Why Serial can’t not believe in Adnan Syed

I think the moment the smash-hit, podcast-of-podcasts Serial became my guilty pleasure was when creator Sarah Koenig did a guest interview on another of my podcasts, Slate’s The Gist, and I was reluctant to listen because I hadn’t caught up and was afraid of spoilers.

Spoilers. The first time I used that word on this blog, a fantasy dwarf shot a warlord with a crossbow. The second time, a Baltimore teen killed his ex (maybe).

I wasn’t early to the backlash, which you can guess at even if you don’t follow the show: The true (or at least, nonfictional) story of a murder case that left Baltimore high schooler Adnan Syed in jail for half his life and counting has the trappings of a paperback whodunnit, yet whodunits are delightful for all the wrong reasons if the dead girl is real.

Of course, one can’t fault the journalist if her story actually has narrative appeal, which is what inspired Koenig (who maintained to Stephen Colbert that she still doesn’t know how it will come out one week before the finale) to tell it one week at a time.

The problem is that the show not only can, but must tantalize, every single episode, even when the story doesn’t necessarily want to. This gives Koenig’s team some purely Hollywood responsibilities: They have to make the listener pull for Adnan; otherwise there would be no stakes. They have to make us believe in the possibility of his innocence while keeping his supposed guilt in the foreground. And most importantly, we have to feel like Koenig is just as mystified as we are.

Doubtlessly the story is suited to these tasks, that’s why they picked it. But perfectly? Doubtlessly not. This makes Serial a kind of Jekyll-Hyde of real journalism and paperback schmaltz. Even if most of the time the narrative serves the journalism, once in a while it’s going to be the other way around. And we have no way to know when.

I’m bringing this up on near the season terminus because (well, ok, because this blog has been on hiatus, but also because) we’re starting to see some of Koenig’s maneuvering play itself out in the show’s endgame.

When Koenig introduces Adnan’s attorney Christina Gutierrez in episode one,  she tells us that his family suspects she threw the case to make more money during appeals and, indeed, that Gutierrez was later disbarred for mishandling client funds. She doesn’t come back to these until episode ten: Turns out, the case-throwing was an unfounded hunch, and Gutierrez’s fall from grace was more for crimes of negligence than real corruption. Yet Koenig let that seed grow for nine episodes. She allowed it to subtly sway us against Gutierrez before it was her time to take the stand – so to speak.

At one point while analyzing the evidence, Koenig realizes (or seems to) that a lawyer’s goal isn’t truth, but to employ truth only when it is useful for making a case. I’m not sure the Serial team isn’t operating the same way: The truth is good, but the story is better.

I texted Carla Jean about this (as one does for moral-epistemic crises). She said perhaps Serial flavors its journalism with entertainment, but don’t we all? Any story has demands for storytelling. But on the other hand: “The dramatic arc is inherently more problematic when stretched over three months and dealing with real people.”

This isn’t breaking news. Adnan isn’t going anywhere. The reporting may be in progress, but they could have finished and released the episodes all at once Netflix-style. Yes, the show wouldn’t have reached its 5 million listeners without  snowballing buzz like a season of Breaking Bad, but it is paying for those downloads in integrity. It would give me pause if a convicted killer got a legal remedy because a whodunit made 5 million people think he’s innocent.

“Except what if he is innocent?” Carla Jean replied.

Maybe he is. Serial, at least, believes in Adnan. Problem is, it has no choice.

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Laura Barnett: The writer who hangs out with your favorite bands

I found Laura Barnett by her review of Fifty Shades of Grey for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. I was looking for a literary critic to help me improve my reading diet (which has lately contained unhealthy levels of detective wizards).Turned out, Laura only reviews fanfiction-turned-mommy-porn when she isn’t attending London theatre, hanging out backstage at rock concerts, or drafting her novel.

As a freelance writer, she’s on London editors’ short lists when it’s time to give out the review tickets and backstage passes, from  videogame-inspired interpretive dance to poet-comedians with Viking beards. I asked her how a rookie might make a career shift from, I don’t know, promo copy for Minnesota quilt shops into hanging around with Lorde.* Continue reading

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The thrill

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Freelancer Jon Rosen: How to write like Indiana Jones

Jon travels to the pygmy homelands at a tense time in the Congo…

Jon spends the night atop Nyiragongo, a mountain that, for all its beauty, remains an existential threat to…

Jon travels to the Tanzanian hinterlands in search of a man who claims to have cured millions through an elixir prescribed by God…

(Wookie sidekick not pictured)

Wookie sidekick not pictured

These are lines from the clips page of writer Jon Rosen. The first thing I told him when we spoke was that I think of him as Indiana Jones with a laptop.

“It’s funny you should mention that because I’ve been told I look like a young Harrison Ford,” he replied. “One friend still calls me Dr. Jones.”

I hadn’t actually  known what he looked like before our Skype session, only that he was in Kigali, Rwanda, writing on topics from Kenyan marathoners to deadly volcanos, for the likes of Slate, Al Jazeera and, most recently, National Geographic covering the struggle against Continue reading

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Fearful Symmetry


Those are what you think.

My Thai visa ran out today, which means instead of finishing the post on freelance journalist and badass Jon Rosen, I had travel from my current town, Maesot, 10 or so kilometers to the the border, venture into the town on the Myanmar side, and cross back for a fresh passport stamp.

