Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2009 Edition, Part 2

In which things go from bad to worse. I realize, academically, that this year is probably no worse than any other, but it sure feels as if there's a lot more crap to wade through, and it's certainly not helping that there isn't a single show whose pilot has hooked me completely. Plus, the returning shows are extremely variable--Dexter and How I Met Your Mother have been very good, Dollhouse an extremely mixed bag, and House a profound disappointment. Oh well, let's take a look at the most recent batch.
  • Accidentally On Purpose and Cougar Town - Two comedies about an older woman/younger man pairing. In Accidentally On Purpose, Billie (Jenna Elfman, sporting a heroically awful haircut) is a thirty seven year old film critic who, having despaired of her boyfriend committing to her, starts a fling with a twentyish man, which quickly leads to her becoming pregnant. Cougar Town's Jules (Courteney Cox, looking absolutely smoking after having more or less ditched the skeletal Monica look) is a fortysomething divorcée with a teenage son who, having despaired of finding an eligible man her age who isn't interested in college girls, discovers the joys of prowling for younger men. There are differences between the two shows, but both seem rooted in the assumption that what an independent, successful, mature woman needs is a boy, someone sweetly adoring and undemanding to whom she can be both lover and mother (Billie invites the father of her child to live with her after learning that he's been sleeping in his van; Jules offers her first conquest crackers with peanut butter, the same treat she makes for her son's friends) but whom she can also easily discard.

    It's a premise that neither show seems particularly comfortable with--besides the pregnancy plot, it's strongly suggested that Billie and her lover are in love rather than just fooling around; Jules is subjected to several humiliations as she stalks her prey, including being discovered en flagrante by her son and ex-husband, and there are hints that her real love interest is her age-appropriate neighbor. It'll be interesting to see if either show has the courage to come out in favor of cougarish behavior, or whether both will ultimately find it inferior to domesticity. Or, at least, it would be interesting if either show were particularly good. Accidentally On Purpose is by far the worse. Aiming for a retro vibe by opting for the classic three-camera sitcom format, it mostly comes off as old-fashioned, with nary a decent joke to justify its laugh track and what few decent chuckles there are smothered by Elfman's overdone mugging and grinning. Cougar Town is slicker and better looking, and Cox is a strong performer and surrounded by a promising cast, including Christa Miller Lawrence playing essentially the same character she did in Scrubs, and child actor Dan Byrd who steals the show as Jules's son. But the jokes, perhaps intentionally, elicit cringes more often than laughs, and Jules's behavior--whether she's ranting at her skirt-chasing neighbor, flashing a thirteen-year old boy to prove to that neighbor that she's still got it, or making sex jokes with her clearly uncomfortable son--is appalling without there being any counteracting weight or sympathy to the character. As gifted as Cox is, she can't craft a person from this mass of horniness and insecurity, and the character transitions from funny and neurotic to manic and shrill before the half-hour pilot is finished.

  • Eastwick - I might have lumped this show with the two comedies above, since it's also about women past the first flush of youth finding themselves, but though there is a May-December romance in the mix, Eastwick's scope is a little wider. Like the movie of which it is either a remake or a straight continuation, Eastwick centers around three women--bohemian sexpot Roxie, cowed wife and mother Kat, and repressed professional woman Joanna--whose magical powers are unleashed by the arrival of a mysterious stranger in the titular town, and which cause them to break out of their shells, strike up new friendships and relationships, and embrace new opportunities. Plus, the occasional smiting of a no-good husband. The three actresses commit to their roles with gusto, but there's not much more to these characters than my descriptions above, and Paul Gross as the handsome, seductive devil is fun in the same way that Jason Dohring was in Moonlight--he's evil and not very well written, but he's delivering essentially the same performance he gave in, respectively, Slings & Arrows and Veronica Mars.

    For all that, Eastwick is a lot better than it has any right being. The pilot moves at a good clip, and its emotional climaxes--a townswoman being attacked by a swarm of ants as the three women discover their powers, Joanna cutting loose and telling off her sexist boss, the aforementioned smiting--are satisfying despite their obviousness. The problem is that we all know where this is going--Eastwick takes a good long while to tell the first act of a story whose third act we've either seen or heard about, which leads to baffling plotting and pacing decisions, such as ending the pilot with Joanna discovering that Gross's character isn't what he says he is, which of course we all knew. It's hard to imagine how a series could satisfyingly drag out the film's story over 13 or 22 hours, and neither the characters nor the writing promise to compensate for this predictability.

  • The Good Wife - The final entry in this fall's slate of shows about fortyish women getting their own not only wins the category but is, thus far, the best pilot of the new TV season. The title character is Alicia (Julianna Margulies, good as ever), the wife of a state's attorney (Chris Noth, perfectly cast as a sleazy but charming liar) who becomes embroiled in a sex and corruption scandal. Her husband in prison and her house sold to pay for his lawyers' fees, Alicia returns, after an absence of thirteen years, to the legal profession as a junior associate in a classy Chicago law firm, and has to relearn the ropes of her profession while struggling to overcome her public humiliation and keep her family together. This is an extremely well-made show--the visuals are perfect, down to Alicia's conservative but expensive wardrobe and hairstyle, and the writing is sharp. Most importantly, however, this is a show that treats women seriously, without opting for either the magical empowerment of Eastwick or the jokey sex and relationships obsession of Accidentally On Purpose and Cougar Town.

    The Good Wife is about the compromises women make, and about the way that those compromises both change and stay the same, to which end it presents a whole gallery of prominent female characters--Alicia, who abandoned her career to support her husband's and now finds herself with neither marriage nor career; her mother in law, who urges her to forgive her husband's peccadilloes; a senior partner at her firm, who makes a good show of supporting the sisterhood but may have a tendency to lash out at younger female associates whom she views as threats; the firm's investigator, whose brash confidence, as opposed to Alicia's muted insecurity, may represent a generation raised with stronger feminist expectations, or the simple fact that, at 25, this woman hasn't faced most of the dilemmas that Alicia has; Alicia's teenage daughter, whom she tries to protect from negative body images and her father's sex tapes. The Good Wife doesn't pass the Bechdel Test as quickly as one might expect from a show whose cast is dominated by women, which makes sense given that Alicia's life is at present driven by her husband's actions, but also points to the show's larger theme--this is a show about women who, especially because of their career ambitions, live in a man's world, and its focus is on the ways they negotiate it. My only real problem with The Good Wife is that I'm not a big fan of lawyer shows, so besides the fact that it's very well done there's really not much to hook me here. I'll give the show a few more episodes, but if it turns out to be a client of the week series I suspect that even the intriguing approach to women's issues won't be enough to keep me coming back.

  • FlashForward - Possibly the most hotly anticipated genre series of the fall (especially now that the V remake may be dead on arrival), FlashForward, which is loosely based on the novel by Robert J. Sawyer, starts off with more of a whimper than a bang by coasting on its intriguing premise--at precisely the same moment, every human being on the planet loses consciousness for two minutes and seventeen seconds. When the scope of death and destruction begin to become appreciable (the pilot does a good job of conveying the multitude of horrors contained in this scenario--I was particularly affected by the people who drown because they fall face-down in a deep puddle--though the emphasis on photogenic explosions does nothing to dispel the impression that FlashForward is desperately angling for the position of Lost's successor, recalling--but by no means surpassing--as it does that series's iconic opening scene of the chaos following a plane crash), authorities turn their focus on the reports coming in that humanity didn't black out but flashed to a period six months in the future. The main appeal of FlashForward is the investigation of this central mystery, and given that the show is based on a novel there's at least a chance that the solution to this mystery a) exists, and b) doesn't suck. But when it comes to the characters who are going to carry out this investigation, the pilot is sadly lacking.

