Peter Straub’s new novel, Mrs. God, isn’t entirely new. It first appeared as part of a longer work, Houses Without Doors. Then its title was prosaic and uninviting. Now it’s so ludicrous it beckons you in. Professor William Standish has received the rare honor of a fellowship to study at Esswood House in England, home and estate of the Seneschal family. For a period of three weeks he will have access to Esswood’s famous library and the private papers of Isobel Standish, a former guest, forgotten poet, and distant relative. He believes it’s time her reputation was rehabilitated, that she should now take her place among greats such as Eliot and Pound. He flies to England and checks into the house, but not before learning “there is supposed to be a secret.” His curiosity is piqued and the reader waits for the drama to unfold.
And waits. Along the way, Straub seeks to authenticate Esswood as an illustrious literary bolt-hole by having real writers as past guests. Apparently D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, and Henry James went on to produce their masterpieces after their stay. Straub even hints that the “remote house” in The Turn of the Screw was inspired by Esswood. We are told more about his fictional writer. Isobel Standish is “an important precursor of Modernism,” “a poet of the first rank,” and “in some ways the Emily Dickinson of the twentieth century.” Straub should have left the eulogy at that, but instead he opts to include one of her poems. Unfortunately, it’s hopeless doggerel. A. S. Byatt performed the same trick by incorporating the Victorian verse of a fictitious poet into the pages of Possession. It was a risk, but she pulled it off. The trick backfires on Straub because he isn’t in Byatt’s league. Namedropping real writers who write better than Straub was a mistake; attempting to realise a 20th-century Emily Dickinson was disastrous.
We would expect Straub to be on safer ground when describing Esswood. Poe called his House of Usher a “mansion of gloom” and Esswood is of the same mold. However, it lacks any originality. Standish doesn’t reside there, he is “immured.” He loses himself in “a rat’s run” of secret corridors with locked doors and cobwebbed rooms. We eventually hear of the obligatory family curse, at which point Standish thinks he hears ghostly laughter. By the time we get to the token graveyard scene we have ticked all the boxes. This is horror-mystery by numbers, but plodding along so slowly that the supposed shocks are stale and predictable. There are vestiges of hope in the form of a creepy basement room containing “broken babies and their toys,” and the occasional foray into fresh inventiveness (Standish is served the same meals every day; of his morning kippers: “The smoked corpse of a fish regarded him with dead eyes”), but they’re quickly obliterated by a renewed assault of cliché: a fountain erupts in a “glittering shower of diamonds,” a wall of fire pushes Standish back “like a giant hand,” and decapitated heads are “surprisingly heavy, like bowling balls.”
As if aware of his bland prose, Straub tries to spice it up in a bizarre scene in a bathroom. One minute Standish is cleaning his teeth, the next, apropos of nothing, he’s masturbating into the sink. “Gouts of semen shot out of him like the water from the fountain.” He notes “a final cloud of white semen” oozing across the pattern of flowers (thank God Straub makes clear it was “white”). There’s an equally baffling mention of semen early on in the book: “Like sweat or semen, anxiety was a physical substance that poured from a self-replenishing well.” We should perhaps be grateful that Straub confined this image to the main narrative and not attributed it to his Dickinson-esque poet.
Mrs. God is a tedious, hackneyed novel by a writer who’s capable of impressing within his chosen genre. It’s horrific, but not in the way Straub intended. His hero’s descent into axe-wielding madness is both too abrupt and too derivative; Stephen King did it first and better in The Shining. What could have been a subtle, spooky tale in the tradition of M. R. James ends up a chaotic and, crucially, unbelievable, mess. (We wish also Straub had heeded James’s warning that blending sex into the ghost story is a “fatal mistake.”) Straub writes that Standish’s emotions “swung wildly free within him, vacillating between frustration, rage, disappointment, amusement, and fear without settling on any one of them.” Take “fear” away and you have a similar range that afflicts the reader. We close The Turn of the Screw and are left wondering whether Quint and Miss Jessel are figments of the governess’s mad mind. We couldn’t care less about the ghosts in Mrs. God, and close the book only with relief.
This novel can be summarised by Straub’s language during a scene in a pub. Standish orders a ploughman’s lunch and has high hopes of something hearty. Instead he’s brought a heel of bread and “a large wedge of cheese.” He isn’t happy. The cheese is referred to twice more, its description unvaried; never is it a piece or a chunk or a slab, always a “wedge.” Mrs. God strives to be creative, unsettling, disorienting, but despite its ghosts and secrets it can’t transform itself into anything more exalted than Standish’s simple, unappetising, and deeply anticlimactic lunch: “a large wedge of cheese.”
Peter Straub’s Mrs. God was released on February 15 by Pegasus to purchase it, click here.
Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture
Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.
The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.
A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?
With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?
I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.
I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.
You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?
I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.
While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?
That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.
Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?
There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.
Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?
Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.
Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.
This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.
As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?
I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.
Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”
There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.
If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?
Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.
A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.
And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…
Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!
The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.
That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.
On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?
I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.
Interview: Paul Tremblay on Growing Things and the Hope of Horror Fiction
Tremblay discusses how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.
Paul Tremblay laughs a lot. Our conversation, about demonically infested children and the end of the world, is interspersed with a low chuckle that suggests he loves doing what he does. And what he does is scare people. Tremblay is at the forefront of a supposed renaissance of horror fiction, and with good reason, as his books cut to the bone.
Tremblay burst onto the horror scene in 2015 with A Head Full of Ghosts, a deconstruction and excoriation of the exorcism subgenre. The most frightening book this critic has ever read, it won the Bram Stoker Award and, perhaps more crucially, Stephen King’s nod of approval. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and The Cabin at the End of the World cemented his reputation as horror’s cruellest craftsman. In these tales, bad things happen to good families. Worlds collapse, lives shatter, and the ambiguity of existence is shown through a glass darkly.
Tremblay’s latest collection, Growing Things and Other Stories, continues his disquieting project. Twisted teachers give lessons in inhumanity, Polaroids reveal dark histories, and some very sinister dogwalkers commit metafictional trespass. The collection, now out from William Morrow, suggests a merciless worldview. Yet as we talk, Tremblay chuckles, pets his dog, and talks about how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.
Do you have a favorite story in Growing Things?
“It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks” is the earliest story in the collection and the first one where I thought, “I can do this.” That was the first time I made uncertainty essential to the story, central to the theme and the “why.” Though it could be hard for a reader to point at any one thing and say, “That’s why it’s a horror story,” I do feel it’s one of the more horrific things I’ve ever written. “Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport” was also a lot of fun to write. I basically retook my own childhood vacation at a place in Cape Cod that we rented once. It was a chance to turn nostalgia on its ear and make it dangerous. I do think nostalgia can be a threat in the way it blurs over the messy parts of your history.
