“My mission is to stay as free and unfettered as possible.” Yukiko Motoya so commented on her career and creative process during an interview for Granta. The course of that career certainly indicates a restless curiosity. Motoya was born in snowy Ishikawa Prefecture on the Sea of Japan but later set out for Tokyo, where she completed an acting course and worked as a voice actor for a spell before deciding to zero in on writing novels and plays.
Motoya founded her own theater company and has also set aside time for various other endeavors, like hosting a radio show and a televised documentary series. Her varied work has resulted in numerous accolades, and, most recently, the release of The Lonesome Bodybuilder, the first book-length English translation of her fiction. Asa Yoneda, the book’s translator, has signal-boosted a story collection whose off-kilter style strenuously upholds Motoya’s stated mission.
The book’s 11 tales are, in one way or another, about the fettering of freedom. Many of the characters seek lives yet unlived, or lives once lived but later forgotten. They confront their stifled independence: velleities give way to keen yearnings, desires twist toward violence. When something akin to freedom is gained, it’s often vague or ostensible, but the impediments to that freedom are surveyed in great detail. Motoya’s emphases include tedious relationships, workplace gender dynamics, and the soporific entertainments and culinary distractions of our modern age.
In these contexts, Motoya’s characters come to recognize the possibilities they’ve denied themselves. The protagonist in the title story grows fond of combat sports and wonders why this didn’t occur much earlier. “I always do that,” she admonishes herself. “I decide who I am, and never consider other possibilities.” In another story, “I Called You by Name,” an ad exec compares her past and present, recalling her earlier determination to never allow herself to “be bound by anything as common as common sense.”
Motoya’s prose advances a similar principle. She pushes her stories to surreal ends and cross-pollinates wry and solemn tones. Her command of vivid detail comes through in close studies of perception and psychology, and in the conjuring up of outsized brutalities. In “The Women,” the eponymous characters are transformed into blood-thirsty warriors through the escalating fantasies of their partners. Motoya sets a scene involving “several hundred couples engaged in a melee defying all imagining” by inventorying the “screams, the clash of weapons, men begging for their lives from lovers who seemed beyond language, belated confessions of love…” The story concludes in a tragedy, but it’s later reversed by a single line in a different story.
This sense of unpredictability traverses the entire collection, and yet the stories rarely seem desultory. This is abundantly illustrated in “An Exotic Marriage,” a novella about a woman, San, who begins to fear that her husband’s identity is blending with her own. The husband, San explains, waited until after their marriage to reveal the depths of his incuriosity. She endures this at first but later partakes in it, finding herself pulled into her husband’s orbit—his daily consumption of variety shows and deep-fried food. An insidious exchange of traits and gender stereotypes unfolds and the boundaries between the two characters become porous. Facial features intermittently disassemble, prompting San’s panic. At other points, the couple are recast as ravenous snakes. As the strangeness mounts, San observes her identity as something willed and imposed. “Every time I noticed myself acting as though that was who I’d been all along, a chill went up my spine,” she confesses. “The fact that I couldn’t stop, even if I tried, was proof that it wasn’t actually a matter of anything as benign as acting or pretending.”
Motoya also discerns the way the pursuit of freedom can be corrupted into cruelty or madness. Other nuances arrive in “Paprika Jiro,” a story that conveys a fondness for mercantile traditions. Motoya locates a venerable sense of ancestry and inherited duty in the story’s young market trader. And in “The Dogs,” the protagonist gains a sort of freedom, but this sunders threads both social and psychic; something ambiguously terrible rises in their place. These two stories stand out from the others, which, at times, are held back by traces of redundancy or ideas that are almost excessively legible.
“The Dogs” avoids such risks by dint of its elusiveness and subtlety. It also indicates the range of Motoya’s storytelling style by unveiling additional powers of suggestion and atmospheric description. Its remarkable ending urges one to reexamine the mysteries of the story: the uncanny dogs, the fine-drawn snowbound setting, the temporal ellipses—all those details that seem to delicately conceal the protagonist’s frayed psychology. It’s also the collection’s penultimate entry. Even as The Lonesome Bodybuilder approaches its conclusion, new and winding pathways unfurl.
Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder is available from Soft Skull Press.
With The Institute, Stephen King Channels Political Outrage into Familiar Horror
It’s in the moral murk of a politically loaded situation that King finds the richest seam of his story.
For years after the publication of The Shining, fans wondered what happened to Danny Torrance, the boy with the psychic powers at the center of the 1977 novel. While promoting Full Dark, No Stars in 2010, Stephen King acknowledged in an interview that he liked the idea of a world where Danny and Charlene “Charlie” McGee, the pyrokinetic main character of 1980’s Firestarter, could get married. According to the author, “they would have totally wonderful children.” Though Doctor Sleep would later conclude Danny’s story, and close down the possibility of that particular union forever, King’s latest novel suggests that the idea continues to flower in his imagination.
The Institute is chock-full of “wonderful” children or, at least, some very ordinary children with extraordinary powers. At its center is the Institute, a facility in the woods of Main that houses kids who’ve been abducted because of their telekinetic and telepathic abilities. There, the children are tested and tortured in order to enhance their wild talents. And into this hellish dominion enters Luke Ellis, a boy with middling telekinetic reach but dizzying intellect.
Meanwhile, ex-cop Tim Jamieson settles into his new home in the South Carolina town of DuPray, a place as Kingsian to its core as the man himself. Good-natured and kind, unflinchingly but undemonstratively moral, and with a newfound willingness to follow his hunches, Jamieson is the sort of hero that King has been writing about since 1979’s The Dead Zone. Our introduction to DuPray and Jamieson, who takes a job as a “night knocker” for the local sheriff, is warm and meandering, but its brevity is a tell: that King won’t be writing in his more sweeping epic style. The baroque backstories and irrelevant divergences that mark the highs—or lows, depending on your perspective—of King’s fiction are here offered in miniature. It’s a hurried sketch rather than a meticulous painting of a small community.
For better and worse, after this brief introduction, the novel jumps the 1,000 miles north to the Institute, remaining there for the better part of 300 pages, abandoning Jamieson and DuPray for so long that readers may forget that they ever existed. When Jamieson suddenly reappears, the jarring effect is both a testament to the absorbing power of Luke’s narrative and a sign of how weakly King has woven together the two strands of The Institute.
Though the “special” child is a well that King has drawn from many a time, the novel has a political edge that rescues the trope from the shadow of redundancy. The Institute is about separating children from their parents and putting them in cages, all in the name of national security and the better good. Even though King has stated that he wasn’t inspired by ICE and the migrant crisis, it’s almost impossible to separate the fiction from the headlines. And it’s in the moral murk of this situation that he finds the richest seam of his story. The Institute, you see, has a practical purpose. And while that purpose is best left for readers to discover for themselves, it will spoil nothing to say that the novel offers a philosophical quandary: How many children are you willing to destroy to save the world?
Such a question allows King to move away from the Manichaean notion of good and evil that limits much horror fiction. The Institute’s staff ranges from jobbing professionals to zealots for the cause. Sprinkled in are a few obligatory sadists, but these are the least interesting of the children’s tormentors. Queen above all is Mrs. Sigsby, who combines the primness of Dolores Umbridge with Nurse Ratched’s terrifying psychopathy. She’s the villainous heart of the novel, yet her cruelty is neither unthinking nor indulgent. She’s merely the result of an unblinking ideology that allows her to see children as resources rather than human beings.
King has always been particularly good at etching the bureaucratic villain. His writing is sophisticated enough to acknowledge that few humans pursue evil for its own sake. Mrs. Sigsby is the very opposite of an agent of chaos. But her pursuit of order involves a complacent evil that’s more terrifying because of its authenticity. Like everyone else, she has a boss, and quotas to meet, and little time to consider the moral implications of her actions. And her eventual undoing ranks among the more satisfying of King’s resolutions because Mrs. Sigsby represents the walls of bureaucratic unkindness that plague 21st-century life.
