Immediately upon picking up a copy of Maria San Filippo’s The B Word, one can’t help but be skeptical of its survey-suggestive subtitle: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television. Too often these sorts of book-length inquiries result in thin reasoning, a lack of sufficient theoretical foundation, and become, essentially, a cataloguing of film titles or scenes that help affirm the author’s central thesis. This brand of indexical scholarship is tired and, aside from a resource, ultimately worthless in terms of further explicating the trends and nuances of a given subject. Perhaps that’s why San Filippo’s book is a joy to actually read and not just glean information from. Much like Daisuke Miyao did with The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lightning and Japanese Cinema, released earlier this year, San Filippo structures her scholarship with storytelling sensibilities; the analysis is provocative and wholly considerate of its area of study, but also proceeds with a glee and determination that produces new, exciting avenues for future study within queer theory.
As such, San Filippo consistently relies on case studies to elucidate these viewpoints, but does so anchored under a few precise and playful lines of inquiry. For example, the book’s opening introduces San Filippo’s term “bi-textuality,” which involves the “negotiation of unfamiliar terrain by way of a familiar route,” and helps to enliven the book’s predominant thesis—that bisexual sensibilities are present in many mainstream American films, not just in terms of content but also marketing strategies—by way of wordplay. The term’s creation helps found exactly the ways in which San Filippo wishes to proceed and affirms that she’s looking for far more than merely instances of latent bisexuality; more compellingly, she demonstrates “the ways in which bisexuality is already present, if obscured—hidden in plain sight—by modes of representation and reading confined within monosexual logic.” The films/shows under examination are wide-ranging; even the staunchest of post-structuralists would have to raise an eyebrow at the book’s mentions of Pandora’s Box (1929) and A Shot at Love (2007-2009) in the same sentence! Yet, San Filippo is no fraud when it comes to effectively juxtaposing these kinds of texts. Whereas a lesser author might offer such a comparison to feign cosmopolitan interests, San Filippo’s deft navigation of how these texts do interact with one another borders on remarkable, in expressing macrocosmic cultural sensibilities as it relates to bisexual representations, both explicit and implied.
On this point, San Filippo is quick to point out that while the word “bisexual” is often absent from the dialogue of both contemporary films and film reviews, the utterance of the word itself isn’t as important as “the degree to which screen texts contribute insight to the discourse on bisexuality.” However, the book opens with a discussion of Chasing Amy (1997), which, according to San Filippo, was the first film most people asked about when she described her book to them. Interestingly, the actual word “bisexual” isn’t said within the film; moreover, and much to San Filippo’s chagrin, the word rarely appears in critical analyses of the film either. San Filippo sees these omissions as a gap in queer theory, that consistently retains an interest in monosexuality—characters as either gay or straight. In a clear homage to Laura Mulvey, who once famously wrote, “It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intent of this article,” San Filippo concludes her discussion of Chasing Amy by stating: “Just as his relationship with Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) has concluded, so too is his personal and professional partnership with Banky (Jason Lee) over—as Holden (Ben Affleck) learns, ’some doors just shouldn’t be opened.’ It is this book’s aim to open those doors.” Such a scholarly allusion peppers San Filippo’s work with a sincere degree of reverence that refutes the potential sophistry of such an alignment. San Filippo’s insights are of a considerably, potentially game-changing order, in the same manner that Mulvey’s both captivated and angered academics almost 40 years ago.
Though San Filippo’s book covers numerous film titles and television shows, three case studies in particular stand-out as exemplary: first, her revisionist, exhaustive pages on Mulholland Drive (2001) offers a reading that more prizes Rita’s (Laura Harring) perspective and convincingly demonstrates how such a viewpoint would necessarily shift the film’s contents to focus less on “interpreting Mulholland Drive’s dream segment as exclusively Betty/Diane’s (Naomi Watts) wish-fulfilling fantasy,” thus opening up the bisexual elements of the film. Chapter three (the strongest of the book) is an examination of both Brokeback Mountain (2005) and its marketing campaign explains how the film was primarily marketed to women (bi-textual) and that the film itself is “radical” for refusing to represent its male leads as simply monosexual. In addition, San Filippo denigrates the tendency of reviewers to refer to the film as a “universal love story,” which flattens the queer-specific narrative. In particular, Kenneth Turan’s claim that “the two lovers just happen to be men” not only draws San Filippo’s ire, but recalls the famous “happens to be” bit from You Are All Diseased (1999), in which George Carlin lambasts such PC rhetoric used by “guilty white liberals.” The last half of chapter three most unexpectedly devotes 18 pages to a discussion of Wedding Crashers (2005) as perhaps the most progressive of the Bromance cycle, for its “queer-friendly, feminist, and sex-positive” outlook, while also “destabilizing the monolithic ’marriage myth’ that naturalizes and romanticizes compulsory monogamy.” Wedding Crashers constructs masculinity across a spectrum and offers ambiguous variance, according to San Fillipo. These attributes stand in contrast to The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), which San Fillipo sees as hypocritical and misogynist, since it both reinforces the “marriage myth” and “steers between purporting to be queer-tolerant while still giving homophobia the last laugh.” San Filippo considers these films with equal parts seriousness, humor, and indignation at the limited scope of representation inherent to Hollywood filmmaking.
