Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Special Double Review

1.
Doctor Who: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

I haven't liked a Doctor Who Christmas special since David Tennant's first episode. All of the other specials have been boring forgettable affairs. Moffat's first Christmas special was interesting if only for its aggressive disregard of principles of time travel set before in the show. This particular Christmas special is noteworthy for the revelation that the Doctor is apparently immune to the cold vacuum of space.

The Doctor is blowing up some shit on a spaceship and gets blasted out of it, landing on Earth just before the War. He survives somehow and makes a friend in some lady. Then, years later, the lady's husband is dead in the war, and she is left with two kids. They go to a house where the Doctor has conveniently set himself up as the caretaker. He has a present for the kids, which is a gateway to the future, to a planet made up of a sentient forest. When the kids get there, Bill Bailey shows up for a scene and explains that the forest is scheduled for an acid-rain scorching. Then the trees talk through a character, a typically Moffat device and then timey-wimey happy ending because it's Christmas.

20 minutes of story stretched out for 59 minutes. That's it. This was the worst Christmas special since the one with the Titanic. Maybe even worse than the one with the runaway bride (which I only remember with fondness because the Doctor goes apeshit in it). The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe was boring. One entire third of the special was the various character wandering in the forest, the same set, I might add, but time displaced. In typical classic Who fashion, one episode out of four was simply pushing the characters from one corridor to the next. The son is chasing a bizarre creature, the daughter and the Doctor are chasing the son, and the mother is chasing them both, only to be thwarted by Bill Bailey, who is criminally underused. His scene, along with his henchmen, is easily the funniest thing Moffat has written in years. Funnier than the Cybermen episode that everybody hated (but I liked).

There's a fairly large plot hole in this special, in regards to the creature that the son is chasing. Upon finishing it, I realized that something didn't make sense, and I'm not talking about Moffat's twisting of the time stream in order to provide a happy ending.

So to recap, this was aggressively boring, illogical, and only memorable for its bravura opening and Bill Bailey's scene-stealing. The worst Doctor Who episode I've seen in a long time. Which is a shame, because I've loved Moffat's direction so far. Matt Smith does a tremendous job in this episode, as well, showing how deft he is as a comic actor, not just a scary Doctor.

And to make matters worse, there's no a single frame of teasing for series seven!

2.
Downton Abbey

Remember when I said I was going to give the Christmas special a try and if it was as stupid as the second series I was going to quit? Well, it was even more stupid than I could possibly imagine. Contrived, manipulative, dumb, superficial and totally contrived.

What cousin Matthew proclaims at the end of the second series is quickly and stupidly overturned in favour for plot twisting. What happens to Bates is quickly overturned because it's Christmas and this is what happens on soap operas. Rosamund's story in the Christmas special is so imminently forgettable that I can hardly remember the name of the other character she's involved with. The plot with the second cook and her dead husband that she didn't love is stretched out further and further and further, with seemingly no end in sight. All sorts of things happen, but none of it has any consequence. It's simply the plot twisted for the sake of a Christmas special.

And it was boring. Why was everything boring this Christmas? You know what was an especially good "special" even though it was a theatrical movie? The Inbetweeners Movie! Not only was the comedy fucking hilarious, but the drama was organic as it came from the characters and not from the plot (although there were a few instances of the plot twisted for convenience's sake). Not like Downton Abbey's stupid soapy special. This was awful. Awful, awful, awful, awful. I hated it more than the Doctor Who special. I can't think of anything positive to say about this episode, and normally I can.

In fact, I can even mention something that I hated more than anything. Lady Sybil, the really hot sister, doesn't make an appearance, despite her story being the most interesting. Fuck this show.



And yet I know I will watch the third series.



By the way, who the fuck is going to watch an ITV miniseries of the Titanic? Even if it's written by Julian Fellowes? The special effects are going to look campy in comparison to a thirteen year old movie that will no doubt produce a significant influence on the plot of Fellowes' script. What motivated ITV to produce this? Why didn't they do one of the Lusitania? Oh well. Sherlock starts on Jan 1 and I will be watching that with a big smile on my face.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas


The fact that Christmas' origin lies in both the birth of Jesus Christ and the solstice celebrations makes no difference to me. It is a time to celebrate the brotherhood of man, really. I use Christmas as a way to relax, to visit friends, to get drunk, to be with my family. It's not a holiday of religious observance or Midnight Mass or any other rituals. Today, on December 25th, I plan to sit in bed and read, as I am far behind in my reading these past three months. I hope to catch up by February. So, Merry Christmas to everybody. Also, I hope you enjoy the new design, which is definitely influenced by my love of the 80s.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The To-Read Pile

It's getting exceedingly big. I need to stop buying books again. I was doing so well and then I moved back into my parents'. Well, here is a small portion of the to-read pile. Caveat emptor, I may not read all of them.


Click on the picture to make it big. Not pictured, because there wasn't enough room: Stephen King's new behemoth, Philip Hensher's behemoth The Northern Clemency, the behemoth Masks of God tetralogy by Joseph Campbell and a host of other things. I really need to conquer this pile!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Texas Killing Fields


It's hard not to like this movie based on that poster. The lightning, the starkness of the fields, the intense glares in each actor's eyes, the "Produced by Michael Mann" text. It's going to be hard to judge this one because I'm walking into it thinking that I'm going to love it, based solely on that poster. Of course, I watch every movie with the hope that it's going to be my new favourite movie, that it will supplant Indiana Jones and The Bourne Ultimatum. This film has a lot of the ingredients to possibly change things up in my film hierarchy. It's directed by Michael Mann's daughter, it stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Sam Worthington, two good actors.

Set in Texas City, Texas, Worthington and Morgan are two homicide officers who are on the trail of a serial killer or killers, who are abducting women and killing them out in the badlands, in the fields. Chloe Grace Moretz plays a little girl from a impoverished family who wanders the streets and Morgan feels protective of her. Jessica Chastain plays Worthington's ex-wife and a cop in another town, where girls are also going missing.

The opening scene of this movie features beautiful stark imagery of the impoverished conditions these people face, the racial issues and the social inequality faced by them. This is a small town, one without sidewalks, where little boys ride bikes down the street at 11 o'clock at night. Mann shoots all this with the same quick shots of establishment, with the grainy digital eye her father used in Collateral. It evokes a sense of desolation and of dead-ends. These men aren't going anywhere in their shitty jobs, just drink and whores. Even an older peace officer, a friend of Worthington's character's dad, is essentially a functioning alcoholic with a badge.

As the plot slowly builds, with each piece being put in place, the audience is given little sketches of the two main characters. Worthington, alone and sitting on the floor, feeding his dog canned food. Morgan, a family man, praying and cuddling in bed with his wife. However it is Morgan that is inexorably drawn into the killing fields, the place so desolate and so empty that even the Native Americans won't go into it, according to Worthington. He keeps trying to tell Morgan to stay out of the fields, figuratively speaking of course, but this is a cop movie. Morgan must go through the Hero's Journey and reach the Underworld.

Here's a handy chart of the Hero's Journey.


The helper is Worthington's character who guides him through Texas City, Morgan's adopted town. It is the fields where Morgan's death and rebirth will occur. He has crossed the metaphorical threshold of law-abiding and enforcing, God-fearing man into a world of blurred distinctions between following the letter of the law and getting shit done. When he finally reaches the fields, the killing fields, the dark abyss of his own soul and even Texas's soul, he returns for his atonement and the return to the status quo.

Yes, Texas Killing Fields takes on mythic qualities. The fields are imbued with a sense of the epic, of the darkness and of the eternal. Mann shoots the fields in blue, a colour of death, and has thunder and lightning crash over them. The fields themselves become more than a place, but a symbol, like Chinatown does in the titular film noir.

However, unlike Chinatown, Texas Killing Fields does not benefit from a stellar Robert Towne script. The dialogue in this film is mildly clunky, with Worthington's character helpfully telling Morgan and the audience that Morgan's gone over the edge. The cops sort of speak like cops are expected to, and the Texan young men and women speak with the same drawl and the same emptiness. Despite the dialogue issues, the script takes an uneven line for the Hero's Journey. Mann uses a bit of misdirection to try and fool the audience, but anybody who has seen a movie in their life will be able to guess the ending.

The screenplay feels artificial, especially since it maps onto the grid of the Hero's Journey fairly well, but even then, Texas Killing Fields seems to have a sense of authenticity. It wasn't even filmed in Texas (Louisiana, to be honest) but it feels like Texas, like the Southern states where everything is hot and everything is slow because it's too hot to move fast. Mann even borrows from Peter Berg, one of Michael Mann's ardent followers, and uses a sort of Explosions in the Sky style soundtrack, similar to Friday Night Lights. Both those two things are from Texas.

Mostly, it's Mann's competent direction that saves Texas Killing Fields. It's well shot, a mixture of documentary feel and inventive camera work. The car chase near the end of the film is extremely well shot, with the audience being able to follow the action and the geography of the location perfectly. There's a couple action scenes that are shot just perfectly, with a sense of cold-blooded quickness and reality, not the nonsense John Woo crap from the late nineties.

