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Grappling with Intellectual Disability: Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories

Bérubé has crafted an accessible if still rigorous study of the way fiction grapples with intellectual disability.



Grappling with Intellectual Disability: Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories

Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read is that rare book that manages to speak to its specialized academic audience while imagining and addressing a much broader readership. Bérubé, who’s the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, has crafted an accessible, if still rigorous, study of the way fiction grapples with intellectual disability.

“Representations of disability are ubiquitous,” he states in his opening sentence, “far more prevalent and pervasive than (almost) anybody realizes.” Take Disney’s Dumbo: You maybe wouldn’t use the language of disability to describe the oversized ears of the titular elephant, but at the heart of the 1941 film is a message about overcoming—embracing even—one’s differences in order to succeed. By the end of Bérubé’s book, you’re likely to start spotting the way disability is often used as a trope in films as diverse as Minority Report, Total Recall, and Mad Max: Fury Road. But Bérubé wants to push us further than merely understanding the ubiquity of disability in pop culture. This is especially important as disability (both physical and intellectual) is often used as a metaphor or character trait in popular art, significant only in the way it teaches us something about a story or a character with rarely any nuance with regard to the disability itself.

At the heart of Bérubé’s book is a simple question: “What does the study of disability tell us about the practices of reading?” The question pulls The Secret Life of Stories away from the most recognizable way in which disability studies tackles issues of representation. “Disability Studies limits itself unnecessarily, as a new branch of criticism and theory,” he writes, “whenever it confines itself to determining the disability status of individual characters.” This is the case in particular when it comes to intellectual disabilities. Thus, to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and to try to figure out what kind of intellectual disability author Mark Haddon is depicting teaches us very little about the text, the characters therein, or our own interaction with the novel’s genre-bending narrative.

Instead, Bérubé’s book is driven by the conviction that “narrative deployments of disability” can be “narrative strategies, devices for exploring vast domains of human thought, experience, and action.” It’s a much more productive conversation, and one which makes for a fascinating read. That means that while The Secret Life of Books is focused on novels like J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Bérubé is less interested in diagnosing whether Michael K. or Benjy suffer from autism than in figuring out what it is Coetzee and Faulkner accomplish by placing such characters at the heart of their novels.

This, he admits, is a trickier proposition, but one which helps us to understand how assumptions of “normalcy” are embedded in the very act of reading a novel. That is, in looking at books like Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip that are so formally “disabled” in terms of their narrative (time travel disturbs the narration’s linear chronology), Bérubé hopes to “lay bare the crafty procedures that go into the cultural production of artifacts we now take to be ordinary, straightforward, unproblematic representations of the world.”

This is particularly thrilling when he encounters dense and outré novels like Dick’s or Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Warrior Woman, but lest one think Bérubé is above mainstream fare, he offers a particularly insightful reading of Ariana Dumbledore, a minor but crucial character in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga, that suggests the lessons of The Secret Life of Stories need not be restricted to modernist texts or twisty sci-fi novels. The close reading of the Harry Potter series, which serves in part as an introductory piece to Bérubé’s overall project, resonates more powerfully because he laces it with autobiographical anecdotes of reading the these novels with his youngest son, who was born with Down syndrome. The introduction is also careful to lay out the critical vocabulary of the book, arming you with the necessary theoretical background to tackle the attentive close readings that follow.

Bérubé unpacks how characters with intellectual disability warp the texts they inhabit. As he argues, since mindedness “is so obviously a necessary condition for self-representation and narration,” the inclusion of characters with various forms of damaged mindedness makes readers more aware of how necessary an able mind is to our tenets of fictions. What sounds like a challenging proposition is laid out carefully and dutifully by Bérubé, whose three slim chapters tackle intellectual disability through three different domains: motive, time, and self-awareness. Centering each on a different novel, and sprinkling anecdotal and personal asides throughout, The Secret Life of Stories is a surprisingly breezy read even when speaking about literary Darwinism or breaking down “aesthetic nervousness” for the uninitiated.

Bérubé’s text isn’t exhaustive. This is by design. He’s chosen instead to write “a short and sharp book, delineating a few of the most important and engaging uses of intellectual disability in fiction.” This means the text is exploratory more than encyclopedic, driven by a sense of curiosity that, he acknowledges, makes it prone to oversights and missed opportunities. Because of that, The Secret Life of Stories emerges as a surprisingly generous text which all but demands its readers take up its claims and push them further, question them furiously, and create an ever-growing conversation that will only enrich the arguments therein.

Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read is available now from NYU Press; to purchase it, click here.

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Interview: Paul Tremblay on Growing Things and the Hope of Horror Fiction

Tremblay discusses how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.



Photo: Allan Amato

Paul Tremblay laughs a lot. Our conversation, about demonically infested children and the end of the world, is interspersed with a low chuckle that suggests he loves doing what he does. And what he does is scare people. Tremblay is at the forefront of a supposed renaissance of horror fiction, and with good reason, as his books cut to the bone.

Tremblay burst onto the horror scene in 2015 with A Head Full of Ghosts, a deconstruction and excoriation of the exorcism subgenre. The most frightening book this critic has ever read, it won the Bram Stoker Award and, perhaps more crucially, Stephen King’s nod of approval. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and The Cabin at the End of the World cemented his reputation as horror’s cruellest craftsman. In these tales, bad things happen to good families. Worlds collapse, lives shatter, and the ambiguity of existence is shown through a glass darkly.

Tremblay’s latest collection, Growing Things and Other Stories, continues his disquieting project. Twisted teachers give lessons in inhumanity, Polaroids reveal dark histories, and some very sinister dogwalkers commit metafictional trespass. The collection, now out from William Morrow, suggests a merciless worldview. Yet as we talk, Tremblay chuckles, pets his dog, and talks about how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.

Do you have a favorite story in Growing Things?

“It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks” is the earliest story in the collection and the first one where I thought, “I can do this.” That was the first time I made uncertainty essential to the story, central to the theme and the “why.” Though it could be hard for a reader to point at any one thing and say, “That’s why it’s a horror story,” I do feel it’s one of the more horrific things I’ve ever written. “Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport” was also a lot of fun to write. I basically retook my own childhood vacation at a place in Cape Cod that we rented once. It was a chance to turn nostalgia on its ear and make it dangerous. I do think nostalgia can be a threat in the way it blurs over the messy parts of your history.

That’s interesting, because your fiction seems obsessed with memory.

I think much of horror is about memory. Memories are so malleable, yet we rely almost entirely on them to define what we think of as our self. Especially childhood memories. So many of them are usurped by retellings—whether your own or your friends’ or family’s—each gives you different versions of things that are the core of who you are. If you can’t trust your memories, then how can you trust identity? As a horror writer, that just feels like infinitely fertile ground. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you confront the question of who you are, and who is the person you’re sharing your bed and your life with. These thoughts freak me out, but I find them fascinating. I boil down horror stories as “a reveal of a dark truth.” In a lot of my stories the reveal is that identity isn’t ironclad and memories aren’t safe.

The media is another thing that emerges as both the format and focus of much of your writing. Is that an intentional theme?

