In this stunning debut, Daniel Wagner delivers a soulful examination of the forces that both drive us and oppose us. Jim Frazier is a writer with very little to show for it. He worries that the only way to achieve success is to lower the bar, sell out, and pander to commercialism. Meanwhile, somewhere far away, a woman named Liz and a man named Lou are stranded on a desert island. While they are faced with an obviously serious problem, the two have some more important issues to discuss. As these two seemingly separate stories converge, Wagner presents a meditation on the worlds we inhabit that will resonate long after the credits roll and the last page has been turned.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
We see a big empty room.
Of course, it's not a room the way we know them, with length, width, height, and all. It's just a room projected on a screen.
In a way, it's a dirty trick. We aren't used to empty rooms. Yet an empty room is understood in one glimpse. So after the short time it takes your brain to realize, It's an empty room, you start to wonder, What for? Is it possible that the whole thing blows up all of a sudden? Or is it a lousy movie and they simply couldn't afford more? And while thinking about it, while thinking about these kinds of things, the movie makers have you already glued to your seat. I guess they teach this stuff in art school nowadays.
As expected, the big empty room is still on the screen...and some whispering is already spreading through the theater--What a setup.
In a way, you can't blame the movie makers, though. It's us. It's our messed-up attention span. If you just start telling a nice story, right from the beginning no one is interested. Me neither, naturally. Sometimes I sit in front of the TV thinking about--
Hold on, an old guy enters the picture, holding a chair in his hands. He places the chair in the middle of the room and takes a seat. Basically he looks like a typical old man. He wears a baseball cap and old-fashioned glasses, and there is some excess skin around his mouth.
That's another trick. Just use a guy who looks a little funny--with too much skin around his mouth, for example--and the viewer, again, starts to think about it. Probably only half consciously you start to wonder if he had this excess skin even as a child. Then you try to picture him as a child. It doesn't make much sense, so your brain starts to look for other solutions. It could be a side effect of arguing with his wife, some might speculate. Others may even start to worry a little and wonder if gravity can do this over time.
That's how the brain works--and don't think the movie makers don't know it! They use your curiosity, they make you wonder, that's all they do; and while you're thinking about those things, you already start to relate to the characters. That's the whole trick.
I didn't even notice it. He's holding a book in his hands. He gives it a little shake. He gives it another little shake...and the excess skin around his mouth joins the shake a little.
Now he's leafing through the book.
It looks as if he's starting to read from the book.
But no, he just looks up again, starting to speak. "They asked me to read this book to you. Actually, it's not a book; it's a movie they said." The way he's acting, it's clear he doesn't have any idea what's going on--they probably just picked him from the street and shoved some money in his pocket. All you need to do is take an old guy who doesn't have all his marbles, then give him an assignment--but make sure you don't explain it so well to him that he will behave awkwardly--and in nine out of ten cases it comes off as funny. No one knows why. But it's funny anyway.
He's leafing through the book again, as if he's not sure how to begin.
"I probably should start to read now."
Now he's looking all around the place for some sign of confirmation...a nodding head, or a thumbs-up from the movie director, I guess.
Someone probably nodded. In any case, the old guy puts his shaking index finger to the book, squints a little, and then finally starts to read.
"We see the outside of a suburban house from a moving perspective," he reads, then stops and sends a puzzled frown into the book again.
Ha! You should see what happens now. He twitches, as if a fly were bothering him on his neck.
"Ahhh...I guess that's a comment for the movie director," the old guy says.
Now he smiles proudly into the camera and the flesh around his mouth tightens a little.
"Okay, let's start again," he says, and clears his throat. "We see the outside of a suburban house from a moving perspective."
And now we see a suburban house on the screen.
Now we see the old guy again.
Now the suburb--
Now the ol--
I guess it's supposed to transition us into the movie. As if your brain slowly starts to picture the old guy's words.
We now see the suburban house continuously.
"The usual credits start to roll," the old guy reads.
Even though we now see this suburban house, we still hear the voice of the elderly guy. It's like you're looking at a picture book with your grandfather.
"The scene changes. We are now in the house, in a room that has been emptied for renovation," he reads.