This is a good movie. I may seem somewhat dismissive because of its adherence to the Hero's Journey, but it actually kind of makes me like it more. If only the dialogue was a little bit better. Hopefully Mann directs at a quicker pace than her father. I'm more than excited to see her next film.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Film Round-Up

1.
Fish Tank (2009)

I watched this because of Michael Fassbender. There I said it. I'm glad I ended up watching it though. It's a well shot and well acted film about a young girl living in a council estate who develops feelings for her mother's handsome Irish boyfriend. There's plenty to be said of the film as a text, and you can interpret it in any which way, especially with an eye for social realism. It's a thematically deep film, and it's successful in convincingly portraying the emotional development of this girl. However, it's a little slow. Could've used a trim here and there just to speed things up. Other than that, this is a fantastic film.

2.
A Good Old Fashioned Orgy (2011)

The cast. Oh my god the cast. Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Nick Kroll among others. The plot? I couldn't care less about the plot. However, this is a surprisingly heartwarming and hilarious movie about a group of friends who want to celebrate their last holiday in the summer home before its sold with an orgy. At first the film sort of stumbles with its awkward premise and its thinly drawn characters, but as the film goes on, and sketches the background details of these friends, without belaboring the details, the cast fills out, and the humour comes alive. It helps that everybody is fairly charming and quick-witted, and there appears to be a healthy level of improvisation. What sort of diminishes the movie is the romance that develops between the main character and the real estate agent in charge of selling the house. In a surprising move, the climax of the film sweeps it aside and goes straight the emotional catharsis of the orgy. It works! This is a good comedy, not quite to the level of The Hangover or Bridesmaids, but this style of ensemble comedy with a focus on the dialogue is greatly appreciated.

3.
Drive (2011)

Ryan Gosling, amirite? There's a good looking fellow. The opening scene of Drive is fantastic: a car chase that's not quite a car chase, one that's cerebral and intelligent but tense nonetheless. Certainly emblematic of the rest of the film. Then, the credits sequence, hot pink cursive writing set to night time scenes and a killer French synthpop jam. These are all ingredients for a fantastic movie. I liked Drive a lot. Gosling is amazing, even though he's hardly doing anything. The violence is spectacularly shocking, when there is. Albert Brooks is really good, and so is Ron Perlman. So what's the problem? Not enough Gosling driving. There just isn't enough of him doing what he's best at. The car chase is also bizarrely shot, with odd editing choices, giving the viewer a wrong sense of geography. But the rest of the movie is good. I don't really have much to say about this movie. It's good, but it's not great. It's really really good, but not great.

4.
The Guard (2011)

Here's an hilarious movie in the same vein as Bad Santa or any of those foul-mouthed bastard and the people who love them. Except, it's Brendan Gleeson as an Irish cop, one of the Garda, and Don Cheadle, strait-laced cop from America comes to track down some drug smugglers. This is a film to watch for its screenplay and its dialogue rather than its plot. Mark Strong, the UK's leading villain in all films, delivers a strong performance as an Englishman looking for some violence. Everybody's pretty funny, and despite the film being made in Ireland by Irish people, there doesn't seem to be a lot of specifically Irish humour. It's simply people swearing at each other for two hours. Not a bad way to pass the time.

5.
Final Destination 5 (2011)

I have some sort of affection for the series as a whole. The first one is clever, in that it removes the slasher from the slasher movie, and the second one is amazing for just upping the stakes to an incredible degree. However, the next two were of diminishing returns. Hopefully this fifth one would do something interesting? Well, it does and it doesn't. This one adds the dimension of taking a life in order to appease death, so Miles Fisher, one of my favourite people in the world, ends up trying to murder people. The setpieces are cool, I guess, but nothing as spectacular as the second film. It's the end that really fucking does it. Does anybody remember the end of The Mist? How fucking mean it is? Well, Final Destination 5 is even meaner, if that's possible. The requisite twist ending is impossible to see coming, and it's utterly nihilistic. It's fucking mean and I love it because of it.

6.
Contagion (2011)

Soderbergh is a filmmaker who has almost exhausted my patience. Traffic, Erin Brockovitch, the Ocean's Trilogy, Out of Sight and the Limey are all terrific movies. However, Soderbergh punctuates his career with misfires such as Full Frontal and the Che two parter. I only made it through about an hour of Che before I fell asleep. It's painfully boring. So when Soderbergh makes a more commercial picture, I'm interested. Where will it end up? Like Traffic or like Solaris? Contagion is a fast-paced medical thriller, which is an automatic thumbs up from me, really. Plus, it is meant to be hyper realistic, and its attention to detail is amazing. The cast is uniformly excellent, including Gwyneth Paltrow's exceedingly disturbing death scene in the first ten minutes of the movie. The second half of the movie suffers a bit from a lack of direction. Only two or three characters have a goal by the second half and the rest of the cast simply wanders around until the denouement. Still, it's slickly made and goes to show that Soderbergh is one of the greatest cinematographers in the business.

7.
Fright Night (2011)

This was one of my most anticipated films of the year. I have great affection for the original, despite not seeing it in almost ten years. I remember it being witty, frightening, hilarious and altogether charming. I expected something of the same from the remake, especially because of its acting pedigree. Yes, the Tenth Doctor plays a Criss Angel type of arsehole, and he even uses the same accent from his tenure on Doctor Who. Of course, this was not the only engaging part of Fright Night. Rather, it is a clever movie that suffers only from its dismal CGI effects. There are numerous scenes of palpable suspense, like when the main character is attempting to sneak out of the vampire's house while the villain watches reality TV and drinks beer. Instead of the charming debonair Chris Sarandon, this film features a rugged and animalistic Colin Farrell, who just oozes sex and violence. It's a restrained performance, in which the possibility of violence is more threatening than the display of aggression. The film is equal parts funny and scary, including a hilarious turn from James Franco's younger brother in a small role as a stoned bully who gets his throat ripped out. I enjoyed the movie more than I thought I would.

8.
Friends with Kids (2011)

Again, here is another movie that I watched if only because of the cast. Jon Hamm, Kirsten Wiig, Adam Scott, Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd and some other fine actors all star in Friends with Kids, written and directed by Hamm's partner, who stars as one of two platonic friends who have a kid together with the aim of not falling in love and of course, they end up falling in love. The story beats are boring, but the cast is charming. Hamm's partner is a terrifically weak actress in comparison to the rest of the cast, though. Her own dialogue sounds stilted and forced in her mouth. If you had this cast together, wouldn't you let them improv the shit out of everything? Well, they weren't allowed or at least it didn't end up in the final cut. This is a movie that screaming to be let loose from the director's quiet dialogue. It shakes the frame with potential energy but focuses on small scenes of warmth. Luckily the film moves into real emotion by the end, and it concludes with a heartwarming scene. It's the barebones of romantic comedy, but the cast keeps it barely alive.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Religious Hypocrisy

Here's a photo of a protester from the Westboro Baptist Church - yes the church that protests funerals of soldiers saying that it was America's fault for allowing gay people to marry or whatever. They famously hate gays. Their signs often have things like "Faggots burn in hell" or whatever. Here's an adorable photo of a protester wearing a Glee shirt. This is fucking adorable.


I don't post about religion on my blog because it's not really a topic that's worth talking about. I'm atheist, my whole family is, we're secular and we don't believe in religion. We have special disdain for organized religion that promotes hatred and intolerance. Theism isn't necessarily dangerous; it's the belief in the supremacy of the pontiff that's dangerous. Either way, the Westboro Baptist Church have set up their own pontiff who is dangerously influential among his followers. It is only a matter of time before somebody does something violent to the church in retaliation for their absolutely bonkers beliefs.

But before that day arrives, let's all sit back, with a smug look on our faces and laugh at this fucking photo.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

David Bowie - "Someone Up There Likes Me"



I have gone on a fairly big Bowie kick the past few weeks. I've always liked Bowie, but he's not somebody that I immediately reach for when wanting something to listen to. I decided to give Young Americans and Let's Dance a re-listen, if only because they are aggressively more commercial. However, in my ever-present pop apologia, I've decided that both albums are, in fact, masterpieces. Especially Young Americans. That saxophone! Those backup harmonies! Bowie's "live" singing - sometimes done with one take! Long story short, Bowie is a God.

Monday, December 5, 2011

You Deserve Nothing


Will Silver is a 30-ish American expatriate working in Paris, at an international high school, home to students from across the world, sons and daughters of diplomats and businessmen. Will is teaching a special seminar on philosophy and literature to Gilad, the son of an American businessman who uses his fists in communicating with Gilad's mother. Also in the seminar is Ariel, best friend of Marie who ends up in a sexual relationship with Will, to devastating effect to all. Set in 2002, as tensions around the world and in France were heating up, this is a novel about the dynamic of power and authority, and of the intersection of philosophy and life, narrated by Will, Marie and Gilad in the first person.

