'The Wire' is re-imagined as a Victorian novel

Creators see the ultimate Baltimore mean-street saga, 'The Wire,' as a 19th-century serial set in 'Bodymore'

  • An illustration for the web project 'When It's Not Your Turn," a Victorian take on the TV series "The WIre."
An illustration for the web project 'When It's Not… (Handout photo, Sean Michael…)
March 25, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Man up, David Simon. You might be a fearless journalist, trailblazing TV creator and certified genius. But a couple of young hipsters from Seattle have discovered your dark secret.

In the special collections department of the University of Washington, Sean Michael Robinson and Joy Delyria have located the obscure British masterpiece that made your name: Horatio Bucklesby Ogden's 1840s serial about mid-19th-century urban life, "The Wire," published in 10 30-page installments over a half-dozen years.

Actually, Mr. Simon, you can breathe easy. Your MacArthur grant is secure.

Robinson and Delyria have come on the scene to praise you, not to bury you. And they do it without even mentioning your name.

" 'When It's Not Your Turn': The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Ogden's 'The Wire,' " posted on a comics-criticism website, The Hooded Utilitarian, is a scintillating piece of faux-scholarship. It's set in an alternate universe where the HBO series doesn't exist — and where "The Wire" in any form, including Horatio Bucklesby Ogden's, has yet to be discovered.

According to "When It's Not Your Turn," Ogden's novel contains the series' signature characters, including Omar Little, an "errant knight wielding a sword, facing dragons, no man his master," and James "Jimmy" McNulty, "used and exploited by corrupt social systems, institutions or figures of power" and "helpless to incite real and lasting change."

The 'tangled narrative'

The parody essay contends that Ogden pioneered the "tangled narrative" rendered "at a stately, at times seemingly glacial, pace," with its "slow build of detail, the gradual and yet inevitable churning of this massive beast of a world," and its recognition that a city like "Bodymore" can be a "far more intricate and compelling character than London in Dickens' hands."

The original illustrations by one Baxter "Bubz" Black compel the authors to ask: "Would William 'Bunk' Moreland be the same character without his cigar, ever-present but almost never mentioned?"

While having fun with this cross-centuries game of mix and match, Robinson and Delyria suggest that the analysis of social institutions in "The Wire" is more vast, complex and revelatory than any similar portrait in classic literature.

Their advocacy is obsessive. They even re-create the TV series' most notorious profane episode as a Victorian vignette. McNulty and Moreland react to a crime scene with a four-letter word repeated almost literally ad nauseam. With uproarious understatement, Ogden notes, at one particularly juicy moment of obscenity, that McNulty is "indicating by [his] succinct phrasing his understanding as to the work that would be required to make sense of the sketches and the heinous nature of the crime."

Robinson, 31, had been writing for "The Hooded Utilitarian" for a year when the editor had suggested doing a "Wire" roundtable on the website. On the phone from Seattle on Friday, he said, "That got me thinking about the history of serialization and how for as long as people have been telling stories, they've been telling them in serials, connecting one discrete event to another."

He told Delyria, 27, a close friend and housemate of Robinson and his wife, that it would be fun to transpose "The Wire" to an earlier, printed serial form. After all, Robinson said, "Inside 'The Wire' itself, it was kind of a running joke that the series was 'Dickensian,' probably because so many reviews of the show, especially in its early years, called it Dickensian."

When Robinson told Delyria they should depict "The Wire" as a "lost Dickens novel,' Delyria countered that they should treat is as an unknown work by a forgotten contemporary of Dickens'. "Let's just completely make it up," Delyria said. That's when everything clicked. Delyria recalled Robinson telling her, "'This is perfect, this is cool. So: Do you want to write it?" The answer was yes.

Series as storytelling tool

Robinson did the pictures and Delyria the text. They collaborated with glee while staying true to their insights about the serial form's strength in both Victorian fiction and "The Wire." Robinson said, "Dickens took the sheer scope of the serial form as a way to talk about power and social structure and a city. In a serial you could zoom in on individual moments and characters, and together they could build up this larger picture. And that wasn't available until the advent of cheap print for that particular format."

Actually, their mock-academic article puts down Dickens to favor Ogden. And Delyria acknowledged that she thinks no Dickens novel is as unsparing or inclusive as "The Wire," whether in its social panorama or its roster of flawed characters. But when they seem to be slamming Dickens, she and Robinson are really satirizing the snootiness and insularity of small literary journals.

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