If thereâs a love triangle at the center of The Marriage Plot, then itâs isoscelesâtwo towering male characters (one autobiographical, one biographical) grounded by one basic female, Madeleine Hanna, about whom, despite her prominence in the novel, we end up knowing very little. Sheâs an English major at Brown University who loves both Jane Austen and Roland Barthes; sheâs better behaved than her older sister; sheâs shown, at one point, perched on her dorm roomâs bed in some kind of pajama, eating peanut butter from the jar with a spoon, looking for all the world like a commercial of a girl hard at work. For much of the novel, Madeleineâs work consists of a paper about the use of the marriage plot in Victorian novels, a de facto focus arising from a college course entitled, of course, âThe Marriage Plot.â It starts as an assignment, turns into her undergraduate thesis, and is later edited into a published article (presumably by Madeleine, though aside from her peanut-butter bender we rarely see her consult her books for anything but romantic fortunes, and her only use of a pencil comes in the form of a Dear John letter), but through her hours of work on âI Thought Youâd Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot,â those elusive thoughts never really take shape.
What we can glean from the story comes to us in the form of characters defined not by marriage, but by sexâthe having of it, the anticipation, and the desire to explicate of it. The novel opens with Madeleine hung over in bed, an enticing stain on the dress she fell asleep in. Two of her previous boyfriends are summarized right away, one of whom would speak only of circumcision, the other of whom she was ashamed to like because of his side career as a male model; sheâs described at one point wishing he were an athlete or a politician instead, grasping for platitudes of masculinity. At the end of her first date with her future husband, Leonard Bankhead, the syntax contorts to emphasize the fact that they donât kiss goodbye over what actually does happen. Later, or perhaps earlier (chronology is one of this novelâs great victims), Madeleine meets the other side of her triangle, a religious studies major named Mitchell Grammaticus, at a toga party, and her toga briefly slips off her shoulder in front of him. Having now succeeded in viewing her breast, Mitchell loves Madeleine, but Madeleine loves Leonard. Leonard loves Madeleine, too, but he also loves the manic effects of his manic depression. Nobody loves Mitchell, except late in the novel when Jesus loves him.
The novelâs first movement comes to a head when Madeleine tells Leonard she loves him, and he in turn cracks a joke about Barthes; she temporarily exits the relationship, and, as her first act of liberation, fools around with this guy named Thurston (possible creator of the early mystery stain), but then goes back to Leonard, who by this point has been hospitalized and is on a dosage of lithium that renders him impotent. That summer, soon after graduation, Madeleine happens upon Mitchell in a bar, and when they cram into a taxi later in the evening, she sits on his lap and lets him grope her and eventually kisses him, but the night never leads to anything more; she returns to the chaste home she shares with Leonard, and Mitchell heads out for a post-graduate international enlightenment tour with his best friend Larry. Their first stop is Paris, where they plan to crash with Larryâs girlfriend (a second-wave feminist studying abroad), but, confronted with the prospect of others having sex without his involvement, Mitchell flees the apartment for the comfort of a hotel room shared with a strange man. Stop number two is Athens, where Mitchell walks in on Larry in bed with a young Grecian man. Like true bros they hug it out and part ways, Larry staying on and Mitchell going straight to India, stop three, where he commits himself to a volunteer position with Mother Teresaâs Home for the Destitute and Dying, only to surrender it days later at the sight of an incontinent man. Meanwhile, Leonard takes his condition into his own hands, altering the prescription dosage of lithium with a pill-cutter he picks up at an apothecary. With his rising mania comes the return of his libido, which prompts the fateful proposal at the novelâs center (imperative here, without a question mark).
Despite its clumsy execution, the framework is occasionally thrilling, especially the decision to send Mitchell to India. But all India is good for, in the end, is an ambiguous clarity that allows him to come to terms, or feel closure, or something. Madeleineâs arc is punctuated by the comings and goings of the males in her life, and cannot at all be credited to her, even at the novelâs end, when she smiles her wizened smile after essentially repeating the exact behavior that brought about the opening sceneâs hangover. Itâs Leonard who is afforded the only transcendental moment in the novel, and even this is withheld from us when it happens; we see the before and after, and the recollection of what actually happens to him matters only in its aid in complicating Mitchellâs jealousy over Madeleine. What could have been the literal high point of the novel becomes a tangent, beholden to the language of the failed romance itâs tied to.
Itâs surprising to see this author, of all authors, not just employ but actually embrace the forced verbal constructs that divert the narrative toward a momentum-killing series of these dead-end tangents, then compensate for this with a volatile pace that often reveals its immediate ends before any attempt to accrue the novelâs context (at one point showing Madeleine in a new car, then explaining, since weâre wondering, who paid for the car, then why the car was given to her, then why we maybe wouldnât have given her a car under similar circumstances, until weâre months in the past, backward-facing and lost in FYIs while the car speeds ahead). And then justify this with insights into human behavior, that workshop favorite, such as âHeartbreak is funny to everyone but the heartbroken,â and weird and baffling bits, such as the discovery that Leonard was modeled, for some reason, after David Foster Wallaceâto the point of lifting quotes from some of Wallaceâs interviews and calling them dialogue. But none of this is as surprising, after a masterpiece of a first novel and a very good second novel, as the sight of truly bad writing on almost every pageâpoor usage, awkward paragraph breaks, a constant reliance upon the words âbut suddenly.â
Whatever the meaning behind all of this, however, the author isnât interested, and the narrative isnât interested, and the characters arenât interested. By the end of the novel, when logic is abandoned entirely and the most important moment of Mitchellâs story is rewritten to suit the needs of a lame exchange with Madeleine, the dialogue resorts to simply justifying the authorâs work. âIs there any book that ends like [this]?â one of them asks. âNo,â the other says. âDo you think that would be good? As an ending?â one of them asks. âYes,â the other says, and you canât help but wonder if these hundreds of pages filled with love and longing and Austen and Barthes could really have brought them nowhere.