The children are charming, of course. No one writes kids for adults as well as King. The Institute has been marketed as It for the new generation. This seems mostly to be a publishing gambit to grasp the coattails of Andy Muschietti’s successful two-part adaptation of It. But there’s some truth in the comparison—namely, in the realistic camaraderie fostered between the kids, who face and overcome the apathetic cruelty that adults represent.
All of which makes it a shame that the book is so rote, as it sees King continuing to dip his toes in the same murky, shallow waters of crime fiction where much of his work has been stuck for the last decade. The author remains in the top tier of storytellers. Much has been made of this, often in reductive tones—as if storytelling isn’t what we’re all here for. Such benign dismissal neglects his deceptively simple style, the crafted tone of voice that seamlessly marries the everyman and the extraordinary. It overlooks the heart and heat that radiates off the page of a King novel, and in The institute his skills actually come to the fore more than usual because the story itself is fairly insubstantial.
The ideas are there: the juxtaposition of a human America against a corporate one, the meeting of physical and psychogeographic landscapes, that even in a multifaceted situation there’s a clear definable line of goodness. But King has wielded them more elaborately and successfully elsewhere. In The Institute, he offers them as the axes of a yarn that’s wholly relevant, and which nods toward the underlying complexity of any project based on serving “the greatest good,” but which, even at close to 600 pages, feels too fleeting to offer answers.
Stephen King’s The Institute is now available from Scribner in the U.S. and Hodder in the U.K.
With Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith Spins Dreams Into Topsy-Turvy Words
It’s a moving, witty, at times almost trance-like work traversing age, aging, sickness and death, as well as joy, gratitude and wonder.
Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey is a Book of Dreams, or, more accurately, a Book of Dreaming. It’s not, or not merely, a systematic transcription of the artist’s nocturnal journeys, but rather a book wherein the processes or mechanisms of dreaming determine the course and pulse of the narrative. There’s a canon, or at least a corpus, of this type of work, including preeminently the works of Franz Kafka, along with such unique creations as proto-surrealist Gerard de Nerval’s Aurelia, surrealist texts in general, and, to a more curious degree, Alice In Wonderland. Explicitly referencing pretty much all the above works or writers, along with many others (Smith has never been hero-shy), the book combines Carrollian topsy-turvy with the kind of hard-edged mystic surrealism that Smith is so famous for.
Smith is the ideal avatar for this kind of narrative because her style is so motile. She can go in any direction at any time. From her earliest days as poet-singer onward, she’s woven and fused multiple imageries, a lyrical bric-a-brac able to span centuries, from Joan of Arc to Arthur Rimbaud (one of her earliest heroes) to Jimi Hendrix. Allen Ginsberg once likened reading to time travel, to a reader linking up with a writer from another century and being essentially transported to that time in a very palpable way. Smith is such a time traveler. She seems to live in myriad epochs simultaneously, a spiritual ubiquity directly reflected, in Year of the Monkey, through her surroundings: “It is all about my desk with a cabinet portrait of the young Baudelaire and a photo-booth shot of a young Jane Bowles and an ivory Christ without arms and a small framed print of Alice conversing with the Dodo.”
The book chronicles a year of the poet’s movements across America and more far-flung places—besides being a time-traveler, Smith is a true planetary adventurer, a sought-after figure “slowly wading through a long chain of requests”—as she navigates the mysteries of mortality, both her own and that of others. The dreamlike nature of the journey is signified early. Smith checks in to the Dream Motel, where immediately personification commences. In dreams or Wonderland, anything can take the form and function of anything else:
“–Thank you, Dream Motel, I said, half to the air, half to the [motel] sign.
–It’s the Dream Inn! the sign exclaimed.
–Oh yeah, sorry, I said, somewhat taken aback. Even so, I didn’t dream a thing.
–Oh really? Nothing!
The motel sign remains a constant voice, a kind of Cheshire Virgil nagging Smith through layers of dream. Indeed, throughout Year of the Monkey, she speaks playfully Alice-like to many inanimate objects, be it the motel sign or her puke-spattered boots: “…I was pulling my strings off my Stratocaster when some guy with a greasy ponytail leaned over and puked on my boots. The last gasp of 2015, a spray of vomit ushering in the New Year…I knelt down and cleaned up my boots. Happy New Year, I told them.”
Another strange, steady occurrence throughout the book is what Smith calls the “candy-wrapper phenomenon”: “The beach was littered with candy wrappers…hundreds of them, maybe thousands, scattering the beach like feathers after a molt […] When I reentered my room, I could see that I was still sleeping, so I waited, with the window open, till I awoke.” These candy wrappers and their continual eerie reappearance evoke that odd totemic potency that mundane objects acquire in dreams. This potency is also reflected in the Polaroids that Smith includes as “amulets” or “talismans,” hard evidence of soft dreams, somewhat the way André Breton, the surrealist movement’s staunchest statesman, incorporated on-the-spot off-kilter photographs into his seminal dream work, Nadja.
To dream or not to dream, that seems to be the question. “The fringe of dream, an evolving fringe at that! Maybe more of a visitation, a prescience of things to come.” For as much as it is a book of dreams, Year of the Monkey is also a Book of the Dead and Dying. Throughout, Smith worries over the health and death of two of her closest friends, and so sometimes seems not only to be conjuring dream logic, but charting her own post-death navigation plan as well: “[I wondered] whether my assessment of the usage of the word candy wrapper was correct. I wondered if the mundanity of my train of thought was hindering my progress […] Cycles of death and resurrection, but not always in the way we imagine. For instance, we might all resurrect looking way different, wearing outfits we’d never be caught dead in.”
The book builds in visions and end-visions just as the election of Donald Trump looms. The Year of the Monkey gives way to the Year of the Rooster: “It was the 28th of January. The cock of the new year had arrived, a hideous thing with puffed chest and feathers the color of the sun. Too late too late too late, he crowed,” a kind of malignant overturning of the preceding wonderland, as well as a frightening carrion call. The prose becomes increasingly visionary, even biblical, with Smith’s incantatory prowess, her charging-horse delivery, at its most propulsive and insistent, advancing through repetition, invoking through breathless passages of prophecy too lengthy to quote and too powerful to take out of context, terrible visions of shunned migrancy and regenerative imagination.
Year of the Monkey is a kind of Patti in the Valley of the Shadow of Death or Patti in the Sadlands. This isn’t to say the book is regretful or self-pitying. Far from it. Rather, it’s a moving, witty, at times almost trance-like work traversing age, aging, sickness, and death, as well as joy, gratitude, and wonder. No longer the kid of her National Book Award-winning Just Kids, Smith (now 70) may be older, wiser and frailer, but she’s no less curious and curiouser.
Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey is available on September 24 from Knopf.
Anatomy of an American Family and National Memory: Nell Zink’s Doxology
One of Zink’s missions is to navigate how the absence of one life continues to play on those left alive.
The past few weeks on his podcast WTF, actor and comedian Marc Maron has been delivering his usual pre-interview monologue, bringing listeners up to date on his life, his challenges with staying clean and sober, and, most recently, the suicide of David Berman, the singer-songwriter best known for his work with the Silver Jews. Maron composes his memory of a “hangout” session with Berman in Nashville, recalling how “he just told me the story, the whole David Berman story.” One facet of Nell Zink’s fifth novel, Doxology, is the death of a fictional indie musician, Joe Harris, whose absence is forever present within the book’s pages, tinging them with the same kind of grief present in Maron’s voice. But while Maron explores loss in the immediate aftermath of a death, recalling the “light” a figure like Berman gave off, Zink traces the effects of loss over the course of decades. Throughout, one of her missions is to navigate how the absence of one life continues to play on those left alive.
Decisions amass, one upon another in Doxology, a wide-spreading mural portraying the lives of an American family—Pam and Daniel and their daughter, Flora—from the late ‘80s to the modern day. Zink alternates her narrative between her protagonists quickly and often. Instead of dedicating whole chapters to, say, Pam’s perspective, multiple voices will share the page at once. Zink’s use of the third-person enables her to dance from character to character, one paragraph after the other. At one moment, we’re at a New York farmer’s market with Daniel, and in the next, we will be at an Ian MacKaye show with Flora. Zink never sticks with one character for longer than a page at a time, building a pace which isn’t unlike that of her characters, so quick-witted and always in motion, questioning their lives and relationships but united as a family, manifested through their shared space on the page.
