Orange is the New Black

One of the things I have been doing of late is reading. I don’t have access to real university library, or to a theological library, here in the middle of the deserts of Central Washington, so I have been taking advantage of the offerings on hand at the North Central Regional Library.

So, books. Mostly e-books using the Libby app, a combination of fiction and non-fiction (I love non-fiction). Since I’m trying to write thrillers, I am trying to read some as well. Jennifer recommended Craig Johnson’s Longmire series, and I just finished The Highwayman novella.

Along those lines, I also read Piper Kerman’s prison memoir Orange is the New Black, which was the inspiration for Jenji Kohan’s Netflix show of the same name. I figured why not.

Coming right off of reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Orange was a let down. It is not artfully written. Kerman does a great deal more telling than showing in her narrative (something I shrugged with in the first drafts of Kesslyn Runs and I think I handled pretty well in The Love That Matters), which means some things get tossed off quickly that really should have been turned into scenes with dialog. (For example, the long scene in Kesslyn at the checkpoint evolved from a paragraph describing checkpoints, and I felt it was better to actually show how these worked than tell.) There are a lot of simple, declarative sentences in Orange that make it a quick read, but not a particularly enjoyable one. It shows she’s educated but doesn’t really have the gift to write.

That said, Kerman possesses an honest self-awareness of the complete privilege of her position — she has resources and social standing others do not have, and so knows it.

But there’s something else I found in Orange that reminded me of my own memoir, and that is the sense that as a relatively privileged and aimless white girl, she’s a king-of tourist in the world. She’s not as disconnected as I was (it would be hard to be), and she has people of her own, but especially in her early post-college life when she finds herself drifting and floating through the world of this West African drug dealer, almost on autopilot, utterly unaware of the potential consequences and almost unwilling to commit to anything. Reminds me a lot of me. Prison seems to be a focusing event in her life, and good for her.

The one thing I found reading Orange is the book, for all its literary flatness, is way better than the Netflix series. And I credit that problem to Jenji Kohan. Now, I liked Weeds, mostly because Mary-Louise Parker is fun to watch, and I like watching Orange as well. Kohan has an art for creating vivid characters and making sure they are well cast.

Her plot lines, however, careen completely out of control, and for much of the time during Weeds, especially the last few seasons, I found myself wondering why everyone wasn’t already in prison or dead. There gets to be a point with shows about crime and outlaws where one must suspend belief in order to accept the drama necessary to make storytelling work in these situations (Sons of Anarchy and Oz had the same problems). Perhaps Kohan should work on projects more limited in scale, or not try to drag things out too long. Because danger and risk are essential to the drama, there’s no place to go but up, or more, or worse.

Kerman’s characters are more interesting than the counterparts Kohan creates, the relational aspect — her understanding that prison is not something she did alone, and she did it with the help of people she otherwise would never have met or become friends with had it not been for prison — a great deal more satisfying, and even the sheer tediousness of the plot was better. Granted, we generally don’t watch television (or even read novels) to relive our tedious lives. We want adventure and extraordinary, not the mundane that gently (or not) whirls around us. And we want to see characters triumph. I get that. But the realism of Kerman’s memoir was a great deal more enjoyable to read than the surrealism of Kohan’s series.

At any rate, I am writing a deliriously unreal series of novels in which my characters should all be in prison (they will have brushes with the law) but won’t be. So I should probably read some of what it is I am trying to write. Jennifer has some James Patterson in mind, and there is that Scott Bergstrom novel glowering at me on my bookshelf…

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