CONTENT NOTE: This piece contains writing excerpts depicting severe depression and existential despair.
SPOILER WARNING: I’ve aimed to be as oblique as possible, but nevertheless there may be spoilers for the short stories contained in Between Here and the Yellow Sea.
True Detective is back after a few years away. So, as Mahershala Ali’s Wayne Hays seeks the truth of the disappearance of the Purcell children and grapples with memory and the passage of time, there has come an opportunity for some pop culture archaeology. Prior to his work in movies and television, Pizzolatto made his name as a prose writer. His 2010 novel Galveston won him laurels, and last year Mélanie Laurent adapted it to film. I’d love to look at both pieces of work, but that is another project for another day. Today, I’d like to examine Pizzolatto’s short story collection Between Here and the Yellow Sea – first published in 2005 and, after the phenomenal success of True Detective’s first season, rereleased in 2015.
The stories in Between Here and the Yellow Sea’s share a downbeat, bleak tone but run the stylistic gamut from semi-surreal contemporary action-based character studies (“Ghost Birds,” whose protagonist obsessively performs illegal BASE jumps) to bitter upstairs-downstairs tales set in the early 20th century (“Nepal,” which follows a cruel, self-absorbed young glassmaker seeking greatness). As individual pieces of work, the stories range from frustrating to striking to genuinely magnificent. Collected, they sketch ideas and themes that interest Pizzolatto – some appear in but one or two stories, while others recur in Between Here and the Yellow Sea and through every season of True Detective so far.
Pizzolatto’s greatest interests as a writer are the effects of time and the limits of perception. All of True Detective’s protagonists grapple with the pasts – their own actions, the actions of others, their understanding of what came before inevitably complicated by what they have learned since. The protagonists in Between Here and the Yellow Sea, who run the gamut from a teenage kleptomaniac to an aging teacher, sculpt themselves from the directions their lives have taken and the ways they were taught or taught themselves to view the world.
They are not a particularly happy crew. Indeed, without exception they are lost, trapped in themselves one way or another, and miserable more often than not. Sharon, the lead of “A Cryptographer,” insists to herself that she deserves the sorrows and miseries she has experienced, that her son’s disappearance and possible subsequent actions are solely her responsibility. Pizzolatto writes, “If there was an unearned fate, she nevertheless had to believe that somehow this had been deserved. A vague guilt had replaced certain parts of her will, but not, so far, her faith… she practiced accepting this as part of a just and far-reaching plan. And her guilt was not the kind she could atone for; she wouldn’t let herself understand it.”
Paul, the academic mourning the vanishing of his wife and “Graves of Light’s” central character, is almost happy to sink into functional depression and permanent apathy. Here’s Pizzolatto again – “Now there was no need to strive or write or add to his meager professional achievements. In the eyes of everyone he had lost a great, great deal, and if he wished, he never had to recover… It occurred to him that he’d waited his whole life to be this sort of fuck-up. He’d always feel that he could have gotten better, he just chose not to. He really couldn’t see the point.”
Pizzolatto’s other recurring interests and notions color characters throughout Between Here and the Yellow Sea. People who believe they know someone – loved or hated well enough to judge them – are playing a fool’s game. Rather than fight back to life outside pain, Pizolatto’s protagonists accept their pain so that they can stop fighting it. Their personal codes are a defining force, from the BASE jumper in “Ghost Birds” who reads Miyamoto Musashi in search of clarity, to the sour coach in the title story who is so certain of his moral rectitude that he doesn’t see kidnapping as a crime. The fatalism and codes excuse the protagonists from genuine self-examination, though a scant few still have a genuine opportunity for transformation.
Those rare optimistic endings in Between Here and the Yellow Sea point toward True Detective – they spring from genuine introspection and re-framing of perspective. True Detective’s title characters, tremendously flawed though they may be, are ultimately driven to question, to seek, to find a genuine truth. The same is true of the rare Yellow Sea protagonist to land at something like a happy ending. It isn’t easy, or simple. But it can be done. As Pizzolatto writes at the end of the title story,
“Resist the urge to explain their stories, because eventually you’ve got to understand that an answer isn’t the same thing as a solution, and a story is sometimes only an excuse.
If you have to, let yourself imagine the mood of this story, the places it might happen, what the weather will be like. Tell yourself it will be a world, at least, where you’re less abandoned, and sustained by more than illusion. If you have to.
Just leave before you change your mind.”