    It's perhaps a given that to deliver as much story as FlashForward's pilot does one has to shortchange characters, especially with a cast as large as this series has, but if the closing credits are rolling and I haven't caught the names of half the characters then clearly something is not right. More distressingly, the show seems to be taking the Lost-ian tack of trying to achieve characterization through plot, so most of the main characters' arcs, as laid out in the pilot, have to do with their fear or hope that the images they saw in the flash forward will come true--the main character sees himself falling off the wagon; his wife sees herself in bed with another man; his colleague at the FBI sees that she is going to become pregnant, and his partner sees nothing, and worries that he may die in the next six months. The underlying assumption is that we'll be interested in seeing how the characters get from where they are today to where they are in the flash forward (the show pays lip service to the notion that one can change the future, but there's clearly no drama to be wrung out of a person who fears that he'll crawl back in the bottle and then doesn't), whether or not we care for the characters themselves, and the show thus does very little work investing us in, for example, the main characters' marriage before suggesting that it is threatened. The only flash forward that interested me was that of a character who sees his daughter, who was presumed to have died in Afghanistan, because that is an interesting plot hook regardless of who it happens to, but none of the other flash forwards have that kind of hook. I'm willing to give FlashForward the benefit of the doubt--to believe that it'll either foreground the investigation aspect of the story, or build up the characters enough that I care what happens to them and their relationships--but taken on its own, the pilot isn't at all promising.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

District 9

It's been nearly three days since I saw Neill Blomkamp's District 9, and I'm still not sure whether I liked or disliked it. Or rather, I know that I had both reactions, but I'm struggling to decide which one wins out. This seems appropriate for a film as rife with contradiction as District 9 is: an independent film--made outside of Hollywood, filmed and set in South Africa--which is also an effects-laden, action blockbuster which has scored more than a hundred million dollars at the box office; an allegory of apartheid which has been accused of racism. And then there's the film's bi-polar script. Its political, thought-provoking first half follows, pseudo-documentary style, the vain and empty headed Johannesburg bureaucrat Wikus Van Der Merwe through the titular slum, where twenty years ago stranded alien refugees were corralled and interned, as he lies, manipulates and threatens them into giving him some legal justification for their upcoming deportation to a concentration camp outside the city. But it transitions into a standard Hollywood running-and-shooting narrative as Wikus, who has been sprayed by the fluid in an alien canister, begins transforming into an alien and is pursued by his bosses (who want to dissect him in order to find the source of his newfound ability to use alien weapons) and forced to find refuge in the district itself and assist the aliens' plans to leave Earth.

Several of the reviews I've read have held that it's this shift from literature-of-ideas type SF to the dumb actiony kind that holds District 9 back from greatness. I'm a little to the left of that opinion. I think that both of the film's halves are successful at what they're trying to be, and that either one, extended to a complete story, would have made a fantastic film. The problem is in the fusion between them. District 9's second half is as tense and riveting an action narrative as I've seen in quite some time, impeccably shot, deftly plotted, and, for the first time in my movie-watching career, making effective use of the dreaded shaky-cam to convey confusion and chaos while still allowing me to follow the scene's thread. Action films, however, are by their nature very earnest narratives. They require us to buy into their division of characters into good guys and bad guys before we can unreservedly root for the former to defeat the latter. There is nothing earnest about District 9's first half, whose depiction of Wikus and his colleagues' callous indifference to the aliens' plight is so broad and heavy-handed as to be almost comical. It's not that I don't believe that there are people who behave as Wikus does in these early scenes towards those over whom they've been granted authority, but I absolutely do not believe in Wikus's lack of self-awareness, in the pride with which he, for example, burns down a shack containing incubating alien eggs, or threatens to take away the child of an alien who questions the eviction order, mugging and showing off for the cameras the whole time. (Funnily enough, it is actually Wikus's corporate employers, who keep a lab in which half-dissected alien bodies lie about as if on display, and who use a cattle prod on Wikus to force him to fire an alien weapon at a prisoner, who come off more believable in that respect--they're absurdly, mustache-twirlingly evil, but at least they're hiding that wickedness.)

The obvious reply to these complaints is the Wikus and others like him don't recognize the cruelty of their actions because they're committed against creatures that best resemble insects, but here I think that the film is trying to have its cake and eat it. The documentary segments blatantly and deliberately draw parallels between the aliens and various groups of disenfranchised humans (the film's title is even a reference to a Cape Town neighborhood whose inhabitants were forcibly relocated during apartheid). When talking about the aliens, Wikus makes comments which are clearly intended to recall real-world racism--the aliens have no respect for personal property; they have so many children--and the psychology of the aliens we meet, who are protective of their children, desperate for the cat food which to them is some sort of drug, cowed and terrified of Wikus's authority--is entirely human (at least, it was to my eyes--I was shocked when many reviews of the film dismissed the aliens as disgusting and monstrous, and their behavior as incomprehensible, since to my mind it seemed like exactly what you'd expect from people forced to live in squalor for a generation, which is something the film itself notes through the talking head commentaries in its first half). District 9 expects us to recognize the humanity of these creatures, but it also expects us to believe that almost none of the humans in the film's world see it, despite the fact that the aliens are essentially humans in bug suits.

District 9's early scenes (and a few of its closing ones) reminded me very powerfully of the reality TV satire Series 7: The Contenders. In that film, the reality TV craze has run its logical course and culminated in a Running Man-type series in which randomly selected contestants are forced to hunt one another until only the winner is left standing. It's a film that succeeds because it never wavers in its commitment to this absurd and unbelievable premise, essentially creating an alternate universe in which people as a group are sufficiently callous and bloodthirsty to not only tolerate but encourage and enjoy murder on prime time TV. District 9 starts out in such an alternate universe, and had the film continued in that vein it might have been an extremely effective black comedy, one which, like Series 7, invites us to laugh at its characters even as we recoil from their actions, and draws its power from the tension between these two reactions. But especially if you've walked into the movie theatre knowing that the film is going to become an action story and that the oblivious Wikus is going to become its hero, it's hard not to judge the first half of the film by our standards, and find it unbelievable and over the top. When the first half's satire transitions into the second's earnestness, the film is dealt a blow from which it never fully recovers--it's fun to watch Wikus kicking ass and taking names, and he's doing so for a righteous cause, but at the same time it's impossible to forget that the person who is now so believably human was, barely an hour ago, cartoonishly evil.

Which is not to say that Wikus is an uncomplicated or uninteresting character. One of my favorite moments in the film, and which to my mind is far more thought-provoking than anything in the documentary, comes in its second half, when Wikus breaks into his former employer's to retrieve the canister which started his transformation and, having been fired upon by a guard, uses an alien weapon to liquidate him. Wikus's companion, the alien dubbed Christopher Johnson, who needs the canister to power the stranded spaceship and has promised to cure Wikus in exchange for it, notes that Wikus told him not to kill anyone, to which Wikus replies that the guard was shooting at him. It's a tiny but perfect encapsulation of everything that's wrong with Wikus, of how reflexive and poorly thought out his morality actually is. Wikus doesn't like killing--he tries to minimize the presence of mercenary troops in the district and is shocked when one of them kills a difficult alien--but whether his enemies are aliens or human, he reacts violently when attacked without ever stopping to think why that attack happened and what he did to provoke it. In his mind, Wikus is always the good guy, even after switching sides, not because he's had a moral awakening but because he's constitutionally incapable of seeing anyone else's point of view, and therefore assumes that anyone trying to hurt him is a bad guy.

Once again, if District 9 had had the courage of its convictions and kept Wikus in his oblivious, self-centered state, it might have been at least a successful character portrait, but fifteen minutes from its end Wikus has a sudden change of heart, and chooses to sacrifice himself so that Christopher Johnson can get off the planet. This is enormously disappointing, not only because there's almost no foundation laid for Wikus's last-minute heroism, but because it means that District 9 misses out on the opportunity to be anything more than yet another story about an oppressor who becomes the champion of the oppressed, and which completely marginalizes the characters it pretends to champion by making them the passive beneficiaries of his benevolence. Instead of stumbling onto a concerted alien effort to leave the planet, Wikus just happens to meet the one alien who has been pursuing this goal, apparently on his own, and ends up enabling his efforts instead being a tool for their fruition. It is also telling that Wikus is apparently the only person in District 9 to have picked up a weapon against the mercenaries and gangsters who plague the aliens, despite the fact that the aliens have always been able to use their own weapons. (In an interview with The Onion AV, Blomkamp justifies the near-total absence of intelligent aliens by describing their psychology as hive-like, with thinkers and leaders like Christopher in the minority, but there's so little indication of this in the film itself, and the aliens we do get to know are so obviously human, that I can't help but feel that the film would make less sense if one incorporated this extraneous information into it.)

I've noted a lot of problems, some of them quite fundamental, in District 9's plot, structure, and character work, and yet despite this I found the film deeply enjoyable and engaging. When I think about how this could be it occurs to me that it's actually the film's flaws that come together and, intentionally or not, make it a success. Despite the action film structure that takes over the film's second half, I never warmed to Wikus as a hero. The character I cared about was Christopher Johnson, and the ending I wanted was for him to leave Earth and save his people. District 9 is just idiosyncratic enough, just sufficiently not a Hollywood film, that the aliens' salvation didn't seem a foregone conclusion, but enough of a traditional action film for Christopher Johnson to slot neatly into the role of the sidekick who dies so that the hero can live. I was thus genuinely nervous throughout the film, worried that my favorite character would be killed in service of the aggravating lead's heroism, and that that heroism would amount to nothing. It's pretty much impossible for a Hollywood action film to generate that kind of apprehension from me, but District 9 played with genre conventions just enough to get to me. As I said, I'm not sure that this was intentional, but it was certainly effective.

