So much to read, and so little time – I finally got to Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000), and I wish I’d read it earlier…
- Part of the reason that I wish I had read this earlier is because I’m now wondering what some of the mainstream fantasy writers – Martin in particular – are/were reading, and if they’ve read this. Martin’s efforts to locate ASOIAF outside of Europe (and England) might be spurred by someone like Hopkinson.
- As for the text itself, MR blends Caribbean folk tales with sci-fi in ways that even as I think back on the reading felt both dislocating (in the best possible way) and intensely familiar. She moves the diaspora to the stars, and in doing so somehow manages in one novel to discuss race, colonialism, labor, our relationship with the natural world, and the impetus behind technological development. Yep, sci-fi ftw!
- She is also not afraid to tackle big subjects. The protagonist, Tan-Tan (who becomes the Midnight Robber, a thief in the tradition of Robin Hood and I’m sure a Caribbean antecedent that I’m too dumb to know about) is raped repeatedly by her father, at the ages of fifteen and sixteen. Hopkinson allows us see Tan-Tan’s thoughts as she struggles with her feelings for her father and her feelings for the baby who is the result of these rapes. Part of what drives her is a desire for justice for other people, and the Midnight Robber becomes far more than someone who steals from the rich and gives to the poor – she rights social wrongs at a micro-level, and those wrongs including bullying and an unequal distribution of resources within individual communities.
- The implications of technology invoked here are Feenbergian. This novel is sci-fi – it happens on other planets, and includes a nanny state AI that essentially keeps order (infants are given an implant that grows connections in the brain that make it part of the adult’s anatomy) and gravity wells to other planets. But like sci-fi that matters (fuck you Star Wars!) it looks intensely at what our relationship with technology means to our daily lives *and* our larger relationships, looking for places where we can reconfigure that relationship.
- It doesn’t do so however in a global, interplanetary war sort of way. Tan-Tan wants to save the world, but as the Midnight Robber she doesn’t involve herself in ideological conflicts – she does what she thinks is right, and even though she makes some mistakes along the way she constantly looks for places where she can make daily life more humane and less degrading, including ways to keep human in the face of our technology.
- The idea that technology degrades us is sorta hipppiesh, but my guess is that Hopkinson has enough trippiness in her that she wouldn’t turn away from that…
- Finally, I wish Hopkinson had delved more into the labor issues that she raises. There is a sub-culture on Tan-Tan’s home world that rejects the AI and chooses to do labor (that labor takes the main form of operating pedicabs, which are taken by the rich as a signifier of status). The sub-culture fits into the plot of the novel (barely), but its possibilities in a tech-rich world are pretty interesting.
- The need for physical labor as an essential quality of what it means to be human is invoked in the world that Tan-Tan and her father flee to, but its presence in that world is strictly by necessity. Perhaps her other novels (which are now on my must-read list) will take on these issues…
This seems to be a film review morning…
We watched The Haunting of Hill House, a new Netflix series. Here are my thoughts:
- I’ve talked to folks who didn’t find Shirley Jackson’s novel scary. I did, and I thought it was particularly effective because it never clearly told us what action occurred in the characters’ minds and what actions the house itself actually did.
- I think that the teevee series does the same, at least until the end.
- The reconfiguring of the Crains’ interest in the house was a particularly adroit move on the series creator’s part. The old-time Boston Brahmin feel of the house – and the way that feel invokes the Victorian Gothics – especially in that period’s American Gothic forms – made me think about the links between the Old and New Worlds that those texts interrogated.
- One of the appeals of this genre to me is watching the ways in which those who survived and thrived on the American continents attempt to reconcile everything they love and hate about the New World with what they loved and hated about the Old. Shutting themselves up in these spaces that are both full of cheap attempts to recreate classic European art – paintings and sculpture mostly, but architecture as well – *and* ways to show their own financial success directly contrasted with indigenous peoples’ ways of life, and the psychological stresses are clearly powerful (and hallucination-inducing, perhaps).
