To Build a Fire Syndrome
So what is TBFS I hear you asking, which says something about my mental state. First you have to ask “What is
Vietnam To Build a Fire?” and then wait for the profanity to die down a little. To Build a Fire is a story, by famed racist and plagerist Jack London, that makes me want to stab people in the face. I am not a Jack London Fan, and thus any discussion of his work is going to generate at least a few choice swear words and suggestions about where he can stick his collected scribbling. I also hate Hemingway for similar reasons, but we’ll get to that on another day.
Put simply, To Build a Fire is the story of a moron freezing to death. This isn’t even, as my English teacher claimed, a story of man against the elements and the elements won. No! This is death by stupid. On the man’s death certificate, the coroner just wrote “Cause of Death: Stupidity!” because that’s what killed this guy and it pissed me off to read about it. Thing is, I knew from the first few lines that this guy was a goner. I knew a bit about survival even at age 11, when this particular piece of dog shit first frustrated the hell out of me. I’d just got done hating Call of The Wild and hoping we’d be done with this Yukon bullshit when my English teacher pull this thing out and forced us to read it at gun point. I clearly remember the gun. It was a Drexel .32 with pearl handles and flaking chrome.
I would have liked to burn the book that contained the story, but was not allowed matches at that time for some inexplicable reason. I hated having to sit through the inevitability, because I knew this guy was a dead man. Maybe it was the way it was written, maybe the teacher spoiled it by hinting it might not all work out, maybe I had just read a London book and worked out the guy was going to die and it was just a question of would the cold get him or those dastardly Chinese that London was always ranting about. No, I knew it couldn’t be a Chinese person, because this man was going to die of stupid. You get that from the first page, this is a dumb motherfucker and he’s gonna freeze to death.
That’s what bugged me from the start, I could see every mistake he made, which is actually easy because he does everything wrong. There is not one step he puts right. Some might argue that this makes the story a good teaching tool, but those people are idiots and if you see one crossing the street in front of you, slam on the gas. To Build a Fire is a worthless on this front because it doesn’t tell you how to do anything right, it just tells you how to do things wrong. You can’t just give someone the bad example and say “Now don’t do that and you’ll be fine” because it fails to give the proper example. You cannot have Goofus without also having Gallant. Just saying “Don’t do this.” doesn’t make people feel like they know what they should do, it also doesn’t make people feel they know how to react if they find themselves In Alaska and hunted from a helicopter by a failure at life who quits everything halfway through.
When asked what problems I could possibly have with this wonderful story, I looked the teacher square in the face and declared “People this stupid don’t deserve to have fire!” That was it, right there, more or less. I’ve often changed a few words and found this phrase very useful. When having to watch an episode of Lost “People this stupid don’t deserve to have a raft.” when watching the doctor in Day of The Dead “People this stupid don’t deserve internal organs.” and so on. Putting it simply TBFS is when you have a character that is simply too stupid to live.
Having a story with a character that suffers from TBFS who isn’t treated like the waste of protoplasm that they are is one of the quickest ways to yank my interest from a story. I’m not saying every character has to be Nero Wolfe or even an Archie Goodwin. Hell, I’ll take a Bertie Wooster for the afternoon if I don’t have to keep him and you can promise me he’s house trained. However, I shouldn’t be sitting there thinking that the only reason your moronic character hasn’t swallowed their own tongue is that you can’t actually do that.
I like a flawed character as much as the next person, providing that the next person likes them within a reasonable limit set by my standards. However, when the flaw is stupidity, I loose patience. When I can see that someone is going to die because they’re not smart enough to walk away from a situation, or they’re too stupid not to stick their hand into a hornets nest, or whatever sort of reason that their death will be labeled a suicide via proxy by any reasonable thinking person, I am not a happy camper. When I see that a character probably isn’t going to make it because of tragic events that they have no control over, but try to control anyway, I’m a happier camper. Hamlet doesn’t suffer from TBFS, but Ned Stark does.
One of these days I’m going to write about how English class nearly snuffed out my desire to read anything of any kind ever. And then I’ll tell the tale about how a drunken ex-Pinkerton and two former college teachers, who both wrote trash, brought me back from the brink. Ten Points to anyone who can name all three authors from the scant information I just gave.
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