Pam, Daniel, and Joe, all young and working crummy jobs at the start of the book, are united by their obsession with punk rock. Reminiscent of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Zink’s language has a melodic quality, her long, crisp sentences enhanced by precise punctuation and smart alliteration. Every character is fast-talking and ceaselessly witty; they appear to be performing like the musicians they desire to become, their use of language a kind of instrument. And like a good lyricist, Zink doesn’t waste a line of dialogue on anything uninteresting or even mildly benign. Everything feels just a little bit sped up, like an Aaron Sorkin production, but there’s also whimsy and joy in Zink’s prose, which brings passion to subjects as dry as soil aptitudes and door-to-door political canvassing.
Friends and bandmates, Pam, Daniel, and Joe are lovable and flawed, essential and aimless. Joe has “a case of high-functioning Williams syndrome,” and he ropes the gang together with unbending affability and an endearing trust in the world that helps to balance Pam and Daniel’s more cautious approach to record executives and groupies. Pam is the “retro hippie earth mother” who ran away from her parents in D.C. to Manhattan with 70 dollars “she’d earned by selling her father’s audio receiver and VCR to a pawn shop,” and Daniel is “an eighties hipster” who “lived in a state of persistent ecstasy.” Their stories build, mingle, and mesh as they attempt to start their own punk band, eventually leading to Daniel and Pam’s marriage, Flora’s birth, and Joe’s serendipitous slippage into indie stardom.
Doxology, though, isn’t a solely about music, as Zink is also concerned with shared national traumas and the idea of re-experiencing the past 30 years of American politics. She shows why she’s one of America’s great contemporary novelists through her sharp shift of focus, capturing a multitude of landscapes from the wide vistas of American music and politics, to the finer details of sustainable farming, computer programming, and D.C. parks. The wealth of knowledge that Zink brings to her novel is generous, guiding us through moments in America’s recent past—the millennium shift, the dot-com bubble, 9/11, the housing crash—with a firm sense of authority. She throws all sorts of complications at her characters, tracing how they react, adapt, continue to live, and move on like so many of us had to.
After the Twin Towers collapse, the story shifts to Flora’s coming of age. She’s sent to live with her grandparents in D.C. as the toxic dust settles, and as her life with them is close to utopic, Pam and Daniel can’t rationalize moving her back to New York, where everything smells like asbestos. So they place her in a D.C. private school, where her intelligence is incubated by teachers who see her potential. Throughout, Zink’s descriptions of place are simultaneously cynical, comical, and beautiful. There’s a sense that we’re caught in the most vivid of dreams, an impression that’s hardly diminished as Zink juggles between Flora’s life in D.C. and Pam and Daniel’s in New York. It’s here where Flora becomes interested in saving the planet, studying green sustainability, ultimately leading her to understand that those in power are really the ones who can enact change. As she blossoms into a little genius, she becomes entangled in the Green Party, hoping this will lead her to something bigger.
Though Pam and Daniel still appear in the novel’s second half, they’re cast as secondary characters, and their roundness noticeably dulled down. Their conflicts no longer drive the novel forward, as it’s Flora who’s given the wheel. Thus, she must be nothing short of exceptional in order to hold our attention, often unbelievably so: a deeply liberal intellectual with some life-altering conservative choices, an atheist who sits in cathedrals to obtain deeper wisdom under the watchful eye of a god she doesn’t believe in, a passionate socialist canvasing for Jill Stein with parents who stumble into being millionaires. She often seems philosophically inconsistent as Zink tries to make her incessantly admirable. Every time Flora seems to have reached an existential breaking point, Zink pulls her out of the trench without seeing the trauma through to its natural end. Zink undoubtably wants Flora to be “indestructible,” a word which “seemed to Flora like a pretty basic thing to be. Useful, possibly, but minimal. She wanted more than that.” Bullets bounce off Flora like Superman, and it’s often hard to empathize with a character whose path appears determined for success regardless of how many mistakes she makes on the way.
Still, Zink’s writing remains enthralling in spite of not seeing all of her conflicts fully through to their ends. Like Flora, Zink understands the cynicism of our world but still she shows us moments of humor, humanity, how we can continue to shape our lives despite a world out of our own control. As the novel slowly looms towards modern day, its finality recalls how we got here and a need to brace ourselves for what’s going to come next. If we’ve learned anything from recent history, there will probably be a few unexpected twists coming our way. In the end, this anxiety is personified by Flora, the novel’s greatest gift and biggest challenge.
Nell Zink’s Doxology is now available from Ecco.
Debating at the End of History: Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School
The novel succeeds, in part, by rejecting uncomplicated constructions of blame or causality.
Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School is the best novel of the Donald Trump era thus far—in no small part because it isn’t much interested in Trump. Rather, it investigates the weird and twisty relationships between Trump’s political context and the state of American language. The work of exposure and explanation—what Trump has done, how one might explain him as a political phenomenon, whose fault this all is—has been done, and is still being done. Lerner is after something else: in his own words, a “genealogy” of language and its malformations. He circles certain ideas and concepts—history, trauma, the fragmentation of identity—like a bird around a favorite lake. It’s argument by gesture. Look at these things. Don’t they go together, somehow?
The Topeka School bears a familial resemblance to Lerner’s first two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. An accomplished poet who published three critically successful collections before moving to prose, Lerner has always been a superb stylist. Atocha Station, published in 2011, is filled with sentences that manage to be at once conversational and virtuosic. And some lines in The Topeka School are as fine as any he’s written: “An intense but contentless optimism about the future was the only protection against the recent past, in which all the regimes of value had collapsed, irradiated or gassed.”
Other Lerner mainstays include the fragmentation of identity, time, and space. In Atocha Station, this interest manifests in protagonist Adam Gordon—who reappears in The Topeka School and stands in complete relation to Lerner himself—and his tendency to view himself in the third person and project many possible Adams in many possible futures. In 10:04, published in 2014, Lerner’s narrator eats a baby octopus and experiences a decentering that resembles the cephalopod’s distal nervous system. The Topeka School continues this project of redefining identity as a collection of many versions of oneself scattered throughout time.
What’s changed is Lerner’s scope. Atocha Station is cramped in the best possible sense. Caught in Adam’s head, the reader feels both claustrophobic and adrift in the same way that Adam feels claustrophobic and adrift in Madrid and the Spanish language. But The Topeka School jumps between characters, whose voices and thoughts often bleed together. Eight of the novel’s 15 sections concern Adam and his parents, Jonathan and Jane (both psychologists, like Lerner’s own parents), in 1990s Topeka. Between these longer sections are short chapters about Adam’s schoolmate, Darren Eberhard, whose story helps the novel cohere.
Adam is a nationally ranked debater, and the novel spends a great deal of time talking about the ways debate has stretched language in pursuit of maximum competitive advantage. Extemporaneous debate, Adam explains, was designed to encourage well-read and creative debaters who could “speak confidently on a range of topics.” But speaking “confidently” is possible without being either well-read or creative, and so debate preparation became less about the absorption of politics and history and more about projecting the appearance of absorption. The most common tactic is to speak at a blistering pace, to mention so many points and cite so many sources that one’s opponent cannot respond to them all. This shock-and-awe strategy is called the “spread,” a key to The Topeka School.
The spread leaves the debate’s audience in an unpleasant position. “It’s not that the audience really learns anything about these people or events,” Adam explains, “it’s about how naturally these foreign signifiers roll off the teenager’s tongue.” Debate, in other words, is deeply ironic. For the audience, a debater’s grotesque speed and incomprehensible allusions imply something hidden: agile thinking and erudition. But the debaters know that there’s nothing hidden, that their speech reveals and signifies nothing. It’s a cruel joke that the audience isn’t privy to—a little like serving pretentious wine dilletantes two-dollar bottles disguised as expensive vintages and making them give tasting notes.