- This series updates that with its version of the Crains. The parents are a couple making their way by flipping houses, and this is clearly the biggest risk they have taken, the culmination of their success at building wealth by restoring the not-so-recently departed architectural past. Their obsession with thinking of houses in terms of getting rich (and not without a ton of hard work) is a beautiful twist on the US’s Puritan heritage.
- Each of the kids is invested in their own impressions of the house, and we’re never sure (until the very end) exactly what the house is, with one exception: it serves as a locus in which space and time are bent. Characters routinely see into the future and the past. The mechanisms of this are of course never explained, but if I continue thinking about this house from the perspective of the intersection of the New and Old worlds, then the Hills – with their New World-derived (and thus tainted) wealth – have paid the price for climbing past their proper social class.
- The series also works on our own culturally-produced ideas about sensitivity to the paranormal, and our obsession with understanding reality in terms of linearity and rationality. This series makes the argument that sometimes what we see simply doesn’t make sense, and we construct a whole series of ways to rethink what we see so we can place it neatly into a linear narrative that we understand.
- Or, in contrast, it fits itself into our desire to make the material world more than it seems. We want to believe that there’s more, and this series might simply fit that narrative instead.
- Finally, the use of a house as a symbol of the attainment of the American dream, and beyond, as houses signify wealth and status and also provide new money Americans with an opportunity to show just how refined (or unrefined) they are.
I’ve waited to blog on this film, because, well, it’s von Trier, which means that usually after watching one of his films I want to curl up in a fetal position for a few hours and sob, quietly, to myself. If you’re wondering about that, I’d say check out Melancholia and Dancer in the Dark, films that for von Trier are relatively accessible, and tell me if you don’t feel the same way.
That was not the case with this one, and I’m not exactly sure why. Thoughts below:
- So, Jack builds a house. Or tries, several times. He’s a talented architect who also happens to be a serial killer with zero empathy for his fellow humans (or animals, for that matter). We saw the director’s cut, but I can’t imagine how the theatrical release is different, since this film felt like it very little wasted space.
- It’s also a film that speaks to a lot of different texts, and serves as a meditation, and asks us to imagine how we’re culpable in atrocities, and asks us why we are silent, and argues that pretending that the presence of art makes us transcend our physical, animal hard wiring, and asks us to think about the big concepts of religion (heaven and hell, physical and spiritual), and, well, I’m sure you get it…
- One short blog post clearly is not going to suffice for an examination of it…
- What stuck with me the most, perhaps, is Jack’s descent into ever-increasing layers of horrific behavior. At every point along the way he invites us (through both his actions, his reflections on those actions, and the conversation he has with his own personal Virgil as von Trier makes his not-very-subtle point) to step away, pretty much telling us that the next thing he will do will be even more terrible than the last. von Trier’s point is that only rare individuals among us actually do step away, and sometimes we even try to call that impulse (to observe the horrific spectacle) art.
- Jack, throughout, is both oblivious to the pain and terror he causes *and* willing to call us, the audience, out on our own depravity. His actions are pretty open for a serial killer, and von Trier even plays them for comedy, with a Benny Hill-like speeded-up camera that observes Jack carry a body up and down the stairs of an apartment building, or has Jack encourage his victim to scream (and he even screams himself), knowing that no one will help them.
- Every time I thought okay, that’s as nasty as we can get, von Trier made sure to take us one step further…by the end of the film Jack is deliberately recreating Nazi execution methods, even while the police finally start breaking down the door of his horror chamber. They, of course, are only there because Jack has left a stolen police car, with the siren running, immediately outside his lair.
- I haven’t spoken about his horror chamber, but von Trier makes clear that Jack has no qualms about evidence of his crimes piling up. Jack isn’t a member of a crime family, trying to get rid of evidence. Instead, he builds a small house that consists solely of the corpses of those he has killed.
- And that house covers the entrance to hell, an entrance that Jack’s own Virgil leads him through.