Well, it’s a reflection of the time we’re living in. It’s pretty clear that social media hasn’t only changed society, it’s also changed us as individuals. It’s scary stuff and we’d be fools not to use it in stories. And I don’t just mean to have it there as background noise. If you’re going to use the media it has to be crucial to the story. Some older writers in the horror community would say that you shouldn’t mention this stuff—that it’s not timeless and will date your writing. That seems wholly ridiculous to me, because where’s the cut-off for timelessness? If you make the media central to your stories then people will still be able to read those stories in future decades because you’re essentially world-building.

The contingent realities of memory and media come together in the concept of “fake news.” Do you think horror, or your own work, is well-equipped to address that?

Well, the information age was greeted with a lot of optimism, but my books approach it with disappointment. I’ve met people all around the world through the power of social media. But I’ve also seen the pervasiveness and insidiousness of disinformation, It’s affected family members and relationships. It influences nations and political systems. It blows my mind.

Each of my novels address this is some way. In A Head Full of Ghosts, I use reality TV and the blogger to further enhance the ambiguity. Typically, books approach ambiguity by withholding information. I thought the cooler idea was to give a storm of information. You can’t know what’s real because there’s too much data to consider. I think that reflects the world we live in.

In Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, I took a stereotypical missing-teenager case. People think that it’s easy to locate someone because of all the information we have, hence the claim that “the cellphone killed the horror story.” I purposely wanted to write that story with these kids having snapchat and Facebook but show how that stuff makes it harder to get to the truth.

The Cabin at the End of the World is definitely riffing on those anxieties. I try not to be too didactic, but I absolutely wanted Cabin to be an allegory for our political times.

Why are you so drawn to ambiguity?

I think it reflects one of the horrors of our existence: that reality is more ambiguous than we allow. A smaller reason is that I resist committing to the supernatural in the novel. I’m an agnostic atheist, so if I encountered something in my everyday life, I think I’d have a hard time realizing that it was supernatural. It would be so liminal that how would we know? I’ve found it easier to go full supernatural in my short fiction. Soon I’ll need to come down on one side or the other, because people will get tired of me doing the ambiguity thing every time.

So, what would it take to convince you that your house was haunted?

In your head you imagine it wouldn’t take much. But in reality, we have 30-year mortgages. I’d probably think I had to gut it out, even with a ghost standing in the living room.

I’m not naïve enough to ask you to clarify any of your ambiguous endings. But I am interested in whether you know the truth in those novels.

For each book it’s slightly different. I started A Head Full of Ghosts intending to write a secular exorcism novel. But then I decided to split the evidence 50/50. To be honest, I haven’t really got a clear idea of whether Marjorie is possessed or mentally ill. That’s been a fun novel to discuss with fans because they have interpretations that I never considered. Devil’s Rock has a less ambiguous ending. I feel like it’s fairly clear what those last few pages say. And with Cabin I can honestly say that I haven’t spent a single second thinking about what happens after the last line of that book. That story is all about the choice that Andrew and Eric make, and by the end they have made it. At that point, it doesn’t matter if the world is ending or not.

Speaking to you now, and following you on social media, you seem a very positive guy. Yet your fiction is unremittingly bleak…


…yet every now and again you throw the reader an escape from the horror, or at least the potential for escape. I’m thinking in particular of your story “A Haunted House Is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken,” where you use the choose-your-own-adventure format to lead the protagonist and reader through a history of trauma. It ends with a way out, which I didn’t expect. Would you say you are an optimist?

I don’t know really. With that story I wanted to give the character a way out. Because I think most people, or many people, do survive their personal traumas, their personal ghosts. When Cabin came out, I mentioned in interviews this thing that I called “the hope of horror.” It may sound pretentious but the reason I’m drawn to horror is the same reason I’m drawn to punk. It’s the idea that terrible truth is revealed, and we may not survive it, but there’s value in the shared recognition that something is wrong. So even though the novels and stories are bleak, I find some hope in the fact that we realise something is wrong, even if we can’t fix it. That’s the fist-pump moment If anything ties together the things that I like reading and watching, it’s the chance to look at how other people get through this thing we’re all doing…this life.

Speaking of which, you’re a parent, yet your stories do the worst things to children.

That’s my parental anxiety on show. My first child was born in 2000, and when I was getting serious about writing in the first half of that decade, a friend pointed out to me that I wrote about parents and children all the time. I hadn’t realized, but from there it became purposeful. With Devil’s Rock, I realized I was treading in the same family dynamic as Head Full of Ghosts. Then I wrote Cabin about another young family, and even though they’re individual books, I think they’re a nice thematic trilogy. Each book features a different kind of family in crisis.

You recently tweeted about doing research into some grim childhood illnesses. Dare I ask what that was for?

Yeah, that’s for my next novel. It will be my take on the zombie, but it’s about infected people rather than the undead. It’s set during the first four-to-six hours of an outbreak in Boston.

Is there a title?

The working title is Survivor Song. It’s due with my publishers at the end of the summer.

That’s quite the scoop. Aside from the new book, you also have the adaptation of A Head Full of Ghosts in the works. How involved are you in that process?

[laughs] Aaah, not at all. It’s understandable really. They optioned the book in 2015 before it was even published. At that point, I was rebooting my career, as my earlier crime novels hadn’t sold much. There was no reason for them to consider my feelings. It’s the rare writer who gets invited into in the filmmaking process. In TV they may consult you more, but even then I’m not sure how much of a say you have. I don’t have any say in A Head Full of Ghosts, but they have a director, Osgood Perkins, and a script that we like. It’s all getting a lot closer to being a real thing, with a very solid shot at starting production later this year.

Perkins’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House use ambiguity to great effect. Are you happy with him helming the film?

Definitely. He’s the perfect director for this material. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do. It’ll be tough to squeeze that book into a 90-minute movie.

As it would with any of your writing. Many of the stories in Growing Things experiment with form and structure. Do you feel the need to escape traditional narration?

House of Leaves is one of my favourite novels. I’d love to one day write an experimental novel on that scale. But if you’re going to experiment with structure, then it must serve the story, and that’s easier in short fiction, which seems to beg for experimentation. No, I don’t feel the need to escape. Sometimes it’s just me trying to play with all the toys.

You’re at the center of a new school of young horror writers, people like Laird Barron, Alma Katsu, John Langan, Sarah Langan. Do you think the genre is enjoying a resurgence?

People talk about a new golden age of horror. That’s a little self-serving because I expect every horror writer throughout the ages has looked around and thought, “Hey, what we’re doing is great.” But I think it’s also undeniable that the current breadth of horror hasn’t been seen before, both in terms of gender and diversity as well as style. We aren’t all the way there yet, but it’s exciting and promising. I’m happy to be playing a little part in it.

Finally, what’s your favorite scary book, and your favourite scary movie?