That’s interesting, because your fiction seems obsessed with memory.
I think much of horror is about memory. Memories are so malleable, yet we rely almost entirely on them to define what we think of as our self. Especially childhood memories. So many of them are usurped by retellings—whether your own or your friends’ or family’s—each gives you different versions of things that are the core of who you are. If you can’t trust your memories, then how can you trust identity? As a horror writer, that just feels like infinitely fertile ground. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you confront the question of who you are, and who is the person you’re sharing your bed and your life with. These thoughts freak me out, but I find them fascinating. I boil down horror stories as “a reveal of a dark truth.” In a lot of my stories the reveal is that identity isn’t ironclad and memories aren’t safe.
The media is another thing that emerges as both the format and focus of much of your writing. Is that an intentional theme?
Well, it’s a reflection of the time we’re living in. It’s pretty clear that social media hasn’t only changed society, it’s also changed us as individuals. It’s scary stuff and we’d be fools not to use it in stories. And I don’t just mean to have it there as background noise. If you’re going to use the media it has to be crucial to the story. Some older writers in the horror community would say that you shouldn’t mention this stuff—that it’s not timeless and will date your writing. That seems wholly ridiculous to me, because where’s the cut-off for timelessness? If you make the media central to your stories then people will still be able to read those stories in future decades because you’re essentially world-building.
The contingent realities of memory and media come together in the concept of “fake news.” Do you think horror, or your own work, is well-equipped to address that?
Well, the information age was greeted with a lot of optimism, but my books approach it with disappointment. I’ve met people all around the world through the power of social media. But I’ve also seen the pervasiveness and insidiousness of disinformation, It’s affected family members and relationships. It influences nations and political systems. It blows my mind.
Each of my novels address this is some way. In A Head Full of Ghosts, I use reality TV and the blogger to further enhance the ambiguity. Typically, books approach ambiguity by withholding information. I thought the cooler idea was to give a storm of information. You can’t know what’s real because there’s too much data to consider. I think that reflects the world we live in.
In Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, I took a stereotypical missing-teenager case. People think that it’s easy to locate someone because of all the information we have, hence the claim that “the cellphone killed the horror story.” I purposely wanted to write that story with these kids having snapchat and Facebook but show how that stuff makes it harder to get to the truth.
The Cabin at the End of the World is definitely riffing on those anxieties. I try not to be too didactic, but I absolutely wanted Cabin to be an allegory for our political times.
Why are you so drawn to ambiguity?
I think it reflects one of the horrors of our existence: that reality is more ambiguous than we allow. A smaller reason is that I resist committing to the supernatural in the novel. I’m an agnostic atheist, so if I encountered something in my everyday life, I think I’d have a hard time realizing that it was supernatural. It would be so liminal that how would we know? I’ve found it easier to go full supernatural in my short fiction. Soon I’ll need to come down on one side or the other, because people will get tired of me doing the ambiguity thing every time.
So, what would it take to convince you that your house was haunted?
In your head you imagine it wouldn’t take much. But in reality, we have 30-year mortgages. I’d probably think I had to gut it out, even with a ghost standing in the living room.
I’m not naïve enough to ask you to clarify any of your ambiguous endings. But I am interested in whether you know the truth in those novels.
For each book it’s slightly different. I started A Head Full of Ghosts intending to write a secular exorcism novel. But then I decided to split the evidence 50/50. To be honest, I haven’t really got a clear idea of whether Marjorie is possessed or mentally ill. That’s been a fun novel to discuss with fans because they have interpretations that I never considered. Devil’s Rock has a less ambiguous ending. I feel like it’s fairly clear what those last few pages say. And with Cabin I can honestly say that I haven’t spent a single second thinking about what happens after the last line of that book. That story is all about the choice that Andrew and Eric make, and by the end they have made it. At that point, it doesn’t matter if the world is ending or not.
Speaking to you now, and following you on social media, you seem a very positive guy. Yet your fiction is unremittingly bleak…
…yet every now and again you throw the reader an escape from the horror, or at least the potential for escape. I’m thinking in particular of your story “A Haunted House Is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken,” where you use the choose-your-own-adventure format to lead the protagonist and reader through a history of trauma. It ends with a way out, which I didn’t expect. Would you say you are an optimist?
I don’t know really. With that story I wanted to give the character a way out. Because I think most people, or many people, do survive their personal traumas, their personal ghosts. When Cabin came out, I mentioned in interviews this thing that I called “the hope of horror.” It may sound pretentious but the reason I’m drawn to horror is the same reason I’m drawn to punk. It’s the idea that terrible truth is revealed, and we may not survive it, but there’s value in the shared recognition that something is wrong. So even though the novels and stories are bleak, I find some hope in the fact that we realise something is wrong, even if we can’t fix it. That’s the fist-pump moment If anything ties together the things that I like reading and watching, it’s the chance to look at how other people get through this thing we’re all doing…this life.
Speaking of which, you’re a parent, yet your stories do the worst things to children.
That’s my parental anxiety on show. My first child was born in 2000, and when I was getting serious about writing in the first half of that decade, a friend pointed out to me that I wrote about parents and children all the time. I hadn’t realized, but from there it became purposeful. With Devil’s Rock, I realized I was treading in the same family dynamic as Head Full of Ghosts. Then I wrote Cabin about another young family, and even though they’re individual books, I think they’re a nice thematic trilogy. Each book features a different kind of family in crisis.
You recently tweeted about doing research into some grim childhood illnesses. Dare I ask what that was for?
Yeah, that’s for my next novel. It will be my take on the zombie, but it’s about infected people rather than the undead. It’s set during the first four-to-six hours of an outbreak in Boston.
Is there a title?
The working title is Survivor Song. It’s due with my publishers at the end of the summer.
That’s quite the scoop. Aside from the new book, you also have the adaptation of A Head Full of Ghosts in the works. How involved are you in that process?
[laughs] Aaah, not at all. It’s understandable really. They optioned the book in 2015 before it was even published. At that point, I was rebooting my career, as my earlier crime novels hadn’t sold much. There was no reason for them to consider my feelings. It’s the rare writer who gets invited into in the filmmaking process. In TV they may consult you more, but even then I’m not sure how much of a say you have. I don’t have any say in A Head Full of Ghosts, but they have a director, Osgood Perkins, and a script that we like. It’s all getting a lot closer to being a real thing, with a very solid shot at starting production later this year.
