Listening in on the end of empire

'The Wire' box set A lot of ink, chemical and virtual, has been devoted to commentary on the HBO television drama series The Wire and rightly so because it is, without doubt, a unique and compelling production. For those of you who are not familiar with the show, the DVD boxed collection of all sixty episodes is available at good video rental outlets and I commend it to you. My wife and children are claiming neglect because I am now in my second consecutive viewing of the entire opus.

Crime fiction is a powerful magnet for readers and viewers alike. Bookshop shelves and television schedules are replete with crime genre titles, some good, some bad, a few exceptional. The runaway success of the local TV series Underbelly demonstrates a hearty appetite in mass audiences for stories about people who do things most of us would never dream of doing and, as a reward, have things most of us never will and, as a consequence, lose their lives in ways we would prefer not to. The most recent real-life (now dead) example being Sydney ‘businessman’ Michael McGurk.

The Wire, however, is in a class of its own because, from its conception at the hands of co-writers David Simon and Ed Burns, it set out to interrogate the American Dream.

Unlike Underbelly, which is snookered by its docu-drama form and concomitant defamation law implications, The Wire chooses fiction. Fiction grounded in a reality lived in and written about by Simon, who was, for twelve years, a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and Burns, a twenty-year veteran detective with the Baltimore Police Department.

The series is set in Baltimore, Maryland and has been called a ‘televisual novel’ because of its complex plotlines, long character development arcs and the sophistication of Simon’s screenplay writing. In a deft use of metaphor, the title suggests a connect between the use of surveillance technology in crime investigation and the show’s ‘bugging’ of its subject.

Simon has called the show editorial, ‘angry op-ed’, a reference to its forensic analysis of the decline of American institutions – police, schools, bureaucracy, political class, media – but above all, it is television drama of dazzling quality – complex, nuanced, authentic, wry and, at times, very funny. (Det. Kima Greggs: ‘This guy’s worse than a drug dealer. He’s a developer.’)

The Wire is the thinking person’s entertainment, which goes some way to explaining why it rated so poorly in the Nielsen viewer polls, yet attracted widespread critical acclaim. In an interview with PBS, David Simon outlines the political frame in which the show was constructed. “We are a country of democratic ideas and impulses,” says Simon, “but it is strained through some very oligarchical structures.”

Simon and Burns write from a principled stand on the failure of the American Dream to deliver its promise. “This stuff is systemic,” he says. “This is how an empire is eaten from within.” The Wire views the drug trade as a microcosm of late capitalism, a prescient analysis given that the show launched in 2002, well before the Global Financial Crisis.

That people were trading crap and calling it gold. And that’s what The Wire was about. It was about that which is – has no value, being emphasised as being meaningful. And that which is – has genuine meaning, being given low regard.

Think junk mortgage derivatives vs national health care.

In one hilarious sequence, the black drug lords introduce Robert’s Rules of Order in the running of their secret meetings, resulting in some fantastic one-liners (‘Chair recognise yo ass.’) and a reprimand to one overzealous soldier/businessman who decides to take minutes: ‘Motherfucker, you takin’ notes on a criminal conspiracy? What wrong with you, man?’

So, here we have a work of fiction that not only excoriates a corrupt, dysfunctional financial and political system that masquerades as Master of the Universe, but does so with verve.

Everything about The Wire sparkles. The writing, which delivers some of the best dialogue you will ever hear and draws extensively on the street patois of the project housing estates; the acting by a cast of otherwise unknowns which includes a cameo of one of Baltimore’s infamous (retired) drug dealers playing a minister of religion; the directing which allows actors to breathe into roles instead of jamming them into formulaic set pieces and stereotypes; the judicious use of source cues in the music; the risky but right choice to shoot entirely on location and, in doing so, to enlist the support of the City of Baltimore and the residents of some of its most troubled neighbourhoods. The Wire is community art writ large. It makes a grown man weep to see all that quality bundled into a television drama with something important to say.

Which brings me to Australian literature, and its general lack of intelligent coverage of the world we live in. Last year, Christos Tsiolkas’ book The Slap won a number of prizes, including the Nielsen BookData 2009 Booksellers’ Choice Award. The novel sold steadily throughout the year and one suspects at least one of the reasons for its success was its central premise: what does it mean when someone smacks another person’s child in public?

Tsiolkas is a writer with a keen grasp of the Australian zeitgeist and, although he does not labour the socio-political framework of the story, the well-deserved success of his book suggests that readers of literary fiction (middle-class women aged 30+?) were taken by his gritty telling of a controversial, backyard barbecue tale.

If the new release lists are any indication, perhaps it is publishers and not readers who continue to shy away from fiction that tackles contemporary social and, yes, political material. A book need not have a sign posted ‘issue’ to qualify as one that engages with the broader context in which a story takes place. It is as if we are collectively content to willfully ignore the glaringly obvious determinants of Australian society in favour of often wet, flavourless novels that privilege style over content.

All our stories occur against a backdrop of history, politics and economics but so few novels engage with it. In a parallel art form, The Wire, rare as it is, proves that quality and conscience can coexist but, as one character says: ‘Conscience do cost’.

In the case of the publication of Australian literary fiction, the cost may be the will to take a risk. Am I being too harsh and not harsh enough? Lord help me when my novel is published, but this question keeps nagging at me and I just have to ‘ventilate’, as they say.

