Law and Conversation

July 22, 2013

Charles Dickens, George Zimmerman, and Trayvon Martin

Instead of watching the George Zimmerman trial, I was reading “Little Dorrit.” The long 19th century novel by Charles Dickens had been on my list for a LONG time, and it had been a few years since I’d read a Dickens novel. I enjoyed it immensely.

As I was reading it, I was thinking about how different the great novels of the 19th century are from the literary novels that are published today. Among many other differences, Dickens’s characters are generally more two- than three-dimensional. Many, particularly the supporting characters, are types, and even the main characters behave completely predictably and provide no surprises. Little Dorrit, for example, is Goodness personified—a martyr who never, ever, appears to feel any anger or resentment toward the rest of her family for allowing her to support them, sponging off her labor and good works. Rigaud/Blandois, the villain, is completely evil—a sociopath with no redeeming qualities. The story’s hero, Arthur Clennam, along with his friends, Mr. Meagles and Daniel Doyce, is completely morally upright; like Little Dorrit, Clennam is very, very good, never appears to feel or express any resentment toward those who have treated him badly, and is also a bit of a martyr who has to be coaxed and convinced that he’s not washed up in his thirties and too old to have a life. Compare it to Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” for example: I’ve heard Franzen criticized for writing a 19th century novel in the 21st century, but for me his narrative was timely and fresh, with imperfect, human, three-dimensional characters.

For Dickens, it’s all or nothing; a character is either good or bad. Amy Dorrit, Arthur Clennam, and Monsieur Rigaud don’t exist in real life. They have no complexity, no shades of gray—they’re more like windup dolls than humans. But notwithstanding the book’s largely flat, predictable, unrealistic characters, “Little Dorrit” is a great story, driven by a complex plot if not by complex characters, and we still read and enjoy it 160 years after he published it.

Like Dickens’s works, most of the stories I’ve read about the Zimmerman trial have flat, predictable characters. For many, the correct story of what happened is that Zimmerman was an evil, aggressive racist, while Martin was a peaceful saint. For others, the story is that Zimmerman was heroically protecting his neighborhood, while Martin unreasonably attacked him and was viciously beating him up. The former camp’s rhetoric comes pretty close to suggesting that Zimmerman was acquitted because of racism and he should be retried until a court reaches the result they think is correct; the latter camp’s, that it wasn’t at all a bad thing that Zimmerman was prepared to, and did, shoot point-blank to kill. So from the first camp, never mind double jeopardy, and from the second camp, never mind that we have a police force to address suspected criminal activity. If you think about it, both camps seem to agree on one thing: if law enforcement or the courts do not administer what people who weren’t there and/or don’t have all the facts think is the correct result, taking justice into one’s own hands might be a good thing to do. That’s horrifying.

Amid all the shouting and handwringing, two blog posts about the Zimmerman trial stand out for me: Miami, FL lawyer Brian Tannebaum on The Embarrassment of the George Zimmerman Verdict and NYU law professor Stephen Gillers on An imaginary dialogue trying to explain Florida v. Zimmerman to someone who has not had the benefit of a legal education at The Legal Ethics Forum. Both focus on the human reality and the law of the events and the trial.

As for me, I’m not seeing a Dickensian story with flat, good or evil characters here. Though I’m mindful of Tannebaum’s admonition “You weren’t there, and you don’t know what happened,” I’m seeing two basically decent people, Zimmerman and Martin, who both made some unwise decisions one evening that ended up in Martin’s losing his life and Zimmerman’s having to spend a chunk of his life, and probably a lot of money, defending a criminal prosecution and becoming an object of hatred for a lot of people. I’m also seeing an enormous amount of handwringing about racism—which we can all agree is a bad thing—and very little interest in rethinking our country’s attitude toward guns and the law. To the contrary, every time there is a gun tragedy, whether it’s a bunch of people getting shot at a movie theatre, little kids getting shot to death at an elementary school, or a young person who had his whole life in front of him getting killed a short distance from his family home, the ultimate result has been even more rhetoric, policy, and laws encouraging people to get and carry guns.

