Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair

June 27, 2020

In a chapter called ‘Pharmakon’ the narrator of Hex analyses the word.

In Ancient Greek pharmakon meant poison and cure and scapegoat. It also meant potion and spell and charm. It could mean artificial color or dye, even paint. It came from roots that meant cut and throat. The pharmakon doesn’t change its name whether it’s noxious or healing, whether it destroys or repairs. We assign human value to these results. Go ahead and employ a drug either in measure, toward health, or in excess, towards oblivion. The pharmakon has no intentions; it cooperates.

Potions that kill or cure fascinate authors. When Roland Deschain walks into a New York pharmacy, he expects ‘a dim, candle-lit room full of bitter fumes, jars of unknown powders and liquids and philters, many covered with a thick layer of dust or spun about with a century’s cobwebs.’ The mundanity of the drugstore blunts him: ‘Here was a salve that was supposed to restore fallen hair but would not; there a cream which promised to erase unsightly spots on the hands and arms but lied.’ The psycho genius of The Secret History (to which Hex has been compared) boasts that ‘The woods will soon be full of foxglove and monkshood. I could get all the arsenic I need from flypaper. And even herbs that aren’t common here – good God, the Borgias would have wept to see the health-food store I found in Brattleboro last week.’ In her marvellous study A is for Arsenic, the author (and chemist) Kathryn Harkup explores the use of poisons in Agatha Christie’s novels, derived from Christie’s years working as a nurse and then an apothecary’s assistant – apothecary, now there’s a fantastic literary word. This stuff even comes up in children’s fiction. Professor Snape is denied Hogwarts’s Defence Against the Dark Arts job, but he does get to be Potions Master, with a creepy dungeon classroom that matches his sinister demeanour.

Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s novel is conventional only in its use of toxins. Nell Barber is a PhD scientist who has been expelled from Columbia after one of her colleagues dies of thallium poisoning. Exiled from the campus and working in a Brooklyn bar, Nell collects poisonous plants and hangs around the university in adoration of her mentor, Joan Kallas. Her obsession with Joan is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s crush on an older woman who Highsmith glimpsed while working at a department store: her biographer Joan Schenkar articulates it as ‘On one side of the Bloomingdale’s counter was the young, poor, seemingly subservient salesgirl; on the other side, the older, wealthy, apparently dominant Venus in furs.’ Nell is very much the salesgirl in this equation – the young Midwesterner to Joan’s cosmopolitan authority. The novel is presented as Nell’s notebooks, in which she writes about Joan quite as much as she writes about plants. ‘It’s acceptable to admire you,’ Nell writes to Joan. ‘Admiration is the acceptable starting point and I did start there.’

There’s a lot going on in Hex, relationship wise. Nell has split up with her boyfriend Tom, a medievalist who specialises in unicorn myths. Tom then starts having an affair with Joan, who is married to campus HR man Barry, who is having an affair with younger postgraduate Mishti, who is supposed to be with business student Carlo. Knight says that ‘it was a pleasure to design six characters from scratch and put them in maximum exposure to each other. It was like a math problem.’

With all this intrigue going on Nell herself seems like the wan narrator who records everything but doesn’t achieve anything, mooncalfing about and scribbling her cahiers. But Knight loves the character: ‘She has very low vanity, and she’s willing to suffer the indignity of her own indulgence in return for the pleasure of her indulgence. In an environment where everyone is striving for more health and more productivity and more success, it was refreshing to write a character who is really not trying to prove anything or impress anyone.’ And indeed Nell grew on me, certainly by the scene when she chases Barry down the street shouting ‘I’M A VERY GOOD WITCH BARRY… AND HERE IS MY PROPHECY…. YOU WILL BUILD A SHIP OF ROTTEN WOOD AND BLOAT IT AND IT WILL GET VERY BIG… AND YOU WILL SOAK IT IN ROTTEN WATERS AND IT WILL FAIL BARRY… IT WILL FAIL.’

Hex is a very contemporary novel, with characters that talk in riddles and non sequiturs. It’s a hell of a strange read, but also strangely exhilarating – a spooky wood of a book, full of flowers and nightshade alike.

The Hungry Ghost Festival

May 24, 2020

‘My dislike of the city was almost violent, something I had never encountered elsewhere,’ writes Felicia Nay about Hong Kong. ‘If somebody had predicted that one day I would write a novel born out of nostalgia for it, I would have doubted the person’s sanity.’

Nay’s experiences seem remote from what would eventually become Red Affairs, White Affairs‘My room had no windows, the door was secured by an immense gate, the TV ads consisted of warnings against violent crime and HIV infections, and I had no bottled water.’ This is a way off her narrator Reini’s journey in the novel. Reini’s Hong Kong is about staggering views, sensual meals, long conversations, splendid ritual, tours of gorgeous landscapes – truly ‘Fragrant Harbour, Incense Port, Pearl of the South China Sea.’

Still, the happiness of the city is tempered by Reini’s knowledge of its delineations. Her role as an aid worker is very well defined by the faith based charity that employs her. When Reini gives a talk at an upscale women’s function her listeners only want to know ‘So, do you have a maid?… Why don’t you want one?… My helper feeds seven persons in the Philippines with her salary. She puts her children through school with my money.’

Reini loses patience with this, and says:

You think you’re good employers? Maybe you are. Maybe you are, maybe you’re not. According to our surveys, seventy-five percent of domestic workers work fourteen hours day. And all of them have to play by the rules of the system…. A system where losing your job means losing your visa and losing your home. And these are the good moments. The post-colonial, no, the proto-colonial moments…. The moments when the air conditioning is turned on for the master’s dog but never the maid… In the bad moments—and I get to work with the bad moments, remember—it’s modern slavery…. It starts with withheld wages and confiscated passports, wrongful promises by employment agencies and employers.