As every reviewer of this novel is going to mention, Alexander Maksik wrote this from personal experience, as he was a teacher in Paris who left his job after an inappropriate relationship with an underage student. Jezebel, of Gawker media, broke the story, and showed that this novel isn't nearly as innocent or as fictional as it might appear. The real "Marie" expresses the uncomfortable feeling that she was exploited and used, whereas in the novel, Marie longs for Will, and her last line is "I still dream of him." As a reviewer and critic, I hope I can separate the work from the artist. But I have to admit, that my own feelings of discomfort will bleed through. It is inescapable that I am not disturbed by Maksik's rewriting of reality. Even without this added dimension of reality, this work stands alone.

You Deserve Nothing, in a nutshell, is a promising debut. However, it is not a great novel. Nor is it even a good novel, but neither is it bad. It's aggressively average, from its themes to its repetitive prose, to its glaring signposts reminding the reader that this is, indeed, a first novel.

Firstly, there are innumerable scenes of teaching in the novel, with Will at the head of the class, diligently and earnestly explaining existentialism and Sartre and Camus to a group of homogenous students, all of whom have discrete names but blending voices. The teaching scenes are interesting at first, if only to get a sense of why and how these students seem to idolize Will. But then the teaching continues. It makes up one third of the novel. This is not a quantitative count, but an estimate. One third of the novel is a teacher teaching. To sound childish, if I wanted to be taught existentialism, I'd read it for myself rather than read a novel, in English, regurgitating and twisting Camus' words. At least, Maksik provides us with the opening line of L'etranger in French, a rather difficult passage to translate. Not only does he provide bits of Camus, but there are numerous pieces of other works, simply block quoted, so that we can read along with the earnest students and learn along with them. By the end of the novel, when some of the students have become disillusioned with Will, the teaching scenes are excruciating. If the teaching scenes are bad, maybe at least the reader can console himself with above average prose? Not so, unfortunately.

The cadence of Maksik's narrators are all the same, despite their different backgrounds and gender. They all narrate in the same style. The narrator uses two or three short sentences. Then to break up the style, the narrator eliminates the conjunctions, strings two clauses together. Just like that. I wrote this paragraph in Maksik's style.

There's an affected style of disaffection, of disillusioned people. This normally works for me; after all I love Bret Easton Ellis. The problem is that there is an overbearing sense of sameness with characters and scenes bleeding together. Structurally, Maksik uses three narrators, but they all sound the same and use the same style. Not only that, but even his multicultural students use the same voice. Colin, a student in Will's seminar, is from Dublin, as the audience is constantly reminded, but his accent and dialect is totally American. He uses specific American slang and misses that particular sentence structure that the Irish use. Maksik totally fails in constructing differing voices for any of his characters. This would not have been a problem if all the characters were American students of the same socio-economic background. No, Maksik uses a specific multicultural and multiethnic cast, from the Irish kid to the Muslim kid who speaks exactly like a boorish isolationist American thinks a Muslim speaks.

My edition of the novel has 320 pages. Every time the narrator switches, there is a blank page. Therefore, there are at least 40 pages of blank pages, lowering our page count to 280. If one third of that are asinine teaching scenes, then only 186 pages are actually important. Of that 186, there are many repeated scenes, from each of the narrator's point of view. The point I am trying to make? This is a short story with ample padding. If this had been a short story, without Gilad and Colin, focusing only on Marie and Will's disastrous relationship, I would have loved it. It would have been a tight and gripping narrative of the delusions of power. Unfortunately, we have a earnest naive novel filled with extras from Dead Poets Society.

Now that I have thoroughly excoriated the novel, and judged it on its own merits, let us turn to the unfortunate reality of the situation Maksik found himself him. Jezebel tells us that almost everything in the novel is taken from actual experience, with only the names changed. We can then position Maksik onto Will. Therefore, Maksik wrote a novel about himself as a charming and charismatic teacher that all female students want to bang, a teacher whom the male students idolize, whom even the faculty thinks is a fantastic and efficient teacher. Maksik re-wrote the ending of this episode, from real life, into one in which it is Maksik who makes the fateful decision to depart, leaving Marie in a longing state, pining away for Maksik.

The cliche of first time novelists is that they tend to write idealized versions of themselves into the novel. Otherwise known as a Mary Sue in fanfiction parlance. Maksik has written a creepy and narcissistic version of events that paints him in a rather flattering light. The effect of which is to turn me off entirely. At the beginning of the novel, I was quite enamored with the French setting, the multicultural student body, and the sexual subtext. By the end of the novel, I was creeped out, but not in the way Maksik intended. Will seems to love Marie. Marie reciprocates this. At no point does Maksik entertain the notion that this is a situation of power and dominance. Maksik used his authority as leverage to sleep with a girl, despite the girl thinking that it was her choice. In the teaching scenes, Maksik implies heavily that there are no choices, that there is no free will. It is a determinist novel. At the end, Will is accused by the headmaster of thinking himself innocent. Will provides a sly smirk and walks away into the sunset. He thinks he is innocent because there is no free will. He is an idiot.

The novel is amateurish and clumsily written. The prose is weak and repetitive. Add into this mix the fact that Maksik thinks he did nothing wrong and re-wrote reality to suit his ego, then you have the recipe for a novel that is not good, but not bad. Maksik has enough talent to make the novel readable, engaging, and at the beginning, quite good. Perhaps with a second novel, not based on his questionable decisions, then he'll succeed. It is laudable that Maksik even wrote a novel about such a controversial and taboo subject, but he did it in the clumsiest way he possibly could.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"Nothing on Earth Comes Close"



This is a commercial directed by Tony Scott for Saab. Thanks to this commercial, Scott was offered the chance to direct Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise. The rest, they say, is history. This is an interesting advertisement in that it is starkly simplistic. There are two men, and I mean masculine men. Both of them walk towards the camera in slow motion, carrying their paraphernalia. They open garage doors, and an ethereal light illuminates their machines: a jet fighter and a Saab. The pilot lovingly strokes the wing of the plane. They drive their machines out into the rain, and thanks to a series of quick cuts, it appears that they are staring each other down. There is a competition to occur. As the orchestral score lowers in volume, the engine of the plane grows louder. The plane and the car drive towards the camera, but the plane takes off. In the frame, the jet is above the Saab. There is nothing between them. The music returns, swelling, and the logo is revealed again: Saab.

It is simplistic but ever so effective. Ostensibly, the comparison is being made between a jet fighter and an automobile. The viewer is meant to associate the two machines and conclude that if one wants to be an ideal of masculinity, or a fighter pilot, one must purchase a Saab, the next best thing. The comparison is made by using equal screen time and by shooting both machines at the same angles, then cutting between them, creating a sense of continuity between the two.

The fighter jet is also made by Saab, famously so. The idea that the makers of a fighter jet would also make a car seems attractive. If you were a man who appreciated the power and thrust of a jet engine, then why would you not enjoy the power and sleekness of a miniature jet, an automobile version of a jet? While there is an explicit comparison being made between the Saab car and the Saab jet, there is an explicit comparison being made between the men. Only men who drive Saabs are comparable to the men who pilot jets. In the Eighties, with the Cold War simmering, a common masculine ideal is that of the military man. In 1985, both Rocky and Rambo sequels were dominating US box offices. In 1986, Top Gun dominated the box office totally along with Platoon. Military personnel were symbols of American austerity and prosperity. Of course, Saab is a European company, and the commercial aired in Europe mostly, but the point is that the military figure was on the minds of millions of people. They were symbols to look up to. If you wanted to be like a symbol, all you had to do was buy a Saab.

This is why this is one of the best commercials ever made.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The King of the Badgers


The quiet village of Hanmouth is far from London, but picaresque and beautiful, containing a small university, twelve pubs, a Neighbourhood Watch, a cheese shop owned by two men who host gay orgies every once in awhile, an estate council from which young China has been abducted. Now, all eyes of the nation are fixed on this small community, where everybody watches everybody and CCTV cameras gaze unblinking and silent. The King of the Badgers portrays an England in the 21st century as it copes with the postmodern problem of what to do when everybody is watching but you've nothing to show them.

This was not longlisted for the Booker this year, despite Hensher's prior novel The Northern Clemency being shortlisted and despite Hensher's prodigious talent and critical presence in the UK. The very brief version of this review is that The King of the Badgers should have been shortlisted, and possibly should have even won the prize. It towers over some of the novels published this year, and yes, I would even say it was better than The Stranger's Child, which I recently finished and reviewed.

Part of the novel's success is Hensher's gripping and exuberant prose. On his Wikipedia page, it is said that Hensher is known for his detached prose, his distance from the characters. While this might be true, the sheer linguistic deftness and dexterity that Hensher shows on a sentence-by-sentence rate is impressive. If I were judging a novel this year by prose alone, The King of the Badgers would surely be in the top 3 (with Oblivion and The Stranger's Child all competing). Each sentence is so intricately and brilliantly composed, with clauses and subclauses interpolated like a wonderful trumpet solo in the middle of a gorgeous Miles Davis song. Hensher finds a quick and often evocative way to describe a physical detail, then expands on it with more sentences to place it within the larger scope of the village itself. From the description of the estuary flowing through the center of the town to a central character's thin humble penis, Hensher's prose rivals some of the better stylists I've read before. It is Hensher's utmost fidelity to the grammatical rules that helps each phrase sparkle with complexity but clarity. If there was ever an author to argue for a style of rule adherence....