Boris Kelly

Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in theatre, literary fiction and politics. In 2009, he was the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship for work on his first novel.

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  1. Great post, Boris. Anything to do with The Wire or the work of David Simon and Ed Burns (and Tom Fontana), and you immediately have my undivided attention.

    Thought you might be interested in this Believer interview where Simon is interviewed by Nick Hornby:

    My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden.

    I also love the way he describes the show as a modern Greek tragedy (as compared to Shakespearean-influenced drama of the ‘modern mind’, the human condition and the ability to control one’s fate). Where it’s the individual struggling against these Olympian forces (the institutions) – indomitable, so the individual will never win: ‘doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality’.

    But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak. Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character, a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different in some ways, I think.

    1. Thanks for those references, Jacinda. You clearly have a serious love affair with Simon and Burns. I was taken by Simon’s views on the media, being as he was a newspaper man who witnessed first hand the failure of old media to grasp the implications, for both content and business, of the rise of the decentralised dispersal of information. He makes the point that in the interregnum between the decline of the mass circulation newspaper model, which we are now witnessing, and the consolidation of new models, there may be a profound absence of scrutiny of the institutions of centralised power. Series 5 deals, in part, with trouble in the Fourth Estate. Perhaps Simon is romanticising the efficacy of old media investigative reporting but he makes a fair point. New media poses real challenges of information control for oligarchies and centralised governments. However, new media is yet to attract the resources necessary to sustain quality investigative journalism. In the meantime, we see the decay of quality reporting due to a decline in resources and the tendency of established media to dress up political coverage as a clash of personalities, of the type we are seeing now in Rudd vs Abbott, with all its attendant cage fight dramatics. Which brings us back to Simon’s lovely take on Greek tragedy, powerless individuals and omnipotent institutions.

  2. Also, after you complete your second viewing, you may want to consider Generation Kill, also made by Simon and Burns. There’s been some debate around our house as to whether it’s the sixth season of The Wire (tackling the institution that is the military).

  3. If the new release lists are any indication, perhaps it is publishers and not readers who continue to shy away from fiction that tackles contemporary social and, yes, political material.

    I disagree that it’s publishers who are shying away from publishing this kind of thing – great MSS do not go unpublished because publishers are scared. Publishing is all about attempting to tap into the zeitgeist – sometimes this is successful, mostly it’s not. It might be that either it’s really hard to write a good novel like The Slap, or that authors themselves are shying away from producing work like this.

    1. Thanks for the comment jcmc. I don’t think it is a matter of publishers being ‘scared’ so much as being risk averse and possibly out of touch with a readership (Simon’s atypical reader) seeking more immediate relevance in fiction. Like any business, publishing privileges product that appeals to its customers which, in the case of Australian literary fiction, is a quite specific demographic group. I wonder if the demographics of commissioning editors reflects that of the primary readership? Does anyone know the stats? If authors are shying away, as you say, it may be because they are self-censoring because publishers don’t have a history of being interested. All this is baseless speculation on my part but perhaps someone can enlighten me.

      1. I don’t know much about Greek Tragedy but I think what is being suggested by Jacinda and what I agree with, is that ‘The Wire’ is about people being stuck in a world they’ve not only been born into but supposedly are given power or duty to be involved with. Rail as they might against the spin and contusions around them in order to do the tiny bit that they’ve been allowed ‘in on’ they often find themselves fighting battles in a war that is both overarching and has parameters working against their purposes. I don’t think we in Australia are that far off the Americans in this regard. The publisher at Scribe, Henry, wrote a great blog on ‘The Wire’ pointing out the similarities of suspicious dealings in Australia, things such as forged hospital throughputs and waiting list times, to mention just one.

        Series 3 was the clincher for me. The character of the police commander was so wretchedly stuck. He really tried to do something that would emancipate the world he lived in and all the time the viewer could see how unhinged the whole thing was going to become, even though with the right supports the ‘world’ he created would have been a substantial move forward.

        As far as Aust publishers and gritty TV go, I think we all want what we consume to be routed in truth and for me, not only are humans flawed, but institutions, in 99 percent of cases, as in ‘The Wire’, triumph over them. And, all round, there’s just not enough recognition of that in our art.

  4. It’s strange that you’re excoriating Australian publishing as conservative when your premise about what fiction should be is in itself so conservative. The idea that fiction should be resolutely realist, holding a mirror up to contemporary society and its ills is a literalist, impoverished nineteenth century conception of literature, as if modernism had never happened. It’s also bad faith to claim crime fiction for social realism, when it is at its core a tightly conventional genre, with one of its key tropes being the corruption of the world. What you see as social commentary is simply a century-old convention being played out once again.

    What’s compelling about fiction is not the ways in which it is the same as the world, but in the ways that it is different. And what’s unique about art is the way that it can open up other worlds to us, without simply and narcissistically reflecting ourselves back to us.

    1. Hugo, I am not arguing against diversity in art but for it. Nor am I excoriating Australian publishing by questioning it. The Wire doesn’t privilege 19th century aesthetics – despite Simon having been favourably compared to Dickens. It interrogates an aspect of the postmodern age not by reflecting it but by framing it in a socio-political context. I am asking why that approach appears to be out of favour in Australian literature. That does not mean I missed Modernism or what has followed.

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