Perkins’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House use ambiguity to great effect. Are you happy with him helming the film?
Definitely. He’s the perfect director for this material. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do. It’ll be tough to squeeze that book into a 90-minute movie.
As it would with any of your writing. Many of the stories in Growing Things experiment with form and structure. Do you feel the need to escape traditional narration?
House of Leaves is one of my favourite novels. I’d love to one day write an experimental novel on that scale. But if you’re going to experiment with structure, then it must serve the story, and that’s easier in short fiction, which seems to beg for experimentation. No, I don’t feel the need to escape. Sometimes it’s just me trying to play with all the toys.
You’re at the center of a new school of young horror writers, people like Laird Barron, Alma Katsu, John Langan, Sarah Langan. Do you think the genre is enjoying a resurgence?
People talk about a new golden age of horror. That’s a little self-serving because I expect every horror writer throughout the ages has looked around and thought, “Hey, what we’re doing is great.” But I think it’s also undeniable that the current breadth of horror hasn’t been seen before, both in terms of gender and diversity as well as style. We aren’t all the way there yet, but it’s exciting and promising. I’m happy to be playing a little part in it.
Finally, what’s your favorite scary book, and your favourite scary movie?
With books it’s a tie. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There are so many more calling out in neglect, but let’s stick with those two. With movies it’s either John Carpenter’s The Thing or Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. I’ve probably seen Jaws close to 50 times and I still can’t watch the part where Quint is bitten in half. The first time I saw that it broke my brain and I’m too afraid to watch it again in case it takes me back in time. I had at least eight years of shark nightmares. The Thing asks: “Do you even know who you are?” It takes us back to that question about memory and identity and that idea of the dark reveal. It’s the heart of horror.
Paul Tremblay’s Growing Pains and Other Stories is now available in the U.S. from William Morrow and in the U.K. from Titan Books.
Review: Cari Mora Luridly and Bitingly Plumbs Man’s Capacity for Evil
Thomas Harris’s novel fathoms man’s depravity in ways that are at once spectacularly horrifying and mordantly amusing.
Thomas Harris’s Cari Mora is the author’s first novel since 1975’s Black Sunday to not feature Hannibal Lecter in some capacity. Fear not, though, for Harris has filled the space where his most famous creation might have been with a small army of psychopathic killers, the crown jewel of which is Hans-Peter Schneider, a completely hairless, reptilian man of German ancestry who captures and sells women as sex slaves to men in Peru and Colombia.
Like Mason Verger in Harris’s masterful Hannibal, Hans-Peter uses a constant cash flow to feed his ghastly appetite for human suffering. When the women he kidnaps don’t “work out for business,” as Harris puts it at one point, Hans-Peter harvests their organs for the black market and then dissolves their bodies in an expensive liquid cremation machine, of which Schneider is “very proud.” And as in his Lecter novels, Harris fathoms this man’s perspective on the world in ways that are at once spectacularly horrifying and mordantly amusing.
Harris quickly introduces Hans-Peter as a nightmarish hybrid of man and animal, whose “canine teeth” accompany a “startling ability to mimic” the voices and movements of others. As the novel commences, he’s set his eyes on the eponymous Cari Mora, the twentysomething caretaker of a mansion located along Miami’s Biscayne Bay, where he believes between 25 and 35 million dollars worth of gold lies buried beneath it. He’s correct, but he and others will have to get through traps of explosives and saltwater crocodiles to claim it.
The novel moves from settings in Miami and Barranquilla, Colombia, with the action in one place impacting some of the decisions made in others. Variously drawing on legacies of Nazism, Jim Crow-era racism, and the Cali Cartel, Cari Mora is a wellspring of intimations that stresses the monstrousness of a male pathology that thrives on the torture of others, particularly women. In Barranquilla, Don Ernesto, a mysterious man involved in the criminal underworld, consults with Jesús Villarreal, a former associate of Pablo Escobar, who previously owned the mansion in Biscayne Bay. Jesús has already sold his knowledge to Hans-Peter, but Ernesto wants in on the action as well. In Miami, Hans-Peter has a cadre of goons. Among them is Felix, a serpentine real estate agent, and Bobby Joe, whose fingers are lettered “love” and “hate” à la Robert Mitchum’s murdering preacher in The Night of the Hunter and whose truck boats a bumper sticker reading: “IF I’D KNOWN THIS I WOULD OF PICKED MY OWN COTTON.” Harris depicts these men as cultural manifestations of greed and hatred whose monomaniacal perspectives implicitly stem from histories of nationalist violence.
If Hans-Peter is Harris’s approximation of a modern-day Hannibal Lecter, then Cari might be said to be the author’s reimagining of Clarice Starling. Cari formerly fought for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and now resides in the United States under Temporary Protected Status. She desires nothing more than to become a veterinarian and to live in a place of her own. She spends numerous hours at the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station supporting wildlife rescue, and tends to a large white cockatoo that lives in the mansion. Oh, and she also knows how to assemble and lock and load an AK-47 in 45 seconds.
Harris further balances a sense of Cari’s vulnerability and strength by steadily articulating the cunning churn of her consciousness. When Felix introduces Hans-Peter and his crew as filmmakers who wish to use the mansion for a shoot, Harris briefly drops us into Cari’s headspace as she feels the group of men thinking, “Pull a train, pull a train.” Cari isn’t a mystic, but she does seem to know from the look on a man’s face the horrific extent of his intentions. That the mansion is permanently decorated with “lunging and reaching” monster mannequins from horror films is Harris’s coup de grace: Cinema’s imaginings are but a knick next to the war that’s responsible for Cari’s psychological wounds and scars on her body.
Structurally, Cari Mora is jammed with too many secondary characters whose purpose proves mostly beside the point to the central, looming clash between Hans-Peter and Cari. Such as Detective Robles of Miami-Dade homicide. His home was hit with gunfire from illegally made weapons that wounded him and caused his wife brain damage. Harris introduces Robles around the 100-page mark, giving his plight a couple of chapters before then abandoning him until he’s needed toward the novel’s end—and even then, his function feels incidental.
Then there’s the group of men, led by one Captain Marco, who are hired by Don Ernesto to work as counter-insurgents against Hans-Peter and to, finally, secure the gold for themselves. Although their presence proves necessary for helping Cari to evade capture by Hans-Peter, Harris misses the opportunity to use these characters as a means of meaningfully fleshing out the legacy of immigrants residing in contemporary Miami. While these figures, too, help Harris to conjure some convincingly cold-blooded acts of violence, especially in an extended bit of gunplay involving Hans-Peter and a hired gun named Candy, much of the novel’s weightier themes are momentarily cast aside throughout these moments.