Aside from the spread, Lerner includes other examples of harangued and hollowed-out language: psychoanalytic jargon, homophobic slurs, radio-commercial babble. Nearly every main character suffers language failure. When Adam’s mother recovers repressed memories of her father’s abuse, she finds her speech “breaking down, fragmenting under the emotional pressure.” This jumble, she thinks, resembles the poetry Adam admires—or, significantly, “what Palin or Trump sound like, delivering nonsense as if it made sense.” This is a sobering observation: The line is thin between art and blather, between language stretched into poetic ambiguity and language stretched into meaninglessness.
The Topeka School lashes together these blown-out languages and a national failure to listen and speak in good faith. “Even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle,” Lerner writes, “twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives.” As goes debate, so goes America. This relationship is what the novel calls “a fearful symmetry between the ideological compartmentalization of high school debate and what passed for the national political discourse.”
The center of this “fearful symmetry” is the titular Topeka School, a way of thinking and a rhetorical mode that masquerades as populist, extemporaneous, and values-driven but which is actually elitist, highly orchestrated, and beholden only to power and capital. The Topeka School’s spiritual headmaster is Brian Evanson, Adam’s bespoke debate coach, who, as a master of plausible deniability and “choreographed spontaneity,” is the archetype of the new conservative. In the future, Lerner’s novel foretells, Evanson will become “a key architect of the most right-wing governorship Kansas has ever known, overseeing radical cuts to social services and education, ending all funding for the arts, privatizing Medicaid, implementing one of the most disastrous tax cuts in America’s history, an important model for the Trump administration.” It’s a resume that looks very much like former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s. Adam, on the other hand, is metafictionally destined to “attempt this genealogy of [Evanson’s] speech, its theaters and extremes.”
Lerner also puts in Evanson’s mouth the “end of history” thesis made notorious by Francis Fukuyama, which claims that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the great drama of civilization has concluded; the combination of democracy and free-market capitalism has won. (The irony is that the free market might very well end history, but in an ecological, not a political, sense.) The Topeka School has very little patience for this facile narrative, its notion of history as something overcome, improved upon, and left behind.
Not only has history failed to end, it has proven reluctant to move in straight lines toward progress, toward anything. In Lerner’s terms, history is “obstinate.” One of the novel’s consistent allusions is to Hermann Hesse’s short story “A Man by the Name of Ziegler,” which traces Ziegler’s traumatic realization that history is not, in fact, moving slowly, but stubbornly toward a better future. This is true for both global and personal history. It’s impossible to escape the past, which haunts and lingers in the traumas—physical, emotional, and linguistic—scattered throughout the novel. These traumas blend into one another; watching one of Adam’s debate opponents attempt the spread in a logorrheic mania, Jane notices how physically unpleasant, how literally painful, the spread is: “The breathing, the gasping for air—I’d heard hyperventilating patients make similar sounds…While the young man seemed to have a sort of swagger, my primary experience was of a body in duress.”
Another character in duress is Adam’s schoolmate, Darren Eberhard. Despite becoming, by novel’s end, an archetype of reactionary white masculinity, a gun-toting picketer with the Westboro Baptist Church, he remains a complex and often sympathetic character: isolated, earnest, disabled, and especially sensitive to language (the slurs others call him rattle around his chapters like echoes). In one sense, he’s a case study in radicalization, how a white man comes around to affirm and reiterate the speech of Fred Phelps or Donald Trump. But what saves Darren from stereotype and the novel from simplicity is that Lerner is more interested in the circumstances of his development than in either absolving or condemning him. The Topeka School doesn’t set out to “humanize” Darren, though it does. Rather, the novel is about a school of thought, a way of growing up. Darren, like Adam, graduates from that school, which produces Westboro picketers, far-right politicos, and famous novelists alike.
The Topeka School succeeds, in part, by rejecting uncomplicated constructions of blame or causality. But preferring complication means that it must gather together loads of material, and showing how well most of that material fits together is a long, slow job. Simply put, there’s a lot going on. Lerner runs the danger of parody, of self-incrimination; it would be easy for the novel to stop exploring hollow language and information overload, and instead begin exemplifying it. The Topeka School, in other words, risks spreading its reader. But reading it doesn’t feel like reading Gravity’s Rainbow or another maximalist novel actually designed to spread the reader. And there’s an appropriate ambiguity about a novel—which is, after all, a pile of language—that wonders about the ongoing ability of language to do good work.
There are times when The Topeka School, at least for a moment, suggests that an exhausted language might herald something better. Jane considers this possibility during talk therapy with her friend, Sima: “This language has reached its limit, and a new one will be built, Sima and I will build it.” Of course, this is exactly the sort of progressive thinking that Hesse’s Ziegler story deflates. And the novel seems to side with Ziegler: Jane and Sima never build that new language. They don’t even remain friends. Likewise, overwhelmed in a Hypermart, Adam sees brands and their interchangeable products as “an abstract stuff out of which they’d have to make new languages.” Unlike Jane’s utopian vision of a collaborative language, Adam’s version is more sinister, a cardboard language structured by mass consumption. Even Adam’s syntax lends a sense of coercion or obligation: “they’d have to make new languages.”
The Topeka School’s very end suggests that a future lies not in the wholesale construction of new languages, but instead in smaller moments of speech. Adam, singing at an ICE protest with his wife and daughters, reflects: “It embarrassed me, it always had, but I forced myself to participate, to be part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning slowly how to speak again, in the middle of the spread.” There’s room to hope that this isn’t, in fact, the end of history, and that things spread out might be called back in again. Maybe the most remarkable thing about The Topeka School is the way it models this possibility by gathering together the apparently distant and unrelated—psychotherapy, high school debate, Kansan politics, concussions, the drama of a marriage—into a story that feels sincere and generous.
Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School is available on October 1 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture
Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.
The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.
A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?
With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?
I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.
I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.
You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?
I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.
While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?
That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.
Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?
There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.
Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?
Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.
Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.
This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.
As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?
I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.
Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”
There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.
If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?
Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.
A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.
And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…
Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!
The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.
That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.
On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?
I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.
Interview: Paul Tremblay on Growing Things and the Hope of Horror Fiction
Tremblay discusses how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.
Paul Tremblay laughs a lot. Our conversation, about demonically infested children and the end of the world, is interspersed with a low chuckle that suggests he loves doing what he does. And what he does is scare people. Tremblay is at the forefront of a supposed renaissance of horror fiction, and with good reason, as his books cut to the bone.
Tremblay burst onto the horror scene in 2015 with A Head Full of Ghosts, a deconstruction and excoriation of the exorcism subgenre. The most frightening book this critic has ever read, it won the Bram Stoker Award and, perhaps more crucially, Stephen King’s nod of approval. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and The Cabin at the End of the World cemented his reputation as horror’s cruellest craftsman. In these tales, bad things happen to good families. Worlds collapse, lives shatter, and the ambiguity of existence is shown through a glass darkly.
Tremblay’s latest collection, Growing Things and Other Stories, continues his disquieting project. Twisted teachers give lessons in inhumanity, Polaroids reveal dark histories, and some very sinister dogwalkers commit metafictional trespass. The collection, now out from William Morrow, suggests a merciless worldview. Yet as we talk, Tremblay chuckles, pets his dog, and talks about how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.
Do you have a favorite story in Growing Things?
“It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks” is the earliest story in the collection and the first one where I thought, “I can do this.” That was the first time I made uncertainty essential to the story, central to the theme and the “why.” Though it could be hard for a reader to point at any one thing and say, “That’s why it’s a horror story,” I do feel it’s one of the more horrific things I’ve ever written. “Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport” was also a lot of fun to write. I basically retook my own childhood vacation at a place in Cape Cod that we rented once. It was a chance to turn nostalgia on its ear and make it dangerous. I do think nostalgia can be a threat in the way it blurs over the messy parts of your history.
That’s interesting, because your fiction seems obsessed with memory.
I think much of horror is about memory. Memories are so malleable, yet we rely almost entirely on them to define what we think of as our self. Especially childhood memories. So many of them are usurped by retellings—whether your own or your friends’ or family’s—each gives you different versions of things that are the core of who you are. If you can’t trust your memories, then how can you trust identity? As a horror writer, that just feels like infinitely fertile ground. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you confront the question of who you are, and who is the person you’re sharing your bed and your life with. These thoughts freak me out, but I find them fascinating. I boil down horror stories as “a reveal of a dark truth.” In a lot of my stories the reveal is that identity isn’t ironclad and memories aren’t safe.