Ultimately, San Filippo’s book is rigorously theoretical and intellectual, though the work must be partially faulted for being almost completely irrespective of cinema as a medium-specific mode of expression. San Fillipo’s words rarely, if at all, slip into any kind of formal or production-oriented conversation; it’s straight text, text, text. These aims are likely so because San Filippo’s entire mode of judgment is founded upon progressive politics over craft and artistry. That is, the mode of evaluation remains fairly one-dimensional, in that the analysis does not waver from the singular pursuit of textual analysis. Only when speaking to marketing contexts (Brokeback Mountain as the exemplar) does the book truly feel groundbreaking on an interdisciplinary level. Yet, even with those critiques in mind, The B Word “happens to be” one of the most compelling and thoughtful academic reads from the first half of 2013.
Maria San Filippo’s The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television was released on April 12 by Indiana University Press; to purchase it, click here.
Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch
Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.
The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.
Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.
As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.
While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”
Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”
Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.
Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”
Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.
The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.
Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.
One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.
The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.
Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”
A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.
Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.
The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”
But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”
This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)
Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.
Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”
Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”
Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.
David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.
Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis
Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.
Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.
With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.
Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.
Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.
Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.
Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?
Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.
Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.
Review: Someone Is in My House Showcases the Reach of David Lynch’s Obsessions
Lynch’s paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.
Though famous for being a filmmaker and co-creator of the TV series Twin Peaks, David Lynch works in many other mediums, including music, sculpture, photography, furniture-making, and painting, the last of which is the wellspring of his creativity. Lynch has painted since the 1960s, finding his voice among the ruinous squalor of a once-rough Philadelphia. Inspired by artists such as Francis Bacon, Lynch developed a style that’s rich in the irreconcilable contradictions that would drive his cinema. His paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.
At times, Lynch has been dismissed as a “celebrity painter” who nets prestigious exhibitions based on his fame as a filmmaker, as well as on the urge to utilize his other art as a kind of decoder ring for his films. These claims may be partially true, but this doesn’t mean that the art itself isn’t extraordinary, and there’s a concentrated effort underway to recalibrate Lynch’s reputation within pop culture. The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life featured hypnotic footage of Lynch in the studio of his Los Angeles home, smoking and creating new canvases. Last year, the book David Lynch: Nudes collected his empathetic, erotic, and astonishingly subjective photography of nude women. Now there’s David Lynch: Someone Is in My House, a gorgeous volume of Lynch’s painting, photography, sculpture, and short-film stills.
Someone Is in My House impresses one with the reach of Lynch’s ambitions and obsessions, affirming yet another contradiction of his art: that it’s vast yet repetitive and insular. Across the spectrum of over 250 stills, this volume spotlights the many techniques that Lynch utilizes. After perceptive essays by Lynch biographer Kristine McKenna, who places Lynch’s work in the context of legendary art at large, and Michael Chabon, who emphasizes Lynch’s grasp of the uncanny truth of the everyday, among others, Someone Is in My House offers a tour of Lynch’s work that’s divided by medium, starting with “Works on Paper” and continuing with “Painting/Mixed Media,” “Photography,” “Lamps,” and “Film and Video Stills.”
Each section is structured in chronological order, spanning five decades, so as to subtly assert Lynch’s ongoing evolution as an artist. The book ends with a brief biography, which will probably be well-known by anyone driven to buy it, and a list of Lynch’s exhibitions. If Someone Is in My House has one disappointment, it pertains to this structure, as a straightforward chronological organization of Lynch’s art might’ve more vividly emphasized the wild multi-pronged simultaneousness of his imagination. But this is a small issue, as this volume offers the gift of relative accessibility, allowing cinephiles and other aesthetes the opportunity to access a major and generally rarefied mine of Lynch’s workload.
To open Someone Is in My House is to plunge into landscapes of darkness inhabited by deformed humans and other creatures, who have distended, shrunken, or extended appendages, heads that are animalistic or brutalized, and bodies that are often either a collection of tumorous protuberances or are merely composed of a few lines like primitive stick figures. Among this darkness is bright color, usually red, which offers beautiful illumination that’s understood to exist at the cost of atrocity. Among darkness there’s a light of injury in other words, as Lynch is obsessed by the idea of people coming in contact with nightmarish entities and being destroyed or severely hurt in a manner that suggests enlightenment to be a kind of state of higher confusion.
In Lynch’s art, blood and other substances gush out of heads like geysers, and people’s faces are often twisted in knots of anxiety. As in his films, Lynch’s paintings are obsessed by the home as a symbol of our illusions of stability and how easily they can be violated. This art is surreal, in that it conforms to no requirements of literal representation, but it’s also overwhelmingly docudramatic in its emphasis on its own DNA. The lithographs on Japanese paper, for instance, which are some of the most starkly memorable of this book’s many unforgettable images, are driven in part by their sense of fragility. The ink appears to have been applied to the canvases in a frenzy, and seems as if it could quite easily be wiped away. Lynch’s multimedia work, particularly his mixtures of sculptures and paintings, are populated by lumpy figures that show the imprint of the artist’s fingerprints and are built from globs of materials, suggesting how easily they could be morphed again by another god. (Or by us, who could in turn by victimized by other gods such as Mr. Redman, a quasi-corporeal explosion of carnage that haunts Lynch’s oil and mixed media canvas of the same name.)
