Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Final Cylon, Revisited. Again.

I know, I said I didn't care. But then that's been the arc of my entanglement (it is by now far too long since I could call it fannishness) with Battlestar Galactica since the middle of the second season--I'm annoyed and even disgusted with the show, but I can't seem to break away.

SyFy Portal is claiming to have a reliable source about the identity of the final Cylon. They're not revealing who it is, but they have posted a list of five contenders, one of which is, to their knowledge, the real one. I have to say, I hope their carefully worded caveat that this information "could be incorrect, changed, or even part of misinformation" is more to the point than the list itself, because if any of these people turn out to be the final Cylon, I am going to be so disappointed. The revelation that any of these characters are a Cylon would undo so much of the show's character work, not to mention hobble its underlying themes of morality in times of crisis and the role of law and order in the wake of catastrophe.

When Battlestar Galactica was just getting started, its writers made much of the fact that they wanted to emphasize conflicts between different human groups over conflicts between humans and killer robots. How did we get from that point to this one, where the Cylons are not only better-developed than the humans, but where nearly every character who represents a side in those inter-human struggles has either turned out to be, or is strongly suspected of being, inhuman? Is it really too much to hope for that the final Cylon not turn out to be a character we know? Surely that device was played out at the end of the third season. As I said at the time, learning that character X is a Cylon really doesn't tell us that much about either the Cylons or X. All it does is reduce, in some indefinable way, the sum of our understanding of human society, to which that character no longer truly belongs. The first half of Galactica's fourth season did a fair job of examining the existential crisis that followed when four main characters discovered that they were something they themselves didn't understand, but do we really want to go through that again?

I'm much more inclined to believe that this rumor is false (or, if the "Starbuck is dead" debacle is anything to go by, an outright lie). I don't have that much respect left for Battlestar Galactica's writers, but I'd like to believe they're still better than any of these disappointing, anticlimactic answers to the question they've let take over their show.

Friday, November 21, 2008

No Less Sad For Being Expected

After many, many hints that this was coming, Pushing Daisies has been cancelled.  (So have Dirty Sexy Money and Eli Stone, but I don't watch those shows and therefore don't care.)

As so many others have said, the fact that this smart, unusual, gorgeous show has been cancelled while shows like Knight Rider (which I've never watched because every reaction I've seen has been wholly negative) and the new Life on Mars (whose unsubtle hectoring drove me away after two episodes) survive is a travesty, and something that ABC, and the television industry in general, should be ashamed of.  And no, the fact that Daisies creator Bryan Fuller might now be available to return to Heroes (where, in its first season, he wrote the standout episode "Company Man") is no consolation.  Heroes is a critically injured show which has done so much to squander my never-particularly-great affection for it that I doubt it could ever work its way back into my heart.  No show that sidelines what used to be its most earnest, heroic character by mentally regressing him to age ten, while simultaneously retconning a villain who ought to have been killed two seasons ago into goodness simply because the actor portraying him is hunky, deserves the second (or rather third, fourth, or nth) chances that Heroes has gotten.  Pushing Daisies, meanwhile, has been firing on all pistons lately, and this week's episode in particular was one of its cleverest and most moving yet, with great performances all around, most particularly a chance for Lee Pace (who had better find another place on my screen soon) to play Ned as a little more decisive and pro-active, and questions raised about Ned and Chuck's past which will now never be answered. 

I know that caring too much about television is asking to be hurt.  It's a medium designed to appeal to the broadest audience possible, and anything that's too different or too quirky to have more than a niche appeal is going to get cut down.  Still, this smarts.  In an increasingly barren television landscape, Pushing Daisies was a breath of fresh air.  It could always be counted on to surprise and delight me.  It never cut corners on any of its characters and never looked down on the emotions they were feeling.  It brightened my day, and I looked forward to it every week.  There aren't a lot of shows I still feel that way about, and the ones I do (Dexter and, to a much lesser extent, The Sarah Connor Chronicles) lean more towards the increasingly popular grim realism school of television writing.  Which certainly has its points, but not to the exclusion of all other styles.  Pushing Daisies was the show that proved that cute and charming isn't the same thing as brainless or emotionally inauthentic, an attitude that's far too uncommon in television nowadays.

The Middleman had better be safe, is all I'm saying.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Recent Movie Roundup 9

Obviously, the real movie news of the week is the release of the new Watchmen trailer (beautiful and despite my misgivings, quite promising, though I'm not as in love with the original book as some) and the even newer Star Trek trailer (awful, and looking very much like your run of the mill J.J. Abrams crapfest). Still, here are some looks at the leftover films of summer and fall.
  1. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) - My expectations for this film were somewhere in a sub, sub-basement beneath the movie theater, what with my lukewarm reaction to the first film and the even more tepid critical response. Which might go some way towards explaining why I enjoyed it as much as I did. The first Hellboy film couldn't stop undermining itself, inching towards the over the top weirdness of the original comic's universe and then immediately retreating into the standard superhero film template as though afraid that that weirdness would put audiences off. It thus ended up being neither one thing nor the other. With Hellboy II, the franchise seems to have cut loose and embraced the fact that this is a fantasy universe in which a disembodied spirit with a German accent walks around encased in a rubber suit ordering SWAT strikes and liaising with officials in Washington--a cross between Pan's Labyrinth and Men in Black. I'm also not sure where the loudly voiced complaints about the film's plot came from, as to my mind it was no sillier than that of any summer superhero film: villain X seeks artifact Y with which to enact apocalypse Z; hero A and his/her/its team to the rescue! Add a couple of fun action sequences and a reasonably lucid progression from one plot point to another and you're good to go.