The media is another thing that emerges as both the format and focus of much of your writing. Is that an intentional theme?
Well, it’s a reflection of the time we’re living in. It’s pretty clear that social media hasn’t only changed society, it’s also changed us as individuals. It’s scary stuff and we’d be fools not to use it in stories. And I don’t just mean to have it there as background noise. If you’re going to use the media it has to be crucial to the story. Some older writers in the horror community would say that you shouldn’t mention this stuff—that it’s not timeless and will date your writing. That seems wholly ridiculous to me, because where’s the cut-off for timelessness? If you make the media central to your stories then people will still be able to read those stories in future decades because you’re essentially world-building.
The contingent realities of memory and media come together in the concept of “fake news.” Do you think horror, or your own work, is well-equipped to address that?
Well, the information age was greeted with a lot of optimism, but my books approach it with disappointment. I’ve met people all around the world through the power of social media. But I’ve also seen the pervasiveness and insidiousness of disinformation, It’s affected family members and relationships. It influences nations and political systems. It blows my mind.
Each of my novels address this is some way. In A Head Full of Ghosts, I use reality TV and the blogger to further enhance the ambiguity. Typically, books approach ambiguity by withholding information. I thought the cooler idea was to give a storm of information. You can’t know what’s real because there’s too much data to consider. I think that reflects the world we live in.
In Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, I took a stereotypical missing-teenager case. People think that it’s easy to locate someone because of all the information we have, hence the claim that “the cellphone killed the horror story.” I purposely wanted to write that story with these kids having snapchat and Facebook but show how that stuff makes it harder to get to the truth.
The Cabin at the End of the World is definitely riffing on those anxieties. I try not to be too didactic, but I absolutely wanted Cabin to be an allegory for our political times.
Why are you so drawn to ambiguity?
I think it reflects one of the horrors of our existence: that reality is more ambiguous than we allow. A smaller reason is that I resist committing to the supernatural in the novel. I’m an agnostic atheist, so if I encountered something in my everyday life, I think I’d have a hard time realizing that it was supernatural. It would be so liminal that how would we know? I’ve found it easier to go full supernatural in my short fiction. Soon I’ll need to come down on one side or the other, because people will get tired of me doing the ambiguity thing every time.
So, what would it take to convince you that your house was haunted?
In your head you imagine it wouldn’t take much. But in reality, we have 30-year mortgages. I’d probably think I had to gut it out, even with a ghost standing in the living room.
I’m not naïve enough to ask you to clarify any of your ambiguous endings. But I am interested in whether you know the truth in those novels.
For each book it’s slightly different. I started A Head Full of Ghosts intending to write a secular exorcism novel. But then I decided to split the evidence 50/50. To be honest, I haven’t really got a clear idea of whether Marjorie is possessed or mentally ill. That’s been a fun novel to discuss with fans because they have interpretations that I never considered. Devil’s Rock has a less ambiguous ending. I feel like it’s fairly clear what those last few pages say. And with Cabin I can honestly say that I haven’t spent a single second thinking about what happens after the last line of that book. That story is all about the choice that Andrew and Eric make, and by the end they have made it. At that point, it doesn’t matter if the world is ending or not.
Speaking to you now, and following you on social media, you seem a very positive guy. Yet your fiction is unremittingly bleak…
…yet every now and again you throw the reader an escape from the horror, or at least the potential for escape. I’m thinking in particular of your story “A Haunted House Is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken,” where you use the choose-your-own-adventure format to lead the protagonist and reader through a history of trauma. It ends with a way out, which I didn’t expect. Would you say you are an optimist?
I don’t know really. With that story I wanted to give the character a way out. Because I think most people, or many people, do survive their personal traumas, their personal ghosts. When Cabin came out, I mentioned in interviews this thing that I called “the hope of horror.” It may sound pretentious but the reason I’m drawn to horror is the same reason I’m drawn to punk. It’s the idea that terrible truth is revealed, and we may not survive it, but there’s value in the shared recognition that something is wrong. So even though the novels and stories are bleak, I find some hope in the fact that we realise something is wrong, even if we can’t fix it. That’s the fist-pump moment If anything ties together the things that I like reading and watching, it’s the chance to look at how other people get through this thing we’re all doing…this life.
Speaking of which, you’re a parent, yet your stories do the worst things to children.
That’s my parental anxiety on show. My first child was born in 2000, and when I was getting serious about writing in the first half of that decade, a friend pointed out to me that I wrote about parents and children all the time. I hadn’t realized, but from there it became purposeful. With Devil’s Rock, I realized I was treading in the same family dynamic as Head Full of Ghosts. Then I wrote Cabin about another young family, and even though they’re individual books, I think they’re a nice thematic trilogy. Each book features a different kind of family in crisis.
You recently tweeted about doing research into some grim childhood illnesses. Dare I ask what that was for?
Yeah, that’s for my next novel. It will be my take on the zombie, but it’s about infected people rather than the undead. It’s set during the first four-to-six hours of an outbreak in Boston.
Is there a title?
The working title is Survivor Song. It’s due with my publishers at the end of the summer.
That’s quite the scoop. Aside from the new book, you also have the adaptation of A Head Full of Ghosts in the works. How involved are you in that process?
[laughs] Aaah, not at all. It’s understandable really. They optioned the book in 2015 before it was even published. At that point, I was rebooting my career, as my earlier crime novels hadn’t sold much. There was no reason for them to consider my feelings. It’s the rare writer who gets invited into in the filmmaking process. In TV they may consult you more, but even then I’m not sure how much of a say you have. I don’t have any say in A Head Full of Ghosts, but they have a director, Osgood Perkins, and a script that we like. It’s all getting a lot closer to being a real thing, with a very solid shot at starting production later this year.
Perkins’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House use ambiguity to great effect. Are you happy with him helming the film?
Definitely. He’s the perfect director for this material. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do. It’ll be tough to squeeze that book into a 90-minute movie.
As it would with any of your writing. Many of the stories in Growing Things experiment with form and structure. Do you feel the need to escape traditional narration?
House of Leaves is one of my favourite novels. I’d love to one day write an experimental novel on that scale. But if you’re going to experiment with structure, then it must serve the story, and that’s easier in short fiction, which seems to beg for experimentation. No, I don’t feel the need to escape. Sometimes it’s just me trying to play with all the toys.
You’re at the center of a new school of young horror writers, people like Laird Barron, Alma Katsu, John Langan, Sarah Langan. Do you think the genre is enjoying a resurgence?
People talk about a new golden age of horror. That’s a little self-serving because I expect every horror writer throughout the ages has looked around and thought, “Hey, what we’re doing is great.” But I think it’s also undeniable that the current breadth of horror hasn’t been seen before, both in terms of gender and diversity as well as style. We aren’t all the way there yet, but it’s exciting and promising. I’m happy to be playing a little part in it.
Finally, what’s your favorite scary book, and your favourite scary movie?
With books it’s a tie. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There are so many more calling out in neglect, but let’s stick with those two. With movies it’s either John Carpenter’s The Thing or Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. I’ve probably seen Jaws close to 50 times and I still can’t watch the part where Quint is bitten in half. The first time I saw that it broke my brain and I’m too afraid to watch it again in case it takes me back in time. I had at least eight years of shark nightmares. The Thing asks: “Do you even know who you are?” It takes us back to that question about memory and identity and that idea of the dark reveal. It’s the heart of horror.
Paul Tremblay’s Growing Pains and Other Stories is now available in the U.S. from William Morrow and in the U.K. from Titan Books.
Review: Cari Mora Luridly and Bitingly Plumbs Man’s Capacity for Evil
Thomas Harris’s novel fathoms man’s depravity in ways that are at once spectacularly horrifying and mordantly amusing.