Cari Mora is at its best as a sustained meditation on the ineffable extent of humankind’s capacity for brutality in the name of personal gain, especially when Harris homes in on the history of violence that brought Cari to the United States in the first place. An extended flashback details Cari’s attempted brainwashing by FARC, though from the beginning of her training she remains resistant, receiving “demerits for inattention in indoctrination classes.” When Cari discovers that FARC is slaughtering entire villages just like the ultra-right paramilitary, she makes a plan to escape from FARC’s ranks for good.
Harris acutely frames his characters as predators and prey, associating their behaviors to those of the hungry crocodiles and helpless pelicans that inhabit Biscayne Bay. While Hans-Peter, a man for whom “the sound of a woman crying” is “soothing,” sustains himself on the blood and tears of others, Cari cares for the environment as a means of freeing herself from the insanity that surrounds her. How these two perspectives clash, and are finally resolved, provides an ending more conventional than that of Hannibal, but nevertheless carries an irony befitting Harris’s ongoing consideration of how light and dark are often interchangeable.
Thomas Harris’s Cari Mora is available on May 21 from Grand Central Publishing.
Review: The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album
If you’re in a band, the Beatles taught you everything, whether you know it (or admit it) or not.
If you’re in a band, the Beatles taught you everything, whether you know it—or admit it—or not. They taught bands how to form and look and act, how to play, write, tour, and record. They even taught bands how to break up and go solo. Imagine a world without George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run,” Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” or, indeed, John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It’s not so easy, even if you try.
The Beatles not only schooled other bands, they also educated teachers, who sometimes went on to teach the band’s music in their classrooms. For as much as anywhere else, the Beatles have invaded academia and pedagogy. Indeed, there’s a wealth of scholarship built around “the boys,” covering every aspect of their work, be it musical, cultural, or personal, whether discussing that work in toto or focusing on one specific album.
The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album does just that. Edited by Mark Osteen, professor of English and director of the Center for the Humanities at Loyola University Maryland, the book is a fine scholarly addition to the study of the Beatles. Where else but academia might one find erudite discussions of Ringo’s drumming and John Lennon’s use of the phrase “oh yeah”? Those are just two of many elements covered in this volume. Taking a cue from the band and the album, the book cuts through three layers of the Beatles onion: social/personal context; the music itself; and the continued impact and influence of The White Album—or, as it’s officially called, The Beatles.
In his lengthy introduction Osteen sets the stage:
“[In some ways] the White Album resembles one of those nineteenth-century novels that Henry James famously dubbed ‘large, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary’. [Yet the album’s] bagginess, along with its frequent use of bricolage, self-referentiality, fragmentation, and pastiche, is not Victorian but postmodernist.”
This postmodern pluralism, its grab bag of musical styles and moods spread over four sides of vinyl, is precisely what’s most often cited as either the album’s primary appeal or its sorest failure. Is it playfully purposeful or haphazardly dispersed? Masterpiece or mess? The sprawling, uneven ambitiousness and abundance of material, as well as the infamous background of the album’s making—the internal strife, each Beatle supposedly using the others as players rather than co-members, Yoko Ono’s omnipresence—don’t necessarily contradict a sense of thematic wholeness, as this book makes quite clear.
Osteen sees “a brand of cohesion that both reflects the upheavals the Beatles experienced around the time of recording and reveals that, despite their differences, they shared numerous concerns and employed many of the same tropes and devices. The White Album’s diversity camouflages a set of consistent motifs and situations that surface under close analysis.”
Perhaps the most common motif noted among the essays is that the Beatles took a turn in 1968 toward the natural with The White Album, to a simpler, less ornate approach, the far-out faux-baroque flourishes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, both released in 1967, giving way to a more grounded earthiness. If those previous albums were flowers, The White Album was dirt, a return to the basic element of the Beatles own growth. They would be a band again, rather than (or along with being) recording artists.
The problem was that they weren’t the same band and it wasn’t the same time. The vicissitudes of fame, of personal and financial growth, plus the increased antagonism within the band itself, foretold a new approach. This, combined with massive social upheavals around the world, forced not only the Beatles themselves, but their fans to reassess their allegiances. Despite intermittent political commitment from the band members throughout the years, the Beatles had been primarily apolitical—or, rather, their political engagement or contribution came through mainly in the more cultural forms of image and, of course, music. Yet by 1968, apoliticism was anathema to youth culture, as Michael R. Frontani discusses in his chapter “‘…Out/In…’ The Beatles’ Image in Transition During the ‘Year of the Barricades’.”
In the thrill and exuberance of the early years of Beatlemania, Frontani writes, “[s]ex, primarily, provided a basis for unity…the attraction of the subversive qualities of an image constructed to embody unconstrained romantic and carnal relationships. The Beatles […] were a vehicle for youths to fully engage in a euphoric sense of being young […] Eventually, other youths icons arose and diluted the Beatles dominance, but none could dethrone them.”
The band’s imperial power was never stronger than upon Sgt. Pepper’s release in June 1967, and yet, how quickly the tide turned. Frontani describes the rise of the New Left and the worldwide violence in the protest-fraught spring of 1968, before concluding succinctly: “And the Beatles missed it.” They left for India as hippie heroes and came back out-of-step millionaires, or like older brothers who’d gone off from an adoring family to study abroad and returned to a resentful household in violent disarray. The Flower Power emblematized by Sgt. Pepper—that dreadnought soundtrack to the Summer of Love—had proved ineffective in stopping wars or assassinations. It turned out one needed a little more than just love. But being the Beatles, the band never truly lost their footing musically or even culturally; one might say they went from being perceived as kings to princes. Not a bad demotion.
It was always about the music anyway, and none of the Beatles’s albums had as much of that as The White Album. In the chapters “Children of Nature: Origins of the Beatles’ Tabula Rasa” and “Beatles Unplugged: The White Album in the Shadow of Rishikesh,” Walter Everett and John Kimsey, respectively, engage the album’s musical beginnings. Everett examines what are known as the Kinfauns or Esher demos recorded at Harrison’s home prior to the album’s full recording. Everett not only locates specific early renditions of White Album songs, but provides detailed tables indicating every version of every song demoed at this time. Not simply a completist’s list, this is more a display of the Beatles’s creative output at a truly transitional period in their careers. Likewise, Kimsey offers informative background on the acoustic origins of the album’s material, notably the “clawhammer” or “Travis” picking style taught to the band by singer-songwriter Donovan (a technique one hears on many of the band’s subsequent recordings, especially Lennon’s, both with the Beatles and solo). Both Everett and Kimsey also provide snippets of compositional transcription, which, even if one doesn’t read music, are easily followable due to the songs’ familiarity.