    Where Hellboy II actually fails is in its characters, who are not simply flat--I don't look to superhero films for nuanced character work--but almost incidental to the film, either dull or underdeveloped or both. The title character has almost precisely the same character arc in this film as he did in the first one--wants to be good, destined to be evil; wants to be a regular guy, is a giant, red-skinned demon with horns and a huge stone fist--with a romantic subplot thrown in that is so by-the-numbers that neither he nor his lover can seem to work up much of an interest in it, while the secondary characters are hardly even there, merely engines to move the plot forwards. On the other hand, this is easily the most stunning film I've seen since Wall-E, though it seems wrong to mention the two films in the same breath as their visual approaches are so different. In an industry dominated by CGI, Guillermo del Toro's reliance on physical effects and puppetry is both shocking and refreshing, a veritable feast of texture, grime, and beauty that might have crawled out China Miéville's head (now there's an idea: once he's done with The Hobbit, have del Toro makes a miniseries out of Perdido Street Station or King Rat). The film's beauty carries it through the rough patches created by its shoddy characterization--we may not care about Hellboy and his friends, but we sure as hell enjoy seeing through their eyes. The result is far from perfect--I don't think I've unreservedly loved any of del Toro's films other than The Devil's Backbone--but despite its flaws it is a lot of fun to watch.

  2. Futurama: The Beast With a Billion Backs (2008) and Futurama: Bender's Game (2008) - The good news is, the Futurama films keep getting better and better. The bad news is, even the best of them isn't as good as the original series's mediocre episodes. Like The Simpsons before it, Futurama told stories in a haphazard manner, starting an episode with one plot and then lurching into another with almost no warning. This kind of rail-jumping was amusing in 22-minute increments, but in a 90-minute film it quickly begins to pall, especially when it becomes clear just how padded those 90 minutes are with material which, in the show, would quite rightly have been left on the cutting room floor.

    The Beast With a Billion Backs is the more egregious offender on all these counts, telling a story that is essentially a protracted sex joke (never a particular forte of this show) via an extraordinarily circuitous and ultimately tedious route, which involves Fry falling in love with a girl who wants him to be her fifth boyfriend, Amy and Kiff getting married, an alien tentacle attack, Bender joining a secret robot fraternity, and Zapp Brannigan being far less amusing than he usually is. I'm also annoyed that the Fry/Leela romance seems to have been done away with entirely, and, even worse, that Amy and Kiff's relationship is perhaps permanently sundered. Bender's Game is no less meandering, but still a lot better than Beast With a Billion Backs because much funnier. The film's second half is an extended Lord of the Rings/Dungeons & Dragons parody that is wickedly funny and plays to the show's strength as a series by geeks, for geeks, and fully grokking the geek mindset. Once again, the feature-length format works against the film, which means that despite mining similar ground it doesn't scale the heights of the series's more psychedelic episodes such as "Fry and the Slurm Factory" or "The Sting," but unlike Beast With a Billion Backs or the utterly forgettable Bender's Big Score I didn't find myself looking at my watch or waiting for a less interesting segment to pass. This is still not Futurama as I love and remember it, but Bender's Game, at least, is an acceptable stand-in.

  3. Quantum of Solace (2008) - When I wrote about Casino Royale I called it an utterly serious film about the creation of an utterly ludicrous person. Having created that person, I expected the second film in the rebooted Bond franchise to move back towards the standard Bond template: the gadgets, the fancy soirees, the tux, the casual misogyny. Instead, Quantum of Solace feels very much like the middle part of a trilogy. Most of the film is spent tying up the loose ends from Casino Royale, as Bond tries to track down the people responsible for Vesper's death, in the process uncovering a far-reaching conspiracy, the defeat of which will no doubt be the focus of the next film. This, however, leaves Quantum of Solace curiously plotless. A lot happens, sometimes a little too quickly for someone whose recollection of Casino Royale is less than impeccable to follow, but all of it feels like a means to an end rather than significant in its own right.

    Not helping matters is the plain fact that if Casino Royale was influenced by the Bourne films, Quantum of Solace is trying to be one--a dour, lethal man nearly crushed by a grief he won't let himself express, seeking vengeance with burning intensity against a powerful, faceless organization while the camera careens crazily around him (I'm reliably informed by people more knowledgeable about these matters than myself that there's a difference between good and bad shaky-cam direction, and that Quantum director Marc Forster's work falls in the latter camp while Bourne director Paul Greengrass makes the former. I hate all shaky-cam, but the camerawork in Quantum, though rarely much fun, at least shows the characters' full faces when they're on screen, which is more than one can say for Greengrass's work). Without wishing to sound like one of those people who are complaining because Bond only shags one of the Bond girls (though I hardly think this fact makes the film significantly less misogynistic than your average entry in the Bond franchise, given that said girl is hardly on screen and promptly killed off once Bond is done with her), I don't see what's Bond-ish about Quantum of Solace. Casino Royale managed to revamp the franchise while still preserving its essence, but Quantum of Solace, though by no means a bad film--it certainly does move, and though I still think Daniel Craig is playing Bond like an empty person, I'm coming around to the notion that this is intentional--seems to be trying hard to be something else, something much more generic.

  4. Blindness (2008) - Having been less than blown away by José Saramago's novel, I thought there was a good chance that I'd enjoy the film adaptation. Most of the things that aggravated me about Blindness--the overbearing narrative voice, the haphazard attention paid to real-world details and common sense, the everyman and -woman characters--would almost certainly fail to make the transition to the film medium, leaving only the meat of the novel, its description of the stifling helplessness of sudden blindness and the collapse of all social institutions in the wake of such an epidemic. Unfortunately, Don McKellar's adaptation, though addressing all of these points, fails to move far enough away from the novel. The characters are the film's biggest problem. The script makes a few cursory attempts to turn these ciphers into individuals--the thief's injured sense of superiority, the prostitute's flirtation with the doctor before they both lose their sight, the hints of strain in the doctor's marriage--and the fine cast also does a lot on this score, but in the end these still aren't people. When I saw Susan Coyne playing a woman in the main characters' ward, I was distressed, because I really didn't want to see Slings & Arrows's Anna be raped and beaten as I knew this character would be, and the film had done nothing to make Coyne's character something distinct from the character I'd already seen her play. I liked this version of Blindness better than the book (though I find the choice to excise some of the more brutal scenes in the novel rather wimpy), but it's not the film I hoped it would be, and a sadly wasted opportunity.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Recent Reading Roundup 19