Reini can’t help break the rules. The novel takes its title from a traditional delineation. ‘White is the colour of death. Red, on the other hand, is auspicious, the glaze of happiness, the hue of protection. Red affairs are weddings, that lucky joining of two individuals, two families.’ Reini (or ‘Kim’) blurs the divisions without meaning to. She has lost her previous post in Khartoum for an act of altruism that her employers found inappropriate. Her best friend in the city is Virginia, a lonely woman who teaches her Cantonese. She has inherited her family’s disappointment by remaining unmarried, and her passages are some of the saddest in the book. Reini sees how a rule bound life has let Virginia down. Assigned back to casework after her angry speech at the woman’s function, Reini befriends Ronda, one of Hong Kong’s unseen army of domestic workers, and tries to fix the two women up. The transgressions feel vague but they are there.

As Isabel Costello says, Reini is ‘intense company, occasionally at the expense of narrative drive’. Her feelings, drives, sensations dominate the novel, whenever she’s eating, exercising, or blushing, you feel it. Reini also has a habit of reading strange portents into everyday occurrences: she’s forever quoting Emily Dickinson (so much like Chinese dynastic poetry, now that I think of it, with its blunt sensuality) and while this is clunky sometimes, maybe it’s the sort of thing you’d have to know Hong Kong at that period to understand. (The time frame is another vague thing, there’s no mention of the civil unrest of 2019.)

The book also gives terrific insight into Cantonese views of life and death: dying unmarried and childless is a sin for women because there will be no one to look after them in the afterlife, when people die they can become ancestors, but that’s the best case scenario – those who die of accidents or suicide haunt the earth as ghosts. Virginia has a neighbour who keeps a live chicken in her flat. She theorises that the rooster is her ‘ghost husband… Maybe they were engaged and then he died.’

Red Affairs, White Affairs is a strange, sometimes maddening novel, but in its way it’s a masterwork of sense and sensuality. There’s not a story there in the linear way I understand it, but a vivid, seamless rush of impressions and images like the view from some fast-flowing river, in high current.

Liberals in Lockdown

May 17, 2020

It’s not made the papers, but there’s been a lot of noise and merriment about the anti lockdown protests happening this weekend. Social media echoed with images of mad old men holding enormous placards and Piers Corbyn being dragged away in handcuffs. The derision is understandable – the London Hyde Park demo drew only dozens, rather than hundreds, of people, which makes it more successful at least than the ‘mass gathering’ planned for Leeds Hyde Park, which attracted no protestors at all. The LS6ers don’t much like conspirazoids. And on a Saturday, they don’t get up before noon.

There have been small periodic protests since beginning of lockdown and they have come to represent the silly and toxic opposition to lockdown – Spiked Online, the increasingly deranged comment pages of the Daily Telegraph, Nigel Farage patrolling Dover beaches looking for immigrants, the idiots who tear down 5G poles, the President telling us to drink bleach and the rowdy yokels of certain American states. The worst people in politics gather in opposition to lockdown.

And yet, part of me’s with the yodellers in pickup trucks.

We’re used to the slow-witted David Icke and his pathetic followers shouting and grifting on the internet – they’ve been doing it for years. These weekend proved they are in the minority. But what of the stalwart supporters of the corona lockdown?

It’s a truism to say that the pandemic has brought out the best in us. Chaos tells you who people are. Hundreds of thousands signed up to the NHS volunteering scheme. Colonel Moore raised millions padding around his garden. Neighbours help each other out with food and medication deliveries. And every Thursday sundown rings with applause and pots and pans.

But there has also been a darkness to this time, and not all of it has come from the conspirazoids.

Toronto philosopher Regina Rini wrote on the ethics of disease control at the beginning of the pandemic when cases were first beginning to appear in her country.

What is so ethically troubling about epidemic disease is that it pushes us toward the objective attitude. We cease thinking about victims as persons, but instead as vectors of disease or ambling contaminated surfaces. Thinking of people as systems to be brought under orderly control helps us tamp down our own fear, even as it erases their humanity. When this disconnected attitude joins itself to underlying social prejudice – against Jews in medieval Europe or gay men with HIV in the 1980s – our response goes beyond the merely crass to the harmful and threatening. In all but the most extreme cases, the disease itself ends up being less dangerous to human wellbeing than the panicked, bigoted attitude.

In her piece Rini accepted the need for social distancing. Brute virology doesn’t care about our feelings. But she also urged ‘moral caution’ – we need still to look at people as people, not just ‘vectors of disease’.

The weekend before Boris declared lockdown, people were outraged at the numbers of city dwellers hanging out in parks and rushing out for a last pint on Friday evening. Walking through East London on March 19, NS editor George Eaton complained that he had ‘seen pubs and restaurants still half full – ‘nudging’ doesn’t appear to be working.’

But it takes time for awareness of threat to filter down. Once it did, we got the message – loud and clear.