Lynch’s art is also driven by the preludes and aftermaths of events. In This Man Was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago, a phallic string of guts explodes out of a man with a characteristically vague and misshapen face—a Bacon-ish image that occurs against a symmetrical interior backdrop that would be at home in an Edward Hopper canvas. Acknowledging these influences, McKenna goes on to write one of the most profound things I’ve read about Lynch’s paintings: “They have a clumsy, accidental quality and come across as thwarted attempts to make oneself understood; they feel wrought rather than painted.” Rendering characters in the face of impending or concluding cataclysm, Lynch adapts techniques that mirror their awkwardness and alienation, and this chameleonic—at once assertive and self-effacing—style has probably been part of the reason for Lynch being taken somewhat for granted as an artist.
However, Lynch’s primitivism communicates robust emotional quandaries, especially an earnest yearning for a return to a normalcy that’s been shattered—a normalcy that never existed and which is embodied by houses that are composed of only a few skewed lines. These houses might be harbingers of nostalgia for Lynch’s characters, but they’re hollow or—in the case of Lynch’s lonely and forbiddingly poignant black-and-white photographs of snowmen—closed off and ridden with secrets that are impossible to know. Many Lynch characters also face their brutal reckonings with a becoming and majestic dignity, such as the nose-headed subject of an untitled 1971 pencil sketch.
Though Someone Is in My House is adamant that we take Lynch’s artwork on its own terms, without always connecting it to his films and TV, such an exercise isn’t entirely resistible. Lynch’s art clarifies to an extent what his films are also doing: valuing moments of privatized emotional experience, and often suspending plots in time so as to show how individual epiphanies can knock us off the course of our own “narrative”—that is to say, our lives.
Twin Peaks: The Return, which is clearly on Lynch’s mind in the art that’s included in this book from 2010 forward, is a collection of scenes and images that bind the existential cosmic with the domestic rituals of our lives. For most of us, finally connecting with a lost love at a coffee shop means more than considerations of the unknowable evil that may or may not pull the strings behind the curtains of eternity. Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper became unstuck in time because he took for granted the heaven of his kinship with the townsfolk of the hellish yet pastoral Twin Peaks. He failed to recognize what the subjects of many of Lynch’s paintings discover: that, to quote McKenna again, “Life happens through us, not because of us.” Throughout his career, Lynch has mined a vein of ecstatic powerlessness.
David Lynch: Someone Is in My House is now available from Prestel.
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.
Review: Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds Is a Collection of Searing Epiphanies
Throughout this remarkable book, what seizes the characters’ attention, and ours, often has the dissimulated air of a revelation that’s still in the midst of disclosure.
In Mouthful of Birds, Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin lifts up reality and hurls it elsewhere. An aunt in one story seeks “the most arcane side of the simplest things,” and Schweblin is up to something similar. In the worlds she’s devised, one’s eyes can quickly alight upon something deeply weird. The teenager in the title story blithely rises from the couch and, to her father’s horror, devours a live sparrow. In “The Size of Things,” the owner of a toy shop finds his inventory has been rearranged overnight. It’s the work of Enrique Duvel, a troubled man who, with the owner’s reluctantly granted permission, spent the night inside the shop. The question of Enrique, with his fastidious artistry and childlike fascinations, ultimately contracts toward a fleeting, irrational sight—like a shimmer out of some unsettling dream.
Throughout this remarkable book, what seizes the characters’ attention, and ours, often has the dissimulated air of a revelation that’s still in the midst of disclosure. In a recent interview with Electric Literature, Schweblin explained that her process is driven more by emotion than plot. Indeed, intensities of feeling and portent encircle these tales like a thickening mist that’s never thuddingly dispelled by a simple twist or tidy resolution.
This is finely shown in “Underground,” in which Schweblin again conveys the act of seeing as something profoundly urgent and difficult. Its embedded tale, told to the narrator by an old man, concerns a child who discovers a small growth in the ground. “It wasn’t much,” the old man notes, “but it seemed like enough to him.” Following the discovery, a kind of obsessive-compulsive fervor overtakes the child and his cohort. They begin to ritualistically dig at the spot every day. Then the children and the hole vanish. And the gazes of their parents, once uncomprehending or averted, become desperately watchful. They begin to dig into the earth, searching, and later hear scrabbling noises rising up from beneath the floors of their homes.