And--swoop--there we see this room on the screen. Someone is painting something next to a window.
the shooting script
NARRATOR (an elderly man). Jim, a man in his forties, was holding a brush and a bucket of paint. He was drawing a decorative line on the wall next to the window. He stepped back to scrutinize his work--probably more to plan the next step than to dwell on his success so far. He looked irritated about something--the way a man must look when his wife has repeatedly told him to renovate some room he doesn't even like to use or something.
Jim was trying to give the window an ornamental frame. Again, he didn't look too happy.
Jim came to a decision.
(We clearly see that he has come to a decision...)
NARRATOR. He took a chair, and put it in front of the window. Then he stood on it and started to look for the beginning of the adhesive tape. First with his fingernails, then with his teeth. Finally he put the end of the tape on the wall. This time over the window--the same way he must have done earlier on the sides. It looked awkward. The chair was too small and he had to work so far over his head that he could hardly see what he was doing.
At this moment the door opened and Beth came in. She was eating an apple.
BETH. How's work progressing?
NARRATOR. Jim apparently couldn't hear her. Or he was so deep into the taping that he wasn't able--or in the mood--to process an answer. Right at this moment he ran out of tape.
JIM. Damn it.
BETH. What's wrong?
JIM. Tape's empty. Do you really think it needs a line over the window? I think it looks pretty good like this.
NARRATOR. It is obvious to the viewer that it needs one.
BETH, still eating her apple. No. It definitely needs one.
JIM, exhausted. So give me some tape.
(We see a close-up on Beth's mouth chewing the apple.)
NARRATOR. Jim was looking at Beth, annoyed at the way she ate her apple.
BETH. Hmm. (She gives it another glance.) If you lead your brush real carefully, you can do it without the tape.
JIM. Come on--I can hardly see it from down here. (He sighs.) I told you, we need a ladder.
BETH. You move the brush, and I'm going to lead you from back here. I can see it beautifully from here...Just move the brush real slow.
NARRATOR. Jim didn't care about the line anymore, so he put his brush to the left starting point.
BETH. Okay, you can start.
NARRATOR. Jim started to move the brush.
(We see a close-up of the brush going over the wall.)
BETH'S VOICE, from behind. A little up.
(We keep looking at the moving brush.)
BETH'S VOICE, again. Now down.
(Our view cuts from the brush to Beth.)
BETH: Up. (She tries to focus better on the brush.) I said up--you're still going down!
NARRATOR. Jim made a face toward the window.
BETH. Down. (She observes it, then gets a little irritated.) Down!
NARRATOR. This last comment from behind triggered something Jim couldn't--and didn't want to--control. He made a small but clearly exaggerated downward move.
BETH. Up! Up! Up!
NARRATOR. The already much-strained rubber band in Jim's mind snapped.
JIM, stupidly mimicking Beth. Up! Down! Up! Down! (He looks back to Beth.) What about this! (He starts to move the brush up and down over the wall.) Eh? What about that! Up! (Up goes the brush.) Down! (Down goes the brush.) Up! (Up goes the brush.) Down!
NARRATOR, casually. Another rubber band snapped.
BETH, shouting. Are you crazy? Are you absolutely crazy!?
NARRATOR. Jim started to echo again.
JIM: Are you crazy? (And up goes the brush.) Are you absolutely crazy?! (And down goes the brush, spreading paint all over the wall.)
NARRATOR. A door slammed shut. Beth was gone. About two seconds later, the door opened with a jolt and Beth was striding in with shoe polish in her hand. She started to smear the shoe polish all over the other wall.
BETH, shouting. What about that...eh? What about that!
At this moment the scene cuts with a black flash and we are hovering over the ocean. The elastic surface reflects gray-green patterns, the way it does on cloudy summer days. The song "Blanket" by Urban Species starts to play. It gives the cloudy weather something snug. The credits continue to roll.
We keep looking at the surface of the water. After a while some single raindrops start to hit. Then the rain gets a little heavier.
The camera starts to move now, floating over the water. Gradually the rain ceases.
After a moment--a moment long enough to make us forget the first scene, and long enough for us to get caught up in the peacefulness of the music and the ocean--the camera starts to level up and we can see the horizon. In front of us is a small island. We are heading toward it.