In mid April, poet Salena Godden wrote:

I saw Goody Proctor
and John Proctor
walking side-by-side
holding hands
with devils breath

I saw Goody Proctor
clapping for the NHS
she were too very close
to her neighbour
and both
without bra or manners

Godden’s satire of public lockdown attitudes was close but didn’t cover half of it. Under the local kindness and volunteering was a drive of enthusiastic conformism that couldn’t stop hunting heresies. Neighbours shopped neighbours for jogging too much, shopped carers for visited loved ones, shopped people for sitting in their back gardens. Northampton police chief Nick Adderly told the BBC that ‘We are getting calls from people who say ‘I think my neighbour is going out on a second run – I want you to come and arrest them’.’ I’ve heard of forces having to set up new COVID-19 reporting mechanisms to divert the surges of reports that overwhelmed 101 and 999 dispatch centres. That’s a hyperbolic comparison – Britain in lockdown is not Soviet Russia! – but I couldn’t help being reminded of Robert Conquest’s line from The Great Terror: ‘Nevertheless, just as Nazism provided an institutionalised outlet for the sadist, Stalinist totalitarianism on the whole automatically encouraged the mean and malicious. The carriers of personal and office feuds, the poison-pen letter writers, who are a minor nuisance in any society, flourished and increased.’

Like Conquest says – the enthusiastic citizen rule enforcers are a part of any society at any time. It’s a part of human nature to follow The Rules and judge others by how well they can follow the Rules, in what strength of fidelity and detail. What has annoyed me is the atmosphere of enthusiastic conformity among the commentariat. It was not just the strength of their support for national emergency legislation – what David Allen Green called The Clamour – but a refusal to admit or even entertain potential adverse consequences of policy – and in a national emergency that’s any policy. A bemused Marie le Conte remarked that ‘I’ve been feeling so out of step with most of Twitter recently; it should be possible to talk about how tough the lockdown is’.

Not on Gov.UK Twitter, it wasn’t. Liberal Remainers who were up in arms, and rightly so, when Boris suspended Parliament last year, said nothing when it shut itself down for COVID-19. Unprecedented authoritarian legislation? Dead silence from the progressives. The questions of inequality, class and privilege that run through Britain under lockdown like the lettering in a stick of rock did not interest them either. Nothing on the people trapped in substandard housing or abusive relationships, the asylum seekers dispossessed because their informal networks have been shut down. Nothing on the surge in mental illness or the thousands of non-COVID deaths at home. Where there was criticism of the government, it was that emergency measures were not passed soon enough, or did not go far enough. Follow guidelines, and listen to the experts (not that gov.UK Twitter’s own lack of expertise in infectious diseases did not prevent it lecturing us at length).

Of course what liberals say on social media is a minor issue and probably doesn’t affect anything but it represents, I think, an embarrassing failure of intellect. It will become more embarrassing for them as other countries begin to open borders and public spaces (dumping on every country that eases restrictions reveals the insecurity of our own intelligentsia’s position on this issue.) Chaos tells you who people are. Most people are wary of the COVID-19 conspiracy theorists – no one wants to be associated with them. But I am also looking around at my fellow liberals. And I’m afraid to say I am a little wary of them, too.

(Image: LeedsLive)

The Horse and the Man

February 2, 2020

There’s an episode of South Park where the town is shocked to hear that rival cartoon Family Guy are planning to show an image of the prophet Mohammed in their next episode. Cartman sets off to the studio to get the show shut down – not because he respects Islam or fears terror attacks, but simply because he dislikes the programme’s writing style. In an angry tirade he declares:

Do you have any idea what it’s like? Everywhere I go, ‘Hey Cartman, you must like Family Guy, right?’ ‘Hey, your sense of humor reminds me of Family Guy, Cartman.’ I am NOTHING like Family Guy! When I make jokes, they are inherent to a story! Deep, situational and emotional jokes based on what is relevant and has a POINT! Not just one interchangeable joke after another!

When al-Qaeda threaten retaliation, their spokesman criticises Family Guy in much the same tones that Cartman does. ‘Family Guy isn’t even that well written,’ says a scary-looking terror boss. ‘The jokes are interchangeable and usually irrelevant to the plot.’

Both these criticisms was South Park’s way of saying that the animation genre was running out of steam. We all remember watching Simpsons on BBC2 in the evenings but now this type of thing doesn’t have the same impact – although I still get belly laughs from Archer, King of the Hill and South Park.

Yet something different is happening with Bojack Horseman. It’s about a lazy, irresponsible Hollywood celebrity who drinks too much and just doesn’t care, the first few episodes are clever and funny but predictable, but around halfway through season one you start noticing things.

One aspect critics picked up on was the show’s eerie prescience. The 2017 Oscars farce when Faye Dunaway read off the wrong name mirrored a previous episode in which Bojack’s friend Mr Peanutbutter the celebrity dog is supposed to host the Oscars but he loses the list of winners and simply makes them up, getting several wrong. And the episode ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ underscored America’s acclimatisation to horrific gun violence to the extent that the phrase – perfunctorily reiterated by J K Simmons’s weathered film exec Lenny Turtletaub whenever a shooting occurred – has become shorthand for ineffective symbolic gestures in the face of preventable atrocities. (The line is even used in Don Winslow’s The Border when the bad guys are planning out the aftermath of a targeted assassination.)

There’s plenty more subtle stuff going on in the background. Bojack’s Hollywood is a city of man and beast, but the animals aren’t just humanised animals. They act like real animals. A woodpecker drills through his restaurant table, debutante horses dressage through a tony ballroom, and Bojack even helps a male seahorse give birth (‘yes, it’s a thing!’) Guest characters from one episode recur and recur through the series, glimpsed on sets and at parties: Lisa Hanawalt’s deft busy scenes ensure that we care about the little people in Bojack’s life even though Bojack never does.