Of course, The King of the Badgers isn't a novel written for linguistics students. This is a "state of the nation" novel, something that the English excel at, something that, in American, only Franzen seems brave enough to attempt. Hensher's novel is explicitly concerned with the postmodern anxiety of constant surveillance. Perhaps this is reviewer's bias, but I started reading this novel on day 3 of a seven page paper on Michel Foucault's Panopticism, which is surely an influence on Hensher's novel, even in the most superficial of ways. In a nutshell, the panopticon is an architectural design that places each prisoner into a room where they cannot see the other prisoners, but they can see the central tower, where an unseen presence may or may not be observing them. Thus, the prisoners assume they are being watched and modify their behaviour accordingly. The model of the panopticon is echoed in the spatial and philosophical designs of institutions, or disciplines, such as prisons, hospitals and schools. In The King of the Badgers, the panopticon is represented in the ubiquitous CCTV cameras, the unseen Neighbourhood Watch (the presence of which is only felt in politely worded but sinister letters slipped through mail slots) and even in the village dwellers themselves. Their constant gossiping and judging of other people tends to affect each other's behaviour. This is a novel that could only be written right now, as Hensher plunges the reader into a wealth of detail relating to the music they listen to, the books they aren't reading for book clubs, and especially the television shows they watch. The presence of the TV, the forever strobing cyclops, weighs heavily in this novel, and it should, considering the central theme of watching.

The "state of the nation" novel, like Freedom by Franzen, is about trying to capture the national feeling at the moment of writing. It is usually expressed in an anxiety. In this novel, it is the ever present anxiety of the ever present observing eye. The cast of characters in this novel, sharply drawn and exhaustively detailed, are constantly expressing a feeling of discomfiture, not only with their own lives, but with each other's. It's enough for people to go bonkers what with all the watching. Hensher takes this to another logical step by showing us the people who have fallen down in this quickening march to modernity. David, the gay son of two retirees, brings a sexy charming man from London and poses him as his boyfriend, but David could never acquire such a partner, thanks to his crippling lack of confidence and his ever-expanding waistline. After a night of debauchery with the resident posh gay couple, David finds a measure of inner strength and when he does a bit of coke to shore up his mental defenses in celebration, he promptly dies of an overdose. In The King of the Badgers, the neverending fight for relevance and importance is like Zeno's paradoxes. There is a goal that never be achieved, a status that can never be attained.

Despite this slightly defeatist conclusion, Hensher's novel is always entertaining. At no point does Hensher ever let up the pace of swift cutting scenes nor does he ever let the characters wallow in self-pity, unless it is in service of a good joke. Do not let it be said that Hensher maintained a serious or dour tone. Instead, when there is a joke to be made, even at the expense of his characters, he never lets the opportunity pass. This is a funny novel and should not be mistaken for an overly serious novel, despite its lofty aspirations. Here is an instance of a novel both being entertaining, imminently readable, and successful at saying something about the conditions of life.

The King of the Badgers is a tremendous success. I began reading The Northern Clemency but gave it up in favour of this tome when I realized that it's 250 pages shorter. However, now that I have finished this fantastic novel, I plan to return to the book and its daunting length.

A small note on The King Badger's: the dust jacket uses a very specific tone and typeface for its logo and author. The inside of the book uses the typeface and layout as advertised on the UK hardcover. This leads me to believe that this is simply the UK hardcover with a redesigned and incongruous dust jacket being slapped on it for a North American edition. Ultimately, both covers are not very evocative or successful, but at least the UK's dusk jacket, title pages and spine match! The header image for this post is the UK cover, not the bland North American image of a cup of tea (which seems altogether a rather lazy image, meant to represented the sheer Englishness of the novel).

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Stranger's Child


In 1913, George Sawle brings the young poet Cecil Valance to his home, called Two Acres. There, he meets Daphne Sawle, Beorge's younger sister. After a week, Cecil leaves, but not before writing Daphne a poem about Two Acres. Cecil joins the Army and promptly dies in action, and with his death, his poem takes on mythical proportions. The Stranger's Child tracks the history of this family, the history of the poem, and the social history of English from 1913 to 2008.

It's unfortunate for Julian Barnes that I read The Stranger's Child so quickly after A Sense of an Ending. Not only does Hollinghurst's novel have a larger canvas, with room for nuance and depth, but Hollinghurst benefits from a particularly refined style of prose, one without obvious signposts directing the reader's attention to important themes. Both novels are similar in terms of the macrocosm: both have a revelation in the final pages, both are about the intersection of memory and history, and both follow an aging cast through the years. A Sense of an Ending, however, uses the pretense of an older man looking backwards. The Stranger's Child, with its focus on the shifting perspective of the past, takes a provisional look at history. What is lost in memory is lost in history, Hollinghurst seems to say.

If it seems like a discredit to either to compare one grand social novel to a smaller shorter novel about one man, then it is simply in service of showing how out of step this year's Booker judges were. In purposefully selecting a "readable" novel (in this case, substitute "readable" for "brief"), the judges have left out of the short list a great novel. The Stranger's Child is irrefutably a fantastic novel, filled with gorgeous, nimble and deft prose, sharpyl drawn characters that change and grow with time, and huge lofty ambitions. This is a novel about the temporal aspect of art, the changing social landscape, and what Jacques Rancière calls the distribution of the sensible. Only through the vale of time can something build meaning, which is an overly reductionist reading of his theory. None of these things are explicitly referenced in Hollinghurst's novel. Instead, he allows the story and semiotics to do the work, to allow the reader to understand what is being said about art and time. On top of this intellectual pursuit of art and knowledge, Hollinghurst engages in a social history of gays in England through the 20th century, building on what he did previously in The Line of Beauty.

The Stranger's Child is not merely an exercise in symbolism or social history, but also a deeply affecting portrait of socially unacceptable love throughout time. George and Cecil's dalliances in the woods at Two Acres are heartbreaking in that both of them will be required to marry of the opposite sex, and cannot engage in their affair openly. Hollinghurst returns to this pain in a tacit manner, allowing the heartbreak to filter through the mists of time thanks to the work of subsequent protagonists further into the novel. Hollinghurst employs similar tactics in this novel as in The Line of Beauty to naturalize the love affair as normalized. This is a fancy way of saying that The Stranger's Child remains a love story, despite its interest in grand themes of time and art.

Some famous author once said that there is a tendency to overpraise longer novels because of the sense of accomplishment accompanying the completion of the novel. A corollary of this is that there is an anxiety that "easy" means "less valuable". Using both of these axioms, one could argue that A Sense of An Ending is qualitatively superior to The Stranger's Child because it is succinct and a much more palatable read. I would completely disagree. The Stranger's Child is a monumental work of English fiction in part because of its wide canvas, its incorporation of a history of art and a social history, and because of its tricky structure. The Stranger's Child does more than Barnes' slight work because there is simply more room to work with, and has much more to say about the intersection of memory and history. Ultimately, Hollinghurst's novel says something complicated about the transformation of art through the ages whereas Barnes says something slight about the mysts of memory and the starkness of history. It helps that Hollinghurst's novel can be mapped into Hayden White's The Burden of History and Barnes' ideas can be dismissed as overly reductionist.

I cannot help but compare the two thanks to a similarity of theme and because they fit into the matrix of social novels that English writers seem to excel at. Suffice it to say, that even without Barnes' novel scuttling underneath the looming shadow of The Stranger's Child, I would have still loved Hollinghurst's novel. Of the Booker nominees I have read, this is surely the best and most deserving of the award. However, its exclusion from even the shortlist simply speaks the Booker's inability to remain relevant.

Friday, November 25, 2011

English 3000 - Ireland and History - Irish Fiction from 1985 onwards

The culture of Ireland is often seen as being rooted in the past, either nostalgic for a simpler way of life, or a compulsion to revisit traumatic events in political history. This course will look at a small sampling of Irish fiction that is concerned with the past, stretching from the First World War to the Easter Uprising to the 80's. Throughout this course, the spectre of war, the IRA, and the Troubles looms over the works we will be studying. The literature studied in this course will range from drama to detective fiction, all with the works dealing with historical fiction. As with other courses with such factual basis, there will be a heavy reliance on history, resulting in the necessity of select historical articles, on reserve at the library and online.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness
At Swim Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill
Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel
The Sea by John Banville
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
Amongst Women by John McGahern
Borderlands by Brian McGilloway

Select films will also be screened. Attendance is mandatory.
Michael Collins. Dir Neil Jordan. 1996.
In The Name of the Father. Dir Jim Sheridan. 1993.