Jeffrey Eugenidesâs The Marriage Plot will be released on October 11 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. To purchase it, click here.
Review: Cari Mora Luridly and Bitingly Plumbs Manâs Capacity for Evil
Thomas Harrisâs novel fathoms man’s depravity in ways that are at once spectacularly horrifying and mordantly amusing.
Thomas Harrisâs Cari Mora is the authorâs first novel since 1975âs 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 Harrisâs masterful Hannibal, Hans-Peter uses a constant cash flow to feed his ghastly appetite for human suffering. When the women he kidnaps donât âwork out for business,â 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 âvery proud.â And as in his Lecter novels, Harris fathoms this manâs 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 âcanine teethâ accompany a âstartling ability to mimicâ the voices and movements of others. As the novel commences, heâs set his eyes on the eponymous Cari Mora, the twentysomething caretaker of a mansion located along Miamiâs Biscayne Bay, where he believes between 25 and 35 million dollars worth of gold lies buried beneath it. Heâs 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 JesĂșs Villarreal, a former associate of Pablo Escobar, who previously owned the mansion in Biscayne Bay. JesĂșs 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 âloveâ and âhateâ Ă la Robert Mitchumâs murdering preacher in The Night of the Hunter and whose truck boats a bumper sticker reading: âIF IâD KNOWN THIS I WOULD OF PICKED MY OWN COTTON.â 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 Harrisâs approximation of a modern-day Hannibal Lecter, then Cari might be said to be the authorâs 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 Cariâs 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 Cariâs headspace as she feels the group of men thinking, âPull a train, pull a train.â Cari isnât a mystic, but she does seem to know from the look on a manâs face the horrific extent of his intentions. That the mansion is permanently decorated with âlunging and reachingâ monster mannequins from horror films is Harrisâs coup de grace: Cinemaâs imaginings are but a knick next to the war thatâs responsible for Cariâs 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 heâs needed toward the novelâs endâand even then, his function feels incidental.
Then thereâs 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 novelâs weightier themes are momentarily cast aside throughout these moments.
Cari Mora is at its best as a sustained meditation on the ineffable extent of humankindâs 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 Cariâs attempted brainwashing by FARC, though from the beginning of her training she remains resistant, receiving âdemerits for inattention in indoctrination classes.â When Cari discovers that FARC is slaughtering entire villages just like the ultra-right paramilitary, she makes a plan to escape from FARCâs 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 âthe sound of a woman cryingâ is âsoothing,â 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 Harrisâs ongoing consideration of how light and dark are often interchangeable.
Thomas Harrisâs Cari Mora is available on May 21 from Grand Central Publishing.
Review: The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album
If youâre in a band, the Beatles taught you everything, whether you know it (or admit it) or not.
If youâre in a band, the Beatles taught you everything, whether you know itâor admit itâor 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 Harrisonâs âMy Sweet Lord,â Paul McCartneyâs âBand on the Run,â Ringo Starrâs âIt Donât Come Easyâ or, indeed, John Lennonâs âImagine.â Itâs 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 bandâs music in their classrooms. For as much as anywhere else, the Beatles have invaded academia and pedagogy. Indeed, thereâs a wealth of scholarship built around âthe boys,â 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 Ringoâs drumming and John Lennonâs use of the phrase âoh yeahâ? 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 Albumâor, as itâs officially called, The Beatles.
In his lengthy introduction Osteen sets the stage:
â[In some ways] the White Album resembles one of those nineteenth-century novels that Henry James famously dubbed âlarge, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitraryâ. [Yet the albumâs] bagginess, along with its frequent use of bricolage, self-referentiality, fragmentation, and pastiche, is not Victorian but postmodernist.â
This postmodern pluralism, its grab bag of musical styles and moods spread over four sides of vinyl, is precisely whatâs most often cited as either the albumâs 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 albumâs makingâthe internal strife, each Beatle supposedly using the others as players rather than co-members, Yoko Onoâs omnipresenceâdonât necessarily contradict a sense of thematic wholeness, as this book makes quite clear.