So how, in the end, to sum up District 9? On one level, the complaints I've listed here seem almost petty when one considers what the standard of storytelling and political commentary is in most effect-laden science fiction films. The simple fact that it didn't use a genocide as a means of developing a main character puts District 9 leagues ahead of Star Trek, which in turn makes it the most sophisticated and morally complex film to come out of this year's blockbuster season (not that that's not a sad commentary in itself). On the other hand, the very fact that District 9 aspires to something beyond the Star Trek-Transformers 2 axis means that it should be judged by harsher standards, and by those it is quite wanting--I haven't even touched on the film's treatment of race within humans, though I was appalled by its depiction of the Nigerian characters, a nameless mass of mobsters, pimps and cannibals. Once again, I find myself uncertain about the film--is it more laudable, or more regrettable? I hope that District 9 and its success are an indication that other filmmakers are going to make science fiction films with loftier goals than the ones we've become accustomed to, but I also hope that they are more successful than Neill Blomkamp at achieving them.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The City & The City by China Miéville

For China Miéville to name a novel The City & The City seems almost redundant, a meta-statement on his entire career. There is perhaps no other fantasy author who is as closely associated with cities as Miéville, and responsibility for the burgeoning popularity of urban landscapes in traditional fantasy (not to be confused with the urban fantasy subgenre) may very well be laid squarely at his feet. Cities, in Miéville's novels, have an existence that transcends their geography, inhabitants, and institutions. Their discovery, understanding, salvation or destruction is often at the crux of his plots. In his novels and stories, one encounters shadow cities, accessible only to a select, initiated few (King Rat, Un Lun Dun), cities disconnected from geography (The Scar, Iron Council), cities as living organisms, to whom humans are as barnacles on a whale's back ("Reports of Certain Events in London"), and, of course, the sprawling, dying metropolis of New Crobuzon, the love or hate of which is the driving emotion of nearly all the characters in the three Bas Lag novels. Every one of these elements turns up in The City & The City, which may represent Miéville's attempt at a definitive statement on fantasy cities, or even the fantasy genre.

The city and the city are Besźel and Ul Qoma, imaginary cities in the real world. Besźel is Eastern European, democratic but corrupt, and going to seed, its government desperately scrambling for American investment dollars with which to halt its slide into irrelevance. Ul Qoma is Middle Eastern, communist, and economically thriving, having leaped from the 19th century to the 21st in a matter of decades. They are the same place.
Sometime between two thousand and seventeen hundred years ago the city was founded, here in this curl of coastline. There are still remains from those times in the heart of the town, when it was a port hiding a few kilometers up the river to shelter from the pirates of the shore. The city's founding came at the same time as another's, of course. ... It may or may not have been Besźel, the we built, back then, while others may have been building Ul Qoma on the same bones. Perhaps there was one thing back then that later schismed on the ruins, or perhaps our ancestral Besźel had not yet met and standoffishly entwined its neighbor. I am not a student of the Cleavage, but if I were I still would not know.
Citizens of one city are taught from infancy to 'unsee' the other, until they can walk down 'crosshatched' streets, in which the cities intermingle, and sense only their own. Passage from city to city is permitted only through the Checkpoint Charlie-esque Copula Hall, and visitors and immigrants to either city must pass a weeks-long training course during which they are taught the fundamentals of unsight. This is all done to appease Breach, the all-seeing, all-powerful entity which enforces the separation between the cities. To acknowledge the existence of the other city, to cross over into it or pass anything to or from it, is to call on Breach, and those who do so are never heard from again.

The City & The City begins in Besźel, where inspector Tyador Borlú is tasked with solving the murder of a young woman. The case becomes a diplomatic hot potato when she turns out to be Mahalia Geary, an American archeologist based in Ul Qoma, whose presence in Besźel indicates that someone, either Mahalia or her murderer, committed Breach. When a technicality prevents Breach from taking over the case, Borlú must travel to Ul Qoma and partner with detective Qussim Dhatt. Together they discover that Mahalia, who was digging up mysterious and surprisingly advanced artifacts from the pre-Cleavage era, had alienated both officials and fringe groups--unificationists, who believe the two cities should be one, and nationalists, who espouse the supremacy of one city over another--in both cities in her pursuit of Orciny, the fabled third city which exists in the disputed zones between Besźel and Ul Qoma. Before long, other murders are committed or attempted, and powerful politicians begin to exert their influence on the investigation, leading Borlú to wonder whether Mahalia had indeed found Orciny.

Investigation, I wrote in my review of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, is "the exploration of the unfamiliar, and the detective, forced by his role to be both insider and outsider to his community, and to visit its various strata and subgroups, makes a perfect tour guide." In its first, Besźel-set segment, The City & The City, which recalls The Yiddish Policeman's Union in several respects, makes a similar use of Borlú, who teaches us his world, lecturing on everything from the procedure for invoking Breach to take over a criminal investigation to the methods of cross-city smuggling to the laws governing the licensing of vehicles for multiples passes through Copula Hall. Like many narrators of fantasy and science fiction stories, his narrative is peppered with opaque terms and references through which we learn Besźel's culture and norms. Those norms, however, are the norms of unseeing, and Borlú's goal as a tour guide is not to reveal but to obfuscate, to teach us, as tourists visiting Besźel or Ul Qoma are taught, to unsee. The more he tells us, the greater the blank spot at the center of his narrative looms--the nature of the two cities and the separation between them. The experience of reading the first part of The City & The City is therefore characterized by the disorientation that comes from trying to see beyond the narrator's deliberately narrow frame of reference, to look at the things he won't describe for us, to crane our necks at the things he turns away from.

This masterfully executed disorientation is Miéville's greatest achievement in The City & The City, and every time we become acclimated to it, he allows Borlú to see a little bit more of his world, and undermines the fragile understanding we had constructed of the novel's universe. In the Besźel segment, this happens when Borlú leaves the 'total' area in which Mahalia's body was found and moves into crosshatched streets, introducing us to the unique form the separation between the cities takes, but the disorientation is compounded even further when Borlú crosses into Ul Qoma. The deliberately limiting perspective of Borlú's narrative forces us to rely on real-world associations, so that despite Borlú's dismissal of comparisons between Besźel-Ul Qoma and separated cities such as East and West Berlin, it's hard not to imagine Copula Hall as a stopping point on one's journey from one geographic point to another. It is enormously wrong-footing, therefore, when Borlú, having made the crossing in Copula Hall, leaves by the same entrance through which he entered.
On our way there I had had the driver take us, to his raised eyebrows, a long way round to the Besźel entrance on a route that took us on KarnStrász. In Besźel it is an unremarkable shopping street in the Old Town, but it is crosshatched, somewhat in Ul Qoma's weight, the majority of buildings in our neighbor, and in Ul Qoma its topolganger is the historic, famous Ul Maidin Avenue, into which Copula Hall vents. ... I had unseen it as we took KarnStrász, at least ostensibly, but of course grosstopically present near us were the lines of Ul Qomans entering, the trickle of visitor-badge-wearing Besź emerging into the same physical space they may have walked an hour previously, but now looking in astonishment at the architecture of Ul Qoma it would have been breach to see before.
As the novel's plot and the investigation of Mahalia's murder progress, there are other wrong-footing moments of this type--Borlú pursuing a suspect who has crossed over to Besźel while Borlú is still in Ul Qoma, following him on crosshatched streets, seeing him only out of the corner of his eye; Borlú, having been taken by Breach and then sent back into the city to find Mahalia's murderer, realizing that he doesn't know which city he is in, and then that he is simultaneously in both and in neither. Each of these represent a leveling-up in our understanding of the city, another veil tugged aside to reveal the true nature of the city. And the more we learn about it, the clearer it becomes that that truth is entirely mundane, that there is no magic mandating the separation of the cities or the existence of Breach, but simply tradition and human perversity.