With books it’s a tie. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There are so many more calling out in neglect, but let’s stick with those two. With movies it’s either John Carpenter’s The Thing or Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. I’ve probably seen Jaws close to 50 times and I still can’t watch the part where Quint is bitten in half. The first time I saw that it broke my brain and I’m too afraid to watch it again in case it takes me back in time. I had at least eight years of shark nightmares. The Thing asks: “Do you even know who you are?” It takes us back to that question about memory and identity and that idea of the dark reveal. It’s the heart of horror.

Paul Tremblay’s Growing Pains and Other Stories is now available in the U.S. from William Morrow and in the U.K. from Titan Books.

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Review: Cari Mora Luridly and Bitingly Plumbs Man’s Capacity for Evil

Thomas Harris’s novel fathoms man’s depravity in ways that are at once spectacularly horrifying and mordantly amusing.



Cari Mora

Thomas Harris’s Cari Mora is the author’s first novel since 1975’s Black Sunday to not feature Hannibal Lecter in some capacity. Fear not, though, for Harris has filled the space where his most famous creation might have been with a small army of psychopathic killers, the crown jewel of which is Hans-Peter Schneider, a completely hairless, reptilian man of German ancestry who captures and sells women as sex slaves to men in Peru and Colombia.

Like Mason Verger in Harris’s masterful Hannibal, Hans-Peter uses a constant cash flow to feed his ghastly appetite for human suffering. When the women he kidnaps don’t “work out for business,” as Harris puts it at one point, Hans-Peter harvests their organs for the black market and then dissolves their bodies in an expensive liquid cremation machine, of which Schneider is “very proud.” And as in his Lecter novels, Harris fathoms this man’s perspective on the world in ways that are at once spectacularly horrifying and mordantly amusing.

Harris quickly introduces Hans-Peter as a nightmarish hybrid of man and animal, whose “canine teeth” accompany a “startling ability to mimic” the voices and movements of others. As the novel commences, he’s set his eyes on the eponymous Cari Mora, the twentysomething caretaker of a mansion located along Miami’s Biscayne Bay, where he believes between 25 and 35 million dollars worth of gold lies buried beneath it. He’s correct, but he and others will have to get through traps of explosives and saltwater crocodiles to claim it.

The novel moves from settings in Miami and Barranquilla, Colombia, with the action in one place impacting some of the decisions made in others. Variously drawing on legacies of Nazism, Jim Crow-era racism, and the Cali Cartel, Cari Mora is a wellspring of intimations that stresses the monstrousness of a male pathology that thrives on the torture of others, particularly women. In Barranquilla, Don Ernesto, a mysterious man involved in the criminal underworld, consults with Jesús Villarreal, a former associate of Pablo Escobar, who previously owned the mansion in Biscayne Bay. Jesús has already sold his knowledge to Hans-Peter, but Ernesto wants in on the action as well. In Miami, Hans-Peter has a cadre of goons. Among them is Felix, a serpentine real estate agent, and Bobby Joe, whose fingers are lettered “love” and “hate” à la Robert Mitchum’s murdering preacher in The Night of the Hunter and whose truck boats a bumper sticker reading: “IF I’D KNOWN THIS I WOULD OF PICKED MY OWN COTTON.” Harris depicts these men as cultural manifestations of greed and hatred whose monomaniacal perspectives implicitly stem from histories of nationalist violence.

If Hans-Peter is Harris’s approximation of a modern-day Hannibal Lecter, then Cari might be said to be the author’s reimagining of Clarice Starling. Cari formerly fought for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and now resides in the United States under Temporary Protected Status. She desires nothing more than to become a veterinarian and to live in a place of her own. She spends numerous hours at the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station supporting wildlife rescue, and tends to a large white cockatoo that lives in the mansion. Oh, and she also knows how to assemble and lock and load an AK-47 in 45 seconds.

Harris further balances a sense of Cari’s vulnerability and strength by steadily articulating the cunning churn of her consciousness. When Felix introduces Hans-Peter and his crew as filmmakers who wish to use the mansion for a shoot, Harris briefly drops us into Cari’s headspace as she feels the group of men thinking, “Pull a train, pull a train.” Cari isn’t a mystic, but she does seem to know from the look on a man’s face the horrific extent of his intentions. That the mansion is permanently decorated with “lunging and reaching” monster mannequins from horror films is Harris’s coup de grace: Cinema’s imaginings are but a knick next to the war that’s responsible for Cari’s psychological wounds and scars on her body.

Structurally, Cari Mora is jammed with too many secondary characters whose purpose proves mostly beside the point to the central, looming clash between Hans-Peter and Cari. Such as Detective Robles of Miami-Dade homicide. His home was hit with gunfire from illegally made weapons that wounded him and caused his wife brain damage. Harris introduces Robles around the 100-page mark, giving his plight a couple of chapters before then abandoning him until he’s needed toward the novel’s end—and even then, his function feels incidental.

Then there’s the group of men, led by one Captain Marco, who are hired by Don Ernesto to work as counter-insurgents against Hans-Peter and to, finally, secure the gold for themselves. Although their presence proves necessary for helping Cari to evade capture by Hans-Peter, Harris misses the opportunity to use these characters as a means of meaningfully fleshing out the legacy of immigrants residing in contemporary Miami. While these figures, too, help Harris to conjure some convincingly cold-blooded acts of violence, especially in an extended bit of gunplay involving Hans-Peter and a hired gun named Candy, much of the novel’s weightier themes are momentarily cast aside throughout these moments.

Cari Mora is at its best as a sustained meditation on the ineffable extent of humankind’s capacity for brutality in the name of personal gain, especially when Harris homes in on the history of violence that brought Cari to the United States in the first place. An extended flashback details Cari’s attempted brainwashing by FARC, though from the beginning of her training she remains resistant, receiving “demerits for inattention in indoctrination classes.” When Cari discovers that FARC is slaughtering entire villages just like the ultra-right paramilitary, she makes a plan to escape from FARC’s ranks for good.

Harris acutely frames his characters as predators and prey, associating their behaviors to those of the hungry crocodiles and helpless pelicans that inhabit Biscayne Bay. While Hans-Peter, a man for whom “the sound of a woman crying” is “soothing,” sustains himself on the blood and tears of others, Cari cares for the environment as a means of freeing herself from the insanity that surrounds her. How these two perspectives clash, and are finally resolved, provides an ending more conventional than that of Hannibal, but nevertheless carries an irony befitting Harris’s ongoing consideration of how light and dark are often interchangeable.

Thomas Harris’s Cari Mora is available on May 21 from Grand Central Publishing.

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Review: The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album

If you’re in a band, the Beatles taught you everything, whether you know it (or admit it) or not.



The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album
Photo: Apple Corps

If you’re in a band, the Beatles taught you everything, whether you know it—or admit it—or not. They taught bands how to form and look and act, how to play, write, tour, and record. They even taught bands how to break up and go solo. Imagine a world without George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run,” Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” or, indeed, John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It’s not so easy, even if you try.

The Beatles not only schooled other bands, they also educated teachers, who sometimes went on to teach the band’s music in their classrooms. For as much as anywhere else, the Beatles have invaded academia and pedagogy. Indeed, there’s a wealth of scholarship built around “the boys,” covering every aspect of their work, be it musical, cultural, or personal, whether discussing that work in toto or focusing on one specific album.

