television show of all time.

I started watching it as a way to pass the time on airplanes. I finished the show today on a flight from Oregon to Texas, and while I will try my best not to spoil anything with my thoughts on the it, if you are strict about such things stop reading now.

Each season focuses on a different aspect of life in the city. You know something is up when the second season departs so radically from the first it may leave you wondering if you missed something, or if you are really watching the same show. As I watched it I always thought it was good, but just like each season could stand on its own, each show could almost stand on its own. There weren’t any great cliffhangers, although there were many times when things happened that shocked the hell out of you. Good guys died; bad guys died. Good guys lived; bad guys lived. The powerful were brought low by the weak, and the powerful were made even more powerful by abusing the weak.

Up until today I would have said that The Wire was good, but not necessarily the greatest television show ever, but the final episode changed that. It wasn’t even that the last episode “revealed all” – for the most part it played out like any other – but the final five minutes consisted of a montage that literally left me shaken. It consisted of short, 10-30 second scenes of various characters in the near future, and it is only then that you get a real idea of the scope of the show and how well it was written and how well everything fit together. It was truly amazing.

And if you were to plot it out on a whiteboard, it would be a straight line.

I keep that image of Vonnegut up at the whiteboard at Pomona College in my mind. It reminds me that the greatest and most powerful things in life don’t come in big swings, but mainly in just moving forward.

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