Trail of Lightning is the first book in Roanhorse’s Sixth World series, and I will read more as they appear. Roanhorse is Native American and re-envisions the border between the supernatural and natural worlds in a fascinating way, and I had trouble putting it down. Thoughts:
- The climate apocalypse has happened (it’s called the “Big Water”), and the Dine nation has survived, even if barely. There are no direct descriptions, but the fact that the Navajo live in the high desert was probably a distinct advantage.
- The protagonist is Maggie Hoskins, and I liked her as much for her attempts to deal with the damage she has suffered as for her ability to deal damage. Her damage comes from her identity – she’s not Harry Potter, with his orphan status both oppressing him and providing him the means to take on the oppressor, nor is she Buffy (although her kickassery and her sarcasm brought her to mind several times) with her culturally accepted blonde good looks providing the platform from which she shows that young women can be bad asses.
- Instead, Hoskins has to deal with what’s left of the natural world that has been the Dine’s ancestral home, what that’s done to her people (who seem to have been splintered and who have built a huge wall for protection), and the ways that her people’s pantheon has suddenly become flesh (of a sort).
- And these hits damage her in ways that affect how she interacts with her fellow humans (and superhumans). She’s a killer by clan, and that identity is not some cool sort of ninja or assassin thing but instead something that she to come to grips with in a way that allows her to return to her community.
- In initially finding this series I read a review by Katharine Coldiron on Medium, and her description of Roanhorse’s “generosity” as a Native American writer felt particularly compelling. Roanhorse does just enough explaining of her culture to allow me to feel the I had at least begun to understand the rudiments of her culture in ways that she doesn’t owe me as a straight white guy.
- I do however know a little bit about the area she’s from, and her descriptions kept evoking it in ways that felt almost painful. That region is simultaneously painstakingly desolate and beautiful and fragile and unforgiving; Trail of Lightning used all of those characteristics in creating this world.
Social realism, as I tend to think of it, has been under challenge since I think Dreiser published Sister Carrie in 1900, but there are challenges and then there are challenges, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) is one of those. Texts that try to represent lived experience in a way that makes it meaningful have always felt to me like the most powerful reads – even as my head fills with scifi and fantasy – and I still occasionally jones for Zola as well as Dreiser and his comrades from the US like Steinbeck and Dos Passos.
Perhaps the link to those texts is that they are all produced by men, and tend to try to chart grand social movements by looking intimately at the lives of people caught in struggles to survive these crushing social forces. Even Bukowski, I think, does this – despite the textual evidence, perhaps, I want to believe that Bukowski is trying to show someone who lives intentionally on the margins, making what can be seen as a grand social statement of refusal and (non) denial.
Along comes Moshfegh, then, and boom go my expectations. Thoughts below:
- The narrator spends a year trying to just sleep (hibernate, I guess). She’s had some trauma, and had genuinely unloving parents, but she doesn’t use them as excuses – she simply wants to re-calibrate her own origins, make herself into as much of a blank slate as she can.
- She’s an anti-hero, I guess, in that she is about as unlikeable as is possible. She’s got model beauty, and she uses that beauty in the worst imaginable ways; she comes from wealth, and she doesn’t necessarily flaunt it but makes very clear that she doesn’t want to deal with anyone much below her own social class except perfunctorily; and she lives in NYC and never goes out to do anything.
- Herein lies where Moshfegh blows through one of the expectations of social realism, I think, as there is no socially redeeming value to this narrator at all.
- She treats her one friend ridiculously badly. She finds the craziest, most corrupt psychiatrist possible, and lies repeatedly to get more drugs. She uses those drugs to hibernate, constantly popping a whole cornucopia of pharmaceuticals to completely escape responsibilities of any sort. There are no paeans to the bar as a scene of social refuge from the horrors of the contemporary world, and her apartment becomes a literal prison as she tries to hibernate, so we can’t imagine the home space as some sort of sanctuary.
- Even work, where Moshfegh could perhaps attempt to leaven some type of social critique, is a place that only matches her own disconnect. She works briefly at an art gallery as the receptionist/greeter, a job that she finally loses despite her beauty and perfect assholish attitude by sleeping every day on the job. She leaves after taking a shit in the middle of an art work.
- The art world is not seen through a pretty lens here either, thanks to the narrator. The artistic creations that sell lots of money are facile, accidental, and show no connection to the conversation about art that they should be a part of. We can’t find a refuge in the great art works of the past, though, as even visits to the Met make art look bad.
- This is all seen through the eyes of the narrator, which makes me find either her or art (or maybe both) disturbing, immoral, and exploitative.
- I’m not sure what Moshfegh’s ultimate point is, of course. I know that I read through this way too quickly – although I found her language so powerful that I worked hard not to skim because I didn’t want to miss any of her fascinating phrasing – and I’m not necessarily proud of myself for getting caught in the narrative flow.
- There are no redeeming social critiques (or even hints thereof), so the empathetic joy that I sometimes feel when seeing that I’m not alone in my world view could not have been my reasoning, and I was fairly certain that Moshfegh would let none of us off the hook with some sort of high-faluting’ redemption.