In their discussion of The City & The City, Niall Harrison and Dan Hartland felt that this mundaneness was a barrier to their enjoyment of the novel, as it forced them to read it as naturalistic, or at best allegorical, fiction. "[M]y argument with the book is precisely in the extent to which it is not fantasy or allegory. If The City & The City had been set in an invented world, or if it had created a secret, mythic world within our own, I suspect I would have found it (paradoxically) easier to believe in," Niall writes, and Dan says
The City & The City is [set in our world] ... For me, that’s where the book trips up — it situates its metaphor in a milieu too familiar. I didn’t believe in, as you say, the necessity of the separation because I didn’t believe the cities’ inhabitants would — not because people can’t be conditioned to accept something so absurd, but because people would never have made the separation, or sustained it, in the first place.
And in a conversation in e-mail, goes on to describe the novel's transition from suggesting the fantastic to suggesting the mundane as "confusion," an "inability [of the book] to define its own terms":
[The City & The City] wants to be read as fantasy some of the time and not at others, which ... makes a nonsense of at least one of its concepts. ... the rules by which the two cities operate, and by which their peoples perceive, are constantly suggested to be our own ... and yet it is frankly bonkers that human beings on planet Earth ever would behave - ever conceive to behave - in this way. Either, as you say, Mieville needed to make these cities Magic, or he needed to make them Make Sense by the rules of the world he chose to put them in - our own.
What Niall and Dan read as confusion, however, I see as a deliberate, and purposeful, dismantling of the fantasy genre and its core assumptions. As Dan points out, The City & The City combines elements of each of the four types of fantasy Farah Mendlesohn described in Rhetorics of Fantasy: "this fantasy is a portal quest (Copula Hall), yet it is also immersive (because we begin in the world and our POV character is part of that world); at the same time, it is intrusive — Breach and one city exist constantly at the edge of perception for inhabitants of the other — and liminal, since that gap between our world and the fantasy is never properly resolved." The better, I believe, to thoroughly undermine the genre when it's revealed that there is no border between the cities except in their inhabitants' minds, and that Breach is no more magical than any other civil authority (though Miéville cheats a bit by ascribing, and describing, near magical powers to Breach in the novel's earlier segments which aren't sufficiently explained by the organization's actual structure when we get a closer look at it). When Besźel, Ul Qoma, and Breach are revealed to be mundane or nonexistant, Miéville has not simply subverted fantasy but the specific fantasy archetypes he had encouraged us to identify in the novel's earlier segments, and so too has he subverted the fantastic city tropes he's made such memorable use of in his previous novels, each of which The City & The City, as I've noted above, recalls. This, however, does not make The City & The City a mimetic novel or even a novel confused about its genre--it is fantastic precisely because it is such a deliberate anti-fantasy.

In most fantasy novels, the very suggestion of a secret city is a guarantee of its existence, and Miéville gestures heavily in this direction by stressing the unusual nature of the pre-Cleavage artifacts Mahalia and her colleagues were uncovering--your classic wisdom of a lost age scenario. But though Borlú and Dhatt discover that Mahalia was in contact with Orciny, this turns out to have been a trick. There is no third city, and the identity of the novel's actual villains feels like the end of The Scar writ large. In that novel, the creatures pursuing Armada are assumed to have mystical, alien motivations--the retrieval of a holy and perhaps magical artifact--but their interest turns out to be purely economic, their quarry a spy who has stolen trade secrets. Similarly, in The City & The City the people who presented themselves to Mahalia as representatives of Orciny are using her to steal artifacts so they can sell them to American R&D companies, whose representative is flatly dismissive of the Besźel-Ul Qoma-Breach mystique.
"I'm neither interested in nor scared of you. I'm leaving. 'Breach.'" He shook his head. "Freak show. You think anyone beyond these odd little cities cares about you? They may bankroll you and do what you say, ask no questions, they may need to be scared of you, but no one else does." He sat next to the pilot and strapped himself in. "Not that I think you could, but I strongly suggest you and your colleagues don't try to stop this vehicle. 'Grounded.' What do you think would happen if you provoked my government? It's funny enough the idea of either Besźel of Ul Qoma going to war against a real country. Let alone you, Breach."
The emotional arc of someone reading The City & The City should be a transition from the anticipation of fantasy to the recognition of mundaneness, culminating in this scene, which thoroughly skewers the genre and irrefutably places the two cities in the real world. Which means that a core flaw in the novel is that a reader who approaches it as a mimetic novel, or who takes the novel's real-world setting and mostly mundane trappings as an indication that it should be read as metaphor or an allegory, will circumvent that arc, which may result in an entirely flat reading experience. It's one of the pitfalls of novels that subvert genre tropes that they rely on readers having the expectation of those tropes to begin with, which is not a very safe assumption in the case of a novel that veers as far from the outer trappings of a traditional fantasy novel as The City & The City does.

I suspect that Niall and Dan's difficulties with the novel stem from this kind of expectation mismatch, but I also wonder whether they approached The City & The City as they did because they expected it to be a political novel. It's telling, I think, that their discussion touches on politics, whereas my reading leaves no room for it. And yet, given the novel's emphasis on borders, its obvious real-world parallels, and the fact that the man at the wheel is China Miéville, the expectation of a political subtext is by no means unreasonable. It's hard to imagine, though, what the novel's message might be unless it is this: that real-world communities often divide along lines of culture, religion, or ethnicity which seem as immutable as the Besźel-Ul Qoma split, and whose enforcers seem almost as difficult to gainsay as Breach, but that these divisions are often primarily in the mind. As Niall and Dan note, however, boundaries are necessary for maintaining a culture's integrity, and the novel itself seems to be aware of this, most particularly in the character of the American executive, whose above-quoted speech hints at the cities' future as wholly-owned subsidiaries of more powerful, more dominant cultures should they ever surrender their collective illusion that there is a force that sets them apart from the world. Certainly the novel's ending, in which Borlú joins Breach, suggests that he sees the value of the organization despite, or perhaps even because, he comprehends its mundaneness.

Getting back to my review of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, one of my reservations about that book is that for all the novelty of combining a noir-tinged detective story with an alternate history, the two elements, when considered on their own, were rather predictably drawn. "Chabon seems to feel," I wrote, "that the act of piling genre on top of genre forces him to color within the lines of both." A similar conservatism can be observed in The City & The City, and very much to its detriment. By this point in his career it's possible to argue that for China Miéville to dismantle fantasy tropes is coloring within the lines. He does so more brashly in The City & The City, however, than in his previous novels, and his execution is fine enough to make up for any predictability in theme. Sadly, no similar excellence characterizes the mystery aspect of the novel, which is slack and unengaging. Surprisingly for an author who has in the past written incredibly tense chase and action scenes, there are few pulse-pounding moments in The City & The City, and the closest thing to a chase scene, Borlú's pursuit of a man who is in a different city than him, is more concerned with establishing the weirdness of what is happening that with accelerating the readers' heart rate, though it could be that the novel is by its nature, and because of its focus on Borlú's narrow point of view, too muted and airless to sustain much excitement.

Even worse, however, is the absence of tension in the mystery itself. The plot is drawn along predictable lines: young, female victim in whom the detective becomes invested, political interference in the investigation, dastardly secret uncovered by the victim, which leads back to a conspiracy of the rich and powerful. It's pretty easy to guess the beats of such a story, which means that the pleasure of it is found in the execution, which in Miéville's hands is clumsy. In the first, Besźel-set segment the investigation is mostly concerned with finding out who the victim was and who she associated with, with Borlú and his officer, Lizbyet Corwi, pounding the pavement and chasing down leads. Miéville doesn't do a good enough job of filtering out the drudgery that makes up most of actual police work--probably because he uses that drudgery as a delivery method for Borlú's lectures about Besźel and the mechanics of unsight. Similarly, when Borlú and Corwi do come across a new piece of information, it's often buried beneath the exposition Miéville needs to establish the nature of the Besźel-Ul Qoma split--when the two interview a unificationist who knew Mahalia, he gives them a lot of concrete information about his movement, but only hints and insinuations about her. With no emotional hook to the investigation--Mahalia's parents don't show up until relatively late in this segment--the only thrill comes when Borlú makes a neat deduction about how Mahalia's body was transported from Ul Qoma to Besźel.