Thomas Harris’s Cari Mora is the author’s first novel since 1975’s Black Sunday to not feature Hannibal Lecter in some capacity. Fear not, though, for Harris has filled the space where his most famous creation might have been with a small army of psychopathic killers, the crown jewel of which is Hans-Peter Schneider, a completely hairless, reptilian man of German ancestry who captures and sells women as sex slaves to men in Peru and Colombia.
Like Mason Verger in Harris’s masterful Hannibal, Hans-Peter uses a constant cash flow to feed his ghastly appetite for human suffering. When the women he kidnaps don’t “work out for business,” as Harris puts it at one point, Hans-Peter harvests their organs for the black market and then dissolves their bodies in an expensive liquid cremation machine, of which Schneider is “very proud.” And as in his Lecter novels, Harris fathoms this man’s perspective on the world in ways that are at once spectacularly horrifying and mordantly amusing.
Harris quickly introduces Hans-Peter as a nightmarish hybrid of man and animal, whose “canine teeth” accompany a “startling ability to mimic” the voices and movements of others. As the novel commences, he’s set his eyes on the eponymous Cari Mora, the twentysomething caretaker of a mansion located along Miami’s Biscayne Bay, where he believes between 25 and 35 million dollars worth of gold lies buried beneath it. He’s correct, but he and others will have to get through traps of explosives and saltwater crocodiles to claim it.
The novel moves from settings in Miami and Barranquilla, Colombia, with the action in one place impacting some of the decisions made in others. Variously drawing on legacies of Nazism, Jim Crow-era racism, and the Cali Cartel, Cari Mora is a wellspring of intimations that stresses the monstrousness of a male pathology that thrives on the torture of others, particularly women. In Barranquilla, Don Ernesto, a mysterious man involved in the criminal underworld, consults with Jesús Villarreal, a former associate of Pablo Escobar, who previously owned the mansion in Biscayne Bay. Jesús has already sold his knowledge to Hans-Peter, but Ernesto wants in on the action as well. In Miami, Hans-Peter has a cadre of goons. Among them is Felix, a serpentine real estate agent, and Bobby Joe, whose fingers are lettered “love” and “hate” à la Robert Mitchum’s murdering preacher in The Night of the Hunter and whose truck boats a bumper sticker reading: “IF I’D KNOWN THIS I WOULD OF PICKED MY OWN COTTON.” Harris depicts these men as cultural manifestations of greed and hatred whose monomaniacal perspectives implicitly stem from histories of nationalist violence.
If Hans-Peter is Harris’s approximation of a modern-day Hannibal Lecter, then Cari might be said to be the author’s reimagining of Clarice Starling. Cari formerly fought for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and now resides in the United States under Temporary Protected Status. She desires nothing more than to become a veterinarian and to live in a place of her own. She spends numerous hours at the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station supporting wildlife rescue, and tends to a large white cockatoo that lives in the mansion. Oh, and she also knows how to assemble and lock and load an AK-47 in 45 seconds.
Harris further balances a sense of Cari’s vulnerability and strength by steadily articulating the cunning churn of her consciousness. When Felix introduces Hans-Peter and his crew as filmmakers who wish to use the mansion for a shoot, Harris briefly drops us into Cari’s headspace as she feels the group of men thinking, “Pull a train, pull a train.” Cari isn’t a mystic, but she does seem to know from the look on a man’s face the horrific extent of his intentions. That the mansion is permanently decorated with “lunging and reaching” monster mannequins from horror films is Harris’s coup de grace: Cinema’s imaginings are but a knick next to the war that’s responsible for Cari’s psychological wounds and scars on her body.
Structurally, Cari Mora is jammed with too many secondary characters whose purpose proves mostly beside the point to the central, looming clash between Hans-Peter and Cari. Such as Detective Robles of Miami-Dade homicide. His home was hit with gunfire from illegally made weapons that wounded him and caused his wife brain damage. Harris introduces Robles around the 100-page mark, giving his plight a couple of chapters before then abandoning him until he’s needed toward the novel’s end—and even then, his function feels incidental.
Then there’s the group of men, led by one Captain Marco, who are hired by Don Ernesto to work as counter-insurgents against Hans-Peter and to, finally, secure the gold for themselves. Although their presence proves necessary for helping Cari to evade capture by Hans-Peter, Harris misses the opportunity to use these characters as a means of meaningfully fleshing out the legacy of immigrants residing in contemporary Miami. While these figures, too, help Harris to conjure some convincingly cold-blooded acts of violence, especially in an extended bit of gunplay involving Hans-Peter and a hired gun named Candy, much of the novel’s weightier themes are momentarily cast aside throughout these moments.
Cari Mora is at its best as a sustained meditation on the ineffable extent of humankind’s capacity for brutality in the name of personal gain, especially when Harris homes in on the history of violence that brought Cari to the United States in the first place. An extended flashback details Cari’s attempted brainwashing by FARC, though from the beginning of her training she remains resistant, receiving “demerits for inattention in indoctrination classes.” When Cari discovers that FARC is slaughtering entire villages just like the ultra-right paramilitary, she makes a plan to escape from FARC’s ranks for good.
Harris acutely frames his characters as predators and prey, associating their behaviors to those of the hungry crocodiles and helpless pelicans that inhabit Biscayne Bay. While Hans-Peter, a man for whom “the sound of a woman crying” is “soothing,” sustains himself on the blood and tears of others, Cari cares for the environment as a means of freeing herself from the insanity that surrounds her. How these two perspectives clash, and are finally resolved, provides an ending more conventional than that of Hannibal, but nevertheless carries an irony befitting Harris’s ongoing consideration of how light and dark are often interchangeable.
Thomas Harris’s Cari Mora is available on May 21 from Grand Central Publishing.
Review: The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album
If you’re in a band, the Beatles taught you everything, whether you know it (or admit it) or not.
If you’re in a band, the Beatles taught you everything, whether you know it—or admit it—or not. They taught bands how to form and look and act, how to play, write, tour, and record. They even taught bands how to break up and go solo. Imagine a world without George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run,” Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” or, indeed, John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It’s not so easy, even if you try.
The Beatles not only schooled other bands, they also educated teachers, who sometimes went on to teach the band’s music in their classrooms. For as much as anywhere else, the Beatles have invaded academia and pedagogy. Indeed, there’s a wealth of scholarship built around “the boys,” covering every aspect of their work, be it musical, cultural, or personal, whether discussing that work in toto or focusing on one specific album.
The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album does just that. Edited by Mark Osteen, professor of English and director of the Center for the Humanities at Loyola University Maryland, the book is a fine scholarly addition to the study of the Beatles. Where else but academia might one find erudite discussions of Ringo’s drumming and John Lennon’s use of the phrase “oh yeah”? Those are just two of many elements covered in this volume. Taking a cue from the band and the album, the book cuts through three layers of the Beatles onion: social/personal context; the music itself; and the continued impact and influence of The White Album—or, as it’s officially called, The Beatles.
In his lengthy introduction Osteen sets the stage:
“[In some ways] the White Album resembles one of those nineteenth-century novels that Henry James famously dubbed ‘large, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary’. [Yet the album’s] bagginess, along with its frequent use of bricolage, self-referentiality, fragmentation, and pastiche, is not Victorian but postmodernist.”
This postmodern pluralism, its grab bag of musical styles and moods spread over four sides of vinyl, is precisely what’s most often cited as either the album’s primary appeal or its sorest failure. Is it playfully purposeful or haphazardly dispersed? Masterpiece or mess? The sprawling, uneven ambitiousness and abundance of material, as well as the infamous background of the album’s making—the internal strife, each Beatle supposedly using the others as players rather than co-members, Yoko Ono’s omnipresence—don’t necessarily contradict a sense of thematic wholeness, as this book makes quite clear.
Osteen sees “a brand of cohesion that both reflects the upheavals the Beatles experienced around the time of recording and reveals that, despite their differences, they shared numerous concerns and employed many of the same tropes and devices. The White Album’s diversity camouflages a set of consistent motifs and situations that surface under close analysis.”
Perhaps the most common motif noted among the essays is that the Beatles took a turn in 1968 toward the natural with The White Album, to a simpler, less ornate approach, the far-out faux-baroque flourishes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, both released in 1967, giving way to a more grounded earthiness. If those previous albums were flowers, The White Album was dirt, a return to the basic element of the Beatles own growth. They would be a band again, rather than (or along with being) recording artists.