So how did that pro-gun attitude and those pro-gun laws work out for everyone in the Zimmerman case? Not too well for Martin, who’s dead. Not too well for Zimmerman, who had to spend lots of time and resources that he could have been dedicating to his family and his personal pursuits defending himself in a criminal prosecution instead, not to mention becoming an object of opprobrium for a significant number of people, many of whom he will probably encounter in the future. (OK, maybe Zimmerman will get a lucrative book deal and sell movie rights to his story and go on the speaking circuit, but if he does (and maybe he won’t–I certainly don’t know what he will or won’t do), he will have paid quite a price for those things.) Not too well for the country, either: following the verdict, there’s an increased perception on the part of many that Zimmerman was acquitted because his victim was African-American (if you have questions about the reasons for the verdict, please read Tannebaum’s excellent post) and that our system of justice doesn’t work as it ought.

I’m familiar with the arguments for opposing limitations on firearm ownership that many honorable and intelligent people hold dear. “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” was a facile and popular saying when I was growing up, and one which I myself espoused as a young person; while that’s still around, more lately I’ve seen “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” They sound good and easily roll off the tongue, but both ignore human complexity as much as Dickens’s stories do.

I can recognize that there may be a few occasions where a Bad Guy/Outlaw, or someone who’s gone off the deep end, is prevented from shooting people because there’s a levelheaded Good Guy, who’s also a crack shot, in the vicinity with a gun and is in just the right position to get a good shot off to take the Bad Guy down without killing one or more innocent bystanders in between. Note, however, that those are a lot of factors that need to converge; if any one of them is not present—Good Guy isn’t levelheaded, isn’t a great shot, isn’t in precisely the right position, Bad Guy or Innocent Bystanders move out of or into Good Guy’s bullet path—the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Story also doesn’t have a happy ending if person standing next to Good Guy as he pulls out his gun doesn’t realize he’s the Good Guy and thinks maybe he’s a Bad Guy and takes him down, maybe with his own gun. (How are we to recognize the Good Guy, I wonder? How do we know the guy standing next to us who’s pulling out a firearm in the shopping mall, or in the movie theatre, or on the subway, is going to save us and isn’t another Bad Guy?)

Far more likely to occur are any number of less than ideal scenarios. Maybe our hero, the Good Guy, is actually an officious busybody and wannabe hero who misreads a situation so badly that he (or she) ends up killing someone who wasn’t a Bad Guy at all. Maybe Good Guy has the best of intentions but isn’t a crack marksman and takes out Innocent Bystander instead of Bad Guy. Maybe our Good Guy who’s lawfully carrying a gun around has dementia; if you think that concealed carry laws, or open carry laws, are a great idea, is that something that makes you feel safer? (Can you write a statute that prevents someone with undiagnosed dementia or paranoia, or an uncontrolled temper, or bad judgment, from possessing firearms? I don’t think so. Writing statutes that do just what you want them to do, and nothing else, is HARD.) Or maybe our Bad Guy isn’t a fundamentally bad guy, but is legitimately feeling unfairly treated by the world, maybe is clinically depressed and not thinking rationally, maybe is chronically angry at not being in the position he thinks he should be in due to various unfairnesses in his life, experiences a Last Straw that might be getting laid off, or evicted, or divorced, or sued, or cut off in traffic, and in a moment of appallingly poor judgment takes out the gun that he’s lawfully carrying and uses it—maybe on others, maybe on himself, maybe first the former and then the latter. Or maybe we have two generally good guys, or two general jerks, or one of each, who are lawfully carrying guns, take offense at each other’s actions, and, in the heat of their disagreement, take out their guns and use them.

All of those scenarios are realistic, and all end up as tragedies. All, I suggest, are far more likely to happen in our gun-encouraging culture than the flat, two-dimensional Good Guy With A Gun saving the rest of us from the flat, two-dimensional Bad Guy With A Gun. And with no change in our country’s pro-gun attitude, and no change in the laws, I suggest that they ARE increasingly likely to happen.

Sadly, since the shootings at schools and movie theaters, the reaction that has carried the political day has been “We Must Have More Guns,” and the only changes in the laws have been changes that make it even more likely that there will be more George Zimmermans and more Trayvon Martins. President Obama recently said publicly that he could have been Trayvon Martin, but you know what? So could any of us, and so could any of us be George Zimmerman if we opt to carry guns.

For now, I’m returning to my Dickens novels, and to 19th century England. But I have no doubt that, as I did when reading Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” set in 18th-century Germany, I’ll continue to find resonance in these novels of past times and faraway places for events occurring in the 21st century USA.

