Disclaimer: It is not my desire to bring any of the many piles of refuse from the fall of Banner of Heaven within the pristine walls of A Motley Vision. If you want to read or comment on the ethics of the situation, you can do so here. (Or here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, or here.)
I am absolutely fascinated, however, by the advent of the fake blog as an art form. We here at AMV are all about Mormon arts and being as Banner of Heaven is Mormon and art, I’m gonna review it. (Although I see I’m not the only one with the idea.) Naomi posted this blurb from an email which describes the BoH’s intent in its creation: “we want to explore blogging as a way of telling Mormon stories, and more specifically than that we want to tell stories that reflect back on the bloggernacle itself.” I think Banner of Heaven successfully did exactly that.
Take, for example, The Continuing Story of SeptimusH. It’s fiction. But there’s no other forum or format in the world where this type of story would work other than a fake blog. It’s serialized in fairly short bits, each episode of which tells of a new event, or a twist in former events. It’s played out in real time, as if it were actually happening, and even comments are open so that the reader can intereact directly with the character. Simply put, it’s the exploration of a single character in the first person who, under the pretense of being real, invites us to share in his experiences as he embarks on a journey of self-discovery and redemption.
19th Century British novels were largely serialized by chapter and gained a large following in the build up between selections, usually about a month apart, that resulted in massive popularity. I think we see some of the same effect today in Harry Potter books and Star Wars movies. Whether real or admittedly fictitious, I think there’s definitely room for a genre of serialized fiction that comes in blog form.
The pretense of reality adds an extra weight to the story in that it ups the stakes. If we believe the events we are reading are actually happening to someone, little anecdotes of strange events are all the funnier and touching moments are all the sweeter. We’re all the more engaged in the story. Part of my problem with what I currently read and see in the media today is that authors, in search of larger audiences, are constantly seeking out more and more outlandish stories with less and less realistic characters and situations. Granted, many of SeptimusH’s stories pushed the limits, which is actually what first caused the skepticism of its reality in the first place. But even still, it’s not often you get great stories about a relatively uneventful night at a country dance with your elderly neighbor.
Frank briefly mentions believing in the importance of historicity, and as far as scripture goes, I agree. But I think there’s a big difference between scripture and blogs, part of which is that the value of scripture, in part, is its historicity itself. I think non-scriptural literature is different. A first person novel could claim to be an auto-biography, but I have no way of knowing if the text represents the author’s life or the character’s life. In the end, the authenticity of the story is meaningless. What matters is the story itself and my reaction to it. I love, for example, the end of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Pi offers two versions of his story to his rescuers (and to us, his readers) and we never learn which is true. But what we’ve learned from Pi’s initial story is in no way diminished if it turns out that the second story was the true one.
I think the same goes for blogs. For example, there are only two people in the entire bloggernacle whom I have seen with my own eyes and whose existence I can personally testify of – Jim F. and Ben H. of T&S. As far as I know, everyone else could be fake. Jim and Ben could be writing the personalities of everyone else in the bloggernacle (pause for a moment to imagine Jim and Ben writing Steve EM and Kurt), for all I know, it could really be just the three of us blogging. But my personal experience is no less real. My laughs have been actual laughs and what I’ve learned and gained is completely authentic.
Rusty has suggested that Septimus’ experiences with the Sisters was a metaphor for Banner of Heaven. Now, I’m the last person to try to push metaphors onto a text, but there’s something about this one that intrigues me. We were all abhorred by Septimus’ deception of the Sisters, which was undoubtedly wrong on all counts. But you’ll notice that criticism of Septimus’ behavior waned over time, in part, I think, because we began to see that Septimus wasn’t just playing with the girls. It wasn’t a joke to him. Though established under false pretenses, the relationship between Septimus and the Sisters was a real – and mutually beneficial – one. I think that if Septimus had confessed to the Sisters and told them his story, including his desire to return to activity, they may have been stung at first, but I believe they would have forgiven him. And I don’t think they would have considered their time with him a waste.