The problem was that they weren’t the same band and it wasn’t the same time. The vicissitudes of fame, of personal and financial growth, plus the increased antagonism within the band itself, foretold a new approach. This, combined with massive social upheavals around the world, forced not only the Beatles themselves, but their fans to reassess their allegiances. Despite intermittent political commitment from the band members throughout the years, the Beatles had been primarily apolitical—or, rather, their political engagement or contribution came through mainly in the more cultural forms of image and, of course, music. Yet by 1968, apoliticism was anathema to youth culture, as Michael R. Frontani discusses in his chapter “‘…Out/In…’ The Beatles’ Image in Transition During the ‘Year of the Barricades’.”
In the thrill and exuberance of the early years of Beatlemania, Frontani writes, “[s]ex, primarily, provided a basis for unity…the attraction of the subversive qualities of an image constructed to embody unconstrained romantic and carnal relationships. The Beatles […] were a vehicle for youths to fully engage in a euphoric sense of being young […] Eventually, other youths icons arose and diluted the Beatles dominance, but none could dethrone them.”
The band’s imperial power was never stronger than upon Sgt. Pepper’s release in June 1967, and yet, how quickly the tide turned. Frontani describes the rise of the New Left and the worldwide violence in the protest-fraught spring of 1968, before concluding succinctly: “And the Beatles missed it.” They left for India as hippie heroes and came back out-of-step millionaires, or like older brothers who’d gone off from an adoring family to study abroad and returned to a resentful household in violent disarray. The Flower Power emblematized by Sgt. Pepper—that dreadnought soundtrack to the Summer of Love—had proved ineffective in stopping wars or assassinations. It turned out one needed a little more than just love. But being the Beatles, the band never truly lost their footing musically or even culturally; one might say they went from being perceived as kings to princes. Not a bad demotion.
It was always about the music anyway, and none of the Beatles’s albums had as much of that as The White Album. In the chapters “Children of Nature: Origins of the Beatles’ Tabula Rasa” and “Beatles Unplugged: The White Album in the Shadow of Rishikesh,” Walter Everett and John Kimsey, respectively, engage the album’s musical beginnings. Everett examines what are known as the Kinfauns or Esher demos recorded at Harrison’s home prior to the album’s full recording. Everett not only locates specific early renditions of White Album songs, but provides detailed tables indicating every version of every song demoed at this time. Not simply a completist’s list, this is more a display of the Beatles’s creative output at a truly transitional period in their careers. Likewise, Kimsey offers informative background on the acoustic origins of the album’s material, notably the “clawhammer” or “Travis” picking style taught to the band by singer-songwriter Donovan (a technique one hears on many of the band’s subsequent recordings, especially Lennon’s, both with the Beatles and solo). Both Everett and Kimsey also provide snippets of compositional transcription, which, even if one doesn’t read music, are easily followable due to the songs’ familiarity.
Other chapters focus on each member’s contribution. Perhaps most welcome is Steve Hamelman’s “Blisters on His Fingers: Ringo Starr’s Performance on The Beatles.” While the debate over the drummer’s playing is, by this point, well-defined (in short, feel versus proficiency), Hamelman offers more an assessment of Ringo’s own assessment of his drumming during the recording of The White Album. The drummer had famously declared that he felt he was playing “shitty” at this point, prompting his ostensibly “quitting” the band. (The Beatles are like alcoholism: once a Beatle, always a Beatle.) Hamelman doesn’t quite let the drummer off the hook, but conclusively praises the underrated taste of Starr’s playing—his manner of attack, his knowing the difference between economy and excess, and, importantly, his ability to listen to what the song, and the songwriter, suggests.
With songs and songwriters this good, it must’ve come easy. Just as band tensions were at their peak (another factor in Ringo’s hiatus), the writing was as well. John Covach traces Harrison’s musical growth, from Lennon-McCartney copycat to accomplished Eastern-influenced singer-songwriter—from rockabilly to ragabilly. Stephen Valdez sees Lennon returning, on The White Album, to the rocker he always was, but with an experimental edge, “…a creative mind cleverly pushing its musical limits within the construct of a return to his musical roots.” While Vincent P. Benitez uncovers the “intertextuality” of McCartney’s songs, cross-referencing the artist’s White Album offerings with those from other periods of his prolific solo output, stressing McCartney’s ability to absorb, master and mimic other musical styles and icons, be it the Beach Boys (“Back in the U.S.S.R.”) or Bach (“Blackbird”).
One can give too much self-conscious or simply conscious agency to something, like songwriting, that’s more instinctive, a problem that Ian Inglis acknowledges here: “Attempts to systematically investigate the songwriting process are beset by a range of difficulties. Problems of motivation, intent, reception, interpretation, employment, and interaction between words and music cloud definitive assessments…” Sometimes a scholar may create a thesis rather than discover one, read too deeply into an artist’s motives and moods, pull questionable motifs or tropes like teeth from a stubborn jaw. Overstate, then corroborate.
Citing other scholars, Osteen notes some White Album tropes as “guarded privacy and locked rooms,” a “relentless swing between confrontation and escape,” and, as Osteen himself points out, “at least thirty-five references to eyes and vision.” Further, “forms of the verb ‘wait’ occur eleven times in the lyrics […] The prototypical situation on the album, in other words, is that of suspension on the brink of consummation.”
Is this mere academic over-parsing? That is, were the Beatles aware of how many references to eyes they were including in their most recent batch of songs? Most likely not, but that doesn’t mean the tropes aren’t present. Certainly, in the case of the Beatles one cannot underestimate their subversive, mischievous motives. The essays here largely avoid such academic pitfalls, with the contributors sticking to the evidentiary clues, the proof in the honey pie.
The White Album is an open field, somewhat in the manner of projective verse in poetry or abstract expressionism in painting—an all-over work, a work without frames or borders or distinguishable edges. The album spills and sprawls through pastiche (“Honey Pie”) and spirituality (“Long, Long Long”), through fiction (“Rocky Racoon”) and autobiography (“Julia”), chaos (“Helter Skelter”) and quietude (“Good Night”). The brilliant conceit of the white cover with its embossed limited-edition number (for a work set for unlimited reproduction) combined with the massively diverse material inside, verges on making of the album a mere concept piece: a plain white box that explodes when opened.
The prosaic truth behind the album’s breadth—no one member wanted to give up his songs—frees the album from such a rigid interpretation. What might it have been if the band had listened to producer George Martin and pared the album down to a standard 13 or so songs? Surely another masterpiece, but a closed one, a proscribed artifact without the tentacled reach of the released album. Its plethora of ideas still inspires, drawn upon by artists such as U2, Tori Amos, and Danger Mouse, to name just three covered in this volume.
How many books about the Beatles can the world withstand? Like Jorge Luis Borges’s looming library, a universal tower of books, Beatles-related literature is more voluminous than the Beatles own musical output, estimated at about 10 to 15 hours of officially released material. Try to get through all the Beatles-related literature in 10 hours. And yet, despite the overwhelming abundance of all that verbiage, the reverence remains. In the end, the music the Beatles made is more than equal to the lore they generate.
The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album, edited by Mark Osteen, is now available from the University of Michigan Press.
Review: Bret Easton Ellis Uses White to Explode Our Pretenses of Dignity
Throughout, Ellis waves a broadsword at political correctness.
With his first nonfiction work, White, Bret Easton Ellis waves a broadsword at political correctness, enjoying the friction that such a pursuit generates when indulged by someone in his particular social station. Whether you’re on the left or right of America’s endless struggle to pretend to be the democracy it claims to be, it’s not surprising when Rush Limbaugh or one of the “Stepford reporters” of Fox News demeans “identity politics.” But Ellis has written a couple of hip and controversial novels—including Less than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho—as well as a screenplay for a Paul Schrader film. Ellis is a member of the “Hollywood elite,” and he’s gay, living with a millennial boyfriend many years his junior. This isn’t the person, then, that one expects to entertain a flirtation with quasi-right-wing values, sort of making a case for Kanye West and Donald Trump. Ellis gets off on that very disjunction in White, which serves as both a summary and an extension of the provocations he offers on Twitter as well as on The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast.