January 15, 2013

Crazy clients? Read Elena Ferrante’s Days Of Abandonment

James Wood reviews Elena Ferrante’s novels in The New Yorker, so now seems like a good time to paste the review I wrote of one of that Italian writer’s novels for The Europa Challenge Blog.
I once heard a lawyer with years of experience in family law assert that everyone who gets divorced is “crazy” for at least a year afterwards. By inviting us inside the head of her divorcing narrator in “The Days of Abandonment,” the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante lends support to that view.
Ferrante’s books are tough reads. Having “pre-read” this one and discovered that some graphic and extreme unpleasantness was in the offing, I was tempted to bag it and return it to the library.
But graphic and extreme unpleasantness can’t be a dealbreaker if you’re going to read 21st century literary fiction. I’m glad I didn’t succumb to my momentary impulse, because Ferrante’s tale of the thoughts and actions of 38-year-old Olga, the narrator, in the wake of her husband’s leaving her for a mistress half his age and only just out of her teens, blew me away, as Alice Sebold’s cover blurb promised.
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me,” Olga tells readers at the novel’s outset. In the wake of that “it’s not you, it’s me” declaration, Olga describes how behind her outward calm, “a wave of anguish and rage was growing that frightened me,” particularly once she learns that there’s another much younger woman behind her husband’s departure.
Her circumstances bring back the desperation and deterioration of a similarly bereft neighbor from her childhood, “La Poverella.” Olga remembers her mother and associates remarking “when you don’t know how to keep a man you lose everything.” Like La Poverella, Olga tries to hold it together and to get her husband back. Neither is within her power.
Olga’s unflinching description of even her most unflattering thoughts and actions are part of what make Ferrante’s story so compelling. Early on, in a flashback to her college days, Olga remembers “As a girl I had liked obscene language, it gave me a sense of masculine freedom. Now I knew that obscenity could raise sparks of madness if it came from a mouth as controlled as mine.” And indeed it does: she gets into a riproaring fight with her husband, and, with the children in the next room, lets him have it with both barrels, as Marie notes in her review. “Speak like what? I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife?…What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me?…Let’s talk about it!…[I]n order not to disturb the gentleman, not to disturb his children,, I’m supposed to use clean language, I’m supposed to be refined, I’m supposed to be elegant!….”
Describing her descent into deep, self-destructive depression, Olga muses “What was I? A woman worn out by four months of tension and grief.” When a series of unrelated and grim crises hit at once, she realizes she must pull herself together, but she has such difficulty in doing so that she gives her preteen daughter a sharp paper cutter and instructs her to prick her with it if she perceives that her mother is becoming “distracted.” Confused and repulsed, the child asks how she will know whether Olga needs a prick. Olga responds, “A distracted person is a person who no longer smells odors, doesn’t hear words, doesn’t feel anything.”
Her daughter does have to prick her, the crises get resolved—though not all happily—and Olga begins her climb out of depression and back to normal life. Throughout Ferrante’s taut storytelling, we feel Olga’s emotional and even physical pain. Even in translation, Ferrante makes every word in every sentence count. I’m looking forward to reading “My Brilliant Friend,” her newly published Europa novel, which I have at the top of my TBR list.

December 17, 2012

Europa Challenge Holiday Swap Time!

Challenge ButtonYay for the Europa Challenge Holiday Swap!

The Europa Challenge Blog is a fan blog for anyone who loves to read books published by Europa Editions. The idea is to read the books and then write and post reviews on the blog, with cross-posting to your own blog, if you have one, not only approved but encouraged. There’s no pay, and the publisher by and large doesn’t even publicize our posts or provide review copies, with just a few exceptions (none of which have applied to me, more’s the pity 😉 ). The reward is in the satisfaction of reading really good international literature and then writing as good a post as possible, which, for those of us whose idea of a good time away from work is writing essays, is both considerable and sufficient.

So Marie, who co-founded and administers the challenge blog, had the great idea that we should do a holiday book swap so we could each send and receive a nice EE book that we wanted and didn’t have. She posted the rules and matched us up, and here it is time to post what we’ve received.