The old man’s story ends abruptly, with much of its mystery still intact. And, while telling the story, he digresses to consider the hazards of everyday life: the risks, which, in their innumerable permutations, outstrip our preemptive scrutiny, and can at times resemble some larger metaphysical cruelty. Aspects like these moor the book to recognizable neuroses and anxieties—to the terrors of uncertainty. In a more precise sense, “Underground,” like a number of stories in the collection, presents a uniquely parental nightmare. It extends the work of Fever Dream, Schweblin’s 2014 debut novel. (As with Mouthful of Birds, it was translated into English by Megan McDowell.) The forensic odyssey of that novel is oriented around the urgently recalled memories of a dying mother, whose need to shield her young daughter from harm is repeatedly expressed. “I need to get out in front of anything that could happen,” the mother says at one point, as she remembers her first night in a new home, “but everything is very dark and my eyes never get used to the darkness.”
Mouthful of Birds restores something of Fever Dream’s somnambulant rhythm and furtive prose. Schweblin again distends suspenseful searches and approaching crises; such aspects, in exhilarating or unnerving ways, often seem to be interminably unfurling. Her writing can bring to mind the disconcerting power of Inger Stevens, in The Twilight Zone’s “The Hitch-Hiker,” pensively driving along roads, both chasing and eluding some terrible truth. In “Rage of Pestilence,” Schweblin introduces a census taker who arrives at a border town, and who seems to know that something will go wrong—and something does, something has. He detects “the townspeople behind the windows and doors,” and notices “the back of a little boy leaning against a post; a dog’s tail poking out from the doorway of a house.” The details accumulate slowly and mesmerically. Its disturbing ending is like a secret that erupts and recedes at once.
In that story—as in other sterling examples, like “Toward Happy Civilization” or “The Digger”—it’s as if the protagonist is lost within an esoteric game. Mouthful of Birds, in this respect, would pair well with The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioys Casares, which Schweblin has cited as an inspiration. Certain “miraculous” visitors interrupt the solitude of that novel’s fugitive islander. He closely studies them, and the odd game that appears to be afoot. He begins, also, to think of the “weight that keeps you from running away in dreams,” and “the figures that appear, according to Leonardo, when we look fixedly at damp spots on a wall for any length of time.” Schweblin’s storytelling captures similar feelings and ideas. In “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides,” for example, she limns one man’s fundamental myopia by pointing out his inability to apprehend the “millions of shifting particles” in any given object.
And it’s a stray object, fixedly regarded, that catalyzes one of the more searing epiphanies in Mouthful of Birds. It’s found in “My Brother Walter,” a story about the depressed title character and the success of his entrepreneurial family. Walter, we learn, is a quiet and sedentary fixture at his family’s barbecues. His relatives vaguely derive something from his presence. They also try to address his wellbeing but mostly in perfunctory ways. Schweblin is here examining how the good fortune and happiness of most of the members of this family collide with Walter’s debilitating sadness, and how this creates incongruities that can sometimes seem like darkly absurd jokes. “The business grows,” the narrator, Walter’s brother, says at one point, “and my son turns two years old. When I put him in Walter’s arms, my son smiles and claps and says, ‘I’m happy, I’m so happy.’”
When the son drops a garland during another celebration, Walter breaks out of his stasis. He reaches for the object. The narrator, taken aback, tries to describe his alarm: “Walter looks at the garland, seeming to study it with too much attention, and for a moment everything seems confused to me.” From there, the complacency of the narrator violently disintegrates. He plunges, fast, toward untapped reservoirs of empathy and fear. Cultural gaps are considered elsewhere in the book, but this story affirms that Schweblin is also contemplating a variety of interpersonal and existential gaps. “I think we don’t understand the other in general,” she stated recently, in the aforementioned interview, in which she also discussed the power of suddenly being able to behold another person or object “as if for the first time.” In another interview, she acknowledged her tendency to create characters who “don’t understand what’s going on around them or how to get out of the situations they’re in.”
In keeping with Schweblin’s comments, the characters in Mouthful of Birds often fail to comprehend others, and even parts of themselves. But all of this can be upended, for however brief and startling an interval, by something as simple as a dropped garland. And then the familiar becomes like frail gossamer, and disperses through the delicate force of a glance.
Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds is now available from Riverhead Books.
Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch
There’s something uncommonly relaxing about many of McPhee’s patient elaborations of things known and unknown.
“But beyond the flaring headlines of the past year, few are aware of who Richard Burton really is, what he has done, and what he is throwing away by gulping down his past and then smashing the glass.” This is one of those quotes, which, through its sheer heft and style, threatens to turn any accompanying review into a redundancy. To find other lines that meet its towering standard, seek its source: The Patch by John McPhee. There’s no shortage of arresting remarks in this nicely heterogeneous collection of writing. One sinks into the book, riveted, but also races across it as its fascinations multiply.
The first section is called “The Sporting Scene.” Those typically uninterested in sports or sports writing, like myself, shouldn’t be deterred by the title. As I discovered through other recent encounters with McPhee’s ballyhooed writing, the author has a knack for inexorably moving readers beyond their biases. Two-part New Yorker articles like “Oranges,” “The Pine Barrens,” and “Basin and Range,” which were later turned into books, are studious and propulsive. Fine-grained matters of geology or citrus aren’t exactly simplified in these articles, but wading through the density becomes an irresistible prospect thanks to the author’s intelligibility, wit, enthusiasm, and atmospheric touches. For an example of the latter, consider McPhee’s focus on the “unnatural and all but unending silence” of the Floridian orange groves that he visited. What’s more, he often conveys a certain sense of respectful understanding, as when he mentions that he has “yet to meet anyone living in the Pine Barrens who has in any way indicated envy of people who live elsewhere.”