There a few more neat deductions of this type when Borlú continues his investigation in Ul Qoma, and the investigation does pick up the pace in this segment. What's still missing, however, is the very crux of a detective novel--a sense of urgency, the readers' need to know who, where, how and most especially why. In The City & The City, all that blood is flowing to the fantasy aspect, the question of what the cities are and why they are separated. Miéville does very little to invest readers in Mahalia or the injustice of her murder (the closest he comes is when her devastated father commits Breach in order to investigate the murder himself, but the Gearys are soon shuffled off the page), and even less to build up to the revelation of her murderer. The man in charge in the conspiracy is a faceless politician whom we meet once, very nearly in passing, before Borlú identifies him as the ringleader, and who is killed soon after. When this solution is revealed as a false bottom, with Borlú concluding that the dead man wasn't smart enough to have fooled Mahalia, we have to take his word for it. The actual murderer is revealed in an excruciatingly slow scene in which Borlú narrates every single detail of the crime to the person who committed it. For most of the novel, the weakness of the mystery is a minor concern because we're too busy figuring out the nature of Borlú's world, but Miéville wraps up the fantasy aspect twenty pages before he wraps up the mystery, and these leave a bad taste in the reader's mouth.

Like Iron Council, I find The City & The City easier to admire than enjoy. Its thorough dismantling of fantasy tropes is an impressive technical achievement, but there's not much satisfaction to be wrung out of the revelation that there is no revelation. Though the weakness of the detective story isn't enough to scuttle the novel, it may be what's keeping it from true greatness--if the inventive, challenging premise had been matched with a genuinely rollicking plot, the latter might have compensated for Miéville's deliberate failure to pay off the expectations he himself raises. Miéville's adult novels have been moving towards a more reflective, solipsistic attitude towards fantasy, and there's a growing sense that he views subverting fantasy as a goal in its own right rather than a means to an end--as it was in King Rat, Perdido Street Station, and The Scar. The results have been impressive but chilly. One hopes, therefore, that even if The City & The City represents Miéville's definitive statement on fantasy and its cities, it isn't his definitive statement on storytelling.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2009 Edition

One of the blessings for the Jewish new year (and a happy 5770 to those celebrating it) is 'let the year and its curses end; let the year and its blessings begin.' There's a similar failure to learn from experience at work, I think, in the fall pilot season. Every year, producers and viewers alike line up excitedly to present or review the new crop of shows. And sure, there'll be a decent one or two in there, but also a lot of dross to wade through, most of it made up of clones of last year's success stories or remakes of the last decade's hits. Most of the heavy hitters (and the returning shows) won't begin their seasons until next week, but here are my thoughts on a few of the new shows which have had their premieres in the first half of the month.
  • Glee - From Television Without Pity to The New York Times, everyone has lined up to crown this show, about a high school teacher who resurrects his school's glee club and the group of misfits and losers who join it, one of the best debuts of the fall. Having watched the pilot when it aired last spring, I was at a bit of a loss to see what the excitement was about. Partly this was due to the show's premise straining my suspension of disbelief--in my high school, the beautiful kids who could sing and dance were admired, not mocked, and though there are obviously some cultural differences at play (we didn't have football teams or cheerleaders, for one thing) I find it hard to believe that things are so different in the US. Mostly, though, the problem was that the show didn't seem to know what tone it wanted to strike. Was it a saccharine High School Musical clone for people too proud to watch the Disney Channel, or something sharper and more cynical? The pilot episode owes so many debts to Election that it borders on plagiarism, and yet repeatedly sugarcoats what in that film was coal-black comedy--the male lead's dimness, the female lead's ambition, their teacher's curdled aspirations and unhappy marriage. The result was a story that constantly reached for a clever subversiveness and then chickened out.

    The two episodes that have aired this fall represent a massive improvement, with the show shifting into absurdist, over the top humor (Jane Lynch, as the psychotic cheerleading coach who reminisces about her time in Special Forces as she plots to bring glee club down, is the show's greatest asset in this respect) which sits better with the sweetness of its plots and character arcs. With a bit of luck, Glee could settle into the fusion of earnest, wholesome emotion and surreal, occasionally raunchy humor that made Pushing Daisies such a delight. As others have noted, it's a shame that for an alleged ensemble show Glee is placing such an emphasis on the (white, beautiful, straight, able-bodied) leads and short-changing the (black, Asian, gay, paralyzed) supporting members of the club, but I'm hoping that as the season progresses these characters too will get storylines. Right now, my main complaint about the show is that the musical numbers are far too processed, often comprising twice the number of vocalists and musicians as are actually on stage. If you've got actual Broadway singers in your cast, why not let them, and not the production booth, shine? That and the fact that Victor Garber and Deborah Monk have appeared in guest roles, and yet neither one of them has sung a note. Fix that, show.

  • The Vampire Diaries - Despite being a blatant, and by all accounts entirely successful, attempt to cash in on the Twilight craze (lousy as it was, one can't help but feel sorry for the producers of Moonlight--one year later and they would have had a surefire hit on their hands), The Vampire Diaries is best described as a supernatural version of Roswell--an ensemble teen soap led by a painfully wooden, diary-writing brunette who falls in love with a mysterious and dangerous alien/vampire, and who will no doubt drag her entire social set into his world as they negotiate their forbidden romance (the pilot hits the first few of these beats in a thoroughly perfunctory manner, spending most of its energy on long, lingering looks between the female lead and her equally acting-impaired love interest). So though I do feel that it's a little unfair to launch into a prematurely geriatric rant about how we had a better class of vampire show when I was a teenager, because clearly The Vampire Diaries isn't even trying to be as witty or as subversive as Buffy, even a comparison with Roswell--by no means a brilliant, well-written, or competently-acted series--isn't particularly kind to The Vampire Diaries. Roswell's characters at least had a bit of vivaciousness, through which they occasionally transcended the uninteresting stories they were handed, whereas the pop songs on its soundtrack are far more memorable than any of The Vampire Diaries's characters, even the supposedly charismatic, deliciously evil villain. The closest this show comes to being vivacious or even interesting is when its actresses are arrested for flashing motorists near their set.

  • Community - There's nothing really wrong with this half-hour comedy about Jeff, a chronic, amoral liar who is stripped of his (fake) law degree and forced to go to community college to earn a real one, and in fact it gets a lot of things right. A true ensemble show, it puts together a group of memorable characters and gives each of them a chance to come to the fore, and as Jeff, Joel McHale pulls off the tricky feat of winning us over to his character's side through charm and sheer chutzpah, while making it clear that both conceal nothing but emptiness. Still, there's something off. The pilot is witty and at points quite funny, but like its main character, it is also slick and shallow. There's potential for a lot of uncomfortable humor in Community's premise--it's a story about a pathological liar who is finally being called on his bullshit--but the show never truly seems to commit to it, and instead of inviting revulsion at Jeff's soullessness, or schadenfreude at his finally being called to account for his lies, or even sympathy with his amoral stance, it remains flippant and sitcommy. The only moment of genuine emotion comes in the closing credits, which after an episode that makes a dozen or so references to The Breakfast Club dedicate the pilot to the memory of John Hughes. Community is funny, but it needed to be a hell of a lot funnier than it is for me to ignore its emotional flatness. In general, sitcoms take a while to grow on me, and an ensemble show like Community clearly needs more than 22 minutes to find its voice, so I'm willing to give the show a few more episodes before I make a final decision, but right now I'm not feeling terribly excited.