The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album does just that. Edited by Mark Osteen, professor of English and director of the Center for the Humanities at Loyola University Maryland, the book is a fine scholarly addition to the study of the Beatles. Where else but academia might one find erudite discussions of Ringo’s drumming and John Lennon’s use of the phrase “oh yeah”? Those are just two of many elements covered in this volume. Taking a cue from the band and the album, the book cuts through three layers of the Beatles onion: social/personal context; the music itself; and the continued impact and influence of The White Album—or, as it’s officially called, The Beatles.

In his lengthy introduction Osteen sets the stage:

“[In some ways] the White Album resembles one of those nineteenth-century novels that Henry James famously dubbed ‘large, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary’. [Yet the album’s] bagginess, along with its frequent use of bricolage, self-referentiality, fragmentation, and pastiche, is not Victorian but postmodernist.”

This postmodern pluralism, its grab bag of musical styles and moods spread over four sides of vinyl, is precisely what’s most often cited as either the album’s primary appeal or its sorest failure. Is it playfully purposeful or haphazardly dispersed? Masterpiece or mess? The sprawling, uneven ambitiousness and abundance of material, as well as the infamous background of the album’s making—the internal strife, each Beatle supposedly using the others as players rather than co-members, Yoko Ono’s omnipresence—don’t necessarily contradict a sense of thematic wholeness, as this book makes quite clear.

Osteen sees “a brand of cohesion that both reflects the upheavals the Beatles experienced around the time of recording and reveals that, despite their differences, they shared numerous concerns and employed many of the same tropes and devices. The White Album’s diversity camouflages a set of consistent motifs and situations that surface under close analysis.”

Perhaps the most common motif noted among the essays is that the Beatles took a turn in 1968 toward the natural with The White Album, to a simpler, less ornate approach, the far-out faux-baroque flourishes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, both released in 1967, giving way to a more grounded earthiness. If those previous albums were flowers, The White Album was dirt, a return to the basic element of the Beatles own growth. They would be a band again, rather than (or along with being) recording artists.

The problem was that they weren’t the same band and it wasn’t the same time. The vicissitudes of fame, of personal and financial growth, plus the increased antagonism within the band itself, foretold a new approach. This, combined with massive social upheavals around the world, forced not only the Beatles themselves, but their fans to reassess their allegiances. Despite intermittent political commitment from the band members throughout the years, the Beatles had been primarily apolitical—or, rather, their political engagement or contribution came through mainly in the more cultural forms of image and, of course, music. Yet by 1968, apoliticism was anathema to youth culture, as Michael R. Frontani discusses in his chapter “‘…Out/In…’ The Beatles’ Image in Transition During the ‘Year of the Barricades’.”

In the thrill and exuberance of the early years of Beatlemania, Frontani writes, “[s]ex, primarily, provided a basis for unity…the attraction of the subversive qualities of an image constructed to embody unconstrained romantic and carnal relationships. The Beatles […] were a vehicle for youths to fully engage in a euphoric sense of being young […] Eventually, other youths icons arose and diluted the Beatles dominance, but none could dethrone them.”

The band’s imperial power was never stronger than upon Sgt. Pepper’s release in June 1967, and yet, how quickly the tide turned. Frontani describes the rise of the New Left and the worldwide violence in the protest-fraught spring of 1968, before concluding succinctly: “And the Beatles missed it.” They left for India as hippie heroes and came back out-of-step millionaires, or like older brothers who’d gone off from an adoring family to study abroad and returned to a resentful household in violent disarray. The Flower Power emblematized by Sgt. Pepper—that dreadnought soundtrack to the Summer of Love—had proved ineffective in stopping wars or assassinations. It turned out one needed a little more than just love. But being the Beatles, the band never truly lost their footing musically or even culturally; one might say they went from being perceived as kings to princes. Not a bad demotion.

It was always about the music anyway, and none of the Beatles’s albums had as much of that as The White Album. In the chapters “Children of Nature: Origins of the Beatles’ Tabula Rasa” and “Beatles Unplugged: The White Album in the Shadow of Rishikesh,” Walter Everett and John Kimsey, respectively, engage the album’s musical beginnings. Everett examines what are known as the Kinfauns or Esher demos recorded at Harrison’s home prior to the album’s full recording. Everett not only locates specific early renditions of White Album songs, but provides detailed tables indicating every version of every song demoed at this time. Not simply a completist’s list, this is more a display of the Beatles’s creative output at a truly transitional period in their careers. Likewise, Kimsey offers informative background on the acoustic origins of the album’s material, notably the “clawhammer” or “Travis” picking style taught to the band by singer-songwriter Donovan (a technique one hears on many of the band’s subsequent recordings, especially Lennon’s, both with the Beatles and solo). Both Everett and Kimsey also provide snippets of compositional transcription, which, even if one doesn’t read music, are easily followable due to the songs’ familiarity.

Other chapters focus on each member’s contribution. Perhaps most welcome is Steve Hamelman’s “Blisters on His Fingers: Ringo Starr’s Performance on The Beatles.” While the debate over the drummer’s playing is, by this point, well-defined (in short, feel versus proficiency), Hamelman offers more an assessment of Ringo’s own assessment of his drumming during the recording of The White Album. The drummer had famously declared that he felt he was playing “shitty” at this point, prompting his ostensibly “quitting” the band. (The Beatles are like alcoholism: once a Beatle, always a Beatle.) Hamelman doesn’t quite let the drummer off the hook, but conclusively praises the underrated taste of Starr’s playing—his manner of attack, his knowing the difference between economy and excess, and, importantly, his ability to listen to what the song, and the songwriter, suggests.

With songs and songwriters this good, it must’ve come easy. Just as band tensions were at their peak (another factor in Ringo’s hiatus), the writing was as well. John Covach traces Harrison’s musical growth, from Lennon-McCartney copycat to accomplished Eastern-influenced singer-songwriter—from rockabilly to ragabilly. Stephen Valdez sees Lennon returning, on The White Album, to the rocker he always was, but with an experimental edge, “…a creative mind cleverly pushing its musical limits within the construct of a return to his musical roots.” While Vincent P. Benitez uncovers the “intertextuality” of McCartney’s songs, cross-referencing the artist’s White Album offerings with those from other periods of his prolific solo output, stressing McCartney’s ability to absorb, master and mimic other musical styles and icons, be it the Beach Boys (“Back in the U.S.S.R.”) or Bach (“Blackbird”).

One can give too much self-conscious or simply conscious agency to something, like songwriting, that’s more instinctive, a problem that Ian Inglis acknowledges here: “Attempts to systematically investigate the songwriting process are beset by a range of difficulties. Problems of motivation, intent, reception, interpretation, employment, and interaction between words and music cloud definitive assessments…” Sometimes a scholar may create a thesis rather than discover one, read too deeply into an artist’s motives and moods, pull questionable motifs or tropes like teeth from a stubborn jaw. Overstate, then corroborate.