  1. Excession by Iain M. Banks - In the best 20 science fiction novels of the last twenty years discussion a few months back there was a spirited sub-discussion on the question of which was the best Culture novel, Excession or Use of Weapons. As the latter was already my favorite of his novels, I decided to make Excession my next Banks read. This was not quite a mistake--Excession is entertaining, funny, and as masterful a combination of SFnal invention, social commentary, and gosh-wow adventure as I've come to expect from Banks--but count me in with the Use of Weapons crowd. Excession reads like a better version of Consider Phlebas, the first Culture novel (with which I was rather disappointed). A McGuffin--in this case an alien artifact representing technology far in advance of the Culture or its main rivals and allies--appears in a semi-neutral location, and both the Culture and its less civilized enemies scramble to gain control of it. Unlike Consider Phlebas, Excession doesn't get bogged down in a guided tour of the galaxy's most exotic locations as it follows a single protagonist along a slow, meandering path to the goal/plot token. In fact, Banks takes the opposite approach, describing the Culture by flitting almost frenetically from one character and setting to another. This makes for a punchier, more exciting reading experience, but not a more substantial one.

    For a 500 page novel encompassing conspiracies, intrigues, and interstellar wars, Excession leaves a curiously slight impression. It's all build-up and no payoff, and though the build-up, and the insight it gives us into the Culture's workings, is undeniably the point, this still makes for a weightless novel. Or perhaps a center-less one--it certainly doesn't help that of the main characters, the AI minds are never more than amusing, while the humans--an emotionally retarded Special Circumstances operative and his former lover, who has spent decades sulking over the messy end of their relationship--are a little dull and stuck in a soap opera plot. There's no one to care about in Excession, and the Culture itself is too big and too amorphous a construct to stand in for those missing emotional anchors. More than any other Banks novel, Excession put me in mind of Neal Stephenson's writing--the same focus on societies as systems, the same fascination with the minutiae of how those systems work, and the same ability to convey that fascination to the readers. Which is, as I've said, a lot of fun and very interesting, but as Banks isn't quite the social observer Stephenson is, not much more than that, and a great deal less than the meatier, more emotionally resonant novels Banks has produced.

  2. Counting Heads by David Marusek - It's interesting to consider Marusek's well-receiveddebut alongside Excession, because most of the accusations I've leveled against Banks's novel could just as easily be directed at Counting Heads. Like Excession, this is a novel primarily concerned with worldbuilding, and whose action doesn't make up a plot so much as a relentless scrambling on the part of many characters to get the plot started (though in Marusek's case the novel's ending is decidedly open-ended, and a sequel, Mind Over Ship, is due next year). But whereas Excession is, despite its length and breadth, insubstantial, Counting Heads is one of the most satisfying novels I've read this year.

    The difference is due in part to Marusek's narrower focus. Instead of a galactic empire, he describes a few slices of Earth society in the late 21st and early 22nd centuries. In the wake of technological innovations that render humanity all but immortal and vicious nanovirus attacks which leave hundreds of thousands dead and lead to cities sheltering under giant force fields, North American society is ruled over by a self-selecting elite with very little transparency or accountability. Some humans are 'affs'--the wealthy who lead charmed and effortless lives, attended to by AI servants--but most band together in self-governing groups called charters which live off a patent or a piece of property, and both groups are dwarfed by vast batches of cloned workers, each optimized for a different task such as nursing or security. The story begins with Sam Hargyr, an aff whose cushy life and happy marriage are brought to a crashing halt when a computer error (or a deliberate attack on his wife, an up-and-coming politician) leaves him incapable of using his society's technological advances or its rejuvenation treatments. It then fast-forwards several decades, to an accident which claims the life of Sam's wife and leaves their daughter mortally wounded--a cryogenically frozen head waiting for a body to be downloaded into before her personality becomes irretrievable--and a pawn of her mother's enemies. The novel revolves around the efforts to regain that head--by Sam, by the daughter's AI, and by automatic protocols set up by Sam's wife in the event of her death--and around the people, natural-born and clones, who get caught up in this quest.

    Counting Heads's characters aren't terrifically complicated, but their interactions with one another, with their communities, and with social institutions are. Marusek's clone characters are individuals not in spite of but within the confines of their genetic uniformity. They rely on their knowledge of the qualities for which their types were bred in forming their self-image and in their relationships with other clones--one plotline revolves around a social set whose members include several iterations of the same genotype--but those relationships are no less complex or thorny than ones between natural born humans. Marusek describes the polite disdain with which clones and natural humans view one another, as well as intra- and inter-charter tensions (which come to a head when Chicago plays host to chartist convention). Though palpable, none of these tensions boil over or turn particularly ugly. They may not always get along or like one another, but these people and groups work together to form a society, one which is far from perfect, but which none of them would like to see revolutionized. Counting Heads's greatest accomplishment is that, for all its flaws, the society it envisions works, right down to its most mundane and insignificant levels. Despite the novel's aimless plotting, Marusek's worldbuilding makes for an engrossing reading experience, and the more I think about Counting Heads the more impressive Marusek's achievement becomes. Though I don't think I'm going to rush to read the sequel--the point, I think, has effectively been made, and unless I hear that Mind Over Ship has a plot to match its worldbuilding accomplishments I think I'll give it a pass--I highly recommend Counting Heads to anyone interested in impeccably imagined futures.