Osteen sees âa 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 Albumâs diversity camouflages a set of consistent motifs and situations that surface under close analysis.â
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. Pepperâs 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 werenât the same band and it wasnât 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 apoliticalâor, 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 âââŠOut/InâŠâ The Beatlesâ Image in Transition During the âYear of the Barricadesâ.â
In the thrill and exuberance of the early years of Beatlemania, Frontani writes, â[s]ex, primarily, provided a basis for unityâŠthe attraction of the subversive qualities of an image constructed to embody unconstrained romantic and carnal relationships. The Beatles [âŠ] were a vehicle for youths to fully engage in a euphoric sense of being young [âŠ] Eventually, other youths icons arose and diluted the Beatles dominance, but none could dethrone them.â
The bandâs imperial power was never stronger than upon Sgt. Pepperâs 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: âAnd the Beatles missed it.â They left for India as hippie heroes and came back out-of-step millionaires, or like older brothers whoâd gone off from an adoring family to study abroad and returned to a resentful household in violent disarray. The Flower Power emblematized by Sgt. Pepperâthat dreadnought soundtrack to the Summer of Loveâhad 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 Beatlesâs albums had as much of that as The White Album. In the chapters âChildren of Nature: Origins of the Beatlesâ Tabula Rasaâ and âBeatles Unplugged: The White Album in the Shadow of Rishikesh,â Walter Everett and John Kimsey, respectively, engage the albumâs musical beginnings. Everett examines what are known as the Kinfauns or Esher demos recorded at Harrisonâs home prior to the albumâs 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 completistâs list, this is more a display of the Beatlesâs creative output at a truly transitional period in their careers. Likewise, Kimsey offers informative background on the acoustic origins of the albumâs material, notably the âclawhammerâ or âTravisâ picking style taught to the band by singer-songwriter Donovan (a technique one hears on many of the bandâs subsequent recordings, especially Lennonâs, both with the Beatles and solo). Both Everett and Kimsey also provide snippets of compositional transcription, which, even if one doesnât read music, are easily followable due to the songsâ familiarity.
Other chapters focus on each memberâs contribution. Perhaps most welcome is Steve Hamelmanâs âBlisters on His Fingers: Ringo Starrâs Performance on The Beatles.â While the debate over the drummerâs playing is, by this point, well-defined (in short, feel versus proficiency), Hamelman offers more an assessment of Ringoâs own assessment of his drumming during the recording of The White Album. The drummer had famously declared that he felt he was playing âshittyâ at this point, prompting his ostensibly âquittingâ the band. (The Beatles are like alcoholism: once a Beatle, always a Beatle.) Hamelman doesnât quite let the drummer off the hook, but conclusively praises the underrated taste of Starrâs playingâhis 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 mustâve come easy. Just as band tensions were at their peak (another factor in Ringoâs hiatus), the writing was as well. John Covach traces Harrisonâs musical growth, from Lennon-McCartney copycat to accomplished Eastern-influenced singer-songwriterâfrom rockabilly to ragabilly. Stephen Valdez sees Lennon returning, on The White Album, to the rocker he always was, but with an experimental edge, ââŠa creative mind cleverly pushing its musical limits within the construct of a return to his musical roots.â While Vincent P. Benitez uncovers the âintertextualityâ of McCartneyâs songs, cross-referencing the artistâs White Album offerings with those from other periods of his prolific solo output, stressing McCartneyâs ability to absorb, master and mimic other musical styles and icons, be it the Beach Boys (âBack in the U.S.S.R.â) or Bach (âBlackbirdâ).
One can give too much self-conscious or simply conscious agency to something, like songwriting, thatâs more instinctive, a problem that Ian Inglis acknowledges here: âAttempts 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 assessmentsâŠâ Sometimes a scholar may create a thesis rather than discover one, read too deeply into an artistâs 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 âguarded privacy and locked rooms,â a ârelentless swing between confrontation and escape,â and, as Osteen himself points out, âat least thirty-five references to eyes and vision.â Further, âforms of the verb âwaitâ occur eleven times in the lyrics [âŠ] The prototypical situation on the album, in other words, is that of suspension on the brink of consummation.â
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 doesnât mean the tropes arenât 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 paintingâan all-over work, a work without frames or borders or distinguishable edges. The album spills and sprawls through pastiche (âHoney Pieâ) and spirituality (âLong, Long Longâ), through fiction (âRocky Racoonâ) and autobiography (âJuliaâ), chaos (âHelter Skelterâ) and quietude (âGood Nightâ). 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 albumâs breadthâno one member wanted to give up his songsâfrees 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 Borgesâs 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 youâre on the left or right of Americaâs endless struggle to pretend to be the democracy it claims to be, itâs not surprising when Rush Limbaugh or one of the âStepford reportersâ of Fox News demeans âidentity politics.â But Ellis has written a couple of hip and controversial novelsâincluding Less than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and American Psychoâas well as a screenplay for a Paul Schrader film. Ellis is a member of the âHollywood elite,â and heâs gay, living with a millennial boyfriend many years his junior. This isnât 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 thatâs fashionable for everyone on all sides of the aisle to indulge nowadays. To him, helicopter parentingâscheduling every moment of childrenâs free time, sheltering them from the pressures and disappointments of competitionâhas 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 âGeneration Wuss,â 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 MSNBCâs reporting of Trumpâs outrages du jour over the last several years. Ellisâs 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. Whoâs a more expert orchestrator of this countryâs 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 canât 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 Clintonâs âdeplorablesâ comment is revisited in White as well, and so is Michelle Obamaâs righteous âwhile they go high, we go lowâ routine at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, while Trumpâs 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 Sheltonâs White Men Canât 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 cultureâobjectification!âeven 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 Jenkinsâs Wonder Woman might partially be an essay on Gal Gadotâs beauty,
There are larger things at stake here than a manâs 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 thatâs engineered to earn âlikesâ 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 timeâwhich, at 39, I remember tooâin which one was able to make a joke in bad taste without having to then stage an apology tour. Heâs 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 ĂŒber-sexed culture thatâs confusing and exhausting. (Many of my friends are liberals whoâre 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. Heâs 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, Whiteâs liveliest passages often filter Ellisâs social grievances through film reviews, including a sharp and lucid reading of Schraderâs American Gigolo, which Ellis reads as an inadvertently prescient anticipation of how social media has transformed us all into commodified, ever-shifting actors. Thereâs also a visceral takedown of Barry Jenkinsâs tormented gay pseudo-romance Moonlight, which Ellis sees as an embodiment of the leftâs 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 âresistance.â Trumpâs actions shouldnât be taken as performance art, but that is how theyâre 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 heâs 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 lessonâor they are, like Trump, just feeding the beast. Ellis understands this irony, and, seeking to distinguish between moral and aesthetic concerns, he decodes Trumpâs allure.