What does the future hold for fake blogs? It’s hard to say. If they come too often, anything strange or anonymous will immediately come under suspicion – especially in the current bloggernacle community, where we’ve all been had once already. They also have the trouble of gaining an audience. Most journal-bloggers have an audience of primarily friends and family. If you were fake, you’d probably start out with no one. Banner of Heaven had the distinct advantage of a group blog which received support of the Archipelago and the larger blogs. But I think there’s still potential, if done craftily enough.
Perhaps what has a stronger potential are blogs which admit to their fabrication from the start. This, of course, would avoid any ethical dilemmas, but it’s hard to say what kind of audience they would gather. I’m optimistic that, if well written, such a venture could be extremely successful.
But without further ado, my take on the characters of Banner of Heaven:
Allison as Mari. I’m afraid I have to admit that Mari was the one blogger whose posts I occasionally skipped. If Allison was trying to create a very ordinary Mormon woman then it seems to me that she did too good a job. I just wasn’t all that interested. Looking back, I see now the internal dilemma that she was working up and I think it’s well done. But compared to so many crazy things going on among the other characters on BoH, Mari kind of got lost in the fray. Grade: B-
Christian Y. Cardall as Aaron. I think it’s widely believed, and fair to say, that the biggest misstep with Aaron was going overboard with the satire. He was the character that led a lot of people to quickly disbelieve the reality of the blog. But you know what? I wouldn’t change a bit of it. If Aaron had been weaker, he wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.
What I found particularly fun was not so much the satire itself as the character developed behind it. We received very little personal information about Aaron, but I feel like I got to know him just as well as any of the others. I personally enjoyed him because, for me, it was a stirring reminder of so many guys I met on the mission. It’s so funny to see young, uneducated 19-year-olds get on a spiritual power trip and begin to preach and act like they’re ancient apostles. As crazy as he was, Aaron was all too real for me. And the little touches such as the absence of question marks was brilliant.
The interesting part of all this is that there were times when I thought the satire wasn’t nearly strong enough, but because of Aaron’s reputation, it was treated as if it were. For example, and call it my conservative bias, but I found absolutely nothing objectionable in the content of Aaron’s post on Katrina. All Aaron was saying is that multiple GA’s have warned of natural calamities, and that now they’re happening. I really struggle to see what’s offensive about that.
But regardless of the degree to which you sympathized with his points, Aaron was always a riot. Even when we knew it was fake. Aaron’s final post, which came after a point where we were all pretty convinced of the blog’s falsity, was still absolutely hilarious. As such, I think Aaron, of all the BoH characters, has the greatest potential to remain a viable commenter in the bloggernacle if he wanted to. As a more realistic, more textured version of Prudence McPrude, we would probably still all enjoy his comments just as much as before, even knowing he’s not real. Grade: A-
Naomi Frandsen as Greg. Naomi played a non-Mormon boy who had some great stories. I think she pretty successfully did the boy part. But the non-Mormon part was sometimes more difficult for me to buy. For example, it seemed kind of odd to me that a non-Mormon – even one who lives with Mormons – would remember the names of so many famous members and alleged members. The bigger problem was that he just felt too Mormonish. I think the idea of having a non-member was a great idea, and when BoH fell to perverted comments of all varieties, it was always amusing to hear the non-Mormon tell the Mormons that they are sexually-obsessed. But Greg simply wasn’t non-Mormon enough. He has Mormon roommates, knows a whole lot about Mormon culture, is dating a Mormon girl, occasionally goes to church and conference, and is even considering accepting a church calling. He blended in too well. Of course, what else are you going to blog about on a Mormon blog other than Mormon stuff? I don’t know. It just seems to me that he would have been more effective if he were a little less Mormon-esque. Grade: B
[P.S. Now that Naomi has posted her response on Greg, I see him in a slightly different light, but I didn’t want to change what I had written. I think the idea of a quasi-Mormon who doesn’t accept the church is a good one, and I had overlooked that aspect of it.]