  3. Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman - Alongside the explosion of film and TV superhero stories in the last decade, there's been a steady trickle of superhero novels, and if modern superhero stories--in comics as well as in the films and television series those comics spawn--are an attempt to inject psychological realism and moral ambiguity into the straightforward stories of heroism and good triumphant the form was created for, then these novels take that approach to its logical conclusion, submerging the fantastic in the utterly mundane. Which is how we end up with Grossman's novel, in which, despite its bombastic title, and chapter titles like 'But Before I Kill You' and 'Maybe We Are Not So Different, You and I,' the dominant emotion is an overpowering sense of ennui.

    Superhero stories don't always have to be fun, but Grossman's characters--Doctor Impossible, a supervillain recently escaped from his nth imprisonment who quickly cooks up a new plan for world domination, and Fatale, a cyborg and former CIA fixer who has just signed up with the world's most famous and most dysfunctional superhero team--aren't angry or angsty or distraught. Mostly, they're in a bit of a funk. Doctor Impossible is still hung up on his unhappy adolescence and lonely, misunderstood years at a school for super-geniuses. Fatale is riddled with self-doubt and having trouble fitting in with her famous and messed up new colleagues. Neither they, nor the other superheroes in Fatale's team, can seem to work up an emotion more powerful than vague annoyance, and that flatness infects the novel, despite the daring capers and death-defying stunts that litter it. There's always an incongruity in modern superhero stories between their ridiculous, too-earnest premise and the seriousness with which they construct characters and relationships. Very few stories, in any medium, strike the right balance between the two (I'd argue that Joss Whedon's greatest asset as a writer is his ability to find it in almost everything he does). In Soon I Will Be Invincible Grossman errs too far on the side of realism, and his writing is nowhere near nuanced enough to justify that choice. The resulting book is the one thing a superhero story should never be--dull.

  4. Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon - Acting, once again, as a counterpoint to the novel before it, Chabon's novella is a masterful example of how to write modern pulp and still respect yourself in the morning. Like The Final Solution, Gentlemen of the Road is an after-dinner mint to Chabon's most recent, hefty novel, and like all of his published work since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay it furthers his love affair with genre. Having covered comic books, Holmes-ian mystery, Chandler-esque mystery and alternate history, Chabon turns his hand to swashbuckling adventure, with a twist: every single one of the characters in Gentlemen of the Road, the vagabonds, the assassins, the holy men, the prostitutes, the king, the usurper, the deposed heir, as well as the title characters, the classic duo of reluctant heroes, is Jewish. In fact, as he says in the afterword, Chabon started writing Gentlemen of the Road with a single concept in mind: Jews with swords.

    This, to me (and, I suspect, to many readers, Jewish or otherwise), is not a particularly shocking idea, but what I did appreciate about Gentlemen of the Road is that, though it is set in an exotic locale (the Jewish Khazar empire which ruled the Caucasus region until the turn of the last millennium) the story's point of view characters--the dour, ascetic Zelikman (who between his description as black-clad, stick-thin, with long, prematurely white hair, and the novella's dedication to Michael Moorcock, is clearly an homage to Elric), a Frank, and the Abyssinian Amram--don't treat it as exotic. It's a foreign country to them, but its basic concepts, culture and religion are similar enough to their own that they can easily find their way within it, and this is unusual both in pulp fiction and in most depictions of Jewish culture. Still, Michael Chabon doesn't write genre in order to subvert it, and despite a few other modern touches Gentlemen of the Road is a good old-fashioned adventure yarn, and a very entertaining one too. Chabon's writing is, as usual, a delight, at once distinctly his own and perfectly submerged in his current genre of choice, and his characters are soulful and vivid. More importantly, there are swordfights, elephant rides, double-crosses, shocking reveals, and a forbidden romance--all the makings of an excellent adventure. (The novella was originally serialized in The New York Times, and is still available online. This link leads to the final chapter, which contains links to all the previous ones.)

  5. Blindness by José Saramago - I've been meaning to get around to reading Saramago's renowned novel for the better part of a decade, and to my shame I must admit that it was only the upcoming film adaptation that finally spurred me to do so. Having read the book, however, I can't say that I've been depriving myself all these years. Blindness, in which an unnamed city is struck by an epidemic of blindness, whose first casualties are rounded up and quarantined in inhuman conditions, is at points quite powerful. The descriptions of the helplessness to which their sudden affliction reduces the infected internees, and the suffering they endure both due to neglect by authorities and the depredations of their fellow prisoners, are harrowing. The novel captures, in minute detail, the dehumanizing, decivilizing effects of a sudden catastrophe, and the ease with which people let go of much of their self-definition. On the other hand, the novel has a slow beginning and ending, and the atrocities it describes are undercut by the distancing, storytelling narrative voice Saramago has chosen. I think I'm less blown away by Blindness than I might have been because SFnal apocalypses are so much more common in literary fiction today than they were ten years ago when the novel was first published, and in particular I couldn't help but compare Blindness to The Road, which like it describes people grimly hanging on to life despite having no hope for the future, but which also focuses on the practical details of that survival in a way that doesn't seem to have interested Saramago, who was clearly writing a fable, and which to my mind makes McCarthy's novel stronger and more immediate.

