Saturday, May 28, 2011

Short-a-Day: Mory Morris's "The Cross Word"

Originally published in The Atlantic, May 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): -1 (i.e., offensive).

Not to sound like a snob, but once you start doing the upper-tier crosswords of The New York Times or the syndicated ones from CrossSynergy, or simply the ones edited by top-notch constructors like Ben Tausig (The Onion), Mike Shenk (The Wall Street Journal) or Patrick Berry (Chronicle of Higher Education), or the puzzles self-produced by the constructors who appear in those prestigious publications (Brendan Emmet Quigley, Patrick Blindauer, Matt Gaffney), it's hard to take the computer-generated slogs that litter the commuter papers seriously. (You can find some examples by following the puzzle links here.) And even in those good publications, the serious crossword bloggers, like Amy Reynaldo or (my former professor) Michael Sharp, note that there are a fair share of duds, most of which revolve around so-called "stunt" puzzles: puzzles that are notable not for their theme or their fill, but because of the quirks of their construction, such as a puzzle that uses only eight letters, or a puzzle that uses every letter in the alphabet . . . four times a pop (a quadruple pangram, not that these are all bad). I spend this time talking about crosswords -- which I'm not-so-secretly devoted to, and training myself to speed-solve (I'm now averaging about three minutes for the easiest, a Monday, and winnowing my Friday/Saturdays below the twenty minute mark) -- because about three "clues" into Mary Morris's "stunt" story, I realized that bad fiction shares a lot of the same flaws as a bad crossword puzzle. For instance:

  1. Is the theme blatant and/or unoriginal?
    Yes on both counts: in addition to her awfully punned titled, Morris throws the words RAGE, ANGER, WRATH and REVENGE, into her puzzle (randomly), and then, using the clues as section headers (that have little to do with the story that "ties" it all together), explains how Mickey (Michelle) grew to be jealous of her half-sister, Sara, who was beautiful and always got whatever she wanted, including the boy, Matt, that Michelle was in love with.
  2. Is the story/puzzle sloppy in execution?
    Not only is the story devoid of new ideas -- Sara is a drug-addict and Michelle covers for her as a child; when they grow up, she refuses to speak to her ever again (over the whole Matt issue), at which point Sara dies, and Michelle feels guilty, but also wrathful. We find this all out in the "clue" for 50D, Furious: "I am using the word was now because if you haven't guessed, Sara is dead. She died a month again. She was murdered, though at first the police thought it was 'by her own hand.'" This has something to do with the confession of a witness -- a pigeon-keeper, known in slang as a "mumbler" -- but given the abruptness of this message, it's nothing more than a gimmick once again, a spot of tragedy meant to give weight to a petty story. As for the puzzle, not only does it clue the word MEAN twice, but it's filled with crap like GIRO and TOPEE and MESSRS and TORI; the two longest entries are APOTHECARYSSHOP and TOTALITARIANISM, neither particularly noteworthy (or relevant).

I found myself scribbling down not the answers to the puzzle, but my objections to the story -- above all, the horror I took in realizing that I knew more about crosswords than Ms. Morris, who probably picked up everything she knows about the subject from the awful movie All About Steve (which, if I recall properly, was lambasted for the exact same reason: it didn't know what it was talking about). I mean, really, this girl's been solving puzzles since she was a kid, and she still can't figure out a three-letter word for "A pitching star"? And what rag of a paper would run a clue like "Baseball stat with a B in it"? It's almost horrific -- unintentionally awful, if you will -- the way in which Mickey boasts of her puzzle-making skills:

"I'm the person who brought you "The Wasp's Nest." What a brilliant puzzle that was. I loved the clues: "What comes in stripes." "Mystery meat." "On course." "Dole (not a pineapple)." "What you lose when you sell." (The answers: Seersucker. Roast beef. Par 3. Bob. Capital gains tax.) If only Will Shortz didn't mess with my clues.

So not only is the story bad and inaccurate: it's flat-out insulting. "Work is involved. I watch Sex and the City or Six Feet Under just to be able to answer clues. Ditto for Harry Potter. The wizard's name, the owl." The story isn't even timely about the ways in which it is wrong. You don't need to watch a show to answer a puzzle (that's why there are crossing entries), and you don't need to watch Harry Potter to know that the wizard's name is . . . Harry Potter. You'll excuse me for sniping minor points here, and it's not as if I can't just as easily critique the repetitions of the actual story:

She was going to go to L.A. She made up her mind before she was twelve. She'd get the hell out of Brooklyn. She was going to move out West and take a screen test with those violet eyes. She had all these plans.
In a few years I'm going to get out of here, she told me. I'm going to L.A. to become an actress. My dad is waiting for me. I know where he is. Her eyes got all glisteny when she said these things.

Gag me with a spoon: "glisteny"? What melodramatic, hacky, sub-workshop-level dialogue. What horrendous plotting. How did a cloying line like "Sara, the one puzzle I'll never solve" make it into the final draft? This is the story you want people to read in the slush pile before they pick yours up, the one that's so bad it makes everything else around it look good. Ultimately, Morris's story is a success for one reason, and for one reason only: while the story fails to communicate rage, and the puzzle fails to adequately clue it, the inept combination of the two absolutely provokes it in any reader with a modicum of experience in either fiction writing or crossword solving. I am more than cross; I am furious.

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