Ellis writes in generalities, roiling with the self-righteous anger that’s fashionable for everyone on all sides of the aisle to indulge nowadays. To him, helicopter parenting—scheduling every moment of children’s free time, sheltering them from the pressures and disappointments of competition—has led to a generation of wimps, an assertion which is as unoriginal as it is simplified. According to the author, millennials and members of Generation Z are “Generation Wuss,” and his primary research on the subject appears to be his own childhood, as well as watching his boyfriend, musician Todd Michael Schultz, fume over MSNBC’s reporting of Trump’s outrages du jour over the last several years. Ellis’s reduction of his lover here, as sheltered and unjustifiably hysterical, might embarrass un-woke straight writers. Time and again, Ellis takes shortcuts and acknowledges said shortcuts so as to indulge himself anyway.
White includes only a token acknowledgement of the effect of rising economic inequality on youthful rage. This book also refuses to engage with outrage culture as a creation of both the left and the right. Who’s a more expert orchestrator of this country’s bitterness than the current president of the United States? Lashing out at his peers, Ellis resorts to the most pitiful of the defenses that have been mounted of Trump: that what he says can’t be taken literally, as his obscenities are essentially performance art. MSNBC is vilified in the book while the outright lies of Fox News, and of Trump, are barely mentioned. Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment is revisited in White as well, and so is Michelle Obama’s righteous “while they go high, we go low” routine at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, while Trump’s slander and encouragements of active assault are ignored.
Yet in its slapdash and self-pitying way, White also cuts to the heart of modern liberal ineffectuality. To loosely paraphrase a character from Ron Shelton’s White Men Can’t Jump, it seems as if liberals would rather look good and lose than look bad and win. Ellis correctly sees factions of the far left as humorless prigs, demanding insincere apologies for superficial lapses in taste while literal-mindedly tabulating representation in various forms of art, which leads to all sorts of lapses in common sense. For instance, male critics are rarely allowed to comment on personal appearances in pop culture—objectification!—even though pop culture is almost entirely predicated on sex. What Ellis pinpoints, and what the far left willfully misses, is that this sort of self-censorship, encouraged of the broader populace as well, brokers another form of shame: of the very desire that most films, TV, and online imagery encourages anyway. Ellis uses the outcry over an L.A. Weekly article on Sky Ferreira as an example of this hypocritical neurosis, but he could have just as easily cited any number of other non-controversies, such as the absurd offenses that were taken over the assertion that Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman might partially be an essay on Gal Gadot’s beauty,
There are larger things at stake here than a man’s right to admit he finds a woman attractive. Ellis is rightfully scared of how acceptable censorship has become on the social media plane, which encourages us to offer a sanitized version of ourselves that’s engineered to earn “likes” and pass the inspections of prospective employers while conforming to a woke sensibility to atone for not effecting more significant social changes. Ellis misses a time—which, at 39, I remember too—in which one was able to make a joke in bad taste without having to then stage an apology tour. He’s rightfully scared of how corporations have combined social media with a generalized liberal agenda so as to trick us into serving as our own thought police.
This sense of not being able to say things, of not being able to be imperfect, encourages the creation of a hidden world, and not just the world of white supremacists. In private, many people make the sort of jokes that are brutally rebuffed on Twitter. And we still sexualize people, because most humans are driven by sexual desires and because we live in a simultaneously puritanical and über-sexed culture that’s confusing and exhausting. (Many of my friends are liberals who’re tired of the steroidal liberal nobility project, and these friends include millennials of various colors and sexualities, which, judging from White, might come as a shock to Ellis.) This public policing often suggests a compensation prize for liberals for possessing less influence than conservatives, insidiously allowing people to feel empowered even as corporations continue to seize control of the world.
In White, Ellis is essentially arguing for our right to admit to our selfishness, our bitterness, and our questionable longings. He’s arguing for irony as an antidote to the outrage machine that keeps many of us in a perpetual anti-intellectual tizzy. As a way of achieving what he seems to oxymoronically idealize as a form of empathetic detachment, Ellis keeps returning to the notion of valuing aesthetic over theme in art. In particular, White’s liveliest passages often filter Ellis’s social grievances through film reviews, including a sharp and lucid reading of Schrader’s American Gigolo, which Ellis reads as an inadvertently prescient anticipation of how social media has transformed us all into commodified, ever-shifting actors. There’s also a visceral takedown of Barry Jenkins’s tormented gay pseudo-romance Moonlight, which Ellis sees as an embodiment of the left’s victim complex. (Although Ellis violates his own rules here, as he admits that Moonlight, with its evocative formal textures, is of aesthetic note. Which is to say that Ellis, as a gay man, is turning against a work of art for reasons of representation and theme, like many of the liberals he criticizes.)
Using aesthetic criterion, White leads to a white-washing of Trump that should nevertheless prove insightful to members of the “resistance.” Trump’s actions shouldn’t be taken as performance art, but that is how they’re taken: as a fuck-you to cultural platitudes that are growing increasingly distanced from how people actually process their lives. Trump is appealing to his supporters, including Kanye West, because he’s visceral, because his livewire nonsensicality and hatefulness seem to embody freedom, even if his behavior actively hurts the people who love him. When liberal outlets scold him, according every misbehavior equal prominence (and often glossing over policy, which is where he wreaks his greatest havoc), they grant Trump power, and somehow they continue to not learn this lesson—or they are, like Trump, just feeding the beast. Ellis understands this irony, and, seeking to distinguish between moral and aesthetic concerns, he decodes Trump’s allure.
Other reviews have ridiculed Ellis’s comparison of Trump’s political ascension to Charlie Sheen’s public 2011 meltdown, but this equivocation strikes me as brilliant and useful. In both cases, the offenders in question shattered the faux nobility of the press and the celebrity class, admitting in various fashions that our society is predicated on a ruthless game in which fame is used to make money, money to further fame, and so forth. Tired of spinning his real-life hedonism into sexist, toothless cartoon antics for Two and a Half Men, Sheen revealed the monstrous insanity that lurked under a typical fantasy of male power—a fantasy that women enjoy as well as men. Ellis finds Sheen’s breakdown weirdly admirable—of course the writer of American Psycho would—for exploding our pretenses of dignity.
We turned on Sheen only when he forced us to confront the exploitation, the misery, behind his unlimited satiation of hunger, though we were also fixated for a while on him as the freak of the moment. Trump harvested our sleazy predictions with the help of Fox News and built a political empire on the acknowledgement of power for its own sake—on the appeal of watching platitudes be shattered. Nearly every sentiment out of Trump’s mouth is a ribald lie, but these collective lies fulfill a truth for Ellis: that politics, tabloids, and all of media has merged into a soup of sensationalist stimulation. Democrats, with their constant fact-checking and schoolhouse lecturing, are effectively bringing a knife to a gunfight.
White feels as if it was hammered out over a long weekend. Given the importance of some of Ellis’s subjects, one wishes that he was more disciplined, though perhaps that’s also missing his point of the inherent sloppiness of outrage culture. A sense of humor would’ve helped the book as well, as Ellis could stand to make a few jokes at his own rarefied expense. Being castigated on Twitter by C-listers or criticized for writing a novel that nevertheless made your name isn’t exactly synonymous with the frustrations of most American people. Ellis acknowledges this social discrepancy but doesn’t appear to truly know it. He’s evening scores in White, though he’s clearly a member of the gilded class that so galls him. A rich white man, Ellis can afford to write Trump off as a bad joke, which means that liberal media will have an excuse to ignore White. However, writing Trump off as a joke, effectively reducing his power by reducing our essentially reverential hatred, might also be the key to undoing him.
Bret Easton Ellis’s White is now available from Knopf.
Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch
Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.
The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.
Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.
As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.
While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”
Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”
Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.
Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”
Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.
The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.
Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.
One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.
The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.
Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”
A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.
Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.
The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”
But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”
This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)
Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.
Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”
Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”
Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.
David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.
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