Other reviews have ridiculed Ellisâs comparison of Trumpâs political ascension to Charlie Sheenâs 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 powerâa fantasy that women enjoy as well as men. Ellis finds Sheenâs breakdown weirdly admirableâof course the writer of American Psycho wouldâfor 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 sakeâon the appeal of watching platitudes be shattered. Nearly every sentiment out of Trumpâs 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 Ellisâs subjects, one wishes that he was more disciplined, though perhaps thatâs also missing his point of the inherent sloppiness of outrage culture. A sense of humor wouldâve 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 isnât exactly synonymous with the frustrations of most American people. Ellis acknowledges this social discrepancy but doesnât appear to truly know it. Heâs evening scores in White, though heâs 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 Ellisâs White is now available from Knopf.
Review: David Bordwellâs Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Strattonâs 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 âclassicalâ status, when the innovations and developments of cinemaâs formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areasâtechnological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwellâs latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.
Bordwell begins with a series of questions: âWhat 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?â 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 âtalkiesâ to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.
As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, â[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.â In short, it was the process whereby âtalkiesâ became just âmovies.â Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the â30s, 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 conventionalizedânot 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. Itâs what Bordwell calls âan inherited patternâ or âschema.â
Also in the â40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms âmild modernismââa kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyceâs Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador DalĂâs work on Alfred Hitchcockâs 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 âborrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts [âŠ] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,â an environment of ââŠnovelty at almost any price.â
Such novelties included âaggregateâ films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Woodâs 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilderâs Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these ânoveltiesâ so sharply as Orson Wellesâs Citizen Kane, an âaggressive aggregateâ that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or âprismaticâ flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewiczâs term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Wellesâs 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 culpritsâCasablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kaneâhe doesnât just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the Bâs (and even some Câs and Dâs), 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 Interludesâthat is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapterâs discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. Thereâs 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. Thereâs also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropesâfighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for exampleâdemonstrating how Hollywoodâs ânarrative ecosystem played host to variants.â
Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isnât 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, Bordwellâs writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, âspreading the protagonist functionâ), 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 â40s 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 thatâs 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 â40s 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 â60s, 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 Peckinpahâs 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that thereâs 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 countryâs 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: âSomething was different about this movieâŠit was more than [just another shoot-âem-up] but I couldnât figure out whatâŠIâve been trying to answer that question ever since.â The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the filmâs 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 â60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical âoutlaw gringos on the lamâ story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and â68 was a vastly different place than it was in â63. Stratton notes how â[t]he pictureâŠwould 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 AsiaâŠa nation numbed by political assassinationâŠwhere a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.â
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 (âI guess Iâve learned more from Williams than anyoneâ), 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 filmâs 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 ââŠbecause it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickeryâ); 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 themselvesâmuch of them periodâbut of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah âplanned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movieâs shoot-outsâŠ[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.â Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, itâs no wonder that â[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.â
But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpahâs 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 Marvinâs coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: âThere could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was aâŠdeeply troubled man, a real-life killer himselfâŠon a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].â
This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pikeâs sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond OâBrien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pikeâs 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 Peckinpahâs stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Fordâs.)
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 â40s and â50s, 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 filmâs 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 FernĂĄndez, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexicoâs greatest director. Apparently, Fernandezâs 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 Peckinpahâs âcatharticâ 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 Pennâs Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpahâs film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hillâs Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvinâs resonant phrase, âno one takes a shit.â
Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. â[S]omething remarkable was occurring atâŠrehearsal sessions,â writes Stratton. âUnder Peckinpahâs direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.â Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: ââŠit wasnât like a playâŠor a TV show [âŠ] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day [âŠ] We were there in truth.â
Stratton considers The Wild Bunch âthe last Western [âŠ] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].â One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayneâespecially the Wayne of John Ford westernsâis 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 bunchâs 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, Strattonâs book is a fit inscription.
David Bordwellâs Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Strattonâs 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
Ădouard Louisâs latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.
Author Ădouard Louisâs father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when heâs 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 authorâs open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louisâs 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 TaĂŻa, another talented French writer whoâs also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, TaĂŻa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. TaĂŻa 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 Ădouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. TaĂŻa incorporates his relationship with his mother, MâBarka, 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 doesnât knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louisâs relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. Itâs clear that heâs exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who donât possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.