I had quite forgotten about the swap after I sent my recipient’s book, so it was actually a surprise when I opened the parcel addressed to me and found an attractively wrapped package with my name on it from Megan. In fact, it was so pretty that I let it sit until the day for posting so I could admire it and wonder which of the several preferences I’d sent Marie it might be.

It turned out to be Angelika Schrobsdorff’s “You Are Not Like Other Mothers,” translated from the German by Steven Rendall. It’s set in Berlin between the World Wars and sounds like a fascinating, panoramic story. I haven’t read a great deal of German literature apart from novels by Thomas Mann and Theodore Fontane, a bit of Grass and Boll, and, of course, folk and fairy tales, though, coincidentally, I did recently read and post about Goethe’s “The Sorrows Of Young Werther.” So I am really looking forward to burying myself in this one in the next couple of months.

Thanks so much, Megan! And a HUGE thank you, as always, to Marie for all of her work in making the blog and the swap happen.

September 21, 2012

Happy Hobbit Birthday!

Happy 75th–not eleventy-first–birthday to one of my many favorite books, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit!”

Corey Olsen’s thoughtful essay from today’s Wall Street Journal points out what a deft job Tolkien did in creating Bilbo Baggins’s three-dimensional character with the conflicted heritage of the staid Bagginses and the fey Tooks. To tell the truth, I’ve always enjoyed “The Hobbit” far more than its epic sequel, “The Lord of the Rings,” in which I felt inevitably mired down in the battles of the third volume each time I reread it. I’m far more interested in the development of the characters and their relationships, which I felt TLOTR falls a bit short on but “The Hobbit” gets just right. Give us some more details about Aragorn and Arwen, please–inquiring minds want to know the basis for their attraction! But Tolkien tells a great story, interminable battles or no.

I haven’t yet read George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series, sometimes described as “The Lord of the Rings” meets “The Sopranos,” but everything I hear or read about it suggests it’s enthralling. Readers, what do you think? If you’ve read it, and especially if you have some thoughts about it and the Tolkien books, please leave a comment. And if you’ve read Tolkien’s posthumously published works, including “The Silmarillion,” I’d also love to hear what you think. And while you’re at it, what will you have for Second Breakfast or Elevenses tomorrow to celebrate?

May 29, 2012

Europa Challenge review: An Accident In August

Filed under: Books and writing,Europa Challenge,fiction — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:01 am

Challenge Button

Yesterday I posted a review of Laurence Cosse’s “An Accident In August,” translated by Alison Anderson and published by Europa Editions, over at the Europa Challenge Blog. Hope you’ll click on over and have a look at my other reviews there, as well as at the other Challenge bloggers’ reviews.

If you ever find yourself kidnapped and held in a tiny hotel room by a scary guy who says he just wants a ransom but may well be inclined to kill you before it’s all over, there’s a great tip that could save you in Laurence Cosse’s “An Accident In August.”

But you’ll have to read it to find out what it is. (Let’s hope no aspiring kidnappers also do so.)

Others have already explained the book’s premise: while a young woman named Lou is driving her Fiat Uno on her way home from work in Paris one night, she gets sideswiped in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel by the car carrying Princess Diana and Dodi al-Fayed. Of course, she has no idea of the identity of the other car’s passengers—not that it would necessarily have made any difference to her actions. Having no desire to be detained in an accident investigation, she continues home without stopping, thereby committing a serious crime.

Though the reader can partly understand (if not condone) why Lou makes this impulsive choice—she doesn’t want her life to change—the unique circumstances mean that the nice life she had is doomed, whether she stops or not, and whether she comes forward or not at any point afterward.

As Jennifer observed, this story of dissembling will make you feel all of the same panic, guilt, and remorse that’s going on in Lou’s head. Though I didn’t like Lou’s flight from the scene of the accident, up to a point I understood her panicked choice. When the extraordinary lengths to which she went to avoid discovery started hurting other people, though, I became very disappointed with her character.

 But that’s part of what makes Cosse’s story of the disintegration of Lou’s life so good: her character’s consistency, which she takes to extremes, makes her something of an enigma, and, as a result, this short novel is a great read. “An Accident In August” wouldn’t have the tension it has, and wouldn’t be nearly so interesting, if Lou made the same choices we readers might, or if she made the legally correct choices. And I wouldn’t have felt such disappointment in Lou if she hadn’t been three-dimensional. The book is a great choice for summer reading, perfect for the beach or a commute.

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