Other chapters focus on each member’s contribution. Perhaps most welcome is Steve Hamelman’s “Blisters on His Fingers: Ringo Starr’s Performance on The Beatles.” While the debate over the drummer’s playing is, by this point, well-defined (in short, feel versus proficiency), Hamelman offers more an assessment of Ringo’s own assessment of his drumming during the recording of The White Album. The drummer had famously declared that he felt he was playing “shitty” at this point, prompting his ostensibly “quitting” the band. (The Beatles are like alcoholism: once a Beatle, always a Beatle.) Hamelman doesn’t quite let the drummer off the hook, but conclusively praises the underrated taste of Starr’s playing—his manner of attack, his knowing the difference between economy and excess, and, importantly, his ability to listen to what the song, and the songwriter, suggests.
With songs and songwriters this good, it must’ve come easy. Just as band tensions were at their peak (another factor in Ringo’s hiatus), the writing was as well. John Covach traces Harrison’s musical growth, from Lennon-McCartney copycat to accomplished Eastern-influenced singer-songwriter—from rockabilly to ragabilly. Stephen Valdez sees Lennon returning, on The White Album, to the rocker he always was, but with an experimental edge, “…a creative mind cleverly pushing its musical limits within the construct of a return to his musical roots.” While Vincent P. Benitez uncovers the “intertextuality” of McCartney’s songs, cross-referencing the artist’s White Album offerings with those from other periods of his prolific solo output, stressing McCartney’s ability to absorb, master and mimic other musical styles and icons, be it the Beach Boys (“Back in the U.S.S.R.”) or Bach (“Blackbird”).
One can give too much self-conscious or simply conscious agency to something, like songwriting, that’s more instinctive, a problem that Ian Inglis acknowledges here: “Attempts to systematically investigate the songwriting process are beset by a range of difficulties. Problems of motivation, intent, reception, interpretation, employment, and interaction between words and music cloud definitive assessments…” Sometimes a scholar may create a thesis rather than discover one, read too deeply into an artist’s motives and moods, pull questionable motifs or tropes like teeth from a stubborn jaw. Overstate, then corroborate.
Citing other scholars, Osteen notes some White Album tropes as “guarded privacy and locked rooms,” a “relentless swing between confrontation and escape,” and, as Osteen himself points out, “at least thirty-five references to eyes and vision.” Further, “forms of the verb ‘wait’ occur eleven times in the lyrics […] The prototypical situation on the album, in other words, is that of suspension on the brink of consummation.”
Is this mere academic over-parsing? That is, were the Beatles aware of how many references to eyes they were including in their most recent batch of songs? Most likely not, but that doesn’t mean the tropes aren’t present. Certainly, in the case of the Beatles one cannot underestimate their subversive, mischievous motives. The essays here largely avoid such academic pitfalls, with the contributors sticking to the evidentiary clues, the proof in the honey pie.
The White Album is an open field, somewhat in the manner of projective verse in poetry or abstract expressionism in painting—an all-over work, a work without frames or borders or distinguishable edges. The album spills and sprawls through pastiche (“Honey Pie”) and spirituality (“Long, Long Long”), through fiction (“Rocky Racoon”) and autobiography (“Julia”), chaos (“Helter Skelter”) and quietude (“Good Night”). The brilliant conceit of the white cover with its embossed limited-edition number (for a work set for unlimited reproduction) combined with the massively diverse material inside, verges on making of the album a mere concept piece: a plain white box that explodes when opened.
The prosaic truth behind the album’s breadth—no one member wanted to give up his songs—frees the album from such a rigid interpretation. What might it have been if the band had listened to producer George Martin and pared the album down to a standard 13 or so songs? Surely another masterpiece, but a closed one, a proscribed artifact without the tentacled reach of the released album. Its plethora of ideas still inspires, drawn upon by artists such as U2, Tori Amos, and Danger Mouse, to name just three covered in this volume.
How many books about the Beatles can the world withstand? Like Jorge Luis Borges’s looming library, a universal tower of books, Beatles-related literature is more voluminous than the Beatles own musical output, estimated at about 10 to 15 hours of officially released material. Try to get through all the Beatles-related literature in 10 hours. And yet, despite the overwhelming abundance of all that verbiage, the reverence remains. In the end, the music the Beatles made is more than equal to the lore they generate.
The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album, edited by Mark Osteen, is now available from the University of Michigan Press.
Review: Bret Easton Ellis Uses White to Explode Our Pretenses of Dignity
Throughout, Ellis waves a broadsword at political correctness.
With his first nonfiction work, White, Bret Easton Ellis waves a broadsword at political correctness, enjoying the friction that such a pursuit generates when indulged by someone in his particular social station. Whether you’re on the left or right of America’s endless struggle to pretend to be the democracy it claims to be, it’s not surprising when Rush Limbaugh or one of the “Stepford reporters” of Fox News demeans “identity politics.” But Ellis has written a couple of hip and controversial novels—including Less than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho—as well as a screenplay for a Paul Schrader film. Ellis is a member of the “Hollywood elite,” and he’s gay, living with a millennial boyfriend many years his junior. This isn’t the person, then, that one expects to entertain a flirtation with quasi-right-wing values, sort of making a case for Kanye West and Donald Trump. Ellis gets off on that very disjunction in White, which serves as both a summary and an extension of the provocations he offers on Twitter as well as on The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast.
Ellis writes in generalities, roiling with the self-righteous anger that’s fashionable for everyone on all sides of the aisle to indulge nowadays. To him, helicopter parenting—scheduling every moment of children’s free time, sheltering them from the pressures and disappointments of competition—has led to a generation of wimps, an assertion which is as unoriginal as it is simplified. According to the author, millennials and members of Generation Z are “Generation Wuss,” and his primary research on the subject appears to be his own childhood, as well as watching his boyfriend, musician Todd Michael Schultz, fume over MSNBC’s reporting of Trump’s outrages du jour over the last several years. Ellis’s reduction of his lover here, as sheltered and unjustifiably hysterical, might embarrass un-woke straight writers. Time and again, Ellis takes shortcuts and acknowledges said shortcuts so as to indulge himself anyway.