Louisâs account of his fatherâs suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his fatherâs 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 âmasculineâ 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 âitâs nothing.â In the bookâs 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 womenâs clothesâundoubtedly 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 Louisâs 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 (âfaggotâ is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his motherâs 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 TaĂŻa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louisâs fatherâs body through changes in health care coverage. Itâs not that the questions Louis ends with arenât necessary and important ones; itâs that thereâs 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 âruling classâ?
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 didnât intend it, but the bookâs 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 stateâs or the ruling classâs subjugation of his fatherâs body thatâs 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 isnât to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.
Ădouard Louisâs Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.
Review: Someone Is in My House Showcases the Reach of David Lynchâs 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 thatâs 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 âcelebrity painterâ 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 doesnât mean that the art itself isnât extraordinary, and thereâs a concentrated effort underway to recalibrate Lynchâs 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 thereâs David Lynch: Someone Is in My House, a gorgeous volume of Lynchâs painting, photography, sculpture, and short-film stills.
Someone Is in My House impresses one with the reach of Lynchâs ambitions and obsessions, affirming yet another contradiction of his art: that itâs 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 Lynchâs work in the context of legendary art at large, and Michael Chabon, who emphasizes Lynchâs grasp of the uncanny truth of the everyday, among others, Someone Is in My House offers a tour of Lynchâs work thatâs divided by medium, starting with âWorks on Paperâ and continuing with âPainting/Mixed Media,â âPhotography,â âLamps,â and âFilm and Video Stills.â
Each section is structured in chronological order, spanning five decades, so as to subtly assert Lynchâs 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 Lynchâs exhibitions. If Someone Is in My House has one disappointment, it pertains to this structure, as a straightforward chronological organization of Lynchâs art mightâve 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 Lynchâs 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 thatâs understood to exist at the cost of atrocity. Among darkness thereâs 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 Lynchâs art, blood and other substances gush out of heads like geysers, and peopleâs faces are often twisted in knots of anxiety. As in his films, Lynchâs 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 itâs 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 bookâs 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. Lynchâs multimedia work, particularly his mixtures of sculptures and paintings, are populated by lumpy figures that show the imprint of the artistâs 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 Lynchâs oil and mixed media canvas of the same name.)
Lynchâs 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 faceâa 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 Iâve read about Lynchâs paintings: âThey have a clumsy, accidental quality and come across as thwarted attempts to make oneself understood; they feel wrought rather than painted.â Rendering characters in the face of impending or concluding cataclysm, Lynch adapts techniques that mirror their awkwardness and alienation, and this chameleonicâat once assertive and self-effacingâstyle has probably been part of the reason for Lynch being taken somewhat for granted as an artist.
However, Lynchâs primitivism communicates robust emotional quandaries, especially an earnest yearning for a return to a normalcy thatâs been shatteredâa 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 Lynchâs characters, but theyâre hollow orâin the case of Lynchâs lonely and forbiddingly poignant black-and-white photographs of snowmenâclosed 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 Lynchâs artwork on its own terms, without always connecting it to his films and TV, such an exercise isnât entirely resistible. Lynchâs 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 ânarrativeââthat is to say, our lives.
Twin Peaks: The Return, which is clearly on Lynchâs mind in the art thatâs 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 MacLachlanâs 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 Lynchâs paintings discover: that, to quote McKenna again, âLife happens through us, not because of us.â 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 Callahanâs witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant whoâs 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. âI 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,â Bobby declares to the reader in the novelâs opening, and so begins a provocativeâand conspicuously wine-drenchedânarrative 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 cinemaâand 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 âas a kind of virgin sacrifice.â Throughout, Callahanâs frank descriptions of Bobbyâs 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 livesâthe moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been beforeâseem 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 armâs lengthâsexually and otherwiseâthroughout 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 Bobbyâs ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Benâs 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 stageâor 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 weâve 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 manâs obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahanâs previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the authorâs 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 retrospectâand 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 revelersâwearing only their underwear, at Monikaâs commandâall together âstreamed out into the night and ran like crazyâ 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 wonât ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesnât care, most of the time. And if you arenât 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 novelâs back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as âThe Great Gatsby on poppers,â and thereâs 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. Callahanâs novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clefâas well as the literary New York novelâby 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 thereâs still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novelâs 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 heâs suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virginâand 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. âŠ 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 weâve 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 noticeâall we rememberâis 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, âYou know, youâre downhearted, and you think, âWhatâs the use?â and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly youâre back in business again!â And the film theyâve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahanâs That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.
Review: Samanta Schweblinâs Mouthful of Birds Is a Collection of Searing Epiphanies
Throughout this remarkable book, what seizes the charactersâ attention, and ours, often has the dissimulated air of a revelation thatâs 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 âthe most arcane side of the simplest things,â and Schweblin is up to something similar. In the worlds sheâs devised, oneâs eyes can quickly alight upon something deeply weird. The teenager in the title story blithely rises from the couch and, to her fatherâs horror, devours a live sparrow. In âThe Size of Things,â the owner of a toy shop finds his inventory has been rearranged overnight. Itâs the work of Enrique Duvel, a troubled man who, with the ownerâs 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 sightâlike a shimmer out of some unsettling dream.