- In this film von Trier is ridiculously not subtle, especially in the context of all of his other films, which are often subtle to the point of obtuseness. As odd as this seems, I wonder if this is von Trier commenting on the rising tide of anti-empathy that has engulfed the US with the rise of Trump, various South American countries like Venezuela, and of course most of western and central Europe.
- And the fact that Jack never gets made to answer for his crimes (with the eventual fact that the criminal gets his deserved fate, thus justifying our own bloodlust in watching these films in the first place) is simply yet another way that von Trier sees us as inculcated in all of the atrocities committed in art as well as in reality.
- Early in the film Jack’s internal monologue invokes the idea of catharsis (I think) as a justification for our own fascination with bloody and horrific spectacles. Jack for his part doesn’t buy this theory – he speaks in much more fundamental terms of heaven and hell, first principles that don’t allow us to use art as an insulating layer that keeps us from acknowledging our own depravity.
- von Trier can take this approach (I think of this film as a meditation and reflection, on both his own complicity and ours) *because* his career has been built on his willingness to push all kinds of edges, in both craft and theme. His films comment relentlessly on these borders, and he has constantly toyed with what it means to be an artist (or to be called one), so he has earned this right.
- I actually felt sort of exhilarated at the end, and I’m not sure I’m all that happy about my own immediate reaction.
I just finished re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) for a class I’m teaching this spring. When I read it the first time I hadn’t read any of Atwood’s other novels – esp. the MadAddam series – and the explosion of dystopias hadn’t yet happened, so the experience was definitely different this time. My copy (Anchor House 1998) even includes an interview with Atwood in which she explains what a dystopia is. I’m guessing she wouldn’t need to do that today.
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the teevee series…
Thoughts on this reading:
- I got a better sense of Offred as a character this time. I’m guessing I read it too quickly the first time, trying to find out what happened. She’s not just dislocated from what she knows; the process of making her into a handmaid is so thorough that she only has brief hints of who she is.
- And it’s not until the Commander takes her to Jezebel’s that she truly starts to break through and take chances. The complete and utter terror that she feels (combined with guilt) was much more evident to me, as is her descent into despair (and the chances that she takes because of that).
- She also lets us know in her narration what a failure she feels like, again especially at the end of the novel.
- We don’t get a lot about the transition to the Gileadean regime. We hear about the day in which they assassinated most of the members of all three branches of government, and we hear about a constant war, but we don’t know much about that war, and it doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on daily life (except for rationing, which might be caused by the Gileadeans inability to do anything right except sow terror).
- In the academic conference lecture and q/a session that serves as the epilogue, we find out that the Canadiens were reluctant to cross the Gilead regime, out of fear. That makes me wonder if the war wasn’t something out of 1984, where we have always been at war with Eastasia.
- The degradation of the natural land has definitely been a cause, though, as we find out that fishing stocks are down and droughts are more common.
- After all, that’s why they have the handmaids – birth rates have plummeted. Even having a baby is no guarantee – lots of children are either stillborn or deformed horribly.
- And undesirables get sent to the Colonies, where some unknown environmental catastrophe has happened and prisoners are sent (without protective gear) to attempt to do a clean-up.
- And the Gileads utilized religious and racial fears to justify the takeover – there is brief mention of the threat of an Islamic takeover, and the natural resource deprivations have made people afraid, the usual story.
- This is worthy of a bigger post, but it’s especially interesting to re-read this in the context of all the dystopias that have been written (and created) recently. The Hunger Games picks up on the deliberate oppression of women in these cultures; several series continue the conversation about roles and castes; and even Atwood’s own series looks at the ways in which environmental destruction causes the type of social disruption that makes authoritarian governments (esp. those promising to get back to godliness) seem like a return to what’s normal and safe.
- Even the fact that we don’t know much about the transition is a strategy that gets pick up in future dystopias. My guess is that the general sense of we’re sorta fucked that comes with the millennial worldview has been transmitted from Atwood, whose fierceness in writing this story in the early 80s (and deliberately invoking both Brave New World and 1984, dystopias that become canonical perhaps because they feature men is only offset by her determination to speculate seriously about the future.