Similar virtues spruce up the “The Sporting Scene.” Its pieces include emphases on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse. McPhee honors the athletic endeavor by carefully illuminating its particulars. He busily supplies facts, anecdotes, ideas, and biographical details. In “The Orange Trapper,” for instance, he discusses his hunt for errant golf balls. It’s an engaging topic. He has learned, among other things, what occurs when you take a saw to a golf ball. You find the world: “Core, mantle, crust—they are models of the very planet they are filling up at a rate worldwide approaching a billion a year.” Other jolts arrive through the often remarkable conclusions to his paragraphs and pieces. The ending of “The Orange Trapper” is an especial wonder—a thrilling mobilization of words that elicits laughter and awe.
There are also bears: “Direct Eye Contact” is a compact assortment of hopes and advisements concerning bears in New Jersey, and it concludes on a sweetly uxorious note. Indeed, one never knows where any of these pieces are going. In “Pioneer,” meanwhile, McPhee ponders Bill Tierney’s choice to begin coaching the University of Denver men’s lacrosse team. “How could he leave Princeton?” McPhee asks. “It can be done. And Tierney knew what he was doing.” Those lines showcase the occasionally pithy, pleasantly chiseled style of his prose. It’s a considered design that favors clarity, structures hairpin turns toward new discursive trails, and pairs well with punchlines. In “Phi Beta Football,” one of McPhee’s colleagues promises to deliver him “a nice piece of change” if he figures out a suitable title for his book. “I went away thinking,” McPhee tells us, and then adds, “mostly about the piece of change.”
The recounting of sporting events is likewise augmented by the author’s playfulness. “Pioneer” throws us this line: “But Syracuse exploded—one, two, three—and the game went into ‘sudden victory’ overtime, the politically uplifting form of sudden death.” So transporting and genial is McPhee’s writing that the specifics of any given match never weigh down the reading, nor do his more elaborate remarks. “It’s a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea,” he declares in “Linksland and Bottle,” his piece on the 2010 British Open, “with golfers everywhere across the canvas—putting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation.” What’s even better is his sensitivity, in the same paragraph, to the fine distinctions between the manner of Scottish and Californian galleries as they observe rounds of golf. Suddenly, his words become almost numinous, and no grace is lost.
The second section of The Patch is called “An Album Quilt” and it encompasses a dizzying mixture of short pieces. None are available in any of McPhee’s other books. In an introductory statement, the author compares these pieces to the dissimilar blocks of a quilt. He notes that he “didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything”; he sought out “blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses.” This section is quite distinct from “The Sporting Scene,” but no less extraordinary in its overall effect. A piece about Cary Grant starts things off. Boyhood encounters with Albert Einstein are up ahead.
There are more standouts than can be briefly mentioned here, including an evocative overview of the craftsmanship that McPhee discovered within the original Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. The author’s clipped expressions of wonder enliven that piece: “Gulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Mares’ tails on the deeps.” A little later, he mentions “granite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor.” One can imagine Don Draper reading through this with poignant interest. In another entry, a series of succinct blurbs about tennis luminaries, Rod Laver’s childhood is crisply set against his eventual stardom: “Had to wait his turn while his older brothers played. His turn would come.”
And so one just leaps from piece to piece, and, along the way, discovers scenes from different periods in McPhee’s life and career. An encounter with two New York City policemen—this likely occurred in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, given the “familiar green and black” on the cop car—is particularly memorable. It begins with the author’s recollection of locking his keys inside his car, which, he notes, had been parked “in a moted half-light that swiftly lost what little magic it had had, and turned to condensed gloom.” After that characteristically precise fusion of atmosphere and psychology, he describes scrounging around for wire so as to open the door. The sudden arrival of the policemen created a dilemma: Would they view McPhee, who had been wedging a coat hanger into the car, as a thief or the hapless owner? “The policemen got out of the patrol car,” McPhee tells us, “and one of them asked for the wire.” From there, the situation undulates a couple more times before concluding through a sparkling punchline that’s supplied by one of the officers. The story is over before you know it, but its brisk and detail-oriented pleasures are echoed throughout much of the book.
In the title piece, meanwhile, McPhee movingly writes about his father, but also about fishing a pickerel out of a patch of lily pads. Here and elsewhere, granular descriptions become byways into a range of enthusiasms, histories, and hearts. The author, of course, frequently registers himself through the infinitesimal details, and through the humor that he yokes to affection. “‘Fuck you, coach!’ Quote unquote” is a message that McPhee once emailed to Bill Tierney. Great warmth radiates below the mantle of those words.
This, among sundry other qualities, keeps one reading. There’s also something uncommonly relaxing about many of his patient elaborations of things known and unknown. And there is, both within the book’s individual pieces and across its varied totality, a sense of constant renewal and revelation. As McPhee notes down somewhere amid the blocks of his quilt, “I could suddenly see it, almost get into it—into another dimension of experience that I might otherwise have missed entirely.”