Throughout this remarkable book, what seizes the charactersâ attention, and ours, often has the dissimulated air of a revelation thatâs 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 thatâs never thuddingly dispelled by a simple twist or tidy resolution.
This is finely shown in âUnderground,â 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. âIt wasnât much,â the old man notes, âbut it seemed like enough to him.â 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 manâs 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 anxietiesâto the terrors of uncertainty. In a more precise sense, âUnderground,â like a number of stories in the collection, presents a uniquely parental nightmare. It extends the work of Fever Dream, Schweblinâs 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. âI need to get out in front of anything that could happen,â the mother says at one point, as she remembers her first night in a new home, âbut everything is very dark and my eyes never get used to the darkness.â
Mouthful of Birds restores something of Fever Dreamâs 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 Zoneâs âThe Hitch-Hiker,â pensively driving along roads, both chasing and eluding some terrible truth. In âRage of Pestilence,â Schweblin introduces a census taker who arrives at a border town, and who seems to know that something will go wrongâand something does, something has. He detects âthe townspeople behind the windows and doors,â and notices âthe back of a little boy leaning against a post; a dogâs tail poking out from the doorway of a house.â The details accumulate slowly and mesmerically. Its disturbing ending is like a secret that erupts and recedes at once.
In that storyâas in other sterling examples, like âToward Happy Civilizationâ or âThe Diggerââitâs 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 âmiraculousâ visitors interrupt the solitude of that novelâs fugitive islander. He closely studies them, and the odd game that appears to be afoot. He begins, also, to think of the âweight that keeps you from running away in dreams,â and âthe figures that appear, according to Leonardo, when we look fixedly at damp spots on a wall for any length of time.â Schweblinâs storytelling captures similar feelings and ideas. In âThe Heavy Suitcase of Benavides,â for example, she limns one manâs fundamental myopia by pointing out his inability to apprehend the âmillions of shifting particlesâ in any given object.
And itâs a stray object, fixedly regarded, that catalyzes one of the more searing epiphanies in Mouthful of Birds. Itâs found in âMy Brother Walter,â 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 familyâs 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 Walterâs debilitating sadness, and how this creates incongruities that can sometimes seem like darkly absurd jokes. âThe business grows,â the narrator, Walterâs brother, says at one point, âand my son turns two years old. When I put him in Walterâs arms, my son smiles and claps and says, âIâm happy, Iâm so happy.ââ
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: âWalter looks at the garland, seeming to study it with too much attention, and for a moment everything seems confused to me.â 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. âI think we donât understand the other in general,â she stated recently, in the aforementioned interview, in which she also discussed the power of suddenly being able to behold another person or object âas if for the first time.â In another interview, she acknowledged her tendency to create characters who âdonât understand whatâs going on around them or how to get out of the situations theyâre in.â
In keeping with Schweblinâs 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 Schweblinâs Mouthful of Birds is now available from Riverhead Books.
Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch
There’s something uncommonly relaxing about many of McPheeâs patient elaborations of things known and unknown.
âBut beyond the flaring headlines of the past year, few are aware of who Richard Burton really is, what he has done, and what he is throwing away by gulping down his past and then smashing the glass.â This is one of those quotes, which, through its sheer heft and style, threatens to turn any accompanying review into a redundancy. To find other lines that meet its towering standard, seek its source: The Patch by John McPhee. Thereâs no shortage of arresting remarks in this nicely heterogeneous collection of writing. One sinks into the book, riveted, but also races across it as its fascinations multiply.
The first section is called âThe Sporting Scene.â Those typically uninterested in sports or sports writing, like myself, shouldnât be deterred by the title. As I discovered through other recent encounters with McPheeâs ballyhooed writing, the author has a knack for inexorably moving readers beyond their biases. Two-part New Yorker articles like âOranges,â âThe Pine Barrens,â and âBasin and Range,â which were later turned into books, are studious and propulsive. Fine-grained matters of geology or citrus arenât exactly simplified in these articles, but wading through the density becomes an irresistible prospect thanks to the authorâs intelligibility, wit, enthusiasm, and atmospheric touches. For an example of the latter, consider McPheeâs focus on the âunnatural and all but unending silenceâ of the Floridian orange groves that he visited. Whatâs more, he often conveys a certain sense of respectful understanding, as when he mentions that he has âyet to meet anyone living in the Pine Barrens who has in any way indicated envy of people who live elsewhere.â
Similar virtues spruce up the âThe Sporting Scene.â Its pieces include emphases on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse. McPhee honors the athletic endeavor by carefully illuminating its particulars. He busily supplies facts, anecdotes, ideas, and biographical details. In âThe Orange Trapper,â for instance, he discusses his hunt for errant golf balls. Itâs an engaging topic. He has learned, among other things, what occurs when you take a saw to a golf ball. You find the world: âCore, mantle, crustâthey are models of the very planet they are filling up at a rate worldwide approaching a billion a year.â Other jolts arrive through the often remarkable conclusions to his paragraphs and pieces. The ending of âThe Orange Trapperâ is an especial wonderâa thrilling mobilization of words that elicits laughter and awe.