    Despite these reservations, I might have walked away from Blindness a much bigger fan if it weren't for Saramago's treatment of women. Although it is told mostly from the point of view of a woman, the only sighted person among the blind epidemic victims, Blindness treats women as something exotic and ineffable. Towards the end of the novel, the three female characters, who for a long time have been filthy and rank, wash themselves off in the rain, and the descriptive language in this scene is so obviously describing the male gaze that I found it difficult to get through. Saramago doesn't describe the women's pleasure in their bodies, and in ridding themselves of the physical and emotional grime that's clung to them. He describes the pleasure of watching, or imagining, them in this act. Even worse is his treatment of rape earlier in the novel, when a group of internees commandeers the food sent in from the outside and demands that women deliver themselves up in order to feed themselves and their men. Though his descriptions of the rapes are unambiguous and brutal, when Saramago refers to them he most often eschews the term 'rape' in favor of 'humiliation,' as though it's the women who have something to be ashamed of, and instead of focusing on the women's choice to submit to rape so that they and their loved ones can eat, he concentrates on the effect that choice has on the men, and the injury being done to their honor. At one point, he even describes the rape victims' husbands as 'cuckolds.' Though I admired parts of it, I came away from Blindness feeling that I'd just been exposed to the very unpleasant worldview of a man who has nothing to say that's worth hearing.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sad Thoughts On a Happy Day

Like many Israelis, I hold dual citizenship, and in my case the second is American. People who know this have taken to asking me, in the last few months, whether I was planning to vote in yesterday's election, to which my answer has always been no. I don't approve of expatriates or, as in my case, their children, casting absentee ballots to influence the running of a country they don't live in, whose most direct consequences they won't feel. Still, I think I might have had a harder time justifying this decision if it didn't seem clear that both of the states I might register to vote in (New York and Colorado) were going to go to Barack Obama. Though I don't feel entitled to cast my vote as an American, it's been difficult to tamp down the little voice that says that as an Israeli and as a person who lives on this planet, I ought to have had a say in selecting the single most powerful person on it. In the last eight years, the American president has remade the world, for the most part in ways that have made it more dangerous, more volatile, more polluted, and more full of hate, and it was with tremendous joy and relief that I woke up this morning to discover that the next holder of that position has at least the intention, and hopefully the ability, to reverse that course.

At the same time, I'm wondering whether my investment in this election doesn't exceed the degree justified by the effect its results will have on my life and my country. It's one thing to care and worry about the winner of the presidential election, or even the balance of power in the house or senate, but the very next thing I did after checking those results this morning was to find out how California's proposition 8, which outlaws same-sex marriages, fared. Though I genuinely believe that it would be a shame if this proposition made it into law and annulled the marriages of thousands of people, sitting halfway around the world from California, is that really something I should be so deeply concerned about? Or have I just been caught up by the mood of the American-dominated corner of the internet I hang out in? Wouldn't I be better off wondering about the status of gay rights and gay marriage (or for that matter, civil marriage of any variety) in Israel?

Earlier this week, Israeli news site Ynet published an op-ed piece by author Yoram Kaniuk, in which he explained why he believed that, despite all the polls, McCain was going to win this election. Americans, Kaniuk stated, were too right-wing, too racist, too small-minded, to choose as their president a mixed-race, Hawaiian-born, Harvard-educated liberal outsider like Obama. The real America, according to Kaniuk, was the rural one, and the seeming surge of support for Obama was the result of the disproportionate representation of Obama's urban, intellectual supporters in the media and online. This was, quite obviously, a bone-headed article, and I can't decide who should be more ashamed of it--Kaniuk for having produced such an outdated, disconnected, and plainly mistaken piece of writing or Ynet for having published it--but what truly infuriated me about it was the unthinking ease with which it denigrated an entire nation and its citizenry. Everyone loves to put down Americans, but there's a high-minded provincialism about Kaniuk's article that seems peculiar to Israelis, who sometimes seem to love nothing better than to excoriate the sins of others while ignoring our own (of course, my belief that this tendency is unique or unusually strong in my countrymen could be yet another example of that provincialism at work).

It takes a lot of nerve to call America too right-wing when Israel has been slowly but steadily swinging to the right for over a decade, and at a time when militant far-right groups have grown so bold as to publicly call for violence against Israeli soldiers and elected officials. It takes a lot of nerve to call America racist in a country which has failed to integrate thousands of Ethiopian immigrants, and only a few weeks after riots in Acre demonstrated decisively just how divided the Jewish and Arab communities in this country are. It takes a lot of nerve to shake one's head over religious fundamentalism in America only days after a Jerusalem mayoral candidate triumphantly predicted that in ten years' time there wouldn't be a single secular mayor in Israel. We like to look down on America. We like to act shocked that Americans are slowly rolling back abortion rights, but the fact is that an Israeli woman still needs to pass a gauntlet in order to be approved for an abortion. We snicker about the battle over teaching evolution in schools, but I don't remember it on my high school biology syllabus. We call Americans dumb, but Israel's standing in international math and science rankings has been dropping steadily for decades. We marvel at America's failed occupation of Iraq, but we've been bogged down in a failed occupation of the Palestinian territories for more than forty years. There are many ways in which Israeli society and government are better than their American equivalents, but none of them are enough to justify the attitude, which seems to pervade Israeli discourse, that Americans needed to prove themselves yesterday, and that we have the right to sit in judgment of them.

I remember the last time I voted with a sense of purpose and awed determination, in the firm belief that the choice being made by my fellow citizens and myself was going to spell either the doom or salvation of my country, our last chance to get back on the right track. It was also the very first time I cast a vote, in the May 1999 direct election for prime minister between incumbent Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. I was only a month into my army service at the time, and had just started vocational training. That evening, the girls in my course huddled around the radio, and broke into cheers and whoops when the ten o'clock news exit polls called the election decisively for Barak. It was the end of three years of the most incompetent, self-interested, short-sighted government I had known in my young life, and now it was all going to get better. Within eighteen months, Barak's government was on the verge of implosion after a series of bad calls and mishandled decisions, and the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000 paved the way for Ariel Sharon's election the following winter, and the escalating rightward shift of Israeli public discourse.