  • Bored to Death - I admire the nerve of a writer who names their series Bored to Death, but I'm afraid the name hits too close to my reaction to HBO's newest comedy. Jason Schwartzman plays Jonathan, a writer and part-time gossip columnist who deals with a breakup, his inability to follow up his first novel, and his general ennui by placing an ad on Craigslist offering his services as a detective. But as the man said, the problem isn't being bored, it's being boring. It's not simply that Jonathan is, as a character in the pilot points out, "another self-hating New York Jew." He's also a neurotic, narcissistic man-child with verbal diarrhea, the attention span of a puppy, and not the slightest hint of a spine. If that weren't unappealing enough, his best friend is an unkempt, loud-mouthed slacker straight out of Judd Apatow's rejected ideas pile. Why anyone, much less the gorgeous, seemingly normal woman whose departure sends Jonathan on his path towards a life of crime-solving, would want to spend more than a few minutes in his presence is a mystery in itself, though it is telling that most of the characters Jonathan encounters are either high or seek to become so within seconds of meeting him. I think the only way for Bored to Death to become more appealing is for viewers to follow that example.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why I Won't Be Watching Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino is in Israel this week to promote his Holocaust action-comedy-exploitation film Inglourious Basterds, and this afternoon he gave a press conference. Film blogger and critic Yair Raveh live-blogged the event, including Tarantino's response to the inevitable question of whether there are red lines in filmmaking, and whether the Holocaust lies beyond them. (It should be noted that this is my translation from Hebrew of Raveh's no doubt hasty translation of Tarantino's English answer, so I may be losing meaning and nuance. The gist, however, seems quite clear.) (UPDATE: Raveh has posted a video of the press conference.)
I've been asked why I didn't make a Holocaust film. Well, I did make a Holocaust film. But I think that in the last twenty years Holocaust films have been very depressing [the literal translation of Raveh's text is 'bummer,' and I'm not sure what Tarantino's original word choice was] because their focus was on victimization. I came at it from another direction. I didn't work in the Holocaust film genre but in the adventure film genre.
Since watching its trailer several months ago it's been my goal to ignore, as much as possible, the existence of Inglourious Basterds. I had much the same reaction to the trailer and to the film's basic concept as I did to Becoming Jane several years ago--a dull, incoherent rage--but felt that to speak with any authority on the film I would have to watch it, which I most fervently did not want to do. Better just to leave it alone, I decided. Which means that I have no one but myself to blame for even reading Raveh's report from the press conference. Having done so, however, the rage is back, as incoherent as ever. It's a happy coincidence, therefore, that Sady Doyle should choose today to discuss Inglourious Basterds (in an aside to a post about Michael Moore) and in so doing hit on some of what makes me uncomfortable about the film's premise:
Tarantino seems to have moved from flat-out nihilism to nihilism disguised as empowerment, in recent years. ... the thought of [him] applying this to World War Fucking Two was really not appealing to me. I’ve heard there’s not even that much violence in the movie, that it’s all talk-talk-talk, that it’s mostly about a girl, and you know what? Super. Great. Did you get the requisite foot fetish scene in, QT? Oh, you totally did? Awesome. But here’s the thing I can’t get around: the feeling that it’s using World War Two as a setting and Nazis as villains, not so that Quentin Tarantino can actually deal with the sobering realities of genocide and the human need for revenge and resistance, but so that literally anything the good guys do will be considered justifiable. Basically, I think he’s using the Holocaust to write himself a blank check.
Which is an important point, but honestly doesn't even come close to covering all the ways in which Inglourious Basterds makes me uncomfortable. There's the stark, either/or choice the film presents between victimization and monstrousness. There's the apparent assumption that the dourness of previous Holocaust films is a bug rather than a feature. There's the triumphalism of the film's premise and particularly its ending, which seems to implicitly criticize real-life victims of the Holocaust and minimize its horror. Most of all, there is, as Tarantino himself says, the use of a Holocaust setting to tell an adventure story. To hear him tell it, the 'Holocaust film' is a genre, and he's simply taken its tropes and transplanted them to another genre. Even ignoring the fact that this genre does not suit the history it's appropriating (Tarantino is, after all, hardly the first filmmaker to twist history to fit a story it doesn't support) I find this notion, of the Holocaust as fodder, not a story in its own right but the raw material from which other stories can be constructed, utterly risible.

Perhaps even more aggravating than any of these issues, however, is the fact that it is so obviously a mug's game to criticize a Quentin Tarantino film on ideological grounds. You have to be prepared to be called a humorless killjoy for overanalyzing a humble action film, and then, if you point out that fun is being wrung out of the systematic murder of six million people, to be told that the triumphalism and empowerment of the film's plot justifies its exploitation of that history. It's a film, in other words, that defeats criticism first by asking us to ignore its historical associations, and then by trading on them. All the while, of course, it basks in a coolness so arctic that simply to suggest that it might be problematic is to distinguish oneself as hopelessly uncouth. Tarantino films are all about ironic distance--from violence, from emotion, from the campy trash he loves to imitate and recreate. To take them seriously enough to criticize on moral grounds is to relinquish that distance, and therefore to be Watching It Wrong--you've lost the game before you even started playing.

There are some huge caveats that need to be made here, and the first is, once again, that I haven't seen Inglourious Basterds. This post is about the impression I've formed of it from its promotional material and the critical response to it, and that impression may be partly or wholly mistaken. The second, and more important, is that I'm drawing the boundaries of acceptable depictions of the Holocaust much closer than I would for other historical tragedies because it has a personal association for me. To be honest, I'm comfortable with this attitude, and can at least claim that I'm not a Johnny-come-lately to it. Even back when the entire state of Israel seemed united in a collective plotz over Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, I was eying it dubiously, and though, once again, I haven't seen the film, I suspect that critic Kobi Niv is on to something when he suggests, in his polemical and probably over-argued book Life is Beautiful, But Not For the Jews, that the reason for its popularity is simply that everyone, no matter their religion, loves a good crucifixion story. Still, the fact remains that there is a broader question of how or even whether to glorify or enjoy violence, whether in blatantly fantastical action films or in straight-faced historical films. Though I make no apologies for treating the Holocaust as a special case, it may be that I need to take a closer look at my reaction to violence in other films, and particularly ones that trade on real world tragedies that aren't part of my history.

With those caveats in place, let me just reiterate the reason I won't be watching Inglourious Basterds. It seems to me that Tarantino's answer to the perfectly legitimate questioning of his choice to make a Holocaust exploitation film is to fall back on artistic freedom as the highest possible virtue, to essentially ask "Can't I use the shape of the Holocaust, devoid of its truth, its horror, its moral lessons, to tell any kind of story I want?" To which my answer--and you may very well have a different one--is: No, you can't.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sarah Hall Roundtable

Not to be confused with the Lavinia conversation, in the last couple of weeks I've also been participating in a discussion of Sarah Hall's recent, Booker-longlisted novel How to Paint a Dead Man, organized by Ed Champion and including Frances Dinkelspiel, Sarah Weinman, Miracle Jone, Mark Athitakis, Peggy Nelson, Brian Francis Slattery, Kathleen Maher, Anna Clark, Jenny Davidson, Michael Schaub, Amy Riley, Traver Kauffman, Judith Zissman, and Anne Fernald. Ed has all five parts of the discussion up at his blog, including, in the last one, a response from Hall herself.

Also of potential interest: my review of Hall's previous novel The Carhullan Army (Daughters of the North in the US), part of my review of the 2008 Arthur C. Clarke Award nominees, at Strange Horizons.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A Discussion About Lavinia, Part 3

Earlier this summer, Niall Harrison organized a discussion of Ursula K. Le Guin's most recent novel, Lavinia, with Nic Clarke, Jo Coleman, Adam Roberts, and myself. The first and second parts of the discussion are up at Torque Control and Punkadiddle, respectively, and part four should be up shortly at Nic and Jo's blog, Eve's Alexandria (UPDATE: here it is). Here is part 3.

Abigail Nussbaum: I have to wonder just to what degree we're justified in calling Lavinia a fantasy. Jo and Nic both point out the natural magic of Lavinia's religion, but it seems just as valid to me to read these descriptions as being of Lavinia's worldview as they are of the actual world she is living in. What I liked about the descriptions of religion in the novel was that they depicted people for whom the divine is mixed with mundane, for whom gods are a constantly palpable presence whose influence intrudes on their lives through dreams and omens. But I don't think it's necessary for us to believe that those gods are real, even within the novel. One of the few things I really liked about the HBO series Rome was that it depicted, with complete respect and sympathy, people who walked with their gods, without ever asking us to believe that those gods existed, and I think that Lavinia does the same. What's important is that Lavinia sees the world in a certain way, and how that perspective affects her values and decisions. Obviously this reading becomes harder to support as the novel draws to a close, but it is also in those scenes that the metafictional aspect of the novel comes to the forefront, so again it doesn't seem completely clear-cut to me that we're dealing with a fantasy.

Niall Harrison: Gary Wolfe's review is interesting on the question of fantasy, I think:
What's even more shrewd is the manner in which Le Guin addresses the fantastical elements of the tale. Gods and goddesses, and Juno in particular, have their paw-prints all over the events of Virgil's epic, but as Le Guin reminds us in an afterword, she's writing a novel, and Ritalin-deprive meddlesome gods don't work too well in a modern novel, so she simply omits them (some might argue with her assertion about gods and novels, but it's certainly true of the novel she's written here). What she offers in their place are some surprisingly postmodern fantasy techniques that work to give her narrative a vibrant contemporary sensibility: Lavinia, the narrator, doesn't hear from the gods, but she does hear from the aging Virgil himself, dying centuries in the future, and more important, she's aware that she's largely Virgil's creation.
Jo Coleman: I'm interested by the question of Le Guin allowing ghosts, but no gods, into her novel. I think I'm less comfortable than the rest of you about Le Guin making the decision to eliminate the gods in the first place. Perhaps they would be unworkable in a novel format, and I certainly take Adam's point about Greco-Roman gods belonging in a lyrical and not a narrative form. And she is, after all, writing about a time pre-Rome where gods were not personified in the first place. I love Lavinia and the Poet's discussion about Juno, for example. Le Guin makes the distinction between the idea of gods as powers, as it would have been for Lavinia, and the idea of gods as people, as it was for the Romans, beautifully.