Upfront is Bojack’s psychodrama and it doesn’t take long for the show to uncover his own formative demons. Bojack’s father was an narcissist, alcoholic and failed author, who like all narcissists rejects his son because he will never provide the true reflecting pool of himself that the narcissist craves. (The dad Butterscotch has a brilliant toxic masculine death – he’s killed in a duel with a book reviewer who criticised Butterscotch’s only published novel.) With no positive male influence to lean on, the boy Bojack becomes a huge fan of Secretariat – in this world, another hybrid celebrity horse. There is a moving scene, written from different angles over two episodes, where Secretariat in a chat show appearance reads out a letter from then nine year old Bojack and gives some advice on how Bojack can make his way in the world. But Bojack never hears of what Secretariat has to say because his parents start one of their predictable arguments and drown out the TV with yelling. Secretariat himself commits suicide soon afterward.

Bojack has come a long way since childhood – he has got rich from silly 1990s sitcom ‘Horsin’ Around’, he has a luxury home in the hills, while he doesn’t have a wife or family he can find sex and companionship any time he wants it. As Mr Peanutbutter says – in a rare moment of fury – ‘What more do you want? What else could the universe possibly owe you?’ In the first episode Bojack starts having panic attacks, and a doctor tells him to take it easy. To Bojack’s agent Princess Carolyn this advice is meaningless – Bojack does nothing but take it easy. So what’s causing the attacks? Bojack is in his fifties but doesn’t seem to fear old age or death, it’s not that he’s ashamed of the stupid commercial hit that made his name, in fact he’s proud of it, he feels that he delivered a great escapist comedy that would make people laugh and forget their aches and cares for a while. It often seems that Bojack is looking for that uncomplicated and predictable happiness of a half-hour’s good television.

Midway through the show develops its central theme of masculinity and its consequences. Bojack does a film tribute to his male role model Secretariat then moves on to a hardboiled cop show written – in a brilliant sendup of the auteur showrunner – by the obnoxious and self obsessed Flip McVicker. As Bojack goes on he accumulates more and more ghosts: the people he’s let down start to haunt his present, from the Horsin’ Around mentor who died of cancer to the ex colleague Sarah Lynn who overdosed on heroin under his care. Bojack is masculine but not toxic, even when he’s an asshole he’s warm and entertaining to be around, but as the show incorporated the real life MeToo events you’re constantly on edge for Bojack’s own reckoning.

One thing creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg empathised in the show was the importance of personal responsibility. At the end of season three Bojack’s sidekick Todd – voiced by Aaron ‘Pinkman’ Paul – finally tires of Bojack’s selfishness and rants:

You can’t keep doing this! You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself as if that makes it okay! You need to be better!

No! No, BoJack, just… Stop. You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol, or the drugs, or any of the shitty things that happened to you in your career or when you were a kid. It’s you. Alright? It’s you.

Neither of them speak for a moment, and we’re taking in the trashed apartment, the words that can’t be taken back, and Todd adds: ‘Fuck, man…What else is there to say?’ Credits roll on a scene just as powerful as Paul ever did with Bryan Cranston, if not more.

All this is heavy going for a cartoon, and there’s times you think you’re in a graphic novel written by John Cheever, even F Scott Fitzgerald. The novel has abandoned this whole subject of life and death and happiness and responsibility, but apparently we still want to see it on TV, in particular a TV show about a talking horse.

Numerous episodes take the form of hallucinations experienced by characters in the throes of a drug binge or mental degeneration, and there is one – screening this weekend, if you’ve seen it you’ll know – that happens in purgatory. The cold tragedy of these moments can be a hard watch. Perhaps better than other artists, the comic animator has the skill to portray the finality of things broken that won’t be fixed, things done and said that can’t be undone or taken back, and the terrifying separation between human beings.

As against that there’s a warmth and essential goodness to the show, expressed in the wonderful set piece episodes: the comic funeral eulogy of ‘Free Churro,’ the quiz battle ‘Let’s Find Out,’ the multiple Halloween narratives of ‘Mr Peanutbutter’s Boos’ and the underwater odyssey of ‘Fish Out of Water’. All of it makes this a programme its hapless hero would love to have created – something that makes us laugh and forget our cares, even as it tells us how hard it is to be a horse, and a man.

This Is Not An Entry

December 23, 2019

The plot of Jessie Burton’s The Confession seems simple until you start reading it. It’s 1980 and a young woman called Elise meets a older woman, a novelist named Constance Holden, on Hampstead Heath. The two fall in love and begin a relationship. All goes well until the two women move to Los Angeles, where Connie’s latest book is being adapted for Hollywood. There the relationship falls apart with messy scenes and infidelity on both sides.

Flash forward to 2017. Rose Simmons is slipping along the currents of life. She’s in a relationship with a self employed dullard called Joe, who has left his job to start up his own business (‘Joerritos’). Her best friend is an Insta mother drifting away into a higher social world. Rose is Elise’s natural daughter but has never met her – her father has kept the circumstances a tight secret. Finally the old man reveals the relationship with Connie Holden, now an old lady living alone, raddled with arthritis. Connie is breaking a thirty-year silence with a new novel and needs someone to type up the ms. Rose invents a new identity for herself and hustles her way into the role, hoping to scratch together enough information to find Elise.

Like Burton’s debut The Minaturist, The Confession is a long book with a small canvas. The novel traverses a continent and a century, but the points of the drama are clearly delineated. Unlike The Minaturist, which to be honest I found a bit underwhelming, Burton’s new novel is a spectacular triumph. To start with a small point, much of the novel is set in cities – NYC, Los Angeles, London – and Burton is fantastic on the changing texture of the East End:

Every public wall I walked past on the way was flyered with achingly cool low-key club nights, whose bands and aesthetic I couldn’t even begin to understand. Elaborate and beautiful graffiti lined the brickwork and there were coffee shops with square footage the size of a postage stamp and wooden benches outside. I passed a shop that seemed to sell only black socks from Japan, its frontage rough around the edges, but artfully so. The coffees, I noted, were the same price as in Hampstead.

