Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Mysterious manuscripts, vol. 1: There is no sunken treasure

When we went to see The Bourne Ultimatum this summer, I had to sit in the row behind my friend Graham because the movie theater was crowded. After every fight scene, he'd turn around and gape in wonder at how the movie could get more awesome. How awesome? Jason Bourne kills someone with a book in that movie. But our biggest "unbelievable!" moment came in the previews for National Treasure II: Book of Secrets.

So there's a book of presidential secrets, with documentation covering everything from notes on the Lincoln assassination to the Kennedy assassination? You know what might happen if you kept all the presidential secrets in the same place, in something as portable as a book? Someone who's not supposed to see it might try to find it. You should keep it in the Library of Congress under a call number. To be safe, make it a coded call number. You should also make a set of ciphers, secret boxes, and coded inscriptions in multiple scenic locales that lead predictably from one to the next so that someone could track the book if it were to fall into the wrong hands. Or the right hands! Because there are only a few people who can read Olmec symbols that tell you where to find the fabled city of gold, Cibola--and one of those translators is Helen Mirren, who happens to be Nicolas Cage's mom in the movie. She gets to swing on a vine. Mt. Rushmore is a cover-up.

Not all of this information is in the previews, but I don't think I've revealed any secrets in my excitement at relating the incredible conventions of the treasure hunt story. I love these stories because I'm fascinated by the ways that investigations work out in different genres--the crime procedural, the legal procedural, the older murder mystery, and especially the discovery of the mysterious manuscript. The mysterious manuscript gambit is my current obsession, so I have a whole set of blog posts planned about it. I like books and movies with this gambit because the plot follows some interesting conventions: globe-hopping, reading as almost always immediately productive of an intelligible end (reading as tracking clues), multiple readers who have different interpretative skills or ways of reading, good triumphing over evil in a fashion directly related to how one uses the manuscript or the map, and a fetish for difficult forms of reading such as deciphering, piecing together distressed pages, and tracking missing pages. The treasure hunt story is similar. I saw National Treasure II the other day, and while it's no Goonies or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade--the two movies to which it owes a lot of plot and booby-trap ideas--it's pretty good.

First, one more preview. There's a movie coming out soon about a girl and her father who objectify reading: whenever they read aloud, the words become objects that drop out of the sky into their room. Obviously, I am a big sucker for movie previews, because this trailer, too, sent me into paroxysms of excitement about hyper-literalized reading. It gets better because the movie has the adorable title of Inkheart! It's based on a young adult trilogy by Cornelia Funke, which I have not read yet.

So books in these movies can be lethal weapons, or they can bring forth demons from the literary world (as happens in Inkheart, so far as I can tell), or they can encode and then help decode secrets. These are all terribly exciting functions for a book to have, and they depend on the insistence that reading has a definite purpose. I have two favorite parts of National Treasure II: the first is a wonderful set piece about semi-kidnapping the president by playing to his interest, which we all apparently all share, in the promise of secrets being revealed in hidden passageways.

The other funny sub-story in the movie is the function of Thomas Gates' (Nicolas Cage) assistant's tawdry "expose of national secrets" book that he wrote after 2004's National Treasure. His potential customers at a big chain bookstore are disappointed to find out he's only a geeky writer, not Nicolas Cage--and even that guy doesn't read the book until halfway through the movie, when it becomes very useful because many of the exposed secrets are true. It's the kind of book that's always on sale at Barnes & Noble, where the untold secrets of the Da Vinci Code that Dan Brown couldn't tell you, or the real story of Area 51, or the Roswell cover-up will be revealed for only $9.95. I have a fondness for these books, for the way that they insist on the power of research and reading--if only there were more documents to read, then we'd know the full story.

Ben and I were talking about this obsession in relation to David Fincher's search for real-life evidence to solve the Zodiac murders during the filming of that movie. I've noted before that many of Fincher's movies take up the problem of what investigations are supposed to uncover, but it's especially fascinating in The Game, when Michael Douglas's character is assigned a puzzle but his discoveries reveal only artifacts of the investigative procedure. They're quite literally artifacts, since they've been manufactured beforehand as clues which lead in a particular direction that he is unaware of until the end, when it's reveal that the investigation was supposed to lead to hell for a particular purpose. Malcolm Gladwell introduced the idea of the puzzle vs. mystery in a New Yorker article last year about Enron. Summarizing and extrapolating from a law professor's argument about this distinction, Gladwell argued that people wanted Enron to be a puzzle, where all the pieces of who knew what when would fit together, but maybe it was more of a mystery, where the people in charge perhaps were not so culpable because even they did not know all of the information. Many, many people wrote in to Gladwell's blog to criticize this argument and point out the ways in which there were conscious cover-ups perpetrated with knowable and known consequences. Nevertheless, I remain interested in this distinction between puzzles and mysteries because it could be an interesting lens through which to consider how we understand the courses of investigations: Do they always have resolutions? Are the resolutions always findable--it's more likely that a book or a movie will be a puzzle than a mystery, but how could you make a mystery plot (in Gladwell's distinction) that yielded some sense of resolution for the audience? What types of resolutions are satisfactory? What does satisfactory even mean?

These questions get resolved in multiple ways in the mysterious manuscript genre: I'm interested in how many books and movies end with the manuscripts being forgeries, where the resolution is in dissatisfaction. That a map or a manuscript is a forgery does collapse the possible uses and interpretations, doesn't it? Are there other things you can do with a forgery than feel disappointed? One of the other conventional resolutions to the treasure hunt movie is the destruction of the treasure, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That's another form of dissatisfaction, as is the finding of the treasure only to encounter ruin, as in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

The John Huston movie is in a different league than National Treasure, to say the least, but that story, too, has its own mysteries and puzzles. The attempts to discover author B. Traven's identity are related to the resolving authorship in a mysterious manuscript. Don't you want David Fincher to take up this story next--he could doggedly track down all the possible aliases for the German author, accounts of his time in Mexico and his disguise to meet Huston as they were filming Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the rumors that he was Jack London or a Dadaist artist. There are a lot of "I've found B. Traven's real identity!" investigations floating around on Amazon and Google, and they always seem focused on that elusive problem of singular identity rather than the possibly also interesting phenomenon of how some questions about authorship may be mysteries rather than puzzles. Not for nothing does the Wikipedia article compare B. Traven to the elusive Thomas Pynchon, the author of my favorite investigation novel of all time, The Crying of Lot 49, which ends on its own weird, wonderful note of unsatisfactory resolution. What if his heart is only made of ink? "Wrapped inside my ribs in a sea black with ink"?

Or what if the treasure is "the light in the heart," the oblique last line of Virginia Woolf's treasure hunt story, "A Haunted House." We had to read this story in English class when I was in high school as an example of problems of interpretation. I must say I'm still unsure about how the stream of consciousness works in the story, except that someone's reading--but it's unclear who's doing what when and where:
But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.

But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling—what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room. . .” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?