John McPhee’s The Patch is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Review: Edmond Baudoin’s Piero and Olivier Schrauwen’s Parallel Lives
Piero‘s visual style, indicates the irrevocability of the past, even though the book is often a fairly straightforward record.
There’s a Chinese calligraphic tradition called Dishu, which is commonly practiced in the parks of Beijing, among other locations. Its salient elements include brushstrokes of water and the use of the ground as a canvas. It’s been well documented by François Chastanet, and, it turns out, well appreciated by Edmond Baudoin, the noted French artist. Baudoin once observed it firsthand, as he recounts in Laetitia Carton’s documentary Edmond, a Portrait of Baudoin. “And as he wrote,” he exclaims therein, “the trace was vanishing!” For Baudoin, the activity expresses “the philosophical relationship between permanence and the ephemeral.”
A fascination with ephemerality also comes through in Baudoin’s 1998 graphic memoir Piero, whose new edition features an English translation by Matt Madden and lettering by Dean Sudarsky. The book is titled after the author’s younger brother, with whom he spent a childhood immersed in numerous imaginative escapades in Nice and Villars-sur-Var. Those experiences are among Piero‘s key recollections, the tone of which is established by an initial pen sketch of a plane tree and its descending leaves. The image’s inky pools of black collide with tangles of line work to suggest the vague contours of memory.
The visual style, then, indicates the irrevocability of the past, even though the book is often a fairly straightforward record. Baudoin honors his friendship with his brother throughout, while sharing, for instance, well observed accounts of the social value of draughtsmanship during his childhood and adolescence. He also recaptures fleeting acts of youthful invention, as when a sheet of drawing paper is repeated across two-page spreads and accrues indecorous mixtures of soldiers, horses, and sharks. The creativity of childhood is also instinct with a sketch of the brothers hunched over clay, which they used to mold various short-lived figures.
What’s missing is a substantial impression of inner conflict. That aspect seems muted even when the book delves into Piero’s misfortunes and a climactic encounter with artistic disillusionment. But, as in Carton’s film, the author intrigues by pondering the nature of representational art. Piero reveals that Baudoin peered into photos until they devolved into elemental grain, and wondered when “lines, marks, scratches stop being grass, rocks, a tree, branches…and why, if you try too hard, do you end up killing the sense of life?” In form and content, the book suggests an artist seeking a sense of reproduced reality that’s found neither in utter abstraction nor painstaking accuracy, but a mysterious gradation that lies between.
While the recollective clarity of the memoir form is faintly strained in Piero, it’s outright detonated in Parallel Lives, a collection of six graphic stories by Belgian cartoonist Olivier Schrauwen. “Speculative memoir” is the label suggested in the publisher’s blurb. Schrauwen’s father is incorporated into certain of these stories, but most of them focus on Schrauwen himself or his descendants. This affords certain advantages, including allowing the satirical qualities of Parallel Lives to come across as more self-deprecating than sanctimonious. The collection also recalls the inventiveness of Schrauwen’s Arsène Schrauwen, in which he grappled with colonialism while imagining his grandfather’s life. In interviews, he’s essentially contended that his approach is less about rejecting truth than forging an oblique path toward it.
The first story, “Greys,” depicts Schrauwen’s abduction by extraterrestrials. He narrates the experience and describes, among other traumas, an abductor removing “its aluminum foil glove, revealing an elegant crème-gray alien hand.” Clarity jostles against abstraction in Schrauwen’s cartooning style, as demonstrated by the way the aliens’ crisp suits are set against dimensionless backgrounds. More generally, Schrauwen’s characters are frequently presented through portraiture, set adrift into swirls of luminous filiform shapes, and placed amid toxic yellows and greens. In these queasily shifting realities, one finds purchase in the details that shuffle into definition, like a glowing finger or a white-haired apparition.
Schrauwen’s writing, meanwhile, often arrives in a high-sounding style but easily shifts toward sadness or humor. “Hello,” for instance, imagines Schrauwen’s father as an arrogant eccentric who insists that his time machine is not “an archaic piece of shit,” while in “The Scatman,” we meet Ooh-lee, one of Schrauwen’s futuristic descendants, who dreams of a singing career. In this scenario, online trolling has migrated into telepathic communication. Psychic firewalls are prohibitively expensive, which leaves Ooh-lee vulnerable to a troll who both creates and reveals her insecurities. Schrauwen mixes the story’s somber and amusing energies into a scene of Ooh-lee singing Scatman John’s 1994 song “Scatman,” an artifact whose precise authorship and title seem to have been forgotten in this far-flung future.
Remembering and forgetting are, in various ways, essential to the entire collection. In the last story, “Space Bodies,” Schrauwen has awoken from cryogenic sleep but cannot recall his past, despite the belongings in his “cryogenic coffin.” His copy of a Charles Bukowski novel now elicits little more than the question of how its protagonist, given his alcoholism, can “have seemingly continuous genitalic intercourse without once urinating on his partners.” Storytelling, for these futuristic characters, is an old-fashioned lark. It inspires mostly superficial enthusiasms.