But the real victory comes from the effort and care that Burton invests in her story and characters. You feel everything: conversations between two people with strangeness and seriousness between them, the awkwardness of unfamiliar rooms and the feeling of destiny carried by certain of life’s movements. The weight of it all is ever present. Burton does the long hard haul into other lives.

One indicator of Burton’s talent is the way that our opinions of her characters change over the course of the novel. The LA scenes feature Connie getting into the film adaptation with stellar actor Barbara Lowden while the younger girlfriend Elise stews in inertia. I thought Elise was a little brattish during these chapters, rattling around in the California sun, but her decision to run off with surfer Matt paradoxically made me respect her more – Connie is wealthy and established, Elise could have lived off her royalties for years but instead had the courage to make a new life with a fellow insolvent dreamer. Connie is a constant diversion in both young and old incarnations, witty and indulgent and quite as clever as she thinks she is.

Rose is the real revelation here. She’s another character that irritates at the beginning, complaining about her aimless midthirties life while doing nothing about it, but her quest to find Elise changes her. The ending doesn’t give the big revelations Rose had hoped for, but at the same time it’s not an anticlimax, the story doesn’t fizzle out at all, it all feels so important and phenomenal. Burton has captured the feeling of stepping outside yourself, the realisation that there are other lives than yours. At one point near the end, Rose realises that her younger coffee shop hipster colleagues actually look up to her for help and advice:

‘There isn’t an endpoint,’ I said to them. ‘No arrival.’ At this, the expressions on their faces ranged from perplexed to despondent. ‘But you’re all so brilliant, and you’ve got so much going for you. And if you haven’t got to where you wanted by the time you’re twenty-five, you should probably thank your lucky stars. Seriously. Because if getting there is hard, holding on to your dream is possibly even harder. Nothing ever stays the same.’

I don’t want to give away any of the plot, but the passages on Elise’s motherhood are some of the most searing and true paragraphs I’ve read on the subject. At one point, she reflects: ‘Did he not realise? The tiny lungs, the heart, the stomach, the intestines, the little bones as frail as a chicken’s, the brain – and inside that a deep and endless chamber of music that none of them could hear.’

Jessie Burton opens our ears to a glimpse of the music that lives inside others.

The Search for Atlantis

November 21, 2019

I know it’s been a long time, however as you know I am a man of great activity with many flourishing enterprises to look after. Just a quick note to thank Fairlight Books for publishing my short story of this name.

Like a lot of people my age I loved the old Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. I’ve seen other writers of my generation riff on the format – and the riffs were always to the point that our decisions are generally slight variations of the same routine. Of course that’s true most of the time but I wanted to be more expansive in my own take on it and write about the potential consequences of having a reset button for life, one you could hit not just once but over and over again.

I was very much inspired by this essay about mapping the Choose Your Own Adventure books, by Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura.

Captive States

August 3, 2019

(Spoilers for everything)

On a corrections bus travelling to begin her double-life sentence, Rachel Kushner’s protagonist Romy Hall reflects on her fate. ‘I was assigned a public defender. We were all hopeful things would go differently. They did not go differently. They went this way.’ Kushner’s novel The Mars Room follows Hall into a Central Valley woman’s correctional where guards and bureaucrats constantly reinforce the fact things went this way: ‘your situation is due one hundred per cent to choices you made and actions you took.’ Later, she considers this: ‘The lie of regret and of life gone off the rails. What rails. The life is the rails. It is its own rails and it goes where it goes.’

The Mars Room is about bleak situations, but it’s not a bleak novel. It’s not a grind.

I watched the final of Orange is the New Black this week. ONTB shares with Kushner’s novel the trick of compelling but not miserabilist drama in reduced circumstances. It’s from Jenji Kohan who created Weeds, a comic drama about a suburban widow who sells dope to support her family – a lighter Breaking Bad, may it do ya. Weeds started off really well but later became too silly and surreal even for me.

ONTB has plenty of Kohan’s trademark quirkiness. There are big musical cues, weird sexual hijinks and absurd set pieces. It was also pretty baggy, with very long episodes that didn’t go anywhere. If you’re on series one or two, stick with it though, because there is plotting, you just don’t see it until much later. Myles McNutt at the AV club complains about the wonky timeline but for me Kohan does a masterful job of conveying six years of gradual change in what’s supposed to be an eighteen-month period.

ONTB is about the minimum security Litchfield federal prison that’s run reasonably well but not perfectly. The authorities sell out to a corporation, which brings in a new head guard: the foul Desi Piscatella. He has been kicked out of the male system for burning an inmate to death and brings his ironfist ethos to Litchfield – notwithstanding that the prisoners there are mostly harmless kooks and drug dealers. Piscatella’s bullying leads to the death of the well liked inmate Poussey Washington, which in turn provokes a riot, after which the prisoners are relocated to the maximum security facility down the road. The old Litchfield is turned into an ICE detention centre.

‘This isn’t Oz,’ a guard tells Piper Chapman on her first day in. And it’s not. There are few murders or violent episodes. Up until end series four, you’re basically watching a gentle comedy set behind bars. (An interesting comparison with Tom Fontana’s show is how they establish what each character’s in for: while the crime flashbacks in Oz last seconds – men who blow their lives away in one impulsive moment – ONTB spreads a single inmate’s memories over whole episodes, illustrating that fate can be one decisive act or more usually a series of slips and bad decisions.)