White includes only a token acknowledgement of the effect of rising economic inequality on youthful rage. This book also refuses to engage with outrage culture as a creation of both the left and the right. Who’s a more expert orchestrator of this country’s bitterness than the current president of the United States? Lashing out at his peers, Ellis resorts to the most pitiful of the defenses that have been mounted of Trump: that what he says can’t be taken literally, as his obscenities are essentially performance art. MSNBC is vilified in the book while the outright lies of Fox News, and of Trump, are barely mentioned. Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment is revisited in White as well, and so is Michelle Obama’s righteous “while they go high, we go low” routine at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, while Trump’s slander and encouragements of active assault are ignored.
Yet in its slapdash and self-pitying way, White also cuts to the heart of modern liberal ineffectuality. To loosely paraphrase a character from Ron Shelton’s White Men Can’t Jump, it seems as if liberals would rather look good and lose than look bad and win. Ellis correctly sees factions of the far left as humorless prigs, demanding insincere apologies for superficial lapses in taste while literal-mindedly tabulating representation in various forms of art, which leads to all sorts of lapses in common sense. For instance, male critics are rarely allowed to comment on personal appearances in pop culture—objectification!—even though pop culture is almost entirely predicated on sex. What Ellis pinpoints, and what the far left willfully misses, is that this sort of self-censorship, encouraged of the broader populace as well, brokers another form of shame: of the very desire that most films, TV, and online imagery encourages anyway. Ellis uses the outcry over an L.A. Weekly article on Sky Ferreira as an example of this hypocritical neurosis, but he could have just as easily cited any number of other non-controversies, such as the absurd offenses that were taken over the assertion that Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman might partially be an essay on Gal Gadot’s beauty,
There are larger things at stake here than a man’s right to admit he finds a woman attractive. Ellis is rightfully scared of how acceptable censorship has become on the social media plane, which encourages us to offer a sanitized version of ourselves that’s engineered to earn “likes” and pass the inspections of prospective employers while conforming to a woke sensibility to atone for not effecting more significant social changes. Ellis misses a time—which, at 39, I remember too—in which one was able to make a joke in bad taste without having to then stage an apology tour. He’s rightfully scared of how corporations have combined social media with a generalized liberal agenda so as to trick us into serving as our own thought police.
This sense of not being able to say things, of not being able to be imperfect, encourages the creation of a hidden world, and not just the world of white supremacists. In private, many people make the sort of jokes that are brutally rebuffed on Twitter. And we still sexualize people, because most humans are driven by sexual desires and because we live in a simultaneously puritanical and über-sexed culture that’s confusing and exhausting. (Many of my friends are liberals who’re tired of the steroidal liberal nobility project, and these friends include millennials of various colors and sexualities, which, judging from White, might come as a shock to Ellis.) This public policing often suggests a compensation prize for liberals for possessing less influence than conservatives, insidiously allowing people to feel empowered even as corporations continue to seize control of the world.
In White, Ellis is essentially arguing for our right to admit to our selfishness, our bitterness, and our questionable longings. He’s arguing for irony as an antidote to the outrage machine that keeps many of us in a perpetual anti-intellectual tizzy. As a way of achieving what he seems to oxymoronically idealize as a form of empathetic detachment, Ellis keeps returning to the notion of valuing aesthetic over theme in art. In particular, White’s liveliest passages often filter Ellis’s social grievances through film reviews, including a sharp and lucid reading of Schrader’s American Gigolo, which Ellis reads as an inadvertently prescient anticipation of how social media has transformed us all into commodified, ever-shifting actors. There’s also a visceral takedown of Barry Jenkins’s tormented gay pseudo-romance Moonlight, which Ellis sees as an embodiment of the left’s victim complex. (Although Ellis violates his own rules here, as he admits that Moonlight, with its evocative formal textures, is of aesthetic note. Which is to say that Ellis, as a gay man, is turning against a work of art for reasons of representation and theme, like many of the liberals he criticizes.)
Using aesthetic criterion, White leads to a white-washing of Trump that should nevertheless prove insightful to members of the “resistance.” Trump’s actions shouldn’t be taken as performance art, but that is how they’re taken: as a fuck-you to cultural platitudes that are growing increasingly distanced from how people actually process their lives. Trump is appealing to his supporters, including Kanye West, because he’s visceral, because his livewire nonsensicality and hatefulness seem to embody freedom, even if his behavior actively hurts the people who love him. When liberal outlets scold him, according every misbehavior equal prominence (and often glossing over policy, which is where he wreaks his greatest havoc), they grant Trump power, and somehow they continue to not learn this lesson—or they are, like Trump, just feeding the beast. Ellis understands this irony, and, seeking to distinguish between moral and aesthetic concerns, he decodes Trump’s allure.
Other reviews have ridiculed Ellis’s comparison of Trump’s political ascension to Charlie Sheen’s public 2011 meltdown, but this equivocation strikes me as brilliant and useful. In both cases, the offenders in question shattered the faux nobility of the press and the celebrity class, admitting in various fashions that our society is predicated on a ruthless game in which fame is used to make money, money to further fame, and so forth. Tired of spinning his real-life hedonism into sexist, toothless cartoon antics for Two and a Half Men, Sheen revealed the monstrous insanity that lurked under a typical fantasy of male power—a fantasy that women enjoy as well as men. Ellis finds Sheen’s breakdown weirdly admirable—of course the writer of American Psycho would—for exploding our pretenses of dignity.
We turned on Sheen only when he forced us to confront the exploitation, the misery, behind his unlimited satiation of hunger, though we were also fixated for a while on him as the freak of the moment. Trump harvested our sleazy predictions with the help of Fox News and built a political empire on the acknowledgement of power for its own sake—on the appeal of watching platitudes be shattered. Nearly every sentiment out of Trump’s mouth is a ribald lie, but these collective lies fulfill a truth for Ellis: that politics, tabloids, and all of media has merged into a soup of sensationalist stimulation. Democrats, with their constant fact-checking and schoolhouse lecturing, are effectively bringing a knife to a gunfight.
White feels as if it was hammered out over a long weekend. Given the importance of some of Ellis’s subjects, one wishes that he was more disciplined, though perhaps that’s also missing his point of the inherent sloppiness of outrage culture. A sense of humor would’ve helped the book as well, as Ellis could stand to make a few jokes at his own rarefied expense. Being castigated on Twitter by C-listers or criticized for writing a novel that nevertheless made your name isn’t exactly synonymous with the frustrations of most American people. Ellis acknowledges this social discrepancy but doesn’t appear to truly know it. He’s evening scores in White, though he’s clearly a member of the gilded class that so galls him. A rich white man, Ellis can afford to write Trump off as a bad joke, which means that liberal media will have an excuse to ignore White. However, writing Trump off as a joke, effectively reducing his power by reducing our essentially reverential hatred, might also be the key to undoing him.
