I have always personally disagreed with that little nugget of supposed wisdom, that "there is no such thing as an original story", and that it is impossible for a writer to create something new and unique. To me, that is ridiculous. It is nothing more than an excuse for a lack of originality. A corollary of this theory is that every story imaginable can fit neatly into a specific formula that has been around since mankind first began telling stories. It becomes clear upon examining these supposed all-encompassing formulas that this is not true. Or, it is technically true, but exaggerated in such a way as to be completely meaningless. These formulas are things like Man vs. nature
or Man vs. man
or Man vs. machine
, etc. Obviously these "formulas" are nothing but the barest, most essential and nondescript labels possible, and even if there are more complicated formulas it is remarkably easy for a writer to circumvent them. A great example of this is Haruki Murakami. I know that I am always harping on about him, but it is for a good reason. Murakami's stories for the most part lack a traditional plot structure, and so are open for all kinds of possibilities. But this is not the point of this review.
In classical Japanese literature, such as Ueda Akinari's Ugetsu monogatari
("Tales of Moonlight and Rain" -- and though this works well as an example there is a larger reason I mention this work), and in a more generic way in all of Japanese culture, allusion and borrowing play a large role. However, this is very different from unoriginality. There is a large and significant difference between plagiarism and being influenced by another work of art. In fact, if one desires a neat and convenient platitude, then It is impossible for an artist to create a work of art without being influenced by someone or something
is infinitely better than It is impossible to create a truly new story
. But there is nothing wrong with being influenced or making allusion or creating a tribute to a great work of art. What there is something wrong with is outright plagiarism.
When I first encountered Ray Manzarek's Snake Moon
, it was not the story itself or the fact that Manzarek was the keyboardist for the Doors that piqued my interest; but rather something much more superficial. It was the fact that the cover art was drawn by one of my favorite comics artists, Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy
, a series rich in references, allusions, and tributes to folklore, mythology, Victorian literature, and pulp storytelling. But when I discovered that the story was a ghost story set in the days of the Civil War, I was positively hooked. I had to read this book. It contained many things that I love, or so it had seemed: ghosts, historical fiction, and to top it off, a gorgeous cover. And so I special ordered a copy of the book, purchased it, and for a long time it sat on my shelf neglected, until about a week ago when I finally picked it up and began reading it.
What immediately struck me about this book is that the writing was... well, quite simply horrible. It was amateurish through and through. I won't claim to be the best writer, but I hope that I have achieved better than Manzarek here has. At any rate, I have done enough reading to know bad writing when I see it. And it’s not just the writing style itself that is the problem. In fact, there are several groan-inducing, hand-slap-to-the-forehead style issues with this book.
First of all, it strikes me that little to no research was actually done on the Civil War era America and the lives of its people. The use of a stereotypical, highly generic accent and dialect that could be categorized "hick" as much as "Southern" is the first clue that something is amiss with this book. Not only is it insulting to Southerners everywhere, it is also ironic that it is these very Southerners and their culture that Manzarek is trying to glorify with his story. No matter the case, the characters' speech rings utterly false and after a while just hurts the brain to read. As if this weren't enough, the book, in both its narrative voice and the voices of its characters, expresses numerous and widespread modern ideas on topics like politics, human rights, social issues and sexuality. At this point whatever meager illusion of reality is exists is stretched thin almost to the bone. This is especially true when one considers the fact that the characters in question are farmers, living in a Tennessee hollow so remote that not only does no one else in the story know where to find it, but also that its residents (another extremely unlikely conceit) are not even aware that a war is being fought and has been for the past two years or so!
The real clincher is the rampant and falsely didactic mishmash of New Age beliefs and barebones Christianity that not only turn the stomach because of their shallowness, but also would never be found on the lips of historical Tennessee farmers. What's even more confusing is that after waxing poetic (or trying to) on how God is the same as the sun, and the sunlight is God and His power, and that everything contains a bit of God in it, the protagonist later on claims that God is inscrutable and incomprehensible and so therefore must not exist at all. Huh? How does a realistic character transition from such an exuberantly and innocently staunch believer -- albeit a believer in some system of faiths that doesn't exist and in many ways contradicts itself -- to a morose and doubtful atheist, and then back again? Sure, it's plausible, but not in the context of what has so far happened. The character has endured lots of harrowing and distressing events, but at each step of the way none of his beliefs seem to be in doubt until this one specific moment. Even more confusingly, after this isolated scene, the man seems to be an untroubled believer again.
