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NORWICH, Vt.–Call centers are not, typically, very happy places—especially around the holidays. Workers have quotas to make, and often sit in bleak cubicles, headsets on, plowing through calls from stressed shoppers, as they count down the minutes until lunch.
But the employees in this call center in Vermont are rosy-cheeked and—can it be?—smiling. They field calls about misplaced packages and gluten-free dough, while surrounded by orange and red Thanksgiving decorations and a wall lined with baking gear that they’re allowed to borrow. They still have quotas—10 calls per hour, per agent—but they know they won’t get fired if they spend 45 minutes talking to a woman with cancer about baking, as one agent recently did.
Before we rush to condemn whole-hog the novel’s supposedly obsolete conventions, we ought look at how they function and what they do well.Less than a hundred years ago, D.H. Lawrence called the novel “the highest form of human expression so far attained.” Jane Austen said that it had nothing to recommend it but “genius, wit and taste.” Today, even novelists themselves—maybe especially novelists themselves—are unlikely to make such large and unironic claims in favor of their art. It is no coincidence that many of the most exciting novels to have appeared in recent years—Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, Ben Lerner’s “10:04” and Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”—have been distinctly un-novelistic, featuring protagonists who share many biographical details (and sometimes names) with the authors, and substituting the messiness of experience for conventional plots. Such “novels from life,” as Heti’s book was subtitled, reflect the authors’ exasperation with fictional artifice. “Just the thought of writing fiction, just the thought of fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous,” Knausgaard wrote in the second volume of “My Struggle.”
Is there anyone watching Gotham who could concisely summarize what’s going on in the show’s central overarching storyline—about the mob war between Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni? The war connects to everything: the police corruption that plagues our protagonist Jim Gordon, the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, the machinations of lieutenants Fish Mooney and the Penguin. It’s tough to keep track of the sheer amount of behind-the-scenes machinations, and it’s tougher still to care. The show may even realize this. Ten episodes in, as it prepares to take a break until January, Gotham has transferred Gordon to work at Arkham Asylum among the city’s stranger criminals. That’s a promising new direction.
Interstellar, the new film directed by Christopher Nolan, attempts to say something profound about human relationships and meaning, a goal that by itself is worth celebrating. What the film tries to say is a little more ambiguous.
If Interstellar were a religious text, the dogma it encodes could be called something like “scientific romanticism.” This belief system would hold that science will solve all of our problems one day, even the ones that by definition resist empirical observation and thus exist outside the purview of science (see Sagan’s Contact for another dogmatic specimen). Scientific romanticism works well as a narratival contrivance, but when employed to spice up the lives atheists who otherwise think that they have a clearer-headed view of the universe than those troglodytic believers, it can expose the scarcity of meaning available to those who eschew belief in God.
Marvel Studios’ announcement this week about what we can expect for the next nine years generated a lot of excitement — and for good reason. Marvel is finally bringing a film about a female superhero to the silver screen with Captain Marvel, and a black superhero, with Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther. Marvel knows how to create buzz and market its films — not just each individual one, but the whole collection of them. Each film lays groundwork for the next; each has inside jokes that only make sense if you’ve seen the previous. And audiences love it: A quick scan of the box office take for all of Marvel Studios’ films offers very, very big numbers. Maybe it’s not worth the hype, maybe the films could be better, maybe film franchises are destroying cinema. But it’s working.
It’s interesting, then, that Marvel’s success with film doesn’t translate to television. And I don’t mean that Marvel’s one television show airing right now — the awkwardly titled “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” on ABC — is necessarily bad; it’s not great, but it’s fine. It’s more that DC, the Red Sox to Marvel’s Yankees, is absolutely killing it on television.
The most religious film many moviegoers will see this year will not be an inspirational story from a faith-based production company; it will be writer-director David Ayer’s WWII tank combat epic Fury. And in some ways Fury is also a more compelling narrative about redemption than many of the sermons preached from Church pulpits on any given Sunday.
Fury is a slice-of-combat-life story that follows a few days’ action of a Sherman tank crew during the final campaign against Germany in April, 1945. The battle has turned into a seemingly interminable contest in which a defeated opponent refuses to quit, exacting casualties in pointless resistance. War weariness has exhausted not only men and equipment, but innocence and ideals. But Ayer, reportedly a Christian himself, isn’t just telling another war story. He is embedding and embodying the intersection of the grace of God with human history, history at its most violent and hellish.