Bret Easton Ellis’s White is now available from Knopf.
Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch
Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.
The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.
Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.
As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.
While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”
Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”
Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.
Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”
Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.
The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.
Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.
One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.
The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.
Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”
A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.
Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.
The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”
But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”
This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)
Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.
Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”
Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”
Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.
David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.
Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis
Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.
Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.
With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.
Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.
Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.
Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.
Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?
Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.
Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.
Review: Someone Is in My House Showcases the Reach of David Lynch’s Obsessions
Lynch’s paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.
Though famous for being a filmmaker and co-creator of the TV series Twin Peaks, David Lynch works in many other mediums, including music, sculpture, photography, furniture-making, and painting, the last of which is the wellspring of his creativity. Lynch has painted since the 1960s, finding his voice among the ruinous squalor of a once-rough Philadelphia. Inspired by artists such as Francis Bacon, Lynch developed a style that’s rich in the irreconcilable contradictions that would drive his cinema. His paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.
At times, Lynch has been dismissed as a “celebrity painter” who nets prestigious exhibitions based on his fame as a filmmaker, as well as on the urge to utilize his other art as a kind of decoder ring for his films. These claims may be partially true, but this doesn’t mean that the art itself isn’t extraordinary, and there’s a concentrated effort underway to recalibrate Lynch’s reputation within pop culture. The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life featured hypnotic footage of Lynch in the studio of his Los Angeles home, smoking and creating new canvases. Last year, the book David Lynch: Nudes collected his empathetic, erotic, and astonishingly subjective photography of nude women. Now there’s David Lynch: Someone Is in My House, a gorgeous volume of Lynch’s painting, photography, sculpture, and short-film stills.
Someone Is in My House impresses one with the reach of Lynch’s ambitions and obsessions, affirming yet another contradiction of his art: that it’s vast yet repetitive and insular. Across the spectrum of over 250 stills, this volume spotlights the many techniques that Lynch utilizes. After perceptive essays by Lynch biographer Kristine McKenna, who places Lynch’s work in the context of legendary art at large, and Michael Chabon, who emphasizes Lynch’s grasp of the uncanny truth of the everyday, among others, Someone Is in My House offers a tour of Lynch’s work that’s divided by medium, starting with “Works on Paper” and continuing with “Painting/Mixed Media,” “Photography,” “Lamps,” and “Film and Video Stills.”
Each section is structured in chronological order, spanning five decades, so as to subtly assert Lynch’s ongoing evolution as an artist. The book ends with a brief biography, which will probably be well-known by anyone driven to buy it, and a list of Lynch’s exhibitions. If Someone Is in My House has one disappointment, it pertains to this structure, as a straightforward chronological organization of Lynch’s art might’ve more vividly emphasized the wild multi-pronged simultaneousness of his imagination. But this is a small issue, as this volume offers the gift of relative accessibility, allowing cinephiles and other aesthetes the opportunity to access a major and generally rarefied mine of Lynch’s workload.
To open Someone Is in My House is to plunge into landscapes of darkness inhabited by deformed humans and other creatures, who have distended, shrunken, or extended appendages, heads that are animalistic or brutalized, and bodies that are often either a collection of tumorous protuberances or are merely composed of a few lines like primitive stick figures. Among this darkness is bright color, usually red, which offers beautiful illumination that’s understood to exist at the cost of atrocity. Among darkness there’s a light of injury in other words, as Lynch is obsessed by the idea of people coming in contact with nightmarish entities and being destroyed or severely hurt in a manner that suggests enlightenment to be a kind of state of higher confusion.
In Lynch’s art, blood and other substances gush out of heads like geysers, and people’s faces are often twisted in knots of anxiety. As in his films, Lynch’s paintings are obsessed by the home as a symbol of our illusions of stability and how easily they can be violated. This art is surreal, in that it conforms to no requirements of literal representation, but it’s also overwhelmingly docudramatic in its emphasis on its own DNA. The lithographs on Japanese paper, for instance, which are some of the most starkly memorable of this book’s many unforgettable images, are driven in part by their sense of fragility. The ink appears to have been applied to the canvases in a frenzy, and seems as if it could quite easily be wiped away. Lynch’s multimedia work, particularly his mixtures of sculptures and paintings, are populated by lumpy figures that show the imprint of the artist’s fingerprints and are built from globs of materials, suggesting how easily they could be morphed again by another god. (Or by us, who could in turn by victimized by other gods such as Mr. Redman, a quasi-corporeal explosion of carnage that haunts Lynch’s oil and mixed media canvas of the same name.)
Lynch’s art is also driven by the preludes and aftermaths of events. In This Man Was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago, a phallic string of guts explodes out of a man with a characteristically vague and misshapen face—a Bacon-ish image that occurs against a symmetrical interior backdrop that would be at home in an Edward Hopper canvas. Acknowledging these influences, McKenna goes on to write one of the most profound things I’ve read about Lynch’s paintings: “They have a clumsy, accidental quality and come across as thwarted attempts to make oneself understood; they feel wrought rather than painted.” Rendering characters in the face of impending or concluding cataclysm, Lynch adapts techniques that mirror their awkwardness and alienation, and this chameleonic—at once assertive and self-effacing—style has probably been part of the reason for Lynch being taken somewhat for granted as an artist.
However, Lynch’s primitivism communicates robust emotional quandaries, especially an earnest yearning for a return to a normalcy that’s been shattered—a normalcy that never existed and which is embodied by houses that are composed of only a few skewed lines. These houses might be harbingers of nostalgia for Lynch’s characters, but they’re hollow or—in the case of Lynch’s lonely and forbiddingly poignant black-and-white photographs of snowmen—closed off and ridden with secrets that are impossible to know. Many Lynch characters also face their brutal reckonings with a becoming and majestic dignity, such as the nose-headed subject of an untitled 1971 pencil sketch.
Though Someone Is in My House is adamant that we take Lynch’s artwork on its own terms, without always connecting it to his films and TV, such an exercise isn’t entirely resistible. Lynch’s art clarifies to an extent what his films are also doing: valuing moments of privatized emotional experience, and often suspending plots in time so as to show how individual epiphanies can knock us off the course of our own “narrative”—that is to say, our lives.