The future of “Space Bodies” also finds the human condition streamlined through advents like “continuous medical monitoring” and “the calibrating of inner and outer circumstances.” This has allowed the characters to develop into a kind of psychosomatic unit. It has also radically enhanced sexual intercourse. These new living arrangements are disrupted at the outset of the story, but their effects endure, revealing a way of life that is as technologically advanced as it is dissipated. This is part of an ongoing gag: The marvelous events and devices encountered by Schrauwen’s characters are frequently reduced to libidinous functions.
Several of his characters also receive warnings about the trajectory of their lives or the planet at large, and they typically respond with boredom or incomprehension. In the collection’s parallel spaces, lust and leisure often prove more resilient than our capacity for self-interrogation. And in “Greys,” Schrauwen’s account of the impressive corridors of the space ship becomes melancholic: “‘If I survive, I will remember this night as the most remarkable of my life,’ I realized with a certain sadness.”
That’s an affecting observation, but it’s also perhaps an erroneous one—less a reflection of the experiential limits of one character’s life than a tendency to curtail the scope of our individual lives, or to mistake futurism for selfhood. Underlying this collection is a fear that many of the novelties of the future will renew old problems, or divert us from the work of personal growth, which, for a lot of the characters in Parallel Lives, has yet to begin.
The Road Not Taken: Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder
Even as The Lonesome Bodybuilder approaches its conclusion, new and winding pathways unfurl.
“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.
Chasing Ghosts: David Grann’s The White Darkness
Grann not only conveys something of Antarctica’s haunted landscape, but also the boundless awe that it occasioned in Henry Worsley.
There’s a ghostly quality to much of David Grann’s nonfiction. It manifests variously, trailing annihilations both concrete and abstract. He’s written about seekers who became phantasmal figures, to differing extents, in the lives of their loved ones. In Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, he details a murderous conspiracy that targeted the Osage Nation in the early 20th century. In his New Yorker essay “Trial by Fire,” he reports on a man who, after being placed on death row through flimsy evidence, sensed “that his life was slowly being erased.” And there’s also, among other examples, “A Murder Foretold,” Grann’s piece about a Guatemalan lawyer’s response to the murder of his fiancé and her father. We learn that the lawyer pored over surveillance footage of the moments preceding the crime. At one point, he longingly “touched the television screen—she was there but not there.”
That gesture is faintly echoed in Grann’s latest book, The White Darkness. In 2003, Henry Worsley, the book’s subject, traveled to the gravesite of Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer. Upon arriving, he extended his hand toward the tombstone. Worsley, who served in the British army and completed two tours with the Special Air Service, regarded Shackleton as a hero. In order to reach the gravesite, he traveled to the far shores of South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. And he would, in the years that followed, travel farther still. In 2008, after much preparation, he began his first expedition across Antarctica. And he later decided to attempt two more.
The book mainly focuses on the first and third journeys, which were inspired by Shackleton’s own Antarctic expeditions in the early 20th century. Grann, then, is again relating a story that’s animated by absence. Ghostliness emanates easily in this account, not only through the hallowed gravesites, but also the expeditionary trappings and lodgings that have borne the passage of a century. It emanates, too, through the descriptions of Worsley’s efforts. In that respect, the book is a record of a life lost to profound ambition. Worsley died in 2016, shortly after failing to singlehandedly complete the same trans-Antarctica crossing that once eluded Shackleton.
The inspirations and perils of hero worship are thoughtfully probed by Grann. And Worsley’s wife and children figure significantly in the book, establishing much of its poignancy. In addition, Grann culls from the literature on early polar exploration, placing Worsley’s struggles within the context of his luminaries. What’s more, Grann’s reliably limpid prose is set alongside numerous photographs, many of which provide haunting views into Shackleton and Worsley’s respective quests. This enhances an already compelling depiction of Antarctica, whose hazards are revealed in scenes drawn from the history of the continent. We read about, for instance, the amputation of five toes; an explorer who wandered from camp and never returned; and a Manchurian pony that was swallowed by a deep crevasse. Such details bear out the sinister implications of the book’s title, which, among other meanings, suggests an inversion of the white light that’s associated with the imagined threshold of the afterlife.
While Antartica has a small population of researchers and laborers, Worsley’s story mostly pertains to the more desolate areas of the continent. And there’s a purgatorial quality to his expeditions. Grann indicates as much when he compares Worsley’s experience on the Titan Dome to being “trapped in an infinite beyond.” He later notes that each time the icy ground broke open, Worsley “leaned over and glimpsed the underworld—a chute swirling into darkness.” Worsley, following ghosts both ancestral and heroic, wound up in a frozen desert that can turn the steeliest adventurers into living phantoms—or do away with them entirely. At one point, Grann describes Worsley’s companions through a litany of physical horrors: “Their skin clung to their skulls and their eyes were sunken; they had wild beards and untamed hair that gleamed with ice.” In the book’s context, these aspects are less a denigration of Antarctica than a recognition of its power. As Worsley notes during his last expedition, “Trespassers will be punished.”