Assignments:
Close Reading 1 (750 words) - 10%
Term Essay 1 (1500-2000 words) - 15%
Close Reading 2 (750 words) - 10%
Term Essay 2 (2000-2500 words) - 25%
Participation and attendance - 10%
Final Exam - 30%

Students will notice that At Swim Two Boys is a rather large novel, and it is strongly recommended that they attempt a head start on the novel as soon as possible. As well, students will notice that the books are organized in a rough chronological order based on subject matter rather than publication date.

[This is the third in a series of hypothetical syllabuses that I have created for when I eventually teach.]

The Slap: E05-E08


In the previous post, I talked about how excellent the show is, due mostly to the acting and the complicated layers of characters being displayed. I also mentioned how strong the structure of the series is, using each of the novel's eight narrators as a focal character for one episode apiece. In the first four episodes, the series examined Hector, Anouk, Harry and Connie. In the second half, the focal characters are Rosie, Manoulis, Aisha and finally Richie.

While the first half set up the titular slap, and most of the character work, the second half appears to be about the fallout, the repercussions. The fifth episode, Rosie's chance in the spotlight, has the cast reunite for the first time, but in the context of the court case. It's not difficult to imagine the structure of the series being mirrored, made up of two halves, as per my review, although the decision to do so was arbitrary and unrelated. Episodes five through eight, while observing different characters, espouse a darker view of its cast than previously, and this is especially true in the fifth episode.

Opening on Rosie in the bath, Hugo's cries have caused her breasts to lactate, clearly a symbol of her strong maternal instinct. Rosie's breast-feeding of Hugo has been an implicit taboo subject among the cast; none of them want to tell Rosie that it's not healthy, but they cannot. Finally, it takes an outsider, a manipulative barrister, to point out that Rosie is still breast-feeding Hugo, who is four years old, old enough for solid foods. It's this scene in particular, coming at the halfway point of the episode, in fact, that perfectly captures the tone and nuance used by the entire series. With Rosie on the witness stand, Harry's attorney takes the strategy of discrediting the complainant by exposing her husband's alcoholism, Rosie's imbibing despite breast-feeding, and in general, her own incompetency as a mother.

Previously, the series has positioned Rosie as not quite all there, overly emotional and above all else, in the wrong in regards to Hugo's slap. She should have been disciplining her child or Harry was simply defending his own child from Hugo's cricket bat swing. The fifth episode challenges that position by forcing the viewer to sympathize with her. It does so by having the barrister attack her, badger her, and force her to admit that at a barbecue, there was a tacit agreement among the adults to simply supervise the children without getting hung up on specifics, which led to a lack of discipline on the part of particular parents.

The other way that the series generates sympathy in the viewer is using the Muslim family as counterpoint. Unlike Gary, Bilal is a strong family man, a strong father, who doesn't drink, who is intense and in shape, essentially, Gary's opposite. After the court debacle, Gary goes to the pub, and Rosie, drunk and high, shows up at Bilal's house, demanding help in retrieving her husband. He quietly and intensely drives her to the pub, enters and quietly tells Gary that it's time for him to go home. Gary refuses and yells at Rosie, so the would-be saviors of Gary return to the car and sit for a few moments. All of this is done without music, without dramatic flair. It's simply the actors doing their best.

When Bilal brings Rosie and Hugo home, there's this moment where Rosie looks up at the tall handsome Muslim man, and he stops her before anything can happen. He tells her to go the kitchen where he proceeds to tell her that she has bad blood, that she and her family should have nothing to do with his family. She reminds him of a life that he has put behind him, thanks to God and family, and he never wants to see her again. It's a devastating scene if only because what Rosie needs most right now is a strong role model, a person to whom she can look up. It's what she needs, and it's cruelly denied her on the dint of bad behavior. It's particularly hard to watch if only because these characters don't know how to fix what's wrong.

Episodes 6 and 7 are increasingly uncomfortable for the viewer. Each time the particular fcal character transgresses the commonly held social boundaries, the viewer squirms, completely at unease. At the gathering after a funeral, Manolis gets into a pushing match with a former friend, falls and ends up screaming at Koula, wishing she would die but she never will. In the middle of a coffee shop, Aishe reveals to Rosie something that could have helped the case, and Rosie screams at her, belittling her, and reminding her of the middle class perfection she has, despite the fact that Aishe's marriage is falling apart. Each of these scenes are painful, not only for the characters but the viewer. The problem is that there is no catharsis. There is no relief. And it's all internal. These characters, if they could just speak to each other, if they make the other understand what they are going through, then these situations could be avoided, but everybody represses, everybody internalizes and there's no outlet save for transgressive behaviour.

Aishe's episode is devastating. Hector reveals to her that he fooled around with a girl, but refuses to name her while at the same time, Aishe flirts with the idea of flirting with a handsome and worldly vet interested in global solutions. His exotic manner and talk of far away places contrasts with Hector's white, Greek and decidedly middle class position. This new vet, Art, even manages to remind Aishe that she is the only person of colour in the extended family. Later, when Hector reveals the affair, Aishe wants to know if the girl is white. The racial tension that has existed, the immigrant's perspective, then Aishe's episode brings that to light, exposing that even in a community of "others", Aishe herself is an "other".

Near the end of the episode, the true victims of the slap come to light, but in a peripheral way, which appears to be the series' true interest. During a quiet dinner, Aishe and Hector discuss going to Harry's for his son's birthday party, but Aishe doesn't want to talk about it. Her son tells her to chill and she leaves in a huff, with her son wondering what the hell caused this. In the sly manner that the series traffics in, the victim has slipped past the viewer. The literal victim of the slap, Rosie's son Hugo, is not just a victim of Harry's slap, but of Rosie's selfish negligent parenting. Aishe and Hector's son is a victim of his parents' narcissistic parenting. The children aren't innocent; they're products of a family that's too screwed up and too concerned with the pleasures of the self. It seems that the only character who is morally good is Anouk. She's the only one that doesn't choose to procreate, therefore she cannot taint a child with her poisonous life.

The Slap's interest seems to be in the marginalia of this world. While ostensibly starting the show with the lead character, Hector, each episode follows a path down a line of importance. Aishe is peripheral to the slap, Manolis is peripheral to the slap, and Richie, the eighth episode's focal character, is less important than anybody. If The Slap's main concept derives from the marginal people in Australia, then its true target is the people on the margin of the margin. Going further down this road takes us to the symbols on the edges, such as Anouk's novel about the wild past of the three girls, or Connie's necklace, or the car that Harry gives to Hector that breaks down at the most inopportune moment (figuratively and literally). These are more important symbols than the slap itself.

The peripheral elements come to a head with the final episode, on Richie. This is a powerful and disturbing episode. His growing obsession with Connie's assertion that Hector raped her has caused irreparable damage in his friendship with Connie. Plus, Richie has developed a unhealthy complex relating to his attraction to Hector. Is he obsessed with Hector because of Connie or because the inability to ever attain Hector has been concretized through the revelation of the rape? Richie hates himself and does not understand his attraction to Hector. He tells himself he is a pervert, after he has failed to masturbate to the hetero porn laying about his ne'er-do-well father's apartment, but he succeeds in masturbating to the illicitly gained picture of Hector.

It climaxes in an believably tense scene in which Richie finally spills the beans to the worst people to spill the beans to: Gary and Rosie. They march him down to the vet's office, where in front of his mother, Richie is forced to reveal the truth to Aishe. At that moment, Connie comes in the scene, and exposes the allegation as a lie, causing the focus of attention to shift on Richie, with claims of "freak" and "pervert" being thrown about. Richie runs home after being told by his mother that she is ashamed of him. He takes a bottle of pills. His mother comes home and saves his life, all conveyed in the most heartwrenching and effective style. If I thought that episode 5 and 7 were hard to watch, those were nothing.

Luckily, The Slap doesn't hate the viewer, and rewards them for making it through the series. We see Aishe rightfully leave Hector (only to return, but in an ambiguous way), Gary and Rosie leaving for a fresh start, Harry and his wife watching the ultrasound of their new addition, Richie apologizing to Hector, and more importantly, Richie and Connie reconciling. She takes him to a music festival, where Richie ends up enjoying his first kiss with a cute boy that's interested in him. It's a textbook example of catharsis.

It ends in a beautiful way, climaxing with the character least connected to the slap itself, but the main story has ended, multiple times. Rosie and Aishe have separated in a previous episode, Anouk has come to terms with her life, Harry might have realized the error of his ways, Manoulis comes to understand his wife and his life, etc etc etc. Structurally speaking, each episode ends in a climax and a resolution, but there is a larger story to be told. This is a drama about the suburb, about the immigrant experience in Australia, about heteronormative relationships, about secrets and lie, about social situations gone horribly wrong, and mostly, it's about the way we treat our family, the damage we cause, and the fact that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.

The Slap is a masterpiece. This is not going to be the last time I write about this. Each episode grabbed me and I held on. It's an exhausting show, but it feels emotionally real. I never felt manipulated or condescended to. Even the overly emotional sections, such as Richie's suicide attempt or Connie's attempt to seduce Hector, these never felt artificial, they felt organic, growing from the characters themselves. Each character was so fully realized by the actors. A special mention must go to Sophie Okonedo as Aishe, who absolutely fucking kills in her role. Her face is so unbelievably expressive. With just a slight change to her mouth, Okonedo is able to convey so much pain and so much misery. It's stunning. But all of the actors were great, even Connie, playing the lightest of all the characters.