Citing other scholars, Osteen notes some White Album tropes as “guarded privacy and locked rooms,” a “relentless swing between confrontation and escape,” and, as Osteen himself points out, “at least thirty-five references to eyes and vision.” Further, “forms of the verb ‘wait’ occur eleven times in the lyrics […] The prototypical situation on the album, in other words, is that of suspension on the brink of consummation.”

Is this mere academic over-parsing? That is, were the Beatles aware of how many references to eyes they were including in their most recent batch of songs? Most likely not, but that doesn’t mean the tropes aren’t present. Certainly, in the case of the Beatles one cannot underestimate their subversive, mischievous motives. The essays here largely avoid such academic pitfalls, with the contributors sticking to the evidentiary clues, the proof in the honey pie.

The White Album is an open field, somewhat in the manner of projective verse in poetry or abstract expressionism in painting—an all-over work, a work without frames or borders or distinguishable edges. The album spills and sprawls through pastiche (“Honey Pie”) and spirituality (“Long, Long Long”), through fiction (“Rocky Racoon”) and autobiography (“Julia”), chaos (“Helter Skelter”) and quietude (“Good Night”). The brilliant conceit of the white cover with its embossed limited-edition number (for a work set for unlimited reproduction) combined with the massively diverse material inside, verges on making of the album a mere concept piece: a plain white box that explodes when opened.

The prosaic truth behind the album’s breadth—no one member wanted to give up his songs—frees the album from such a rigid interpretation. What might it have been if the band had listened to producer George Martin and pared the album down to a standard 13 or so songs? Surely another masterpiece, but a closed one, a proscribed artifact without the tentacled reach of the released album. Its plethora of ideas still inspires, drawn upon by artists such as U2, Tori Amos, and Danger Mouse, to name just three covered in this volume.

How many books about the Beatles can the world withstand? Like Jorge Luis Borges’s looming library, a universal tower of books, Beatles-related literature is more voluminous than the Beatles own musical output, estimated at about 10 to 15 hours of officially released material. Try to get through all the Beatles-related literature in 10 hours. And yet, despite the overwhelming abundance of all that verbiage, the reverence remains. In the end, the music the Beatles made is more than equal to the lore they generate.

The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album, edited by Mark Osteen, is now available from the University of Michigan Press.

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Review: Bret Easton Ellis Uses White to Explode Our Pretenses of Dignity

Throughout, Ellis waves a broadsword at political correctness.



Bret Easton Ellis
Photo: Casey Nelson

With his first nonfiction work, White, Bret Easton Ellis waves a broadsword at political correctness, enjoying the friction that such a pursuit generates when indulged by someone in his particular social station. Whether you’re on the left or right of America’s endless struggle to pretend to be the democracy it claims to be, it’s not surprising when Rush Limbaugh or one of the “Stepford reporters” of Fox News demeans “identity politics.” But Ellis has written a couple of hip and controversial novels—including Less than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho—as well as a screenplay for a Paul Schrader film. Ellis is a member of the “Hollywood elite,” and he’s gay, living with a millennial boyfriend many years his junior. This isn’t the person, then, that one expects to entertain a flirtation with quasi-right-wing values, sort of making a case for Kanye West and Donald Trump. Ellis gets off on that very disjunction in White, which serves as both a summary and an extension of the provocations he offers on Twitter as well as on The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast.

Ellis writes in generalities, roiling with the self-righteous anger that’s fashionable for everyone on all sides of the aisle to indulge nowadays. To him, helicopter parenting—scheduling every moment of children’s free time, sheltering them from the pressures and disappointments of competition—has led to a generation of wimps, an assertion which is as unoriginal as it is simplified. According to the author, millennials and members of Generation Z are “Generation Wuss,” and his primary research on the subject appears to be his own childhood, as well as watching his boyfriend, musician Todd Michael Schultz, fume over MSNBC’s reporting of Trump’s outrages du jour over the last several years. Ellis’s reduction of his lover here, as sheltered and unjustifiably hysterical, might embarrass un-woke straight writers. Time and again, Ellis takes shortcuts and acknowledges said shortcuts so as to indulge himself anyway.

White includes only a token acknowledgement of the effect of rising economic inequality on youthful rage. This book also refuses to engage with outrage culture as a creation of both the left and the right. Who’s a more expert orchestrator of this country’s bitterness than the current president of the United States? Lashing out at his peers, Ellis resorts to the most pitiful of the defenses that have been mounted of Trump: that what he says can’t be taken literally, as his obscenities are essentially performance art. MSNBC is vilified in the book while the outright lies of Fox News, and of Trump, are barely mentioned. Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment is revisited in White as well, and so is Michelle Obama’s righteous “while they go high, we go low” routine at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, while Trump’s slander and encouragements of active assault are ignored.

Yet in its slapdash and self-pitying way, White also cuts to the heart of modern liberal ineffectuality. To loosely paraphrase a character from Ron Shelton’s White Men Can’t Jump, it seems as if liberals would rather look good and lose than look bad and win. Ellis correctly sees factions of the far left as humorless prigs, demanding insincere apologies for superficial lapses in taste while literal-mindedly tabulating representation in various forms of art, which leads to all sorts of lapses in common sense. For instance, male critics are rarely allowed to comment on personal appearances in pop culture—objectification!—even though pop culture is almost entirely predicated on sex. What Ellis pinpoints, and what the far left willfully misses, is that this sort of self-censorship, encouraged of the broader populace as well, brokers another form of shame: of the very desire that most films, TV, and online imagery encourages anyway. Ellis uses the outcry over an L.A. Weekly article on Sky Ferreira as an example of this hypocritical neurosis, but he could have just as easily cited any number of other non-controversies, such as the absurd offenses that were taken over the assertion that Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman might partially be an essay on Gal Gadot’s beauty,

There are larger things at stake here than a man’s right to admit he finds a woman attractive. Ellis is rightfully scared of how acceptable censorship has become on the social media plane, which encourages us to offer a sanitized version of ourselves that’s engineered to earn “likes” and pass the inspections of prospective employers while conforming to a woke sensibility to atone for not effecting more significant social changes. Ellis misses a time—which, at 39, I remember too—in which one was able to make a joke in bad taste without having to then stage an apology tour. He’s rightfully scared of how corporations have combined social media with a generalized liberal agenda so as to trick us into serving as our own thought police.

This sense of not being able to say things, of not being able to be imperfect, encourages the creation of a hidden world, and not just the world of white supremacists. In private, many people make the sort of jokes that are brutally rebuffed on Twitter. And we still sexualize people, because most humans are driven by sexual desires and because we live in a simultaneously puritanical and über-sexed culture that’s confusing and exhausting. (Many of my friends are liberals who’re tired of the steroidal liberal nobility project, and these friends include millennials of various colors and sexualities, which, judging from White, might come as a shock to Ellis.) This public policing often suggests a compensation prize for liberals for possessing less influence than conservatives, insidiously allowing people to feel empowered even as corporations continue to seize control of the world.