I'm not saying this to cast a pall over Obama's victory or suggest that America's future will prove as grim. Though I'm sure today's euphoria will fade, and that President Obama will make mistakes, compromises, or just decisions that his supporters disagree with, I truly believe that his election is a good sign for the future. I'm saying this because on February 10th, less than a decade after doing so for the first time, I will vote in my fifth national election, and just as I did on all but that first time in 1999, I will vote without hope that the results of that election will change my country's future for the better. I'm going to vote because I can't not, and I'll vote for Meretz, the same party I've always voted for, the only people who stand for something I can bear to give my support to, but I'll do so in spite of the fact that their accomplishments and presence in the Israeli political scene have dwindled and grown faint. I know that, no matter what their political opinions and affiliations, there are plenty of Israelis who share my disillusionment. It's the reason that voter turnout has steadily decreased over the last decade--because none of us can find anyone worth voting for.

In the midst of my joy when I learned about Obama's election this morning there was also a lot of sadness when I contemplated the fact that American turnout this year had reached such record highs. These numbers reflect not only how dire things have become in America, and how crucial this election was, but also the fact that voters had someone who excited and galvanized them, someone who got them to the polling station, and in some cases kept them there for hours and hours. I realized that it had been years since an Israeli politician had excited me, since I had thought of an elected official as someone I could trust or believe in. For my next prime minister, I face the unappetizing choice between two former occupants of that post, one of whom did a bad job and the other a spectacularly bad job, and a woman whose chief virtue seems to be the fact that, unlike a sizable portion of the cabinet she served on, she isn't being investigated for corruption. I don't think I'd like an Israeli Obama. Our politics are closer to the ground than the US's, and more accessible to the average voter--I'm not a very political person, but even I've had the chance to exchange words with members of Knesset, cabinet ministers, prime ministers and presidents--and our politicians suit that reality, right down to the sweat stains, unflattering hairdos, and occasional inarticulateness. Someone as handsome and charismatic as Obama would seem out of place here (as would his focus on hope, never a very prominent component of Israeli political discourse). But I would very much like it if an Israeli politician showed something of his integrity and gravitas, and made me care about their chances of making it into public office.

As the American election drew closer and Obama's victory became more and more likely, the Israeli media started beating around the question of whether a black liberal whose middle name was Hussein would be 'good for Israel'. This is idiotic on two levels, first because of the implicit assumption that Bush--who did nothing to advance issues important to Israeli security such as pushing for the meaningful implementation of UN resolution 1701 and curtailing the rearmament of Hezbollah, who turned a toothless and ineffectual enemy nation into a hotbed of terrorism, who so thoroughly squandered his nation's diplomatic capital that his best response to the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb is to loudly and repeatedly announce that it's nobody's business if Israel decides to take matters into its own hands, wink wink, nudge nudge--was actually good for Israel. But more importantly, it's an idiotic question because, at the end of the day, it's not the person in the oval office who determines Israel's well-being but the people in the Knesset, in the cabinet chamber, and in the prime minister's residence. The rest of the world might have sighed in relief at this morning's news, but for Israelis, that relief is still a long way off, and it's down to us and to our leaders to achieve it. In the next few months, as America winds down from this election and prepares for President Obama's inauguration, we're going to be plunged into the same feverish circus we've gone through four times in the last decade. That's three short months in which to get people excited about casting their votes again, and hopeful about what those votes can achieve. Otherwise, in two or three years' time we'll be gearing up for yet another round. I don't want an Israeli Obama, but I do want my leaders to have, as he seems to, both conviction and passionate intensity. I want Israel to wake up to a day like today.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

According to the author bio in my reprint edition, around the turn of the 20th century the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig was an international literary sensation, his plays, novellas, and biographies translated into more than a dozen languages. Nowadays he is known mainly in his native German, but the good people at NYRB have been working hard to rectify this situation. Judging by Beware of Pity, a meaty, intense novel of obsession and psychological manipulation, one of Zweig's latest works and his only full-length novel, this is something to be extremely grateful for.

Set in the months leading up to the first world war and in the an out-of-the-way Austrian garrison town, Beware of Pity is told through the reminiscences of Hofmiller, a young cavalry officer stationed at the town. Poor and of an undistinguished family, Hofmiller is ill-at-ease among his fellow officers, most of whom are wealthy and titled, and protective of his reputation and honor. When a friend secures for him an invitation to the home of Herr von Kekesfalva, the local landowner and richest man in town, Hofmiller is thrilled, and cuts a dashing figure at dinner and during the dance after it. At the end of the evening, high on good food and good company, Hofmiller realizes that he has made the faux pas of failing to ask his host's daughter, eighteen year old Edith, to dance, but when he does so the girl reacts in horror and hysteria. Having arrived late to dinner, Hofmiller has not had the chance to see that Edith is paralyzed, and once he realizes his mistake he is nearly as horrified as Edith was, and flees the house in shame.