I cannot stand New Age ideas myself, because the New Age movement is by definition a blending of the rosier and more attractive ideas cherry-picked from multiple religions and philosophies, while the more obscure and unpleasant ideas are rejected and left behind. And what New Age philosophy actually does take from these sources, it doesn't even fully seek to understand, but takes these ideas at their most simplistic and shallow face value. But totally disregarding my dislike for such things, it's completely inaccurate and unbelievable for farmers in the mountains of Tennessee in the period of the American Civil War to have these ideas in the first place. It's almost as if Manzarek thinks people of this time and place thought and behaved the same as the average modern American, as filtered through popular television and Hollywood aesthetics, only with an annoyingly clichéd accent tacked on.
But all this so far only grazes the surface of the most incredibly bizarre and wrong thing about Snake Moon
. I hinted heavily toward this in the opening paragraphs of this review: that Ray Manzarek of the Doors basically lifted wholesale the plot of his excursion into fictional literature from another source. That source, specifically, would be Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 film Ugetsu monogatari
, more often known simply as Ugetsu
, a stirring and hauntingly beautiful critique of the senselessness of war and unbridled ambition.
Like I said, being influenced by another artist or work of art is inevitable. Allusion to other works is also not only acceptable but in many cases is considered a praiseworthy tool. Even a tribute to another work, or to take things further, an adaptation of one in a new form, are things that are perfectly acceptable. But in the latter two cases, in which more than just a few ideas or concepts are taken from the original, it is acknowledged that this is so and the original sources are identified. Not so in Snake Moon
; in fact, Manzarek's friend and fellow screenwriter Rick Valentine's afterward to the book suggests heavily that he and Manzarek spent many agonizing sessions crafting the twists and turns of their project. In other words, not only is it not stated that Snake Moon
is an adaptation of Ugetsu
, it is heavily suggested that the work is a completely original tale and a labor of love. In other words, it is "[using] and [passing] off the ideas or writings of another as one's own"*, or "[taking] without referencing from someone else’s…intellectual property"**. In other words, plagiarism.
If for some reason any reader of this review is still inclined to read Snake Moon
(or, if, for a much better reason, you plan on seeing the film Ugetsu
), you might want to quit reading now, for detailed spoilers are under the cut. ( Collapse )
The sheer detail of the plot summary given above, which applies to both Ugetsu
and Snake Moon
, will make it abundantly clear that this is no mere tribute or allusion or borrowing of ideas. Every significant plot point and character are duplicated in Manzarek's book, and he bothers to change little. In fact, the biggest change Manzarek affected, that of the book's setting in the Civil War, is upon closer thought not really all that big of a change at all. The story, with its inherent criticism and condemnation of the violence of war and its senseless, unavoidable consequences, relies not only on a backdrop of war but also on a war in which both sides are roughly homogenous. This is because the similarities between the soldiers on each side of such a war serve to underline the futility of the war: it serves to ask us, "Why are we fighting our brethren and neighbors?" In that light, it's clear to me that the shifting of the story's setting from Japan's Sengoku jidai
("Warring States period") to America's Civil War is not that big of a change at all, merely a shifting of physical setting and cultural experience.
All of this would be perfectly fine, if not for one simple and immense problem: Manzarek does not say that his work is an adaptation of Ugetsu
, and, as said previously, deliberately hints without saying it outright that the opposite is true. Did he not care? Or did he think simply that no one who would end up reading his book would ever have seen such an obscure movie? I have no idea. But given the extreme lack of variation from one work to another, it's unlikely that he wrote Snake Moon
without realizing that he was copying Ugetsu
's plot. References:
* The American Heritage Dictionary
** Princeton University's WordNet