In White, Ellis is essentially arguing for our right to admit to our selfishness, our bitterness, and our questionable longings. He’s arguing for irony as an antidote to the outrage machine that keeps many of us in a perpetual anti-intellectual tizzy. As a way of achieving what he seems to oxymoronically idealize as a form of empathetic detachment, Ellis keeps returning to the notion of valuing aesthetic over theme in art. In particular, White’s liveliest passages often filter Ellis’s social grievances through film reviews, including a sharp and lucid reading of Schrader’s American Gigolo, which Ellis reads as an inadvertently prescient anticipation of how social media has transformed us all into commodified, ever-shifting actors. There’s also a visceral takedown of Barry Jenkins’s tormented gay pseudo-romance Moonlight, which Ellis sees as an embodiment of the left’s victim complex. (Although Ellis violates his own rules here, as he admits that Moonlight, with its evocative formal textures, is of aesthetic note. Which is to say that Ellis, as a gay man, is turning against a work of art for reasons of representation and theme, like many of the liberals he criticizes.)

Using aesthetic criterion, White leads to a white-washing of Trump that should nevertheless prove insightful to members of the “resistance.” Trump’s actions shouldn’t be taken as performance art, but that is how they’re taken: as a fuck-you to cultural platitudes that are growing increasingly distanced from how people actually process their lives. Trump is appealing to his supporters, including Kanye West, because he’s visceral, because his livewire nonsensicality and hatefulness seem to embody freedom, even if his behavior actively hurts the people who love him. When liberal outlets scold him, according every misbehavior equal prominence (and often glossing over policy, which is where he wreaks his greatest havoc), they grant Trump power, and somehow they continue to not learn this lesson—or they are, like Trump, just feeding the beast. Ellis understands this irony, and, seeking to distinguish between moral and aesthetic concerns, he decodes Trump’s allure.

Other reviews have ridiculed Ellis’s comparison of Trump’s political ascension to Charlie Sheen’s public 2011 meltdown, but this equivocation strikes me as brilliant and useful. In both cases, the offenders in question shattered the faux nobility of the press and the celebrity class, admitting in various fashions that our society is predicated on a ruthless game in which fame is used to make money, money to further fame, and so forth. Tired of spinning his real-life hedonism into sexist, toothless cartoon antics for Two and a Half Men, Sheen revealed the monstrous insanity that lurked under a typical fantasy of male power—a fantasy that women enjoy as well as men. Ellis finds Sheen’s breakdown weirdly admirable—of course the writer of American Psycho would—for exploding our pretenses of dignity.

We turned on Sheen only when he forced us to confront the exploitation, the misery, behind his unlimited satiation of hunger, though we were also fixated for a while on him as the freak of the moment. Trump harvested our sleazy predictions with the help of Fox News and built a political empire on the acknowledgement of power for its own sake—on the appeal of watching platitudes be shattered. Nearly every sentiment out of Trump’s mouth is a ribald lie, but these collective lies fulfill a truth for Ellis: that politics, tabloids, and all of media has merged into a soup of sensationalist stimulation. Democrats, with their constant fact-checking and schoolhouse lecturing, are effectively bringing a knife to a gunfight.

White feels as if it was hammered out over a long weekend. Given the importance of some of Ellis’s subjects, one wishes that he was more disciplined, though perhaps that’s also missing his point of the inherent sloppiness of outrage culture. A sense of humor would’ve helped the book as well, as Ellis could stand to make a few jokes at his own rarefied expense. Being castigated on Twitter by C-listers or criticized for writing a novel that nevertheless made your name isn’t exactly synonymous with the frustrations of most American people. Ellis acknowledges this social discrepancy but doesn’t appear to truly know it. He’s evening scores in White, though he’s clearly a member of the gilded class that so galls him. A rich white man, Ellis can afford to write Trump off as a bad joke, which means that liberal media will have an excuse to ignore White. However, writing Trump off as a joke, effectively reducing his power by reducing our essentially reverential hatred, might also be the key to undoing him.

Bret Easton Ellis’s White is now available from Knopf.

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Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch

Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.



Reinventing Hollywood

The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.

Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.

As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.

While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”

Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”

Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.

Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”

Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.

The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.

Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.

One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.

The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.

Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”

A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.

Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.

The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”

But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”

This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)

Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.

Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”

Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”

Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.

David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.



Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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Review: Someone Is in My House Showcases the Reach of David Lynch’s Obsessions

Lynch’s paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.



Someone Is in My House

Though famous for being a filmmaker and co-creator of the TV series Twin Peaks, David Lynch works in many other mediums, including music, sculpture, photography, furniture-making, and painting, the last of which is the wellspring of his creativity. Lynch has painted since the 1960s, finding his voice among the ruinous squalor of a once-rough Philadelphia. Inspired by artists such as Francis Bacon, Lynch developed a style that’s rich in the irreconcilable contradictions that would drive his cinema. His paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.

At times, Lynch has been dismissed as a “celebrity painter” who nets prestigious exhibitions based on his fame as a filmmaker, as well as on the urge to utilize his other art as a kind of decoder ring for his films. These claims may be partially true, but this doesn’t mean that the art itself isn’t extraordinary, and there’s a concentrated effort underway to recalibrate Lynch’s reputation within pop culture. The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life featured hypnotic footage of Lynch in the studio of his Los Angeles home, smoking and creating new canvases. Last year, the book David Lynch: Nudes collected his empathetic, erotic, and astonishingly subjective photography of nude women. Now there’s David Lynch: Someone Is in My House, a gorgeous volume of Lynch’s painting, photography, sculpture, and short-film stills.

Someone Is in My House impresses one with the reach of Lynch’s ambitions and obsessions, affirming yet another contradiction of his art: that it’s vast yet repetitive and insular. Across the spectrum of over 250 stills, this volume spotlights the many techniques that Lynch utilizes. After perceptive essays by Lynch biographer Kristine McKenna, who places Lynch’s work in the context of legendary art at large, and Michael Chabon, who emphasizes Lynch’s grasp of the uncanny truth of the everyday, among others, Someone Is in My House offers a tour of Lynch’s work that’s divided by medium, starting with “Works on Paper” and continuing with “Painting/Mixed Media,” “Photography,” “Lamps,” and “Film and Video Stills.”

Each section is structured in chronological order, spanning five decades, so as to subtly assert Lynch’s ongoing evolution as an artist. The book ends with a brief biography, which will probably be well-known by anyone driven to buy it, and a list of Lynch’s exhibitions. If Someone Is in My House has one disappointment, it pertains to this structure, as a straightforward chronological organization of Lynch’s art might’ve more vividly emphasized the wild multi-pronged simultaneousness of his imagination. But this is a small issue, as this volume offers the gift of relative accessibility, allowing cinephiles and other aesthetes the opportunity to access a major and generally rarefied mine of Lynch’s workload.

To open Someone Is in My House is to plunge into landscapes of darkness inhabited by deformed humans and other creatures, who have distended, shrunken, or extended appendages, heads that are animalistic or brutalized, and bodies that are often either a collection of tumorous protuberances or are merely composed of a few lines like primitive stick figures. Among this darkness is bright color, usually red, which offers beautiful illumination that’s understood to exist at the cost of atrocity. Among darkness there’s a light of injury in other words, as Lynch is obsessed by the idea of people coming in contact with nightmarish entities and being destroyed or severely hurt in a manner that suggests enlightenment to be a kind of state of higher confusion.

