Book: “The Tree of Knowledge”

Released July 2014.  Currently available at Amazon.

Other books by Scott Bonasso:

“Juarez”

“Snow Stories”

Found-Footage: A New Literary Genre?

My latest book, “The Tree of Knowledge” is technically a science fiction story.  However, in writing “TOK,” my goal was to create a science fiction story that wasn’t ‘science fiction-y.’  And not just in the sense that there wouldn’t be the typical whiz-bang spaceships or aliens or sentient computers.  Every author who writes sci-fi strives for plausibility, but I wanted to go further.  I wanted to create a manuscript that readers might actually believe was real.

I’m not the only storyteller currently seeking methods in which to blur the line between fantasy and reality in their work.  One need only look at the wave of “found-footage” films that have been produced since “The Blair Witch Project” turned the indie film industry on its ear fifteen years ago.  There is a particular kind of thrill that comes with watching a movie that you either think is real, or are willing to suspend your disbelief for in this particular way.  The approach to making the movie is different than that of a traditional film narrative.  The filmmaker crafts the movie in such a way to honor the fiction-as-nonfiction contract with their audience.  It’s sort of a role-playing exercise: the traditional fourth wall between storyteller and audience is intentionally taken down and both parties agree to treat the narrative as nonfiction.

The literary equivalent of a found-footage film would be a book written in epistolary format: a narrative that is presented as a collection of letters, notes, etc.  Max Brooks created a brilliant twist on the epistolary format with his 2006 book, “World War Z,” which was actually presented as a series of transcribed interviews with various witnesses to the zombie apocalypse that the book documents.  The brilliance of this book is found in both the micro and the macro – micro: the reader is treated to an eclectic variety of vignettes and smaller scenes, told by an eclectic variety of characters; macro: taken as a whole, these vignettes create an epic and fascinatingly realistic vision of the zombie apocalypse.

Mark Danielewski took the literary “found-footage” style to a whole new level with his groundbreaking 2000 book, “House of Leaves.”  Danielewski employs the traditional epistolary style in that the book does contain letters, and one of the two main narratives is written in a diary format.  But the genius twist of this book is the presence of an editor.  The idea is that this nameless “editor” found the manuscript containing the two narratives and edited it, adding commentary and extensive footnotes.  (The made-up footnotes are presented as nonfiction, using real-life public figures and national publications.)  The presence of the editor adds an additional narrative layer which, like the found-footage movies, breaches the third wall.

Another technique I wanted to use in “TOK” was a story-telling device that Shane Carruth employed in his 2004 homemade sci-fi movie, “Primer.”  “Primer” is about two scientists working out of their garage who accidentally discover a way to travel back in time.  The science in this movie is presented realistically; it pulls no punches for the scientifically illiterate.  The engineers working in the garage engage in techno-speak that is not watered down or explained.  These scenes come off as documentary-like, as though the viewer is peeking in on actual scientific experimentation, so that when the time-traveling method is stumbled upon, it has a heightened air of authenticity.  The science in the movie starts out so dry and unadulterated that when it’s finally stretched, the believability factor remains.

“The Tree of Knowledge” is not a straightforward novel.  I combined story-telling elements from books and movies that used experimental formats designed to blur the lines between fantasy and reality: epistolary letters, “found-footage” diary entries and blog postings, interview transcriptions.  There is a fictional editor who frequently comments in the manuscript, sometimes to cite articles or quotes.  For purposes of verisimilitude, the science in the book is presented in a very non-layman-friendly manner, so the editor’s notes also serve to explain the scientific principles and theories in play.  To further blur the lines of fact and fiction, I wove real people, places, articles, and science throughout the story.  I had a reader tell me he started Googling elements of the book to see what was and wasn’t real; he felt obligated to approach the book like a detective seeking the truth.

It was a fun writing exercise to inhabit so many different characters’ heads in so many different formats, as well as to approach the storytelling from multiple levels: from the characters in the story to the character who recounts the story to the editor who presents the story to the public.  In the end, I hope all the pieces add up to an intriguing overall narrative and that the reader comes away from the book feeling like they at least experienced something new.

The tagline/hashtag for “The Tree of Knowledge” is #Isthisreal?  This is for fun – part of the found-footage role-playing game between author and reader.  However, if I did my job right, perhaps some reader out there in the world will stumble across my book and believe the answer to the question is yes.

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In its latest effort to add even more realism to movies, Hollywood has been crafting whole films around non-actors: professionals whose real-life craft or skill-set matches the character, but who have never acted in a movie before.  After watching two of the most recent offerings in this genre, “Act of Valor” and “Haywire, I posit that this device holds potential, but still has bugs to be worked out.

“Act of Valor” is a story about Navy Seals completing a series of deadly missions to thwart a terrorist attack on the U.S. Homeland.  The dialogue/banter between soldiers during mission scenes is authentic – it’s evident that these “actors” know and speak this jargon regularly, so it all comes off as realistic.  This goes for the physical action in these mission scenes as well.  It all has the look and feel of a documentary, like a cameraman had tagged along on some real Navy Seal missions.  The action is often shown from the point-of-view of a soldier, which, negatively, brought to mind images of first-person shooter video games.  But I inferred instead that the intended effect of these shots was to show the kind of bravery it takes to walk into a hostile house or building, knowing that gunmen will pop out from around any corner at any moment to shoot you (most war video games are based on real life, after all).  In that case, I felt patriotically compelled to accept the camera work as a kind of testament to our soldiers’ bravery.

The deficiency I could not overlook, however, was the bad acting early in the movie.  It simply took me out of the movie.  God love ’em, those Seals tried really hard to slow down their words and emote with their eyes, but they’re not actors and the camera doesn’t lie.  The opening scenes of exposition that focused on the soldiers’ private lives were downright painful.  After about 15 minutes I didn’t think I’d be able to sit through the whole movie, except that the action scenes started at that point and never really stopped – and as I said, the action scenes were very good, in large part because the main players were real soldiers.

“Haywire” is an action film by Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, starring female MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) star and first-time actor, Gina Carano.  In casting the rest of the movie, it seems that Soderbergh was perhaps trying to offset the assumed acting insufficiency of his main star: Carano ‘s supporting ensemble includes Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum.  These are some heavy-hitting actors and it’s seductive watching them swirl around the intriguing, sexy cinematic oddity that is Carano.

Again, some of the early scenes that were heavy on dialogue revealed that Carano still needs serious acting lessons, but Soderbergh’s artsy direction and the strength of the supporting cast carried the movie to the second 2/3, which could almost be considered a silent action movie. Once we know what Carano’s character needs to accomplish, we sit back and watch her do it in what is an amazing physical performance.  Carano is fascinating to watch and it will be interesting to see what kind of a niche she carves out for herself in Hollywood.

Authentic physicality and shop-talk dialogue seem to be the upsides to casting non-actors – fixing that non-acting thing is the potentially movie-ruining downside.  Quite a gamble.

My name is Scott Bonasso and I am a musician and writer living in Houston, Texas.  I’ll be using this blog to discuss any and all storytelling-media, including music, movies, and books, both ones I’m reading and those I’ve written.

Please check out my latest ebook, a novel, “Juarez,” on Amazon.com.

http://www.amazon.com/Juarez-ebook/dp/B008ENOX44/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1340736959&sr=8-1&keywords=juarez+scott+bonasso