There are also bears: âDirect Eye Contactâ is a compact assortment of hopes and advisements concerning bears in New Jersey, and it concludes on a sweetly uxorious note. Indeed, one never knows where any of these pieces are going. In âPioneer,â meanwhile, McPhee ponders Bill Tierneyâs choice to begin coaching the University of Denver menâs lacrosse team. âHow could he leave Princeton?â McPhee asks. âIt can be done. And Tierney knew what he was doing.â Those lines showcase the occasionally pithy, pleasantly chiseled style of his prose. Itâs a considered design that favors clarity, structures hairpin turns toward new discursive trails, and pairs well with punchlines. In âPhi Beta Football,â one of McPheeâs colleagues promises to deliver him âa nice piece of changeâ if he figures out a suitable title for his book. âI went away thinking,â McPhee tells us, and then adds, âmostly about the piece of change.â
The recounting of sporting events is likewise augmented by the authorâs playfulness. âPioneerâ throws us this line: âBut Syracuse explodedâone, two, threeâand the game went into âsudden victoryâ overtime, the politically uplifting form of sudden death.â So transporting and genial is McPheeâs writing that the specifics of any given match never weigh down the reading, nor do his more elaborate remarks. âItâs a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea,â he declares in âLinksland and Bottle,â his piece on the 2010 British Open, âwith golfers everywhere across the canvasâputting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation.â Whatâs even better is his sensitivity, in the same paragraph, to the fine distinctions between the manner of Scottish and Californian galleries as they observe rounds of golf. Suddenly, his words become almost numinous, and no grace is lost.
The second section of The Patch is called âAn Album Quiltâ and it encompasses a dizzying mixture of short pieces. None are available in any of McPheeâs other books. In an introductory statement, the author compares these pieces to the dissimilar blocks of a quilt. He notes that he âdidnât aim to reprint the whole of anythingâ; he sought out âblocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses.â This section is quite distinct from âThe Sporting Scene,â but no less extraordinary in its overall effect. A piece about Cary Grant starts things off. Boyhood encounters with Albert Einstein are up ahead.
There are more standouts than can be briefly mentioned here, including an evocative overview of the craftsmanship that McPhee discovered within the original Hersheyâs Chocolate Factory. The authorâs clipped expressions of wonder enliven that piece: âGulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Maresâ tails on the deeps.â A little later, he mentions âgranite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor.â One can imagine Don Draper reading through this with poignant interest. In another entry, a series of succinct blurbs about tennis luminaries, Rod Laverâs childhood is crisply set against his eventual stardom: âHad to wait his turn while his older brothers played. His turn would come.â
And so one just leaps from piece to piece, and, along the way, discovers scenes from different periods in McPheeâs life and career. An encounter with two New York City policemenâthis likely occurred in the â60s or early â70s, given the âfamiliar green and blackâ on the cop carâis particularly memorable. It begins with the authorâs recollection of locking his keys inside his car, which, he notes, had been parked âin a moted half-light that swiftly lost what little magic it had had, and turned to condensed gloom.â After that characteristically precise fusion of atmosphere and psychology, he describes scrounging around for wire so as to open the door. The sudden arrival of the policemen created a dilemma: Would they view McPhee, who had been wedging a coat hanger into the car, as a thief or the hapless owner? âThe policemen got out of the patrol car,â McPhee tells us, âand one of them asked for the wire.â From there, the situation undulates a couple more times before concluding through a sparkling punchline thatâs supplied by one of the officers. The story is over before you know it, but its brisk and detail-oriented pleasures are echoed throughout much of the book.
In the title piece, meanwhile, McPhee movingly writes about his father, but also about fishing a pickerel out of a patch of lily pads. Here and elsewhere, granular descriptions become byways into a range of enthusiasms, histories, and hearts. The author, of course, frequently registers himself through the infinitesimal details, and through the humor that he yokes to affection. ââFuck you, coach!â Quote unquoteâ is a message that McPhee once emailed to Bill Tierney. Great warmth radiates below the mantle of those words.
This, among sundry other qualities, keeps one reading. Thereâs also something uncommonly relaxing about many of his patient elaborations of things known and unknown. And there is, both within the bookâs individual pieces and across its varied totality, a sense of constant renewal and revelation. As McPhee notes down somewhere amid the blocks of his quilt, âI could suddenly see it, almost get into itâinto another dimension of experience that I might otherwise have missed entirely.â
John McPheeâs The Patch is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Review: Edmond Baudoin’s Piero and Olivier Schrauwen’s Parallel Lives
Piero‘s visual style, indicates the irrevocability of the past, even though the book is often a fairly straightforward record.
Thereâs a Chinese calligraphic tradition called Dishu, which is commonly practiced in the parks of Beijing, among other locations. Its salient elements include brushstrokes of water and the use of the ground as a canvas. Itâs been well documented by FranĂ§ois Chastanet, and, it turns out, well appreciated by Edmond Baudoin, the noted French artist. Baudoin once observed it firsthand, as he recounts in Laetitia Cartonâs documentary Edmond, a Portrait of Baudoin. âAnd as he wrote,â he exclaims therein, âthe trace was vanishing!â For Baudoin, the activity expresses âthe philosophical relationship between permanence and the ephemeral.â
A fascination with ephemerality also comes through in Baudoinâs 1998 graphic memoir Piero, whose new edition features an English translation by Matt Madden and lettering by Dean Sudarsky. The book is titled after the authorâs younger brother, with whom he spent a childhood immersed in numerous imaginative escapades in Nice and Villars-sur-Var. Those experiences are among Pieroâs key recollections, the tone of which is established by an initial pen sketch of a plane tree and its descending leaves. The imageâs inky pools of black collide with tangles of line work to suggest the vague contours of memory.