Someone Is in My House

Photo: Prestel

In Lynch’s art, blood and other substances gush out of heads like geysers, and people’s faces are often twisted in knots of anxiety. As in his films, Lynch’s paintings are obsessed by the home as a symbol of our illusions of stability and how easily they can be violated. This art is surreal, in that it conforms to no requirements of literal representation, but it’s also overwhelmingly docudramatic in its emphasis on its own DNA. The lithographs on Japanese paper, for instance, which are some of the most starkly memorable of this book’s many unforgettable images, are driven in part by their sense of fragility. The ink appears to have been applied to the canvases in a frenzy, and seems as if it could quite easily be wiped away. Lynch’s multimedia work, particularly his mixtures of sculptures and paintings, are populated by lumpy figures that show the imprint of the artist’s fingerprints and are built from globs of materials, suggesting how easily they could be morphed again by another god. (Or by us, who could in turn by victimized by other gods such as Mr. Redman, a quasi-corporeal explosion of carnage that haunts Lynch’s oil and mixed media canvas of the same name.)

Lynch’s art is also driven by the preludes and aftermaths of events. In This Man Was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago, a phallic string of guts explodes out of a man with a characteristically vague and misshapen face—a Bacon-ish image that occurs against a symmetrical interior backdrop that would be at home in an Edward Hopper canvas. Acknowledging these influences, McKenna goes on to write one of the most profound things I’ve read about Lynch’s paintings: “They have a clumsy, accidental quality and come across as thwarted attempts to make oneself understood; they feel wrought rather than painted.” Rendering characters in the face of impending or concluding cataclysm, Lynch adapts techniques that mirror their awkwardness and alienation, and this chameleonic—at once assertive and self-effacing—style has probably been part of the reason for Lynch being taken somewhat for granted as an artist.

However, Lynch’s primitivism communicates robust emotional quandaries, especially an earnest yearning for a return to a normalcy that’s been shattered—a normalcy that never existed and which is embodied by houses that are composed of only a few skewed lines. These houses might be harbingers of nostalgia for Lynch’s characters, but they’re hollow or—in the case of Lynch’s lonely and forbiddingly poignant black-and-white photographs of snowmen—closed off and ridden with secrets that are impossible to know. Many Lynch characters also face their brutal reckonings with a becoming and majestic dignity, such as the nose-headed subject of an untitled 1971 pencil sketch.

Though Someone Is in My House is adamant that we take Lynch’s artwork on its own terms, without always connecting it to his films and TV, such an exercise isn’t entirely resistible. Lynch’s art clarifies to an extent what his films are also doing: valuing moments of privatized emotional experience, and often suspending plots in time so as to show how individual epiphanies can knock us off the course of our own “narrative”—that is to say, our lives.

Twin Peaks: The Return, which is clearly on Lynch’s mind in the art that’s included in this book from 2010 forward, is a collection of scenes and images that bind the existential cosmic with the domestic rituals of our lives. For most of us, finally connecting with a lost love at a coffee shop means more than considerations of the unknowable evil that may or may not pull the strings behind the curtains of eternity. Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper became unstuck in time because he took for granted the heaven of his kinship with the townsfolk of the hellish yet pastoral Twin Peaks. He failed to recognize what the subjects of many of Lynch’s paintings discover: that, to quote McKenna again, “Life happens through us, not because of us.” Throughout his career, Lynch has mined a vein of ecstatic powerlessness.

David Lynch: Someone Is in My House is now available from Prestel.

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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.



That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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Review: Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds Is a Collection of Searing Epiphanies

Throughout this remarkable book, what seizes the characters’ attention, and ours, often has the dissimulated air of a revelation that’s still in the midst of disclosure.



Mouthful of Birds

In Mouthful of Birds, Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin lifts up reality and hurls it elsewhere. An aunt in one story seeks “the most arcane side of the simplest things,” and Schweblin is up to something similar. In the worlds she’s devised, one’s eyes can quickly alight upon something deeply weird. The teenager in the title story blithely rises from the couch and, to her father’s horror, devours a live sparrow. In “The Size of Things,” the owner of a toy shop finds his inventory has been rearranged overnight. It’s the work of Enrique Duvel, a troubled man who, with the owner’s reluctantly granted permission, spent the night inside the shop. The question of Enrique, with his fastidious artistry and childlike fascinations, ultimately contracts toward a fleeting, irrational sight—like a shimmer out of some unsettling dream.

Throughout this remarkable book, what seizes the characters’ attention, and ours, often has the dissimulated air of a revelation that’s still in the midst of disclosure. In a recent interview with Electric Literature, Schweblin explained that her process is driven more by emotion than plot. Indeed, intensities of feeling and portent encircle these tales like a thickening mist that’s never thuddingly dispelled by a simple twist or tidy resolution.

This is finely shown in “Underground,” in which Schweblin again conveys the act of seeing as something profoundly urgent and difficult. Its embedded tale, told to the narrator by an old man, concerns a child who discovers a small growth in the ground. “It wasn’t much,” the old man notes, “but it seemed like enough to him.” Following the discovery, a kind of obsessive-compulsive fervor overtakes the child and his cohort. They begin to ritualistically dig at the spot every day. Then the children and the hole vanish. And the gazes of their parents, once uncomprehending or averted, become desperately watchful. They begin to dig into the earth, searching, and later hear scrabbling noises rising up from beneath the floors of their homes.

The old man’s story ends abruptly, with much of its mystery still intact. And, while telling the story, he digresses to consider the hazards of everyday life: the risks, which, in their innumerable permutations, outstrip our preemptive scrutiny, and can at times resemble some larger metaphysical cruelty. Aspects like these moor the book to recognizable neuroses and anxieties—to the terrors of uncertainty. In a more precise sense, “Underground,” like a number of stories in the collection, presents a uniquely parental nightmare. It extends the work of Fever Dream, Schweblin’s 2014 debut novel. (As with Mouthful of Birds, it was translated into English by Megan McDowell.) The forensic odyssey of that novel is oriented around the urgently recalled memories of a dying mother, whose need to shield her young daughter from harm is repeatedly expressed. “I need to get out in front of anything that could happen,” the mother says at one point, as she remembers her first night in a new home, “but everything is very dark and my eyes never get used to the darkness.”

Mouthful of Birds restores something of Fever Dream’s somnambulant rhythm and furtive prose. Schweblin again distends suspenseful searches and approaching crises; such aspects, in exhilarating or unnerving ways, often seem to be interminably unfurling. Her writing can bring to mind the disconcerting power of Inger Stevens, in The Twilight Zone’s “The Hitch-Hiker,” pensively driving along roads, both chasing and eluding some terrible truth. In “Rage of Pestilence,” Schweblin introduces a census taker who arrives at a border town, and who seems to know that something will go wrong—and something does, something has. He detects “the townspeople behind the windows and doors,” and notices “the back of a little boy leaning against a post; a dog’s tail poking out from the doorway of a house.” The details accumulate slowly and mesmerically. Its disturbing ending is like a secret that erupts and recedes at once.