But while I didn’t finish Jon’s write up, it was a successful day in the writing life. First, because tonight I had a fantastic interview with British writer Laura Barnett, responsible for The Telegraph’s reaction to Fifty Shades of Grey. Second, because I acquired two new cans of sardines for my collection (which my Thai pal carried back from a trip to Ghana), an antique opium pipe and a tiger fang.

I don’t support tiger death. But the tooth is very old – more a relic than a souvenir, and for Myawaddy, purchasing one in the locked back room of a dusty junk shop was like buying a an I heart NY tee shirt in Times Square. My town, Maesot, is a patchwork of smugglers, rebels, refugees, NGO’s and Chinese entrepreneurs. Myawaddy is somewhat less lively, but its underbelly is a different seedy. Like, old-school seedy. 

Besides, I’ve been starting to worry my future nieces and nephews won’t believe any of this crap.

And anyway it’s not even the sketchiest thing I’ve got. (But the human skull is another story.)

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How George R. R. Martin destroyed Westeros; why HBO might be its last hope

(Game of Thrones TV spoilers; mild spoilers for books 4 and 5)

If you caught the season finale of HBO’s all-time most popular show, you watched Jaime Lannister risk all to rescue his brother Tyrion from certain execution. The two share a quick hug before parting, a small spot of warmth in Tyrion’s devastated life.

We book-readers didn’t get that. In our version, Jamie touches the wrong nerve and Tyrion torches his last real friendship with the lie that he really did kill his son. One parting stab from Mr. Martin.

And you TV fans think you’ve got it bad.

Well, either way things don’t look good for Westeros. At this point the protagonists of the central plotline have been harried, hacked, backstabbed and exiled in turn. The Lannisters end up on top, yet most of them are poisoned, shot with arrows or fleeing for life before the end. Thus, the War of Five Kings reaches the bottom of its arc like the Hindenburg.

Yet we still have Continue reading

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If you’re going to take a hiatus, do it in Japan

Yep, that's a cartoon about  George R. R. Martin books.

No, those cave scratches are actually fragments of cartoon about George R. R. Martin books.

I’m back in Maesot, Thailand. Went over to Japan for the last three weeks, and though I brought my little drawing tablet, the only thing it accomplished was breaking it again. It still sort of works, bless its heart, but I experimented with honest-to-goodness paper and ink today, heaven help us. (It’s more of a blow to this project in development.)

As for lately, here’s a piece on AL.com, if you were wondering what I’ve been getting paid for lately. And I stretched my fiction muscle a little bit, just for fun.

Last night I had a killer interview with a freelancer named Jon Rosen, who writes from east Africa and is more or less Indiana Jones with a pen. Feature forthcoming, but for now, I’m suddenly all excited about writing about writing again.

So: I’ve decided to do something – maybe not a big, meaty feature, but something - at least once a week. Stay tuned.

And finally, I, in all seriousness, collect canned sardines. Wanna see my neeeew ones? :D






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A Study in Paper

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The beach, the corpse and the cliché that hijacked my brain

I have seen a dead body twice in India. Sorry, let me back up.

I’m not a cussing man. That is, I try not to make a habit of it. I don’t have anything against expletives, only that when I do use them I want it to be on purpose. Some words are too exquisitely nasty to keep in the same plastic cooler as the craps, hells and shoots. You hear about the writer’s tool kit, but slang is more like spices. My spice rack looks like this:

Exclamations hit the brain differently than ordinary words. Psychologists suggest they come from an ancient linguistic battle station that fires up in time of conflict, and we link them to touchy subjects like sex and religion to give them power. Hence, the swear: A verbal artillery shell loaded with a culture’s semantic hangups.

These can be tricky to wield in your writing, though not in a dangerous way – some keep their venom, like certain racial slurs, but most just lose their flavor with repeated use. Psychologist Stephen Pinker points out that while no-no words are as human as language itself, the particulars always shift around. A writer who uses a lot of our four-letter friends gives his style an overall edge, but keep them in reserve and a well-placed F-bomb can light up a paragraph like a thunderbolt. 

This is where the corpse comes in.

I found it on a trip to Gokarna, India. It had washed up on the beach after three days at sea, and its skin was so white I thought it was a rescue dummy until it was actually at my feet. The moment held a cocktail of rare emotions. The initial animal revulsion. The sudden panic of the modern mind coming face-to-face with the state of nature. The question of the soul and this vacant husk that would never think, never know again.

What I said was

This wasn’t selecting a spice. It was groping around the pantry for something to use as a weapon. I hadn’t even known the phrase was back there. Yet there it was, on hand to greet mortality itself. Jiminy Crickets.

Before the Disney Pinocchio the expression was a tame stand-in for Jesus Christ, and it shows up more often than you might think. I know  because I can no longer hear the phrase without thinking of a dead person on the sand. I can’t actually use it (unless I land an assignment for Insectphobics Quarterly or something), but it remains  a little existential landmine buried in Snow White and Happy DaysGilligan shouts it, and for a small moment I wonder if whatever amusing flotsam he’s found this time isn’t the remains of a fellow castaway who took the coward’s way off the island.

I suppose the moral here is to keep your spices in order but be sure to stock your causal patois with a few good-old-fashioned fuckwords. Those are the ones that’ll show up for a fight, and you want to know who’s gonna be there when it all hits the fan.

Or rather, the beach.

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