What might have ended as no more than a mortifying incident Hofmiller would shudder to look back on in later years balloons into a full-scale entanglement with the Kekesfalva family when Hofmiller, embarrassed by his cowardly retreat and fearful that his ungentlemanly behavior might become known among his fellow officers, sends Edith an apology and accepts her invitation to call on her. What he finds in the Kekesfalva home is an illustration of Shaw's famous adage that a family is a tyranny ruled over by its weakest member. Once a lively and energetic young woman, Edith's high spirits have been turned against her, feeding her frustration at her disability and the confinement it imposes on her. Her moods vacillate wildly, from determined euphoria to despair, from rage at any hint of pity or condescension to a spoiled, selfish desire to have everything just as and when she wants it. Up until Hofmiller's arrival, Edith's demands fell squarely on the shoulders of her long-suffering cousin Ilona and her equally needy father, who is obsessed with finding a cure for his daughter's affliction, but the young man charms and distracts the invalid. He is immediately folded into the Kekesfalva household, made a pet of and plied with gifts and luxuries to keep him coming back. For Hofmiller, however, the appeal of his friendship with Edith isn't the material gains it offers but the sense of belonging and importance it allows him to feel.
In all sorts of delightful, obvious ways I was made to realize that I was regarded as one of the family. Every one of my little weaknesses and predilections was anticipated and encouraged; my favorite brand of cigarettes was always laid ready for me, the book that on my last visit I had happened to say I should like to read I would find lying, as though by chance, the pages carefully cut, on the little stool; one particular arm-chair opposite Edith's was regarded incontestably as 'my' chair--trifles, mere nothings, all these, to be sure, but such things as imperceptibly cast a homely warmth over a strange room and, without one's being aware of it, cheer and lighten the spirit. There I would sit, feeling more at ease than I ever did among my comrades, chatting and joking away as the mood took me, realizing for the first time that any form of constraint fetters the true forces of the spirit and that the real measure of a man is only revealed when he feels entirely at his ease.
Hofmiller thus embarks on a spectacularly twisted and dysfunctional relationship with both Edith and her father. Though unhealthy, the friendship is, at least at first, mutually beneficial, but soon Hofmiller finds himself being asked to do more and more for the Kekesfalvas, while the consequences of refusing them grow more dire. When Edith's physician Doctor Condor visits the estate for a regular checkup, Kekesfalva asks Hofmiller to get an honest assessment out of the man--who by now has come to view both father and daughter as hysterics in need of being coddled and protected--as to Edith's chances of recovery. Condor tells Hofmiller that there is at present no cure for Edith's condition, but the young man can't bring himself to equivocate with the desperate and obviously ill Kekesfalva, and wildly exaggerates the faint promise of a new treatment. When Edith makes her romantic intentions towards him apparent, Hofmiller is at first disgusted, but is soon made to realize--by Condor and by Edith herself--that to refuse her would almost certainly drive the girl to suicide. The deepening of Hofmiller's involvement with the Kekesfalva family parallels the effect of the placebo medications with which Condor palliates the girl and her father--at first the sheer novelty of his presence effects a positive change, but soon more and more of it and a greater emotional involvement on his part are required to achieve the same effect, until Hofmiller stands on the brink of being devoured whole by the Kekesfalvas' need.

Beware of Pity belongs to that class of novels which seem pitched halfway between 19th century fiction and the modern, psychological novel. For a novel primarily concerned with its characters' interiority and the point of stasis their lives have arrived at, it is remarkably plot-driven, with tension building and hinging on real-world events such as a missed train or an undeliverable telegram. It is also characterized by an obsession, which I tend to think of as particularly Victorian, with verisimilitude. Hofmiller's narrative is framed by that of a writer to whom he is telling his story, and within that narrative other characters often take the storytelling reins to tell Hofmiller how Kekesfalva made his fortune, how Condor met and married his wife, how a former comrade of Hofmiller's fared after leaving the service. Story is, in other words, how Beware of Pity achieves its effect.

At the same time, that effect is undeniably modern, stressing as it does the conflict and indecision that drive its characters. Though characters in 19th century novels can be believable, well-drawn, and complex, they are rarely at war with themselves as 20th century fictional characters so often are. Beware of Pity hinges on this inner turmoil. Hofmiller is elated and gratified by his importance to the Kekesfalvas, but he also grows tired of them and feels trapped by their need. Edith, as I've already said, suffers from wild mood swings, and can't decide whether she'd rather be coddled and lied to about her condition and Hofmiller's feelings for her, or treated like an adult and told the painful truth. The characters are trapped by their indecision, and though the novel ends with both of them taking action to escape their situation, this is a desperate, wild stab that ultimately hurts both of them much more than the stasis they'd been trapped in did. There is none of the rationalism here that characterizes the narrative, and sometimes the actions, in a 19th century novel. The characters act on emotion and impulse, and suffer for it.

Beware of Pity's setting--the young cavalry officer visiting an opulent estate, making the acquaintance of elegant ladies and their patrician guardian--creates expectations of a certain kind of novel, as does the emphasis, in the novel's early pages, on manners and propriety. Hofmiller's early negotiations with the Kekesfalva family are strictly regulated by manners. Upon receiving the fateful invitation to dine in the Kekesfalva home he remarks that
One wasn't dragged up in the gutter, thank God, and knew what was proper in such circumstances! So on the following Sunday morning I got myself up in my very best--white gloves and and patent-leather shoes, my face relentlessly shaved, a drop of eau-de-Cologne on my moustache--and drove out to pay my courtesy call. The butler--old, discreet, well-cut livery--took my card and murmured apologetically that the family would be extremely sorry to have missed the Herr Leutnant, but they were all at church. So much the better, said I to myself. Paying one's first call, whether official or private, is always a ghastly business. At any rate, you've done the right thing. You'll go to dinner on Wednesday evening, and let's hope you'll have a good time.
This elaborate dance of etiquette continues throughout dinner and all the way up to Hofmiller's insult to Edith--which, of course, is caused precisely because he remembers his manners and asks the young lady of the house to dance--but from that point on propriety is gradually worn away at until there's nothing left, not only in Hofmiller's increasingly intimate relationship with Edith and her father, but in his dealings with his fellow officers. Part of the reason for Hofmiller's determination to do right by Edith after asking her to dance is that he fears his comrades will get wind of his failure of manners and cut him, but by the end of the novel it becomes clear that it's not manners that the officers in Hofmiller's regiment care about but appearance.

When, towards the end of the novel, Hofmiller promises himself to Edith and then repudiates the engagement in front of his friends, he is so scandalized by his ungentlemanly behavior that he contemplates suicide. Turning instead to his Colonel, Hofmiller discovers to his dismay that what matters to the older man is not whether one of his officers has acted disgracefully but whether that disgrace can be hushed up. By that point, of course, Hofmiller has become thoroughly disillusioned. Kekesfalva is not the courtly nobleman. Edith is not the shy, angelic maiden. Their family and estate are not the embodiment of a more genteel, more civilized way of life and the promise of its continuity--and it is surely no coincidence that the novel is set just prior to the outbreak of the first world war, which will mark the beginning of the end for that way of life. In this sense, Beware of Pity is very similar to L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between, which is also told through the eyes of a young person who is enchanted and star-struck by an aristocratic family whose members, falling far short of his idealized image of them, take advantage of and destroy his innocence. Much like Beware of Pity, The Go-Between seems half like a Victorian novel, half like a modern one.