In that story—as in other sterling examples, like “Toward Happy Civilization” or “The Digger”—it’s as if the protagonist is lost within an esoteric game. Mouthful of Birds, in this respect, would pair well with The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioys Casares, which Schweblin has cited as an inspiration. Certain “miraculous” visitors interrupt the solitude of that novel’s fugitive islander. He closely studies them, and the odd game that appears to be afoot. He begins, also, to think of the “weight that keeps you from running away in dreams,” and “the figures that appear, according to Leonardo, when we look fixedly at damp spots on a wall for any length of time.” Schweblin’s storytelling captures similar feelings and ideas. In “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides,” for example, she limns one man’s fundamental myopia by pointing out his inability to apprehend the “millions of shifting particles” in any given object.

And it’s a stray object, fixedly regarded, that catalyzes one of the more searing epiphanies in Mouthful of Birds. It’s found in “My Brother Walter,” a story about the depressed title character and the success of his entrepreneurial family. Walter, we learn, is a quiet and sedentary fixture at his family’s barbecues. His relatives vaguely derive something from his presence. They also try to address his wellbeing but mostly in perfunctory ways. Schweblin is here examining how the good fortune and happiness of most of the members of this family collide with Walter’s debilitating sadness, and how this creates incongruities that can sometimes seem like darkly absurd jokes. “The business grows,” the narrator, Walter’s brother, says at one point, “and my son turns two years old. When I put him in Walter’s arms, my son smiles and claps and says, ‘I’m happy, I’m so happy.’”

When the son drops a garland during another celebration, Walter breaks out of his stasis. He reaches for the object. The narrator, taken aback, tries to describe his alarm: “Walter looks at the garland, seeming to study it with too much attention, and for a moment everything seems confused to me.” From there, the complacency of the narrator violently disintegrates. He plunges, fast, toward untapped reservoirs of empathy and fear. Cultural gaps are considered elsewhere in the book, but this story affirms that Schweblin is also contemplating a variety of interpersonal and existential gaps. “I think we don’t understand the other in general,” she stated recently, in the aforementioned interview, in which she also discussed the power of suddenly being able to behold another person or object “as if for the first time.” In another interview, she acknowledged her tendency to create characters who “don’t understand what’s going on around them or how to get out of the situations they’re in.”

In keeping with Schweblin’s comments, the characters in Mouthful of Birds often fail to comprehend others, and even parts of themselves. But all of this can be upended, for however brief and startling an interval, by something as simple as a dropped garland. And then the familiar becomes like frail gossamer, and disperses through the delicate force of a glance.

Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds is now available from Riverhead Books.

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Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch

There’s something uncommonly relaxing about many of McPhee’s patient elaborations of things known and unknown.



Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch

“But 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.” 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. There’s 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 “The Sporting Scene.” Those typically uninterested in sports or sports writing, like myself, shouldn’t be deterred by the title. As I discovered through other recent encounters with McPhee’s ballyhooed writing, the author has a knack for inexorably moving readers beyond their biases. Two-part New Yorker articles like “Oranges,” “The Pine Barrens,” and “Basin and Range,” which were later turned into books, are studious and propulsive. Fine-grained matters of geology or citrus aren’t exactly simplified in these articles, but wading through the density becomes an irresistible prospect thanks to the author’s intelligibility, wit, enthusiasm, and atmospheric touches. For an example of the latter, consider McPhee’s focus on the “unnatural and all but unending silence” of the Floridian orange groves that he visited. What’s more, he often conveys a certain sense of respectful understanding, as when he mentions that he has “yet to meet anyone living in the Pine Barrens who has in any way indicated envy of people who live elsewhere.”

Similar virtues spruce up the “The Sporting Scene.” 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 “The Orange Trapper,” for instance, he discusses his hunt for errant golf balls. It’s an engaging topic. He has learned, among other things, what occurs when you take a saw to a golf ball. You find the world: “Core, mantle, crust—they are models of the very planet they are filling up at a rate worldwide approaching a billion a year.” Other jolts arrive through the often remarkable conclusions to his paragraphs and pieces. The ending of “The Orange Trapper” is an especial wonder—a thrilling mobilization of words that elicits laughter and awe.

There are also bears: “Direct Eye Contact” 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 “Pioneer,” meanwhile, McPhee ponders Bill Tierney’s choice to begin coaching the University of Denver men’s lacrosse team. “How could he leave Princeton?” McPhee asks. “It can be done. And Tierney knew what he was doing.” Those lines showcase the occasionally pithy, pleasantly chiseled style of his prose. It’s a considered design that favors clarity, structures hairpin turns toward new discursive trails, and pairs well with punchlines. In “Phi Beta Football,” one of McPhee’s colleagues promises to deliver him “a nice piece of change” if he figures out a suitable title for his book. “I went away thinking,” McPhee tells us, and then adds, “mostly about the piece of change.”

The recounting of sporting events is likewise augmented by the author’s playfulness. “Pioneer” throws us this line: “But Syracuse exploded—one, two, three—and the game went into ‘sudden victory’ overtime, the politically uplifting form of sudden death.” So transporting and genial is McPhee’s writing that the specifics of any given match never weigh down the reading, nor do his more elaborate remarks. “It’s a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea,” he declares in “Linksland and Bottle,” his piece on the 2010 British Open, “with golfers everywhere across the canvas—putting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation.” What’s 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 “An Album Quilt” and it encompasses a dizzying mixture of short pieces. None are available in any of McPhee’s other books. In an introductory statement, the author compares these pieces to the dissimilar blocks of a quilt. He notes that he “didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything”; he sought out “blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses.” This section is quite distinct from “The Sporting Scene,” 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 Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. The author’s clipped expressions of wonder enliven that piece: “Gulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Mares’ tails on the deeps.” A little later, he mentions “granite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor.” One can imagine Don Draper reading through this with poignant interest. In another entry, a series of succinct blurbs about tennis luminaries, Rod Laver’s childhood is crisply set against his eventual stardom: “Had to wait his turn while his older brothers played. His turn would come.”

And so one just leaps from piece to piece, and, along the way, discovers scenes from different periods in McPhee’s life and career. An encounter with two New York City policemen—this likely occurred in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, given the “familiar green and black” on the cop car—is particularly memorable. It begins with the author’s recollection of locking his keys inside his car, which, he notes, had been parked “in a moted half-light that swiftly lost what little magic it had had, and turned to condensed gloom.” 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? “The policemen got out of the patrol car,” McPhee tells us, “and one of them asked for the wire.” From there, the situation undulates a couple more times before concluding through a sparkling punchline that’s 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. “‘Fuck you, coach!’ Quote unquote” 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. There’s also something uncommonly relaxing about many of his patient elaborations of things known and unknown. And there is, both within the book’s 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, “I could suddenly see it, almost get into it—into another dimension of experience that I might otherwise have missed entirely.”

John McPhee’s The Patch is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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