Brian G. as SeptimusH. The bulk of SeptimusH’s story involves his decision, as an inactive member, to accept missionary discussions from the sisters while pretending he’s not a member. We learn of some psychological problems early on, and later we learn that he’s divorced with a child that he hasn’t seen in a long time. Despite problems which appear to be his own doing, he’s a very sympathetic character and there’s something very real and affecting about his desire to return to church and become reconciled with his family.
SeptimusH was by far the least believable character in BoH, and I remember discrediting his reality very near the beginning. And yet, even now, knowing beyond a doubt that there is no such thing as SeptimusH, I still believe. I still see him…sitting there, in a Ramones t-shirt, with Dale, drinking kool-aid. The red kind. Though I never really believed in him, I still don’t believe he’s not real. Bryce made a good point about wasting our thoughts and concerns on fictional characters, but I think it’s worth wasting our thoughts and concerns on characters like SeptimusH. There’s something almost sublime about an offbeat character slowly, awkwardly making his way back onto the beaten path. Though I often treated him flippantly, his stories softened my heart on a number of occasions. He may not be real, but his humanity is real, and I think I am very genuinely a more compassionate person for having gotten to know him. Grade: A
DKL as Miranda PJ. Miranda blogged less about personal issues and rarely told personal stories, but the success in her persona was the satire. And while there was a little satire in all of the bloggers, DKL was unsurpassed in his execution. Miranda was a satire of everything in the bloggernacle from the utterly banal, to the result of hot-tempers, to the completely irrelevant. Although clearly, it’s not all satire – some things look like they could be a genuine DKL post.
Most successfully, Miranda was a full blown satire of the extremities of Mormon feminism. What amazes me is that it wasn’t picked up as strongly as Aaron’s satire, but perhaps that’s to DKL credit for making it so realistic. Rosalynde evidently picked up on the satire, but I sense that a lot of people didn’t. As outlandish a character as Miranda was, it appears that DKL needed to up the volume even more to get the point across. But I’m glad he didn’t; doing so would have turned Miranda into a cartoon and part of what made Miranda work was her verisimilitude.
Ironically, while I myself was heavily critical of Miranda’s hatred towards DKL, I now find it was one of DKL’s most inspired moves. Before BoH ever started up, I noticed that there was a lot of undue revulsion towards DKL/AT throughout the bloggernacle, and his creation a character who so unreservedly hated him without any good cause is a genius response to all those people.
I would have liked to see more from Miranda about her personal life and her relationship with her x-box playing, toilet-paper making husband. There could have been (and still could be) some great stories about a divorce and her inability to accept any responsibility for it. But I have to say, getting the self-righteously liberal take on Harriet Miers was worth it. Grade: A-
Steve Evans as Jenn. I think that Jenn most successfully captured what the blog was trying to accomplish and told the kind of stories that it wanted to tell. Jenn is an average LDS single struggling with jobs and boys in the Big Apple. She struggles with finding happiness when she’s down on her luck and then quickly falls for a boy she doesn’t seem to like too much. And there’s a great deal of humor going on when you have a fairly Molly girl trying to keep up in the big city, and then questioning her future with her boyfriend because of his left-wing politics.
Even though I think Jenn was the most realistic character of the group, there were a few moments that were kind of stilting in its realism. At times the naivety was a bit strong and some of her struggles felt a bit overplayed. I remember distinctly thinking her reaction to some comments made by Steve Evans was really strange, but now, well, I guess it makes sense. But overall, Jenn was a fun character and led to a number of lively conversations. Grade: B+
I hesitantly used grades simply to identify more outstanding achievements, but honestly, they were all fantastic. And by fantastic I mean far better than anything I could have done.
With all the resentment and subsequent apologies, the remarkable achievement in maintaining voices independent of themselves and keeping everything under wraps for so long has also been almost completely overlooked. Christian once slyly remarked that “If it’s fake, the author(s) are being pretty careful.” True enough, Christian, we’ll give you that. And responding to conspiracy theories on Nine Moons prior to the fall, DKL asked the question that perhaps says it the best, “These guys have been lying all year and this is the best you can come up with?”