And yet -- I think for me, I am still missing a true sense of the gods as powers as a "historical" Lavinia would have experienced it. Whilst I, like Adam, praise Le Guin's portrayal of Lavinia's Being-in-the-world, I can't see being in the world, and being in the world with gods/spirits in it, as mutually exclusive. Or at least, perhaps I can, but I am not convinced that the ancient Italians would have been able to. And therefore it seems to me entirely arbitrary to portray the inner world of a woman to whom gods and spirits are an integral part of daily life, as Le Guin does so well, and avoid portraying the gods and spirits within that daily life -- if, after all, you're going to have a ghost turning up there.

For us now, to encounter a ghost is not impossible, it's supernatural that belongs on the edge of natural. But to encounter a god, to have a chat with one while spending time in a forest, that's something thoroughly out of natural. This, for me, is a contemporary mindset that Le Guin maintains -- gods in the dreams, fair enough, and ghosts in the world. But I don't believe it's a distinction that would have occurred to the ancient Italians, and that's where, for me, the novel falls down. It's as if Le Guin attempted to keep the novel closer to history than fantasy in keeping the gods from the action, but for me, it has the opposite effect -- it becomes less historically accurate and more of a fantasy, but a fantasy created from limitations.

As Abigail points out, Lavinia shows us people for whom gods and spirits are a presence in their lives, but doesn't demand that the reader believe in them. But doesn't it demand that the reader "believe" in ghosts, at least to a certain extent? It demands that the reader take ghosts seriously. I suppose the problem that I'm trying to articulate is that I can't accept a literary ghost would have been the core or essential guide to an ancient Italian woman interacting daily with her own ancestors and nature spirits.

Nic Clarke: You make several very good points. I agree that the distinction between ghosts and gods is overplayed; everything I've read (albeit about later periods) suggests that different elements of the supernatural were viewed as equally possible, if not equally common. I liked Abigail's point about the way the novel shows us a society that believes in gods, without expecting us to do the same. I can completely understand why Le Guin chose to remove the gods. I have two problems with this, however. (Actually three, but Jo already expressed one of them very well: Abigail's point notwithstanding, I'm sceptical about trying to separate the natural and supernatural realms if we're seeing the world through the eyes of a pre-modern character, because there was no such distinction.) The first -- and I accept that it's a very personal one -- is that I was thrown out of the narrative in the places where I knew the gods had been excised. For example:
But Turnus himself was nowhere. After killing Pallas, he disappeared. No man I ever talked to knew what became of him during the long hour that Aeneas stalked him through the battlefield, challenging him, calling out to him to come fight. No doubt he was resting, catching his breath somewhere up the hill in the shade, but he chose a strange time to do it. (143)
This is clearly the incident in book X of the poem, where Juno petitions Jupiter to let her rescue (her favourite) Turnus. Likewise, a later reference to Aeneas' "uncanny" escape from Diomedes at Troy is Aphrodite's intervention on her half-divine son's behalf in the Iliad; it strikes me only now, writing this, that removing the gods removes some of the most important and active female players in the original story.

Which takes me to my second, also rather personal, problem: I missed the gods. I enjoy them in the original both for the interplay between them -- an extra layer of human drama, albeit mostly up in the sky, mirroring the emotions and conflicts down below -- and for the insight their presence gives us to the conceptual-world of those who told and retold these stories. So much of the surviving literature of this nature shows an intense interest, even a fatalism, about the operations of fate and/or chance -- whether a hero lives or dies on a given day, whether he is remembered -- and I think that ditching the gods sacrifices some of this. Although, clearly, Le Guin seeks (and finds) her tale's joy and pathos elsewhere, in the much more fully developed (and rather lovely) relationship between Lavinia and Turnus.

Niall Harrison: I don't think the relationship of Lavinia and the fantastic is straightforward; I think we're more forced to ask "to what extent is this fantasy?” than "is this fantasy?”, because there are several different levels at which the fantastic can be perceived within the story. First, you have the characters' belief in their gods. I'm with Abigail, in that I don't think it's necessary for us to believe said gods are real within the novel; yet despite Le Guin's afterword, I think you there is space for a reader to believe they are acting within the world of the novel if they want. Second, you have the overtly magical occurrences within the story, of which the most obvious is Virgil's shield. Third, you have Virgil's appearances. These raise the question of exactly what world Lavinia is existing in, and I'm not absolutely certain the book delivers a clear answer. Lavinia's world is not historically realistic; but it's not purely the world of Virgil's imagination, either; it's something in-between.

Jo Coleman: I agree that the world of Lavinia lies somewhere in between historical accuracy and the world of Virgil's imagination. I think that for me, what is historical about the novel -- the day to day life, as we have said, the vivid details of food and love and war and work -- are wonderfully effective. What is more fantastic -- the idyllic portrayals of nature, Virgil in the forest, isn't, because it seems to me to be rooted in thoroughly modern fantasy. In other words, I suppose what I'm trying to say is the following paradoxical statement -- I simply don't find the fantasy elements of the novel historically accurate.

Abigail Nussbaum: I'm interested in Niall and Jo's observations about the different kinds of fantasy in the novel, since in my reading it never occurred to me to describe the novel as drawing a distinction between gods and ghosts. At the risk of sounding like the worst sort of literal-minded genre reader, I never thought of Virgil's presence in the novel as being an aspect of the fantastic (which is why I have trouble calling Lavinia a fantasy). Rather it seemed to me like the sort of metafictional game that is by no means uniquely fantastic (Karen Joy Fowler used something similar in her recent Wit's End, a quasi-mystery novel). Lavinia is a person, but she's also a character in Virgil's story. The tension of the novel -- at least in its first half -- is derived in part from the gap between the character Virgil created (who wasn't, as he himself realizes, a character at all, and certainly didn't capture the real person's complexity) and the real woman.

Niall Harrison: There are many ways in which I like Virgil's appearances. As I've already said, I think they're an extremely elegant way of getting through to people who don't know the source material, like me; and part of me responds strongly to the sense of Story itself as a fantastical intervention, occasionally touching on and shaping the world in which Lavinia lives. I respond very strongly to those lyric moments, just as I respond very strongly to Lavinia's foreknowledge, how that gives her at various times both power and uncertainty. Yet in the end I wonder whether the novel wouldn't have been better without Virgil, whether he doesn't just take the place of the gods that Le Guin deemed to have no place in her story; whether his explicit presence, rather than an implicit presence, doesn't limit the whole just a little.

But of course, Lavinia without Virgil would be a very different book, and I don't know that I'd enjoy it as much.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing: Sense and Sensibility Thoughts

I've been promising myself to write something substantial about Sense and Sensibility since before I even had a blog, and one of the reasons I've taken so long getting around to doing so is that it tends to fall through the cracks. It's not a perennial favorite like Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion, nor a work I didn't get along with in my teens, and which I can set myself the goal of reengaging with as an adult as I did with Mansfield Park and Emma (and really, it is time to try to do the same with Northanger Abbey as I promised I'd do only two years ago). I liked Sense and Sensibility when I first read it (though at least some of that affection is due to the transcendent Emma Thompson/Ang Lee adaptation which I watched soon after finishing the book for the first time) and I come back to it every now and then, but not so much with the enthusiasm one feels when returning to a beloved work as with a grim determination to finally, once and for all, work the novel out. This is to sound rather negative about what is, after all, as fine and well-observed a work as any of Austen's novels (though stylistically I think it may be her weakest--the humor is a little belabored, and the plot flags in the middle segments) but my problem with it is simply that I'm not sure what Austen is saying, and have a sneaking suspicion that I wouldn't like it if I did.