It is once the inmates transfer to max, that things get serious. Facing far longer sentences for their participation in the riot, the prisoners cave. Nicky sells out her mentor. Daya turns drug baron. Even tough old Frieda Berlin crumbles. There’s a grim scene where senior prison officers and politicians plan their riot response, focused on a whiteboard with boxes labelled ‘LIFE’, ‘LIFE’, ’10 YEARS’ – they already know the punishments, they just need to find individuals to fit them. It is up to inmates to deal themselves out.

The barter of intel and sentence time is the contradiction in Western justice. Commit a crime and you will be punished – unless you have something to sell. UCL professor Alexandra Natapoff‘s exceptional book Snitching details the absurdity of a deal system that lets serious criminals loose to kill, sell drugs and god knows what else, because they have been basically been put on state payroll. She quotes one court: ‘[n]ever has it been more true that it is now that a criminal charged with a serious crime understands that a fast and easy way out of trouble with the law is… to cut a deal at someone else’s expense.’ Note the cheers from the public gallery when Tasha (‘Taystee’) Jefferson pleads not guilty to killing Piscatella, rather than admitting to a crime she didn’t do which would draw a lighter sentence.

There is a dark, hilarious scene in series four where warden Caputo’s girlfriend, corporate exec Linda, takes him to a prison convention called ‘Correcticon’. As Kathryn Van Arendonk wrote in her recap at the time:

It’s hard to resist the urge to just list every little detail of CorrectiCon. It’s shiveringly well-tuned, hitting notes that rest on the delicate edge between humor and outrage. On one side of the aisle, a booth sells menstrual cups for women’s prisons. It’s a product that might be seriously useful for Litchfield, which has such a dramatic tampon shortage that one inmate tries to use a disposable plastic cup meant for dispensing medicine. On the other side of the exhibit hall, a vendor dressed as an inmate distributes ‘prison slop — fully prepared,’ and Caputo is appalled. ‘Ugh, I have enough of that in my life,’ he tells Linda. ‘It’s just for fun, silly!’ she replies. ‘I think it’s ice cream.’

In one scene the nature of the prison industrial complex is exposed. Prisons are big business and also big job creation – jobs for wardens, guards and clerks, and a big economic lift for the communities where the prison industry chooses to build. The boom in migration detention centres and the atrocities along the Amexican border are just an extension of this Keynesian pump-priming. If we do a deal with Trump’s America, the fate of the NHS may be the least of our worries. Communitarianism defines itself by who is excluded or detained, and there is jobs and money in exclusion and detention.

OTNB critiques tend to focus on privilege and intersectionality. That’s part of it of course: in the last episode of season four we learn that the guard who kills Poussey was as a young man let off for the same possession charge that got Poussey six years – and that, during a night out in New York, Poussey encountered her killer in passing. (There is also another subtle, telling scene when Suzanne Warren, deprived of medication, has a psychotic freakout in a guard’s office with a ‘NO STIGMA’ mental health poster on the wall.)

Piper Chapman, by contrast, benefits from white privilege and class privilege. Like Tobias Beecher in Oz, she represents the viewer and her character is a hook for the show to introduce less privileged characters and tell their stories. But while Beecher learned both compassion and self reliance in Oz, Piper takes her sense of entitlement into the prison and leaves with it intact. She is released at the end of series six, while Taystee faces life without in total innocence. But the social justice warrior critique only goes so far. Piper is human, we recognise her mistakes and feel for her when she is released only to be shunned by her family and friends: the virtue-signalling liberals of her peer group see her as a novelty at best and inconvenience at worst.

What the show does more than this is bring home the arbitrary and transitory nature of prison experience. Much loved characters are transferred, ghosted out or disappear for no clear reason. It is the blur of boundaries between free and not, citizen and not, American and not. Blanca and Maritza have every right to citizenship but are ‘unAmericanised’ by the border state. There is a very moving scene in the final series where deportees on a plane literally fade away, one by one – as Pennsatucky does outside the prison gates. The communitarian ideology depends on disappearing people, and that’s put in contrast with the genuine connections made by people on the inmates – broken people who connect, and in connecting manage to make each other a little less broken. That’s something real, and it’s freedom, of a kind.

Great Expectation

July 24, 2019

Looking back at her hard living past, singer Florence Welch writes in Vogue:

I wonder if my young self would be horrified at my Friday nights now: eating pasta and watching TV with someone who is nice to me. Would she think me mundane? I have certainly had journalists bemoan to me ‘the lack of rock stars behaving like rock stars’, but hedonism never gave me the freedom I desired. And I’m no longer sure about the rock’n’roll behaviour often expected of artists. Too many talented people have died, and the world feels too fragile to be swigging champagne and flicking the finger at it.

Most of the friends that I drank with have had to stop. They wash up one by one like driftwood, and we stand together on the shore in shocked relief. We cook, we talk, we work. People have started having children and going to bed early. And all the boring ‘grown-upness’ that we rejected then now seems somehow rebellious.

The characters in Anna Hope’s Expectation might identify. While none of Hope’s three woman protagonists have the eventful past of Florence Welch, they face a similar dilemma. The book opens on an urban pastoral of the three close friends living out the tail end of their youth in London Fields. When we then fast forward to 2010, there’s a definite contracting of freedom and possibility. Life has become smaller, and dominated by young dreams that have turned into obsessions. Lissa aspires to Hollywood but makes do with commercials and community theatre, Hannah wants a child but can’t conceive, Cate has been priced out of London and is living a dull suburban life in the Home Counties.