I loved this show. If you haven't already guessed. Enough to contemplate reading the novel, despite my problems with the prose. I think I'm going to give it a try....

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Obasan


Naomi is a sheltered and quiet five year old Japanese Canadian, whose life is irrevocably changed when Canada institutes the War Measures Act in response to the Pearl Harbor attack. Now seen as enemy aliens, her family, among hundreds of other families, is taken to internment camps where they are separated from the rest of Canada in a misguided and frankly racist act. She is protected by the silence of her aunt, her Obasan, even years later, when Naomi revisits the trauma.

On the back of my Penguin edition paperback, Kerri Sakamoto claims that Obasan is "an internationally acclaimed, widely studied novel firmly entrenched in the Canadian literary canon." Notice that this cover blurb, and it is a blurb while unconventional, makes no mention of the novel's literary merits beyond its "entrenchment" in the canon. While this quote is out of context, and in her introduction Sakamoto remarks on the literary qualities, this shows that Obasan is heralded because it is studied. This is a novel that is more prized for being important than for being a good novel.

It is certainly a very important work of social awareness. The internment of Japanese-Canadians was not taught in my high school history classes, and I took quite a few, across a broad spectrum. In my history class that explicitly focused on the World War Two era, there was absolutely no mention of the forced segregation of Japanese-Canadians. I might remind my readers that I live in and went to school in Canada, the nation that cannot let go of its past, as manifested in its literature.

Why then is this ugly aspect of our shared history rarely mentioned? Perhaps it is shame. Perhaps it is something white Canadians would like to sweep under the carpet. This shame is preventing students from learning about this extremely important facet of our national history. To borrow from my professor, awareness of this history shatters our national mythology. To be told the truth is discomforting. Perhaps that is another reason why Obasan was not taught in my high school, in that it raises some serious questions about the cultural identity that we share and experience, questions that are inherently accusative and interrogative of the government. Because of this, Obasan should be taught in high school.

Of course, the danger in teaching a novel is that the reader will resent the text, as it is forced unwillingly on the reader. Everybody has examples from school, examples of texts they despised, if only by dint of mandatory reading. Many people have admitted to hating, say, The Grapes of Wrath, and then later re-reading it for pleasure and discovering a love for the novel. Perhaps, it is more important for readers to appreciate the historical background of Obasan than it is to enjoy it on an aesthetic level.

In four paragraphs, I have yet to mention whether or not I liked reading Obasan. By using history and social significance, I am purposefully delaying, or even, deflecting the reveal of my own opinion. Sometimes, the opinion of the individual is irrelevant. In the case of Obasan, it couldn't matter less. Obasan is an important work of art because it points the reader to a time and place of great shame. Obasan is the hand that pushes the dog's face into the mess it left behind. Obasan's strengths as an aesthetic experience are far less important than its didactic motives.

Literary importance can sometimes be synonymous with "critic-proof". Nobody in their right mind proclaims Hamlet or The Great Gatsby as a failure. Any lack of success in reading "great" or "important" texts is a failure of the reader, and not of the text. There are some texts that be universally accepted as "great" or "the best".

This is utterly false. No text is "critic-proof". Nothing can be universally accepted as "great" or "the best". Any time a text is proclaimed to be one of the best ever, there is often a measure of cultural relativism. This text might be superior in this culture but its portrayal of an experience might be so culturally specific as to be alien to another reader from a different culture. As The Great Gatsby, we move further away from its position as a great text about the Twenties. There will come a moment when the lives of Jay and Daisy seem as alien as the cast of Twelfth Night. (Of course, the counterargument to this is that certain stories or archetypes are indeed universal, and that certain experiences, techniques and modes of communication (non-verbal, musical, etc) can be appreciated by all people.)

My rejection of texts being "critic-proof" leads me to the conclusion that despite Obasan's position as important text, I must, in all good conscious, not abstain from articulating that which I did and did not like about the novel.

Firstly, there is Kogawa's background as a poet. Generally speaking, when poets turn to composing novels, there is an expectation that the prose will be "sumptuous" or "beautiful". Critics expect the poet to produce a higher quality of prose, on a sentence-by-sentence level, than the "regular" novelists. Of course, this translates to a pretension of artful language. Here is an example of Kogawa's use of the poetic language in Obasan:
Silent Mother, you do not speak or write. You do not reach through the night to enter morning, but remain in the voicelessness. From the extremity of much dying, the only sound that reaches me now is the sigh of your remembered breath, a wordless word.
My response to this is, of course, a strenuous rolling of the eyes. What in the world is a sigh of remembered breath? How is a sigh a word? There is another instance earlier in the novel where Kogawa mentions the mountain shrouded in the "weatherless mist". Obviously this is a bizarre contradiction for the sake of a nice turn of phrase. It is irritating and distracting.

Obasan is a novel of two halves that do not coalesce (despite the themes of cohesion within the greater community of Canada). There is the lavish poetic sections of dreams and overly stylized phrasing, and then the stark expository or descriptive prose. The regular prose does the heavy lifting in regards to historical context or whatnot. It is especially jarring when these two modes are close together in a chapter. Many flowery sentences would have been quickly struck through with red marker if this manuscript had been presented anonymously to a modern creative writing course. Perhaps it is unfair to judge Obasan, a thirty year old novel, by the standards of 2011. Or perhaps, as a reader, I am simply impatient with ambitions for poetry. I love a beautiful turn of phrase as much as the next critic, but I prefer, no I demand internal consistency. If there is going to be two modes of communication, they should mesh. If there is going to be poetic language, it should be internally consistent and not partake of contradictions for the sake of a nice phrase.

Despite Kogawa's pretensions to lofty prose, I am utterly enamored of the semiotics of the novel. The themes of the novel, silence and stillness, are represented in a multitude of cooperative elements and symbols. Both water and stones are repeated but all in a context of "repetition with a difference". The very first page and the last page mirror each other in structure and in symbol, but again, with a difference. At the beginning of the novel, Naomi sees a new moon. At the end, she sees a full moon. This represents her newly acquired knowledge of what actually happened to her mother when she disappeared from the internment camp. The moon has been repeated previously in the middle sections, but compared to a white stone; the novel's epigraph makes use of a Biblical passage referring to a stone. The complex tapestry of symbolism is there for the reader to provisionally disentangle, rather than empirically decipher (to borrow heavily from Barthes and Derrida). This can be regarded as Obasan's greatest aesthetic strength.

Obasan is a good novel, in spite of the burden of history being foisted upon it. Obasan, it seems, has been laden with the responsibility of being a didactic text, instead of a text that be artistically appreciated, especially if it is being taught to a group of narcissistic teenagers who no doubt would loathe to admit to enjoying such a text. Of course, this sympathy I express for Obasan is moderated by the fact that Kogawa volunteered to take on this responsibility. This is irrelevant to the dual nature of Obasan: a historiographic metafiction and a work of art to be enjoyed and appreciated.

I might take a moment to say here that "enjoy" is used in the sense of "appreciation" and "evaluation" rather than "pleasure" or "fun". Do not be mistaken, Obasan is a dour novel, full of ugly events that cannot but depress the reader. While this might impact a read "for pleasure" (how can one ever hope to have fun with Obasan?), it cannot be considered a criticism against its importance or its success as a work of art. Obasan is something you should read, rather than something you might want to read.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Sense of an Ending


On the back of the hardcover, just above in the ISBN barcode, in the tiniest font, the book helpfully tells you that this is "Literary Fiction". Not just "fiction" but "Literary". This separates The Sense of an Ending from the rest of the unwashed masses of fiction, the novels without ambition to be about things. Certainly, Julian Barnes' Booker Prize-winning novel is about things. The first paragraph announces these great big themes of time and memory, alerting the reader that this is a Great Work of Fiction about Great Themes.

While this sounds facetious or dismissive, The Sense of an Ending is a readable novel. It helps that its length is easily manageable in one or two sittings. The best compliment I can pay this novel is that at 150 pages, it certainly doesn't overstay its welcome. Its brief length should not distract from the novel's lofty ambitions of theme.

Every novel should aspire to be something other than a ripping good yarn. This is particularly a factor in what differentiates a novel from a story: it does something new. The Sense of an Ending has great aspirations for telling a story about memory, ageing, and history wrapped up in a man's self-centered and average life. Tony Webster, the protagonist, pontificates endlessly about his own history, repeating the compulsion to pick over memories ad infinitum. Memories come to light after being forgotten for forty years, and then eventually, new history comes to light, changing how he perceives everything.

One can see that The Sense of an Ending wants to be a big novel packaged into a shorter more accessible work. It is the novel's compulsion to be literary that makes this story seem less. If there was ever a novel that felt like pure artifice, here it is. The reader can feel Barnes hovering over every sentence, filling it to the brim with meaning and symbolism, until the rather short novel topples over from the author's ambitions to be taken seriously. There is just so much material in this novel that pertains to the classical goals of high art that the story positively suffocates.