Sady Doyle, in a characteristically thoughtful and insightful post about Sense and Sensibility (as part of a series about books by, for and about women, which also encompasses Little Women and Valley of the Dolls) calls it "a comedy about sadness, and how to get through it intact." This strikes me as an accurate but incomplete observation. Doyle is right to point out Austen's deliberate contrasting of the ways in which the Dashwood sisters, pragmatic Elinor and romantic Marianne, deal with their romantic disappointments--Marianne weeps and wails and takes to her bed and in general gives as much trouble as she can to the people who love her; Elinor conceals her pain and tries to medicate it with activity and concern for others--but the comparison between the two sisters' temperaments and outlooks is in place even before these disappointments occur. Long before she gets around to prescribing the correct way of dealing with heartbreak, Austen is prescribing the correct way of being in love. While Elinor reveals only the barest hints of her affection for Edward Ferrars, Marianne cries her love for the roguish Willoughby from the mountaintops, and whereas Elinor has other activities and interests to occupy her in Edward's absence, for Marianne, love is as feverish and all-consuming as grief.

When Marianne, in the novel's moral climax, having survived not only Willoughby's abandonment but a near-fatal illness to which her surrender to grief left her vulnerable, compares her behavior unfavorably with Elinor's, it's easy to conclude that Sense and Sensibility is, as Doyle says, a story about the choice between controlling your emotions and wallowing in them. This is not, however, the only axis on which Marianne's behavior is found wanting. As central to the novel as the question of whether to control emotion is the question of whether to display it. At first glance, it may seem that the two dilemmas can be folded into one, but to do so, we have to ignore the novel's historical context, in which the finding and getting of husbands is not simply a romantic pursuit, but a business, and sometimes a necessity of survival. In this context the question of whether to reveal, conceal, or even feign, emotion is not simply a moral one, but a matter of calculated pursuit.

It is a calculation which very nearly every character in the novel but the Dashwood sisters makes at one point or another, and which the sisters themselves find deeply mortifying. Early in the novel, the girls' mother haughtily exclaims at a neighbor's joking assertion that Marianne has Willoughby in her sights. "I do not believe ... that Mr. Willoughby will be incommoded by the attempts of either of my daughters towards what you call catching him. It is not an employment to which they have been brought up. Men are very safe with us, let them be ever so rich." So that when Marianne rejects Elinor's criticism of the uninhibited display of her affection for Willoughby, she's doing so not simply because of her self-absorbed determination to impose her feelings on her general surroundings, but because she takes Elinor's reproach as an admonition to stick by the Regency version of The Rules--play hard to get, make the guy jump through hoops of gold before you show any affection. Similarly, Elinor's growing closeness to Edward, and later on her friendship with Colonel Brandon, are perceived by both her friends and enemies as an attempts to draw the two men in and land herself a wealthy husband. With romantic and mercenary considerations so intimately linked, it's no wonder that both of the Dashwood sisters find it difficult to know just where the happy medium between too demonstrative and too reserved is.

Against Elinor and Marianne's struggle to behave honorably in the unforgiving arena of husband-hunting, Austen sets the character of Lucy Steele (or, more precisely, she sets Lucy and her sister Nancy, who like the Dashwood sisters make up a duo of one observant, controlled sister, and one demonstrative, unheeding one). To the unsuspecting observer, Lucy preforms the role of the perfect fusion of the two sisters--romantically overcome by Edward's charms like Marianne, and cautiously concealing their attachment and planning for their future like Elinor--and this is only one of the many performances--of helplessness, gratitude, self-sacrifice, generosity, and regard for others--that Lucy puts on in order to secure the affections and support of everyone she meets in her single-minded pursuit of financial security. And the thing is, I love her. She is Austen's most fascinating villain, and may well be one of her most interesting characters.

In my first rereading of Sense and Sensibility as an adult, I was bowled away by Lucy, and by the impression she creates of there being a shadow novel, a sort of proto-Vanity Fair starring Lucy in the Becky Sharpe role, stomping over broken hearts and ruined lives on her way to respectability. Lucy plays the game that Elinor and Marianne are too proud to acknowledge like a pro, taking advantage of vanity and honesty alike in her manipulations of everyone she meets. The scene in which she confides with Elinor about her engagement to Edward is a tiny masterpiece of psychological torture, with Lucy, always simpering with deference and feigned simplicity, hammering in one proof after another of her claim on Edward while subtly sowing doubts in Elinor's heart as to Edward's feelings for her and his character. In so doing, she places Elinor in the position of having to not only impassively listen to accounts of Edward's engagement to another woman, but to assist in that engagement's consummation, for fear of giving away her true feelings and compromising her honor. Though it's probably giving Lucy too much credit to say that she engineers the Ferrarses' making a pet of her as a way of slighting Elinor, whom they believe to be the object of Edward's affection, she certainly doesn't fail to take advantage of the situation, and when her engagement is revealed and Edward is cast off by his family with nothing, she leverages even that debacle to her advantage, and ends up married to his now independently wealthy brother Robert. We never get a glimpse of Lucy's internal monologue, and her external one is deliberately insipid, but given this virtuoso performance it's hard not to suspect that that placid exterior conceals a sharp intellect and keen powers of observation--Elizabeth Bennet on her meanest day, or Mary Crawford at her most designing, except much coarser (though that coarseness probably has something to do with having had to claw her way even to the genteel poverty that Elinor and Marianne take for granted)--and even Elinor, though despising Lucy's methods, acknowledges her skills, calls her "better than half her sex," and envisions Edward's life with her as comfortable and well-managed, albeit loveless.

Alone among Austen's villains and romantic rivals, Lucy triumphs, and not only does she triumph, but so complete is her victory that she can afford to be magnanimous in it, and let small fry Edward go while she enjoys the bigger fish she's landed. The letter in which she releases Edward from their engagement is, once again, a tiny masterpiece, and in its own way may very well be the most honest piece of communication between men and women in any of Austen's novels:
Being sure I have long lost your affections, I have thought myself at liberty to bestow my own on another, and have no doubt of being as happy with him as I once used to think I might be with you; but I scorn to accept a hand while the heart was another's. Sincerely wish you happy in your choice, and it shall not be my fault if we are not always good friends
You don't love me any more than I love you, Lucy is saying, and we both know it. And since I've found someone better, I feel free to behave dishonorably, secure in the knowledge that such behavior will make both of us very happy. And the fact is, Lucy may very well end up the happiest of any of the novel's characters. Or rather, she ends up with exactly what she set out to have, and is about as happy as a woman whose greatest aspiration is wealth and position could ever hope to be. Elinor and Marianne, meanwhile, are forced into compromises. Elinor marries a man she loves, but their style of living will always be pitiful compared to the expectations they both grew up with. Marianne marries a wealthy man whom she respects and admires, but whom she does not come to love until some time after their marriage (and it's never sat very well with me, the way Austen describes the growth of that love--it's hard not to see it, as the Emma Thompson version paints it, as a flight to safety by someone who has been grievously wounded and finds themselves more in need of a parent than a lover). Willoughby, meanwhile, is miserable in his choice, but not forever--"His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable! and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in porting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity."

Sense and Sensibility ends, therefore, with a complete rejection of the romantic ethos. There is not a single traditionally romantic couple to be found at the end of the novel, unless one counts Elinor and Edward, who from the get go are described as unusually unaffectionate, and whose courtship and infatuation happen entirely off-page, so that the readers' romantic gratification is denied even by their union. This is clearly deliberate, and sits well with the raw, uncompromising nature of many of the plot elements Austen employs. The Dashwood sisters are the poorest of Austen's heroines, their situation the most desperate, their prospects the grimmest. The specter of premarital sex and illegitimate children, which haunts several other of her novels, is here on full display in the person of Colonel Brandon's lost love and her daughter, who is seduced and ruined by Willoughby. Marianne very nearly dies. There's an undertone of anger at the very notion of a romantic disposition, which seems to prioritize the mercenary aspect of husband-hunting over the romantic one.

Which is why I find it difficult to accept Doyle's reading of the novel as an admonition against being mastered by emotion. It seems to me to go much further, and caution against being guided by it at all. In all of Austen's novels, there's a tension between the romantic text and the decidedly unromantic subtext, but in Sense and Sensibility the two seem to be almost at war. This is probably in keeping with Austen's own character, which was likely much closer to the cynical, money-obsessed spinster from the miniseries Miss Austen Regrets than the starry-eyed romantic she was made out to be in Becoming Jane, but also makes for an uncomfortable read in the early 21st century. Though I certainly wouldn't say that money no longer plays any factor in courtship, or that games of control and manipulation have disappeared in the wake of feminism and the sexual revolution (the very existence of The Rules, and more recently of seduction manuals, gives the lie to that claim), Sense and Sensibility's moral feels more of its own time than any of Austen's other novels. It's hard not to feel that when Marianne says to Elinor that she compares her behavior "with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours" that what she's saying is that she should have played hard to get and waited for an engagement ring. That's a little more unromantic than I can comfortably stomach.