Grann, though, is just as attentive to the land’s magnificence. During the first expedition, Worsley and his two companions fell into stretches of silence as they trudged across the Ross Ice Shelf. It’s noted that one of the men, Henry Adams, amplified the mood by listening to Rachmaninoff’s Vespers on his iPod. This is one of the book’s small, evocative details. It ignites the imagination by suggesting that the grandeur of the continent finds a correlate in the sublimities of Russian Orthodox choral music. Grann shares many such elements of what Adams calls “the spirituality of the Antarctic.” In doing so, he not only conveys something of Antarctica’s haunted landscape, but also the boundless awe that it occasioned in Worsley.
David Grann’s The White Darkness is now available from Doubleday.
Echoes from the Void: José Revueltas’s The Hole
The novella is an absorbing read, but its vicious, downtrodden qualities are sometimes overwrought.
In the visitors’ lobby of a Mexican prison, a mother secretly wishes death on her incarcerated son. He’s got a wish of his own: getting his hands on a feverishly anticipated bag of drugs. Smuggling the stuff past the prison guards—so-called “apes”—will no doubt prove difficult. But a plan has been worked out—and the mother has agreed to help. She remains, after all, bound to “this son who still clung to her entrails, where he watched her with his miscreant’s eye.”
These tensions arise in a 1969 novella by José Revueltas, the Mexican writer and political activist. Entitled The Hole, it concerns three cellmates awaiting their next fix. The son, the most detested member of this trio, is dubbed the Prick, and the narrator hatefully insists that he’s indeed “a useless prick, blind in one eye, dragging himself around with the shakes and a lame leg.” Holed up alongside him is Albino, who throttles the Prick from time to time. Polonio is no less violent, and he intends to kill the Prick, but only after that bag of drugs is delivered to them.
These and other cruelties arrive through reams of embittered third-person narration, by which the reader is also hurtled across the bumpy geography of The Hole, which unfolds in a single paragraph. On the whole, the novella is an absorbing read, but its vicious, downtrodden qualities are sometimes overwrought. The gallows humor leavens that effect, though. We learn, for instance, that Albino has a tattoo on his paunch that depicts two Hindu figures. On occasion, and with great ceremony, he spurs the ink into pornographic motion. The flabby gyrations send the man’s fellow inmates into fits of masturbation and self-loathing. The tattoo also elicits a more measured take from the narrator: Albino’s theatrics are said to present “a mystical unity in which the miracle of the Creation” can be gleaned.
Yet even these reprieves are made more complex as the story progresses. Revueltas consistently shifts from something nightmarish to the glimmer of an awakening and back again. Among the most poignant of these glimmers is the arrival of the Prick’s mother near the end of the novella. As her despised son wriggles against his cell door, he evokes his birth: “first the tousled, damp hair and then, bone by bone, forehead, cheekbones, jawbone, the flesh of her flesh.” The description seems to be suspended between contempt and nostalgia. What’s moving is that the mother is surprisingly close now, her “hand resting instinctively on her son’s forehead.” It’s a grand pause. Tenderness blooms and the misery of The Hole is briefly resisted.
We encounter something similar in the expressions of the guards. Revueltas notes their “hazy longing for other unattainable aptitudes” and “a certain stutter of the soul in their simian features.” He certainly knew a little about hazy longings. Revueltas navigated his way through a succession of political alliances, and, late in life, had his hopes renewed through a student movement. This is laid out in Roberto Simón Crespi’s biography of him, a useful guide through the thicket of a long political career. And anthropologist and sociologist Roger Bartra has written of Revueltas’s “maddening search for the ‘true’ party of the working class” and his “ideological world, full of ideas that slip away every time he tries to trap them.”
Revueltas also understood something of imprisonment. His lifetime of political activism is roughly bracketed by internments at Islas Marías Federal Prison, and, much later, Mexico City’s Lecumberri Prison. The latter stint occurred shortly after October 2, 1968, the date of the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City. Thousands of university students gathered on that day to protest iniquities and demand a less woeful example of democracy than single-party rule. President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz’s government reacted by arranging a scheme in which the army would misattribute sudden gunfire to the protestors and commence an attack. The precise number of civilian casualties was not determined. Estimates range from 44 to 300.
Following the massacre, Revueltas was imprisoned in Lecumberri, and tried as a leader of the student movement. He wrote The Hole during his incarceration. With the government’s dehumanizing maneuvers so recently scored into memory, he devised a story in which dehumanization and reality are fastened together. A miasma pervades everything from the novella’s prison setting to its guards, inmates, and visitors. His characters’ humanity narrows toward nothingness here, surviving only in the fugitive kindnesses, the passing visions, the vestigial maternal instincts. These undulations of gloom and hope are now available to English readers. This translation is the result of a careful, yearlong effort by Amanda Hopkinson and Sophie Hughes. What they have prepared is less like a fusty literary relic than a shout, hoarse with fury and anxiety, that crackles into earshot.
The Hole is now available from New Directions.
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