It all sounds banal when I write it down but Hope writes so well that it works. You feel Hannah’s despair as she focuses every detail of her routine around the elusive miracle of childbirth: she measures out her life in ovulation circles instead of coffee spoons. She is the most well realised character, but all three convey something in common – the fraught feeling of life slipping away from you, taking you away with it to a place you’re not comfortable with. Your old houseshare has been flipped and carved and rented out at unimaginable prices, the legends of your youth grown old and driven out to the exurbs, the world changing in ways you don’t understand. To go back to Florence Welch one last time, it’s hard to get through the sea storm, but sometimes it’s harder once you’ve actually reached the shore – if you get a stretch that’s bare and rocky, with gulls wheeling through an overcast sky.

Not much happens for long reams of the book, but there’s no tiredness or ennui to Hope’s prose, it all feels terribly important while you’re reading it. Hope has an understated style that somehow carries and captures the moment. There is no false sentiment or artifice in Expectation. It feels real. It even sometimes feels numinous:

The woman speaks about the tomb, about how it was found on her father’s land, a mile or so from where she and her family live today. About the human remains that were found there – no skeletons, only jumbled bones, thousands upon thousands of them. About the eagle talons found in amongst them. About the theory that the bodies were left out to be eaten by the birds. Like the sky burials of Tibet. How only the clean bones were saved.

‘Excarnation,’ the woman says in her soft voice.

‘Excarnation,’ says Hannah, tasting it. A new word.

The action speeds up once you get to the last third of the book, but in its way it’s a supremely contemplative novel – the brisk progression of events seems to give you a faith in the natural processes of time and age and youth and death. Lissa and Hannah have a phrase that’s almost an injoke – this shit are what life withstands’. Expectation is a kind of Zen novel – one that goes about its work so subtly and well that you don’t realise you’re being entranced.

Also: Susan Osborne’s review available here

The Love Song of Lina Wolff

July 6, 2019

The Polyglot Lovers is a hard novel to write about. Reviewers tend to be impressed but bemused, and for a hook they focused on Max Lamas, the narcissistic novelist who narrates the middle third of the story. In a book full of strange people who act in unnatural ways for unknown reasons, Max is a recognisable type – the egomaniac writer who thinks he’s god’s gift. He is tired, ageing and in a permanent state of refined ennui. ‘The pain I’m enduring is like dirty water. All that muck swirling around,’ Max tells us. ‘It’s like a herd of donkeys is galloping back and forth across my heart. Back and forth, back and forth. Muddy hooves and common braying.’ He is in an unhappy marriage – ‘My wife’s back was, on certain nights at the start of this story, an unvoiced rejection made of skin and vertebrae’ – and the only thing he lives for is sex. To the psychic in this story, he is empty – ‘you can keep your money, because I can’t see anything at all.’

Translator Saskia Vogel does a marvellous job of conveying the three dramatically different registers of Wolff’s novel. There is Max and his galloping pretension – ‘But the tristesse, oh, the tristesse! No one can be saved from it!’ Ellinor is a martial arts ace and looking for love online. She is subdued, but relentlessly curious about the world. And the final part of the book is told by Lucrezia who is the last of an ancient and distinguished Roman family. Her voice is intelligent, assured and steeped in history. Phrases jump out you as you read The Polyglot Lovers, like chapter headings or greeting cards written by someone damaged and wise:

You lose the intimacy, and intimacy is the stream leading to the spring of life.

… the long and arduous journey into another person.

Everything is going to work out, but in a way that’s unimaginable to you right now.

You find the best stories where no one is thinking about stories, where no one is aware that stories even exist.

The big plot strand is the fate of Max’s manuscript, written in Mogliano, stolen, pissed upon, transported to Stockholm and finally burned to ashes. Other texts abound: Max and his acolyte Ruben both adore Houellebecq, and Stephen King is mentioned as well – not often those two are linked (though King wrote an introduction to Houellebecq’s early study of H P Lovecraft). The narrative makes little sense, but it holds you – one event sashays into the next with the improbable grace of a fairytale.

In her review, Joanna Kavenna writes that: ‘One final irony is that Max, genius/pig depending on your perspective, is a character in a novel by Lina Wolff, and so is the insane reviewer Ruben, and so, in the end, is a fictional version of Houellebecq. They are all trapped in Wolff’s merciless novel, and are ritually tormented until she has had enough.’

But isn’t the prominence of Max’s voice its own irony? T S Eliot in his classic poem ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ imagined a man like Max – bored, humble and yearning, but with his own resilient kind of egotism. Prufrock thinks he has ‘known them all already, known them all: Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons’ but there is something he’s missing. Eliot highlights the famous line, dismissing the women and also separating them from Prufrock’s narration:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The Polyglot Lovers abounds with fascinating women – Mildred the blind psychic, the suicidal receptionist Max seduces, Max’s own brilliant philosophical wife, the generations of women still around and vocal in the ruins of Lucrezia’s family. Wolff is laughing at Max, but she puts him in the foreground. Max wants a polyglot lover but doesn’t hear women’s voices in any language. Max takes no more notice of them then Prufrock did the women who talk of Michelangelo: like Prufrock, Max is lost in his solipsistic vision and doesn’t hear ‘the music from a farther room.’

Wolff is looking hard at her own monsters, but she is also looking hard at you – the reader – and asking: what are you focusing on? Is it you that’s missing something?

Song of the Outpost

June 3, 2019

The classic recent TV series are Western genre shows. Breaking Bad, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy are basically Westerns. (Vince Gilligan drew on the same Sergio Leone movies as did Stephen King for his Dark Tower epic.) And the classic show that’s actually a Western isn’t a Western. Deadwood is not about Western type themes – confrontation, masculinity, pride, solitude and anger (although it is about these things too) it’s about relationships between people and how societies grow.