- The narrator obsessively watches all the worst films of the 80s, repeatedly, on her VCR, so I wasn’t looking for name-drops of cool pop culture, like maybe Brett Easton Ellis or Thomas McInerny would have given us.
- My guess is that the dream of anesthetization and the mostly horrible people she meets made me keep reading? I’m really not sure…
- SPOILERS LURK AFTER THIS BULLET.
- Throughout, I was worried that Mossfegh would eventually try to make this character redeeming. Part of the problem with the film version of Barfly (and maybe even the novel, which I read a while ago) is that Mickey Rourke makes the protagonist sort of likeable and maybe even charming, and that charm somewhat serves to redeem him.
- No fears of that here – just when it seems like her final plan – one that involves an artist whom she pretty much hates and four months of constant blackouts, punctuated every three days by food, nominal exercise, and water – has sort of made her appreciate the world a bit more, she ends the novel by imagining her best friend having to leap from the burning Twin Towers, caught there on 9/11.
I picked up Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities in order to prepare for a class I’m teaching next spring, and I was impressed by both the story-telling and the research. Thoughts below:
- Broughton does an interesting take on the reasons-the-rust-belt-died narrative – he goes between Galesburg, Illinois (home of a Maytag plant that loses out to Mexico after NAFTA) and the Mexican border cities in which the appliances are now made. He goes deep, plunging into the lives of several people on both sides of the border.
- On both sides of the border working people are the ones hit the hardest. The Maytag plant was renowned for turning out high quality appliances for years, and after some of the friendliest CEO leadership (at least in regards to workers) suffered through the invasion of the accountants and stockholders that sunk a lot of US companies in the 80s and 90s.
- On the Mexican side Broughton interviews labor leaders, priests, and some business leaders in trying to understand the free trade corridor from the Mexican side.
- His book makes several arguments, which he notes in his “Methodologies” section. He argues that he is most concerned with what happened to the people who worked in the plants – he’s not as concerned with engineers or board members, and he spends almost no time with the Mexicans who made a lot of money on their side of the border.
- He argues that these companies never had to move, that if management was not hell-bent on maximizing cost reductions they could have been run profitably from the US side.
- He also argues that the infrastructure costs on the Mexican side made the maquilodoro boom good for a narrow elite.
- Finally, the book makes an argument for the run on inequality that affects both sides now. I’m also reading Piketty’s Capital, and the combination of the two are making a bit leery of seeing any progress towards reducing that inequality. Rational arguments don’t seem to have much bite. As usual, I’ll take progress where we make it, and I will continue to find solace in the ways in which common people just continue to live their (and our) lives despite the insane roadblocks that their fellow humans put in their way…
We saw Suspiria (2018) last night, and of course I have thoughts…be wary, as SPOILERS ABOUND in this blog post. Sorry.
- I’ve been told that I’ve seen the original, but I don’t recall it. I was also reminded that I might or might not have been under the influence of sophisticated adult beverages at the time. This fact might contribute to my memory lapse.
- This one was clearly in conversation with all kinds of texts, and some of the conversations are pretty interesting…
- The film name-drops Lacan (a young man tells the psychiatrist that he’s going to see a lecture by Lacan), and it focuses clearly on books by Jung and Irigary. We also see the psychiatrist write “SIMULACRUM” in his/her notes.
- These textual references hint at the different levels that the film works at, both in terms of genre and film history.
- So, it also invokes primal forces, but I think that it sort of takes seriously the forces of patriarchal oppression that bludgeoned earth cults and the worshippers to whom that religious explanation gave power.
- If, of course, you’re a fan of the idea that religions evolve in ways that that are also in conversation with each other.
- The Lacan reference reminds me of Lacan’s search for the cultural body mechanism that helps us recognize ourselves in the mirror.
- Part of the suspense comes from the fact that we in the audience recognize Suzy’s power long before the coven does, partially I think because we see the power of her bodily movements in ways that they cannot (although Madame Blanc tries from the beginning to understand them).
- The fact that this film features dance – the art requiring the most physicality from its audience, I think – makes sense.
- It’s in serious conversation with the films of the seventies, especially horror films that did not have access to current technical tricks and had to rely on lurid colors and speeded up and odd angle camera shots and quick, jarring, irrational jump cuts.
- I think it also speaks to the melodramas of the fifties, particularly Douglas Sirk’s films, with the lurid colors offset by the unrelenting drab and rain and snow of punk rock Berlin.
- It ends differently from the original film in that the new primal forces do not directly replace the old primal forces.
- My guess is that the film’s logic requires the old coven to die off (they forcefully remind their audiences both in the film and without that they survived the Nazis), but male powers are not to replace them – we see ample evidence of the clusterfuck that is the male world with the references to a hostage crisis featuring Palestinian terrorists and a hijacked plane and the attempt to exchange hostages for Baader-Meinhoff terrorists.