Twin Peaks: The Return, which is clearly on Lynch’s mind in the art that’s included in this book from 2010 forward, is a collection of scenes and images that bind the existential cosmic with the domestic rituals of our lives. For most of us, finally connecting with a lost love at a coffee shop means more than considerations of the unknowable evil that may or may not pull the strings behind the curtains of eternity. Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper became unstuck in time because he took for granted the heaven of his kinship with the townsfolk of the hellish yet pastoral Twin Peaks. He failed to recognize what the subjects of many of Lynch’s paintings discover: that, to quote McKenna again, “Life happens through us, not because of us.” Throughout his career, Lynch has mined a vein of ecstatic powerlessness.
David Lynch: Someone Is in My House is now available from Prestel.
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.
Review: Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds Is a Collection of Searing Epiphanies
Throughout this remarkable book, what seizes the characters’ attention, and ours, often has the dissimulated air of a revelation that’s still in the midst of disclosure.
In Mouthful of Birds, Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin lifts up reality and hurls it elsewhere. An aunt in one story seeks “the most arcane side of the simplest things,” and Schweblin is up to something similar. In the worlds she’s devised, one’s eyes can quickly alight upon something deeply weird. The teenager in the title story blithely rises from the couch and, to her father’s horror, devours a live sparrow. In “The Size of Things,” the owner of a toy shop finds his inventory has been rearranged overnight. It’s the work of Enrique Duvel, a troubled man who, with the owner’s reluctantly granted permission, spent the night inside the shop. The question of Enrique, with his fastidious artistry and childlike fascinations, ultimately contracts toward a fleeting, irrational sight—like a shimmer out of some unsettling dream.
Throughout this remarkable book, what seizes the characters’ attention, and ours, often has the dissimulated air of a revelation that’s still in the midst of disclosure. In a recent interview with Electric Literature, Schweblin explained that her process is driven more by emotion than plot. Indeed, intensities of feeling and portent encircle these tales like a thickening mist that’s never thuddingly dispelled by a simple twist or tidy resolution.
This is finely shown in “Underground,” in which Schweblin again conveys the act of seeing as something profoundly urgent and difficult. Its embedded tale, told to the narrator by an old man, concerns a child who discovers a small growth in the ground. “It wasn’t much,” the old man notes, “but it seemed like enough to him.” Following the discovery, a kind of obsessive-compulsive fervor overtakes the child and his cohort. They begin to ritualistically dig at the spot every day. Then the children and the hole vanish. And the gazes of their parents, once uncomprehending or averted, become desperately watchful. They begin to dig into the earth, searching, and later hear scrabbling noises rising up from beneath the floors of their homes.
The old man’s story ends abruptly, with much of its mystery still intact. And, while telling the story, he digresses to consider the hazards of everyday life: the risks, which, in their innumerable permutations, outstrip our preemptive scrutiny, and can at times resemble some larger metaphysical cruelty. Aspects like these moor the book to recognizable neuroses and anxieties—to the terrors of uncertainty. In a more precise sense, “Underground,” like a number of stories in the collection, presents a uniquely parental nightmare. It extends the work of Fever Dream, Schweblin’s 2014 debut novel. (As with Mouthful of Birds, it was translated into English by Megan McDowell.) The forensic odyssey of that novel is oriented around the urgently recalled memories of a dying mother, whose need to shield her young daughter from harm is repeatedly expressed. “I need to get out in front of anything that could happen,” the mother says at one point, as she remembers her first night in a new home, “but everything is very dark and my eyes never get used to the darkness.”
Mouthful of Birds restores something of Fever Dream’s somnambulant rhythm and furtive prose. Schweblin again distends suspenseful searches and approaching crises; such aspects, in exhilarating or unnerving ways, often seem to be interminably unfurling. Her writing can bring to mind the disconcerting power of Inger Stevens, in The Twilight Zone’s “The Hitch-Hiker,” pensively driving along roads, both chasing and eluding some terrible truth. In “Rage of Pestilence,” Schweblin introduces a census taker who arrives at a border town, and who seems to know that something will go wrong—and something does, something has. He detects “the townspeople behind the windows and doors,” and notices “the back of a little boy leaning against a post; a dog’s tail poking out from the doorway of a house.” The details accumulate slowly and mesmerically. Its disturbing ending is like a secret that erupts and recedes at once.
In that story—as in other sterling examples, like “Toward Happy Civilization” or “The Digger”—it’s as if the protagonist is lost within an esoteric game. Mouthful of Birds, in this respect, would pair well with The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioys Casares, which Schweblin has cited as an inspiration. Certain “miraculous” visitors interrupt the solitude of that novel’s fugitive islander. He closely studies them, and the odd game that appears to be afoot. He begins, also, to think of the “weight that keeps you from running away in dreams,” and “the figures that appear, according to Leonardo, when we look fixedly at damp spots on a wall for any length of time.” Schweblin’s storytelling captures similar feelings and ideas. In “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides,” for example, she limns one man’s fundamental myopia by pointing out his inability to apprehend the “millions of shifting particles” in any given object.
And it’s a stray object, fixedly regarded, that catalyzes one of the more searing epiphanies in Mouthful of Birds. It’s found in “My Brother Walter,” a story about the depressed title character and the success of his entrepreneurial family. Walter, we learn, is a quiet and sedentary fixture at his family’s barbecues. His relatives vaguely derive something from his presence. They also try to address his wellbeing but mostly in perfunctory ways. Schweblin is here examining how the good fortune and happiness of most of the members of this family collide with Walter’s debilitating sadness, and how this creates incongruities that can sometimes seem like darkly absurd jokes. “The business grows,” the narrator, Walter’s brother, says at one point, “and my son turns two years old. When I put him in Walter’s arms, my son smiles and claps and says, ‘I’m happy, I’m so happy.’”
When the son drops a garland during another celebration, Walter breaks out of his stasis. He reaches for the object. The narrator, taken aback, tries to describe his alarm: “Walter looks at the garland, seeming to study it with too much attention, and for a moment everything seems confused to me.” From there, the complacency of the narrator violently disintegrates. He plunges, fast, toward untapped reservoirs of empathy and fear. Cultural gaps are considered elsewhere in the book, but this story affirms that Schweblin is also contemplating a variety of interpersonal and existential gaps. “I think we don’t understand the other in general,” she stated recently, in the aforementioned interview, in which she also discussed the power of suddenly being able to behold another person or object “as if for the first time.” In another interview, she acknowledged her tendency to create characters who “don’t understand what’s going on around them or how to get out of the situations they’re in.”
In keeping with Schweblin’s comments, the characters in Mouthful of Birds often fail to comprehend others, and even parts of themselves. But all of this can be upended, for however brief and startling an interval, by something as simple as a dropped garland. And then the familiar becomes like frail gossamer, and disperses through the delicate force of a glance.
Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds is now available from Riverhead Books.
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