Take the gold in the black hills that brought everybody to Deadwood. People get killed over claims and counter claims. Fortune seekers rushed to the Dakotas in 1876, just as they rushed to California in ’49, and later to the Klondike in 1890. History is full of these periodic migrations and stampedes. They continue today. In the 2010s, people returned to the Dakotas for the oil and the fracking boom. I can’t recommend enough journalist Maya Rao’s Great American Outposts, in which she chronicles the searchers and drifters who gravitated to North Dakota for oil money driving rigs and hauling water. People from all over America rushed for black gold, many leaving behind criminal records, bad credit histories and child-support claims. Rao’s subjects are not all dissimilar to the ‘hoopleheads’ Al Swearengen used to serve in his Gem Saloon.

The gold itself is valueless. As the Patrician says in The Colour of Magic, if you gave everyone a bag of gold the result would not be that ‘we’d all be rich’. The gold would depreciate in value, because its value rests on scarcity. Smart operators like Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver, the second wave of Deadwood settlers, they know that you can make a better living selling booze and sex to prospectors, than from spending hours in a creek panning for precious metals. It is not the metal but the perception of the metal and how perception itself can be mined for coin. In his book of the series, showrunner David Milch says that ‘Something in us that is specifically human has the capacity to endow a symbol with a special meaning.’

Swearengen is the lynchpin of the show – the camp evolves under his wary gaze from the balcony of the Gem. Al is a brutal cutthroat, and an exploiter of women, but he faces outwards and cares about the future of the camp. He takes an active part in the bewildering politics of accession and annexation that characterised the US in the 1870s. He hosts town meetings at the Gem, at which he serves cans of peaches, just as Gustavo Fring offered platters of sandwiches in sitdowns with cartel bosses he despised. (Milch writes: ‘And in the electrical force field created within that meeting, the presence of the peaches has significance as a gesture.’) With his fierce intelligence and grandiloquent, corrosive speech, Al runs rings around commissioners and politicians, dodging murder warrants and turning potential enemies.

But things are changing. Retired sheriff Seth Bullock goes back to the badge, and his duties go from cleaning up murders to sorting out the kind of petty property disputes that neighbourhood policing teams would recognise today. The lovable A. W. Merrick sets up his newspaper. Alma Garrett quits laudanum and founds a local bank. There are weddings, and funerals. Taboos are created and enforced. The brothel becomes a schoolhouse, and then a theatre. Telegraphs go up (and in the movie, railroads and telephone lines). There are elections locally, then regionally. And as the camp develops into a town, Swearengen faces more formidable enemies as well as his own weakness and mortality.

Milch also writes of ‘complicated manipulations and distortions of money produced by people who understood there were realities at the level of the symbol that you could fuck with.’ In season two geologist Francis Wolcott arrives and begins spreading rumours, depreciating the value of the claims so that he can buy up the claims at cost price on behalf of his employer: gold tycoon George Hearst, the boy the earth spoke to. There is a fine scene where Wolcott writes to Hearst about the growing operation, and his narration of the letter is spoken over a montage of workers driven hard at the goldmine, then stripped and frisked for stolen metals. Wolcott is a wretch and a killer, but he is just a harbinger of his even more sinister boss. When Hearst sacks Wolcott over his murders of several sex workers, Wolcott hangs himself; without Hearst he is nothing, a weak degenerate who even old man Charlie Utter can take in a fight.

David Milch describes Hearst as ‘the monstrous abstraction of the symbol made flesh.’ Hearst tells us frequently how much he hates the camp, and is obviously happiest prospecting alone in the field. In Milch’s world that’s not meant to say anything good about his character. Hearst represents the third wave of corporatism and commodity fetishism. He kills miners who try to unionise. While Al consults, Hearst only gives orders. Elections ‘ratify my will, or I neuter them,’ he says. Season three becomes a lengthy Mexican standoff between Hearst and the rest of the town. Deadwood’s resistance fears attacking him because to do so might destroy the camp. As Al says: ‘And as to us and him, if blood’s what it finally comes to, one hundred years from now the forest is what they’ll find here. Dewy morning’s lost its appeal for me. I prefer to wake indoors.’

Wake indoors, and face outwards. Milch has said in interviews that a lot of the thinking on Deadwood came from his time in AA where survival meant giving up the I for the we, and in going through the motions until they became natural. That becomes the show’s story – a lie, or illusion, agreed upon. People have to compromise their personal selves to get along, and the we isn’t always kind. Seth Bullock is in an arranged marriage to his late brother’s wife: he begins an affair with Alma Garrett, a New Yorker widowed between the murder of her husband Brom Garrett and her later platonic marriage to the noble old prospector William Ellsworth. She and Bullock are soulmates, but must sacrifice their love to the greater stability of the town. Alma says of Ellsworth, in one of the show’s more heartbreaking lines: ‘He is a good man. And he whom I love is here as well.’

It’s about the making of a community, and not the nostalgia authoritarian state of which today’s communitarians dream. It’s a we made up of hundreds, thousands of dancing Is, hoopleheads, prospectors and fools. When Bullock first stands for election, he is overwhelmed by the hustings and forgets whatever rhetoric of justice he had planned and instead simply says: ‘I’m glad we’re in the camp, even on the sorriest of days.’ And I think, watching the show and the movie, that this is how we all felt – it was over too soon, but all the same, we were glad to be in the camp. The Deadwood movie is as good as the series and gives us one last look at the legendary outpost, I recommend watching it with a bottle of rotgut to hand – and perhaps a can of peaches.