Anytime the story threatens to get interesting, Tony/Barnes derails it with long paragraphs about the fickleness of memory, or aphoristic language about old age. This is a novel where each sentence is designed to be the epigraph in another novel. This is not a compliment.

It might appear that I disliked, or even hated, the novel. Far from it. I enjoyed it for what it was, which was a rather simple and cleverly structured novel about history and memory and where the two should meet (again, another theme announced constantly with aphorisms). What prevented me from thoroughly appreciating the novel was the author's unsteady and forced hand, a presence wholly unwelcome. The story, characters, and theme should have done all the work, rather than the author or his arsenal of aphorisms.

Friday, November 18, 2011

English 4000 - Britain on India

In this honours seminar, we will be examining the British perception of India, what they called the jewel of the crown. When India became a colony, Britain had extremely high hopes that they could colonize, govern, civilize and industrialize what they found to be a rather "backwards" country. However, India, just like all nations, is fractious, complex, and has deep history. The colonization of India had an immense effect on the culture of Britain, from fashion to art to literature. In this course, we shall examine works of literature written by the British on the subject of India. The course will be split into two halves: the first term will focus on novels written during colonization, with one written after, but set chronologically first, and the second half will look exclusively at Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, a large and complex work about the end of the British Raj that rewrites Forster's A Passage to India.

First term
Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows Taylor
"The Man Who Would Be King" by Rudyard Kipling
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
A Passage to India by E M Forster
The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell

Second term
The Jewel of the Crown
The Day of the Scorpion
The Towers of Silence
A Division of the Spoils
Staying On (time permitting)

In the first term, select films will be screened. Student attendance is mandatory for screenings.
Gandhi. Dir Richard Attenborough. 1982.
The Deceivers. Dir Nicholas Meyers. 1988.

Certain articles will be on e-reserve and in hard copy at the library. Students are responsible for their own copies of the articles.

Assignments:
Close Reading 1 (750 words) - 10%
Term Essay 1 (1500-2000 words) - 15%
Close Reading 2 (750 words) - 10%
Term Essay 2 (2000-2500 words) - 25%
Participation and attendance - 10%
Final Exam - 30%

[This is the second in a series of hypothetical syllabuses that I have created for when I eventually teach.]

Downton Abbey Series 2


There's going to be a special place in my heart for Downton Abbey for a long time. On the day that my long time girlfriend broke up with me, I had to work a night shift. Usually, on these particular evenings, I chose to read, play computer chess, and waste time on the Internet. This night, I was in the middle of Alias Grace, but I just couldn't read. I couldn't concentrate. So I started watching Downton Abbey. I watched the entire first series that night. The theme music now makes me think of that night, and how a simple costume drama, a soap opera, could distract me enough for a night, instead of facing a reality of being dumped (only hours before having to go to work - that doesn't seem fair, does it?).

Now a year later, the second series has aired, and in typical fashion, I waited until the series had completely aired, and then watched eight hours of indulgent period drama over the course of two nights, staying up until four a.m. the first night. There's something complimentary to said about Downton Abbey's addictive properties, the viewer's utter compulsion to return to the country estate and home to some of the most distasteful plot contrivances ever put to screen.

While I neurotically watched the entire thing, drooling over Lady Mary's exquisite beauty and Carson's booming voice, after the show had ended in its predictably cliffhanger way, I kept returning to how irritated I was with the path the plot took.

Really, there are only two interesting things that happened in Downton Abbey: Sybil decides to bash off to Dublin with the chauffeur, and the First World War gingerly touches the house. The Great War only takes away one character for good, and when it threatens to put Cousin Matthew in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, the show mercifully and conveniently returns the use of his legs. After all, he's meant to continue a "will they or won't they" relationship with Mary apparently until the end of the stupid show. Any time the plot moved for these two characters, it was simply a bait and switch - they get closer to admitting their feelings - no wait, let's take his legs.

It's this stick and carrot approach that grows increasingly irritating with the other plots running through the show. Specifically Bates and Anna. Did anyone care about their plot line? If the artifice of the show was apparent with Matthew and Mary, Bates and Anna are the ship's foghorn in the viewer's face. Anna tells Bates that she'll stick by him through anything - immediately cue the twist that Bates' wife is going to come between them.

The lesson in Downton Abbey is to keep your mouth shut and to simply do your work. Anytime you deviate from the norm, such as speak aloud your feelings, the plot rewards you with hardship and heartbreak. No character remains unscathed in the show if only because none of them mind their own goddamn business. Constantly, a character will be pining away or looking sad, and another character will demand they inform them of the matter. "What's the matter" is the most repeated phrase of the entire series, followed closely by the house's name, which is repeated incessantly, perhaps reminding the American viewers of the show that doesn't seem to star anybody famous.

If the primary moral is to maintain silence, then the second one is to remember your place. Downton Abbey's politics seems to codify and rationalize a dead way of life. Only in times of great recession would a television network have the audacity to air an opulent series about a grand traditional aristocratic family doted upon by an army of servants who are constantly being reminded of their station. Even Carson, my beloved booming voice, tells the audience that he hoped the die in Downton Abbey. Truly, his greatest ambition is to serve all his days. Downton Abbey is at pains to remind the staff that their proper place is under service of great benevolent and altruistic people such as the Crawleys. No matter how poorly they behave, Lord Grantham sagely pats them on the head and forgives them. No matter what Bates might have done, Grantham treats him as an equal. There could be no more benevolent families out there, and the show is at pains to convey the dying way of life. The characters mention incessantly that the war is changing everything, and Downton Abbey must remain relevant in this new world, thereby giving justification for the continuing nonessential existence of the aristocratic family. Lady Grantham attempts to justify her decadent lifestyle by arguing that her house produces employment, the hoary canard of the bourgeoisie, if I've ever heard it.

The politics are distasteful, but so is the breakneck pace. It's understandable that the series wants to move through time quickly, but there's something to be said for letting the scenes breathe. For every plot twist, the scene changes rapidly, robbing the viewer of the emotional consequences of the scene itself. When Bates' wife turns out to be dead, there's not a single moment where Bates reflects on the death of his wife, save for Lord Grantham making a cold and callous observation - no doubt intended to mirror Bates' own thoughts. But if Downton Abbey has the aristocratic rich people tell the audience of the servants' emotions, then they are robbing those servants of their voice, thereby asserting superiority over them in all fashion. Like I say, distasteful.

I plan to give the Christmas Special a try, but if the quality dips further than the second series, that will be the last time I watch it, save for reruns of the excellent first series. It's a shame the show became a parody of itself so quickly, but that's how TV shows go from now on, it seems.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dark Gods - Part Two of Two


"Black Man With Horn"

There comes a time when a pastiche or a parody meets plagiarism, when the new item borrows so heavily from the old that it cannot be said to be original. This story is so obviously Lovecraftian, that it uses quotes from the famed author's journals, and is somewhat directed to Howard himself.

The narrator, an aging author of fantastic tales in the spirit of Lovecraft (which is commented upon, naturally), finds himself drawn into a languorous Lovecraftian story of ancient tribes of foreign people who got up to nasty business and had some sort of privileged position in conversation with matters beyond human reckoning. He meets a former missionary on a plane, who tells him of a long lost tribe, stumbled upon, who made his team disappear, all with ominous tones. The missionary claims to be on the run from the tribe, who wish to silence him lest he announce their existence to the world. Of course, the named tribe is fictitious, and is even cherry-picked from a Lovecraft tale.

Just like in previous stories in this collection, as well as in the Lovecraft tradition, things do not end like one expects. There is no confrontation with the beast. There is no showdown or climax to speak of. Rather, the horror comes from the narrator finally understanding the vast and unfathomable horror at the heart of the story, the horror that the reader is already prepared for.

"Black Man With Horn" fails because of the metafiction. The reader is familiar with Lovecraft; therefore the end cannot be a surprise. All of the "beats" that the story hits are ones previously used by Lovecraft himself. This is where the aforementioned criticism of plagiarism comes into play. There is nothing new in "Black Man With Horn" except for one clever part where the narrator sees a John Coltrane album cover featuring the man and his horn, and the narrator immediately makes the very racist comparison between the eponymous man and the jazz legend.

If the racial politics of the other two stories were superficial and excusable, this story left me uncomfortable. A leering grinning black youth mischievously shadows a nice white family of tourists. A silent black man works as a porter. A couple of "half-naked" youths loiter on the steps near the narrator's apartment. The narrator is told explicitly that due to the increase in black people, his neighbourhood is inherently unsafe. This story makes it increasingly hard to forgive the racism as a knowing and ironic reference to Lovecraft, a notorious bigot.

Other than the structural faults and xenophobic tones, the story is boring. Nothing substantial happens until the very end, at which time the narrator explicitly reminds us that in real life, there are no neat endings or even endings at all. Then the last few paragraphs hit the reader with the horror, hoping to shock them. It only sort of works. I suppose that any success the story might have with me is because of my enthusiasm for Lovecraftian horror and for the goodwill generated by the two previous stories. This is easily the weakest of the three that I've read so far.