I’m from north-central Ohio, and now live within spitting distance of Akron, so Ohio felt frighteningly close at times. Having just read it after a re-read of The Corrections, it also felt like a much different take on the midwest. Further thoughts below:
- Football culture is a thing – even today I still love the game even though I know what it does the people who play it, and how it warps our senses of justice and manliness. Markley’s depiction of just how much football dominates Ohio high schools is spot-on.
- He also I think captures the effects of what feels like a misplaced legacy (and anger). Ohio went solidly for Trump in 2016 despite the firewall provided by minorities, and in 2018 it was one of the few states to not participate in the blue wave. Even the lone Democrat to win a state-wide race, Sherrod Brown, did so because he taps into blue-collar anger and distrust.
- The fact that that anger and distrust is directed at minorities, immigrants, and liberal politicians says as much about race as it does about the ability of the companies that moved the jobs out of the country in order to make their stockholders happy to dodge responsibility.
- That said, Markley is not necessarily writing a social realist novel (as I expected after the first chapter, and I think the reason I put the novel down the first time I picked it up). The characters who potentially have something to offer the world leave the fictional town of New Canaan, with one exception, and their returns are short, alcohol-soaked, and generally destructive either to themselves or to the town.
- The generational divide is clear, especially since none of the characters we follow are older than 28. Markley took a chance and tried different perspectives, including a rape victim who gets revenge and an adjunct professor who claims her own sexuality (and who discovered it in high school without of course being able to come out). These differences in perspective don’t necessarily make the novel less realistic, but the way that this town seems to fling its best and brightest far outside the confines of their school district borders feels like a far different kind of realism.
- And warning – this novel gets dark by the end…very very dark…not that there’s anything wrong with that.
We finished Season Two of Luke Cage a couple of weeks ago, and I’m catching up on my blogging, so here goes…
- The Netflix series is way different than the comic book. That makes sense, as they come from way different eras, and Luke Cage was originally seen as a side character in Jessica Jones.
- The cultural contexts are too easy – the comic book starts in 1972, at the beginning of the fear the city era (the Dirty Harry/Death Wish) that the sixties devolved into. Luke Cage is the righteous black man who knows right from wrong, and is willing to police his own turf.
- That establishing of borders is played upon in the Netflix series.
- It is designed to speak intentionally to Luke as a wronged man, an intellectual, one who represents a counterpoint to the black rage that was the favorite emotion displayed by characters in blaxploitation films. He never swears, and is often seen with books by folks like Ta-Nehisi Coates in his hands. As played by Mike Colter, he has a sweetness and sense of humor that are not present in the hulking uber-masculine Luke Cage of the comic books.
- The contrast of naked torso to bullet-riddled hoodie is not subtle, but the images of black masculinity that both raise are beautiful end-points to the eras.
- Luke Cage the series also happens as gentrification becomes a phenomenon that is rarely questioned, and thus his defense of the borders of Harlem becomes less a wall than a marker. Part of what Cage is doing is keeping Harlem true to its original spirit even as the forces of late capitalism threaten to turn Harlem into a theme park, and to the show’s credit it never makes that defense easy.
- It’s also exacerbated by Maria Snopes, the villain, someone who comes from a long-line of gangsters who defend Harlem’s borders (but for their own interest). She speaks to raising Harlem up, but seems to be more interested in keeping her own share of the pie.
- She’s played in a fascinating way by Alfre Woodard. I’m guessing some folks have trouble with her character, but for me the way she seems to constantly be on the verge of a panic attack is a powerful physical marker of the many competing precipices that she teeters on the edge of.