We float for some time along the sandy shoreline, with the cloudy horizon to the left. Then we spot two people on the shore. We float a little closer to them.
a movie . . . and a book
"I don't know," said Lou, lying on his back in the sand. "And in a way, I don't even care."
Liz was looking toward the ocean. She was sitting right next to Lou in the sand. It was a special sitting position she had, with her arms closely around her pulled-in legs--the way someone sits to keep warm on a cloudy summer day on the beach. It's especially recommended if you're wearing only a dark blue bikini, along with a comfortable gray sweater with a hood. The way she looked at the ocean was the way a small girl would, safely at her mother's side after she had just seen a young bird lying dead on the curbstone. She had glassy eyes and there was something dreamy about it.
"It looks like rain again," she said.
"I don't care," came from the body to her right. "Rain is beauty."
"You're crazy," she said, and shivered a little, pulling her naked legs a little closer.
"You definitely are."
"I'm not," Lou said. "I'm just a misunderstood Chinese intellectual."
"You're not," Liz said, pulling her shoulders up a little. It brought the hood of her sweater a little closer around her neck. "You're American."
Lou kept looking toward the sky for a moment. Then he said, "What are you?"
"What do you mean?"
"How would you describe yourself if you had to?"
"You're boring," said Lou, and shook his head methodically from side to side, shaping the mold in the sand a little deeper. "Try it--try to tag a label on yourself. It isn't that easy," he challenged. Then he added, "You know, just for fun."
Liz didn't answer. She was looking toward the sea.
Lou raised his head a little to see what she was doing.
The wind blew a strand of hair over her face. She brushed it away.
Lou observed it with interest, kept his head suspended for a moment, then lowered it back to the sand.
"I'm the only normal person in the world," she finally said.
"Ha! That's great!" Lou smiled toward the clouds. "That's certainly a be--"
Distant thunder had interrupted his pleasure. He sat up to look at the big black cloud over the ocean. After a moment he lowered himself back into the sand. "Did you know that I kind of like it here?"
Liz seemed to be listening but didn't say anything.
"I like it here because we have an assignment," he said. "It wouldn't be the same if we had planned to get here. If we had planned it, it would be totally different."
Liz still didn't say anything, but just lowered her chin to rest on her kneecaps. It seemed to be a better position to look dreamily at the ocean.
"It's a game...It's a movie and it's a book," Lou continued, then thought it over. "Do you know what a movie and book are?"
"What do you mean? Of course I know it," said Liz. "A book is written on p--"
"I don't mean that," Lou interrupted. "It's a saying."
He closed his eyes.
"Or, better, it's something like a philosophy of life."
With the word philosophy he raised his eyebrows a little.
He pressed his lips together.
"The philosophy of the Japanese intellectuals, I guess."
"Ha, you're so funny," said Liz. "First you are this great, but misunderstood, Chinese intellectual, and now you are a Japanese intellectual."
She was smiling at Lou while rolling her eyes.
"Okay, okay." Lou was amused. "Let's make it a great, misunderstood Eastern intellectual then, if you will."
For a moment neither of them said anything. And only the sound of the small waves and the light wind coming in from the sea kept the place from indulging in a complete silence.
"So what's behind the saying? What did you call it again...a movie and a book?" said Liz after a while. "So what's the big wisdom of the saying...if there is any?"
"Oh, there's a lot of wisdom," Lou asserted, wagging his head seriously in the sand. "If you know what a movie and a book are, if you really know what it means, you start to--I don't know, I guess you just start to look at life a little differently."
"So, a movie and a book?" said Liz. "I never heard of it."
"Maybe it's just a family saying. I don't know," said Lou. "My father used to say it. I was never sure he got the wisdom of it, though--I guess he just picked it up from his brother."
A moment of silence followed.
"So what does it mean?"
"In a way, it just helps you to get over two difficult situations in life, that's all," said Lou. Then after a moment he said, "A movie is the first situation, it's when something strange or crazy happens to you. It could be something as stupid as walking into a pole, for example."
From the Hardcover edition.