"Nadelman's God"

On a whim, Nadelman and his future wife go to the open house party at an S&M club in New York. This is what they encounter when they arrive.
...nearly all the customers were men. Most of them appeared to be out-of-town businessmen in search of pickups or simply someone to talk to, or perhaps just a good story to bring back to St. Paul. In the dim light they looked lost and faintly embarrassed. There were only a half a dozen women in the room, including a homely girl with a flat, pock-marked face who strolled among the drinkers in nothing but black panties, a somewhat dazed smile, and a pair of heavy chains fastened in an X across her sad, sagging little breasts.
This is absolutely gorgeous description, conveying the sadness and the feeling of things being forced.

This story is more of a character piece than simply a horror story. It's also the longest story in the collection, taking its sweet time in explaining the personal history of the main character. With the tone of authors such as Richard Ford, Klein sketches out the meek small life of Nadelman: his advertising job, his too-nice wife, his blank slate of a son, his cliched affair on the other side of the city. He used to have ambition; he published a long poem in his college's newspaper, detailing the existence of a god, rival to Yahweh. This new god is one of mischief and injustice, taking pleasure in torturing humanity.

If the other stories in this collection present a worldview of fatalism, then this story attempts to explicate how this ideology could be born within a normal man. As a child then teen, Nadelman was confronted with the injustice and lack of logic in the world. Why did bad things happen to good people? Using twisted logic, Nadelman justifies the meaningless deaths in the world as the victims deserving their fate for whatever slight he can imagine. Reaching his late teens, early twenties, he re-positions the blame on the inherent lack of God in the world, rather than the insanity of God. The poem he eventually writes, made up of scribblings from his childhood and fragments of dreams, coalesces and refines the idea of a rival god, one who is playing a cosmic joke.

The thrust of the story is that some rock band finds the poem, uses it as lyrics to a turgid adolescent attempt at occultism, and some looney in Long Island thinks it's a recipe for conjuring up a god. The story details all sorts of creepy coincidences and spooky happenings, all with cold detached lyricism. Eventually, the story ends just as the others do: with the implication rather than the reveal.

"Nadelman's God" might be the most obfuscating and obtuse of all four stories. The "god" is kept at arm's length - no, kept in another borough of a gigantic city, and is never ever detailed in any satisfactory way. It's not even clear whether the god is a product of Nadelman or that Nadelman simply had some sort of epiphany at a young age, a moment where he discerned the truth. Both of these options are handled equally. Nadelman is positioned as a skeptic, thinking that people who claim to know the real truth often know less than the supposedly ignorant people, which is ironic if Nadelman did indeed have insight in the vast workings of the cosmos. However, there is a parallel made between Yahweh creating this rival god and Nadelman as an author. The concept of Nadelman as a creator, and "author" as "god" is implied as well. Each possibility for the rival god is touched on with equal weight, making an ultimate theory seemingly impossible. This is, of course, to the story's credit.

While I liked this story, and can probably appreciate its Lovecraftian elements as the superior pastiche out of all of them, I felt it to be a rather cold and sparse story. When so much narrative time is spent on developing the (in)humanity of the main character, then the horror elements are left somewhat unformed or malnourished, to borrow a metaphor from the book. I still rather enjoyed the story, but it's certainly not the most engaging. It's too cerebral and theological to be effective or scary. It does exemplify the author's style perfectly, encapsulating all of the themes and tricks, as if the previous three stories were warm-ups for this grand finale.

All this book has done has stoked the fires of anticipation for Klein's sole novel, The Ceremonies. Although, overall I still really liked this collection. After all, I ended up writing over 2,000 words on a 260 page short story collection.

[This is the second of two posts reviewing T. E. D. Klein's collection of long stories called Dark Gods]

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dark Gods - Part One of Two


"Children of the Kingdom"

I suppose that it is rather fitting, considering the author's academic background in Lovecraft, that the overall tone of this longer story is of racial paranoia. Set in New York City in 1977, the first person narrator, presumably T. E. D. Klein himself as he is referred to as Mr Klein, details helping his infirm but jovial grandfather into a resting home in Brooklyn, in a neighbourhood that's not quite gentrified and not quite a jungle. "Children of the Kingdom" while superficially a horror story, is more of a social document of a singular place in a singular time. The elderly white occupants of the resting home express fear and distrust of the blacks that seem to have them surrounded. The narrator offers many bits and pieces from newspapers and from senior citizens of the racial violence and creeping atmosphere.

It's inevitable that this simmering violence comes to a boil when the power goes out, during the famous blackout of 1977. People engage in looting, rioting, and fighting all the while the narrator and his wife are separated, which ends in a way not expected.

As a long story, Klein takes the time to develop the cast, the narrator, his grandfather, and his new friend, a Costa Rican priest who harbours some bizarre theories on the origin of man. In scenes delicately written without the onslaught of exposition, the priest explains to the narrator that he believes that man came from Costa Rica and that they eventually migrated due to the violence of another group of people. "Another tribe?" the narrator asks. The priest explains that they are God's mistake, the original children who didn't quite look like God. They attacked the prehistoric men, but were cursed by God, unable to procreate amongst themselves, so the cursed men rape the prehistoric women.

One can already feel Lovecraft's influence on this story: an ancient alternate history, the fear of miscegenation, and the slow building of details. However, Klein is not writing an homage or a pastiche. Using a mixture of character development and a subtle integration of background material, the reader is able to put together the horror at the heart of the story.

It doesn't climax with gore or with an epic showdown. No, it climaxes in a heartbreaking and rather transgressive manner, frustrating no doubt many readers who prefer their endings nice and neat. It's a slow burn of a story, but it works thanks to Klein's synthesis of Lovecraftian horror and a very careful social eye. There's an obvious parallel being made between differing neighbourhoods of New York, being made between white people and black people, and even being made between the old and the young. The structure of the story allows such interpretation. However, the racial politics in this story are quite distasteful for a modern reader. The implication that the blacks of the city are primitive and prehistoric and uncivilized is souring, but not fatally so. Other than this questionable view of race (which might simply be a knowing and ironic reference to Lovecraft), "Children of the Kingdom" is a successful and unnerving horror story, worthy of the master himself.

"Petey"

Some of the most effective stories in horror fiction use implication rather than description. The details in the margins accumulate, allowing the reader to put together an image of horror that scares better in their imagination than if the author had simply announced it and dumped it on the page. "Petey" works only because of the margins.

Using the narrative device of a cocktail party celebrating the homeowners' recent purchase of a stately rural mansion, Klein colours the edges of the house and of the story with odd little scraps that eventually build up in suspense and in terror.

This isn't entirely successful however. Klein has thirty named characters in a story of just over 50 pages. The benefit of this is that there is no shortage of people talking, non-stop talking, but the downside is that at least two thirds of these named character are entirely superfluous. "Petey" is reminiscent of William Gaddis' approach to dialogue; Klein piles on the speech and conversation, using little descriptive language until characters are isolated.

The other part that just doesn't quite work is the story's interest in the Tarot, specifically in the second half of the story. As a device, it works to stall and provide suspense. Details emerge, and the horror begins to take shape, but Klein slows the reveal by having the party people play with Tarot cards, all with heavy symbolic undertones, of course. While the suspense works, the use of the Tarot cards are clumsy and kind of childish. They've become a bit of a cliche, and it doesn't help that the omniscient narrator of the story mentions that Tarot decks are the product of charlatans, no doubt attempting a parallel with Klein himself.

These two missteps do not ruin the story, especially the extremely effective ending. One is reminded of Stephen King's ending to Pet Semetary, in which the most horrific and shocking moment comes in the last paragraph of the novel, leaving the reader desperate to know what happens next, but terrified at the implications of what may have occurred. The same happens here. Using 50 odd pages to build up the threat, Klein simply lets it happen in the final paragraph, leaving so many questions and so many implications that the reader is forced to imagine their own ending, which as aforementioned, is far scarier than anything the author could dump onto the page.

If the success of horror is through the accumulation of marginal details, then surely "Petey" is utterly accomplished. Instead of throwing the kitchen sink at you (Clive Barker), Klein invests in one situation, one horror and lets it creep up on you, rather than forcing it down your throat.

[This is the first of two posts reviewing T. E. D. Klein's collection of longer stories Dark Gods]

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Edesia helps distribute this food all over third world countries where millions of people have little access to clean water or basic food. Famine is a huge problem in the world. This morning, I donated 20 USD to Edesia. 20 bucks is nothing, really. Instead of going to Subway or buying some candy, I thought I could provide people with some food. Somebody other than myself. In North America, obesity is a huge problem, often combined with malnutrition, in the fact that the food we eat is of low quality. At least we are able to eat. While I weighed 240 pounds in January, a little boy was 7 pounds and became the face of global starvation. Thanks to Edesia, that child now weighs 18 pounds and is relatively healthy. But millions upon millions still starve everyday.

Feel free to donate what you can. Whatever you can.

Edesia Global Nutrition Solutions