- Of all the Defender series, this one seems the least interested (other than Iron Fist, which I can’t bring myself to watch) in exploring the role of the vigilante. The other two Marvel series that we’ve watched (Daredevil as well as JJ) offered subtle, small reminders that the rest of the city was not nearly as excited about having superheroes in their midst as I guess we who are fed a constant barrage of Batmans, Captain Americas, and Supermans are. Luke Cage though intentionally celebrates the idea of a bullet-proof black man. The fact that he wears a hoodie is not an accident either – while the tough inner-city cops who he works with know and respect him, I’m guessing that the George Zimmermans of the world (afraid of teenagers) would pee their pants upon seeing him. Cage’s response would probably be a simple “Sweet Christmas” and offer them paper towels.
- There is a subtext of reparations here that I’m not sure I’ve worked through. Snopes in particular talks about what Harlem is owed, but she never identifies just what that is.
- The final lens to see this series through is probably that worn by millennials. Raised on a raft of Disney musicals and tortured superstars, more comfortable with diversity than previous generations, I am guessing that Luke Cage is the kind of superhero who makes sense. The fact that he has his own anxieties about finances, relationships, and parents who might not be as supportive as they should be fit as well.
Okay, so I’m reading backwards in Moshfegh’s catalogue, and Eileen is the next on the list. Thoughts:
- Plot-wise, this novel proceeds along a very straightforward chronology, allowing us to see into Eileen’s head as a first-person narrator.
- The odd piece chronologically is Eileen’s constant hints at what happens in the future, how she disappears, how she wishes she could reach out to folks from her past (but can’t for unspecified reasons).
- Her story is an unhappy one – loveless marriage with a dad who is essentially forced out of the police force as he becomes increasingly erratic with his drinking, early death of a not-exactly-ideal mom, younger sister who is ditches the family early…and Eileen, at the time of the story, is a twenty-four year old who works at a juvenile correction facility as an administrative assistant and who is supposed to take care of that same dad who doesn’t do much more than sit in a freezing cold house, drink, and accuse Eileen of bad behavior.
- Not that he’s all that wrong, as she doesn’t cook, clean, or take care of him beyond buying him liquor…
- Much like the narrator in Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Eileen is a pretty horrible person. From a readerly perspective, I kept expecting her to become a serial killer, or at least some sort of criminal.
- The fact that she doesn’t shows a trope that I think Moshfegh is fascinated with: the idea of what makes a monster.
- We easily, I think, obsess over what goes into the making of monsters in several genres of fiction (and non-fiction), and Moshfegh plays with that expectation. Even the hints that Eileen gives us from her future self suggest that something really bad is going to happen.
- And then it doesn’t, at least not exactly – the really bad stuff comes from someone else, and it’s a situation that we never get resolved. We could even see Eileen redeem herself, by turning in the bad person or murdering her or something. Instead, Eileen leaves that person in her car, out cold on a narcotic that Eileen gave her, while Eileen walks to a nearby bus station and starts her new life.
- Throughout we are given hints that Eileen is going to make some huge break, and when the break comes it is big but it’s not monstrous, despite where I think we were being led.
- So Eileen occupies that liminal space, the border between menace to society and zit on society’s ass, and it’s a space that shouldn’t have kept my attention as a reader.
- And yet I couldn’t stop turning the pages…
A re-read of The Corrections (2001) proved that a) my memory is definitely going and b) The Corrections is still my favorite Franzen novel. More thoughts below:
- I actually cared about the Lamberts as characters. I’m still sort of shocked by that, because so much of the contest for best novel from the U.S. these days features novels that have characters who are either so a) manic or b) despicable that caring about them is painful.
- That said, the Lamberts make caring for them not all that easy at points.
- As a reader I’ve been wondering lately why I invest so much energy into trying to guide characters into acting in ways that I want them to act – i.e., as decent humans. I run this gauntlet, for some reason – I don’t want the author to kowtow to some sort of redemption story (and thus save bad people with what almost feels like a deus ex machina ending), but I also get frustrated and sort of itchy watching these people do bad things. I’m worried about them being caricatures, and then I’m worried why I’m worried.
- I also spend find myself spending too much time trying to determine if the author is on the right side politically. That’s an irritating habit and one that I’m guessing I will constantly have to monitor.