The visual style, then, indicates the irrevocability of the past, even though the book is often a fairly straightforward record. Baudoin honors his friendship with his brother throughout, while sharing, for instance, well observed accounts of the social value of draughtsmanship during his childhood and adolescence. He also recaptures fleeting acts of youthful invention, as when a sheet of drawing paper is repeated across two-page spreads and accrues indecorous mixtures of soldiers, horses, and sharks. The creativity of childhood is also instinct with a sketch of the brothers hunched over clay, which they used to mold various short-lived figures.
Whatâs missing is a substantial impression of inner conflict. That aspect seems muted even when the book delves into Pieroâs misfortunes and a climactic encounter with artistic disillusionment. But, as in Cartonâs film, the author intrigues by pondering the nature of representational art. Piero reveals that Baudoin peered into photos until they devolved into elemental grain, and wondered when âlines, marks, scratches stop being grass, rocks, a tree, branchesâŠand why, if you try too hard, do you end up killing the sense of life?â In form and content, the book suggests an artist seeking a sense of reproduced reality thatâs found neither in utter abstraction nor painstaking accuracy, but a mysterious gradation that lies between.
While the recollective clarity of the memoir form is faintly strained in Piero, itâs outright detonated in Parallel Lives, a collection of six graphic stories by Belgian cartoonist Olivier Schrauwen. âSpeculative memoirâ is the label suggested in the publisherâs blurb. Schrauwenâs father is incorporated into certain of these stories, but most of them focus on Schrauwen himself or his descendants. This affords certain advantages, including allowing the satirical qualities of Parallel Lives to come across as more self-deprecating than sanctimonious. The collection also recalls the inventiveness of Schrauwenâs ArsĂšne Schrauwen, in which he grappled with colonialism while imagining his grandfatherâs life. In interviews, heâs essentially contended that his approach is less about rejecting truth than forging an oblique path toward it.
The first story, âGreys,â depicts Schrauwenâs abduction by extraterrestrials. He narrates the experience and describes, among other traumas, an abductor removing âits aluminum foil glove, revealing an elegant crĂšme-gray alien hand.â Clarity jostles against abstraction in Schrauwenâs cartooning style, as demonstrated by the way the aliensâ crisp suits are set against dimensionless backgrounds. More generally, Schrauwenâs characters are frequently presented through portraiture, set adrift into swirls of luminous filiform shapes, and placed amid toxic yellows and greens. In these queasily shifting realities, one finds purchase in the details that shuffle into definition, like a glowing finger or a white-haired apparition.
Schrauwenâs writing, meanwhile, often arrives in a high-sounding style but easily shifts toward sadness or humor. âHello,â for instance, imagines Schrauwenâs father as an arrogant eccentric who insists that his time machine is not âan archaic piece of shit,â while in âThe Scatman,â we meet Ooh-lee, one of Schrauwenâs futuristic descendants, who dreams of a singing career. In this scenario, online trolling has migrated into telepathic communication. Psychic firewalls are prohibitively expensive, which leaves Ooh-lee vulnerable to a troll who both creates and reveals her insecurities. Schrauwen mixes the storyâs somber and amusing energies into a scene of Ooh-lee singing Scatman Johnâs 1994 song âScatman,â an artifact whose precise authorship and title seem to have been forgotten in this far-flung future.
Remembering and forgetting are, in various ways, essential to the entire collection. In the last story, âSpace Bodies,â Schrauwen has awoken from cryogenic sleep but cannot recall his past, despite the belongings in his âcryogenic coffin.â His copy of a Charles Bukowski novel now elicits little more than the question of how its protagonist, given his alcoholism, can âhave seemingly continuous genitalic intercourse without once urinating on his partners.â Storytelling, for these futuristic characters, is an old-fashioned lark. It inspires mostly superficial enthusiasms.
The future of âSpace Bodiesâ also finds the human condition streamlined through advents like âcontinuous medical monitoringâ and âthe calibrating of inner and outer circumstances.â This has allowed the characters to develop into a kind of psychosomatic unit. It has also radically enhanced sexual intercourse. These new living arrangements are disrupted at the outset of the story, but their effects endure, revealing a way of life that is as technologically advanced as it is dissipated. This is part of an ongoing gag: The marvelous events and devices encountered by Schrauwenâs characters are frequently reduced to libidinous functions.
Several of his characters also receive warnings about the trajectory of their lives or the planet at large, and they typically respond with boredom or incomprehension. In the collectionâs parallel spaces, lust and leisure often prove more resilient than our capacity for self-interrogation. And in âGreys,â Schrauwenâs account of the impressive corridors of the space ship becomes melancholic: ââIf I survive, I will remember this night as the most remarkable of my life,â I realized with a certain sadness.â
Thatâs an affecting observation, but itâs also perhaps an erroneous oneâless a reflection of the experiential limits of one characterâs life than a tendency to curtail the scope of our individual lives, or to mistake futurism for selfhood. Underlying this collection is a fear that many of the novelties of the future will renew old problems, or divert us from the work of personal growth, which, for a lot of the characters in Parallel Lives, has yet to begin.
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