It is precisely this confusion of modern and pre-modern literary tropes and attitudes that renders Beware of Pity so much more ambivalent about its characters and the dilemmas facing them than we, as 21st century readers, might expect it to be. In its descriptions of Hofmiller's deepening involvement with the Kekesfalva family, Beware of Pity puts one in mind of most episodes of House, and of that character's insistence that to selflessly sacrifice oneself and one's happiness for another is nothing but self-gratifying selfishness in disguise (while simultaneously demonstrating, in his own behavior, how unchecked selfishness can become a black hole of need that sucks down and exhausts the best intentions of anyone who tries to help), but Zweig's novel is a great deal less cynical than the television series. The difference, I think, is that we've been taught to think of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation as nearly unmitigated evils, traps that prevent people from achieving their full potential and true happiness. Beware of Pity, for all that the selflessness it describes is ultimately pointless and unsuccessful, still takes the 19th century attitude which sees sacrifice as something noble and worthy.

Hofmiller is repeatedly confronted with examples of people who have sacrificed themselves for others and lived happier and more fulfilling lives for it, most notably Doctor Condor, who married a patient after failing to save her sight. It's Condor who tries to educate Hofmiller in the difference between the self-serving selfless impulse, and the self-sacrificing one, in a passage that also serves as the novel's epigraph:
There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart's impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another's unhappiness...; and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.
Or, to put it another way, there are no half-measures. If Hofmiller wants to do real good, he has to give himself over completely, to renounce his own wishes and desires and gratify another's. This is, understandably, an off-putting notion, especially coming as it does right on the heels of our first glimpse of Condor's home life, in which his hysterical, fearful wife clings to him and makes demands on him as urgently as any of his patients. It is also, however, a seductive one, not only because of the romantic appeal of self-sacrifice but because, as the character is described until that point, it seems entirely likely that to sacrifice himself for Edith might very well be the most useful and meaningful thing Hofmiller could do with his life.

The novel goes to great lengths to stress just how unremarkable Hofmiller is to anyone but the Kekesfalvas, how little effect he has on the world when out of their home. He's an undistinguished officer about to fight a pointless war which will decisively relegate his branch of the military to a purely ornamental role. He has no dreams, no hopes, no aspirations. He is immature, undisciplined, and has a weak character--as demonstrated by his repeated inability to break away from the Kekesfalvas or speak truthfully to them. In the framing story Hofmiller is a decorated veteran, but he looks dimly on his alleged heroism, presumably out of an awareness that he's missed his one chance to be an actual hero to the one person who truly needed him. I'm not sure whether readers in 1939 would have had this reaction, but coming to the novel in 2008 this suggestion that it might have been better for Hofmiller to burn himself up in Edith's service (while at the same time stressing the monstrousness of her need, and the possibility that even Hofmiller might not have been enough to sate it) is both disturbing and exhilarating, so different is it from what I'm used to finding in modern fiction.

Of course, the fact that Edith is so desperate for Hofmiller's love, or the promise of a cure for her condition, or both, is down to another 19th and early 20th century attitude which 21st century readers might have trouble with, and that is the infantilization that both her gender and her disability force on her. As terrible as Edith's selfishness is, one can't help but notice that it has been bred in her, and is being reinforced by the belief of everyone around her that, as a woman, she must be protected from the truth, and as an invalid, she can't be expected to function fully as a human being. Beware of Pity is littered with examples of these intentionally weakened women who become millstones around men's necks. Edith's mother, the emotionally battered companion of a mean-spirited noblewoman, inherits the Kekesfalva estate after her employer dies. Rather than rejoice at this windfall, the poor, broken woman is terrified by the responsibilities it entails and the naked hatred the old woman's relatives subject her to. Kekesfalva (then a shady businessman by the name of Leopold Kanitz) swindles her out of her inheritance, but is so haunted by her helplessness that he ends up marrying her. Condor's wife, as I've already said, is clingy and fearful--when Hofmiller visits Condor's home and finds only the wife there, she is nearly beside herself with fear, and hysterically tries to drive him out of the house. (It is perhaps telling that the only able-bodied and able-minded female character, Ilona, is also the one the novel expends the least attention on, barely even sparing her a mention after Hofmiller makes Edith's acquaintance despite her prominence in the Kekesfalva household.)

One can't help but wonder how Edith might have fared if only someone--Hofmiller, Condor, or even her father--had made demands on her, forced her to use her prodigious force of will to control herself rather than others. The fact that none of Edith's friends and loved ones consider taking this step might be seen as Zweig's blindness to the possibility that a woman might be capable of this feat. On the other hand, it might be yet another illustration of the way the novel and its characters are trapped between 19th and 20th century attitudes. Edith is too strong, and Hofmiller is too weak, for either of them to play the roles that a 19th century novel would assign to them--the saintly invalid content with her lot in life; the brave cavalry officer willing to shoulder the responsibility for her emotional and physical well-being--but neither of them know how to be anything but those characters.

Beware of Pity is a slippery, undefinable novel. Part rationalist, stiff upper lip Victoriana (I've been using this term throughout this review though obviously it is inappropriate for a novel written by an Austrian--I'm just not sure what comparable term would be appropriate for European novels of that same period), part minutely-described irrationality. At the same time decidedly old-fashioned and disturbingly modern. Whatever its classification, it is as pitch-perfect a description as I can imagine of the universal, conflicting human impulses to help others and free ourselves from their need. As such, it offers a double pleasure--a glimpse at one of the transition points on the path towards the modern novel, and an excellent and engaging piece of writing.