Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Laugh to Keep From Crying: Thoughts on Treme

For about as long as I've been writing about television, people have been urging, exhorting, and begging me to watch The Wire.  And those who weren't making personal appeals were shouting the demand from the mountain top, calling The Wire the best series in the history of television, a medium-transcending work of fiction, a masterpiece so excellent that it could cure leprosy, heal the lame and sick, restore sight to the blind, and do just about anything else except win an Emmy.  I've resisted these increasingly hysterical pleas for a variety of reasons.  At first, because a cop show, no matter how excellent, just didn't appeal to me.  Later, because the volume of available material had ballooned past the point where I could imagine easily catching up to the show.  At this point, with the show so thoroughly built up, I find the thought of watching it a little daunting.  Imagine being the only television reviewer to dislike The Wire, or think that it is just OK.  So I decided to start with the less intimidating task of David Simon and Eric Overmeyer's follow-up series, Treme, which takes place in New Orleans in the winter following the devastation of hurricane Katrina.  One of the risks of hearing constantly that a certain work is high art, however, is that you start thinking of it as something good for you, like homework or vegetables, and between those respectable associations with Simon's name and Treme's subject matter, I expected the show to be worthy and sobering, a gut-wrenching examination of the aftermath of the abandonment and destruction of a city and its inhabitants.  I could not have been more wrong.  It seems strange to say this about a series that not only starts from a post-Katrina premise but features, in the course of its ten-episode first season, the discovery of the decomposing corpse of a flood victim by his son and close friend, an innocent man jailed because of a clerical error who is lost in the Louisiana prison system for months following the chaos of the city's evacuation, several instances in which policemen viciously beat suspects, and the suicide of one of the show's main characters, but Treme is not only frequently funny, it is often a hell of a lot of fun.

Any expectations of Treme's sobriety are well and truly exploded by the show's wrongfooting opening credits, which intersperse images of New Orleans's happier past with photos of the destruction wrought by Katrina, and project the cast and crew's names against a background of wallpaper stained with mud and mold and photo albums wrecked by water, all set to the jaunty, toe-tapping tune of John Boutté's "Treme Song," whose lyrics tells us that "Down in the Treme/Just me and my baby/We're all going crazy/Just jamming and having fun."  Not that the show's characters have much reason to jam and have fun.  Just three months after the hurricane, they are sleeping on borrowed couches or in wrecked homes with no electricity or running water, toting up the costs of repairs and fighting with their insurance companies, waiting for slow-to-arrive or nonexistent Federal aid, and trying to get some relief or even attention from an overworked, understaffed, unappreciated bureaucracy and police force.  Ladonna Williams (Khandi Alexander) is trying to keep the bar her father left her open in the absence of both customers and a roof, while shuttling back and forth to Baton Rouge, where her husband and children have settled.  She's also looking for her brother Daymo, who disappeared during the evacuation of the city and hasn't been heard from since.  Her lawyer, Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo), is fighting the system, which insists that Daymo wasn't in custody during the storm despite photographs that prove otherwise.  Toni's husband Creighton (John Goodman), an English professor at Tulane, gains notoriety for the invective-laden rants he posts on YouTube, in which he chastises the American government and public for their indifference to New Orleans's fate, and sinks into depression as he grows more certain that the city can never recover.  Ladonna's ex-husband, Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), a once well-regarded trombone player, sees his already dimming prospects fade further in the reduced economy of post-Katrina New Orleans.  Slacker and radio DJ Davis McAlaray (Steve Zahn) spends his days in perpetual, ineffectual outrage, and his energy on childish and fruitless acts of rebellion like stealing merchandise from a music store whose owners sell out after the storm, or telling national guardsmen to go back to Falluja.  His sometimes-girlfriend, Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), is a talented chef who can't find staff to work at her restaurant or the money to pay for supplies and repairs.  Contractor Albert Lambreaux is trying to bring his house, his neighborhood, and the Mardi Gras Indian tribe of which he is chief, back to life through hard work and strength of will, but is dismayed to discover that undamaged Federal housing projects in his neighborhood have been shut down in an effort to change the city's racial makeup.  His son, Delmond (Rob Brown), an up-and-coming musician, shuttles between New York and New Orleans, and tries to reconcile his conflicting feelings towards his father and his home town.  Buskers Sonny (Michiel Huisman) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli) happily ply their trade in the French Quarter, but with the drug trade returning to the city Sonny is going back to old habits, while the talented but timid Annie lets professional opportunities pass her by in order to accommodate him.

Nevertheless, Treme spends as much time on these characters' joyous moments as it does on their sorrows.  There are parties, parades, and most of all music--whole songs whose performance takes up several minutes of each episode.  Davis persuades a dozen of his friends to join him in an exuberant recording session, in which he parodies Smiley Lewis's "Shame, Shame, Shame," transforming it into an anti-Bush diatribe, and later parlays his unexpected fame into a bogus run for city council.  Janette receives a surprise visit from four superstar New York chefs and blows their socks off despite her limited stock and unreliable gas stove.  Creighton's humorous parade crew mount a deliberately tasteless lampoon of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, at which he, Toni, and their daughter Sophie dress up as sperm.  Playing in a reception band at the local airport, Antoine is embarrassed to meet more successful acquaintances as they retrieve their luggage, but they put down their bags and join in the music.  Treme's first season begins and ends with jazz funerals, in which mourners dance their way to and from the graveyard to the sounds of a brass band, which seems like a perfect encapsulation of both the show and the image it tries to craft of New Orleans--a city in which pleasure and pain are inextricably linked, whose inhabitants eat, drink, and make merry in the face of utter ruin.

Outside of New Orleans, in which it has been rapturously received, Treme's critical reception has been on the lukewarm side, and though some of the disappointed reactions are clearly, and by their authors' own admission, rooted in the high expectations created by The Wire and in the hopes that Treme would more closely resemble it than it apparently does, another frequently-voiced complaint is that the series, which is so very in love with New Orleans, its history, and its culture, holds outsiders, including its own viewers, with disdain.  Critics have argued that characters like the chauvinistic Creighton, whose YouTube rants frequently denigrate America's other great cities and the outsiders who fail to rate New Orleans above them, and Davis, whose favorite soap box topic is the city's increasing commercialization and gentrification as it courts the almighty tourist dollar, represent the show or even Simon's voice, which lambastes viewers for not being cool enough to know and appreciate the 'real' New Orleans.  They've also noted how deliberately inaccessible the show is, dropping terms like Second Line parade, Mardi Gras Indians, Krewe du Vieux, and St. Joseph's Day into conversation without ever explaining the New Orleans traditions they represent, and placing their characters alongside real life musicians from the New Orleans scene whom Jazz aficionados will squee over while non-fans, like myself, scratch their heads.  Even the show's name requires insider knowledge--it's pronounced treh-may, and is the shortened name of Faubourg Tremé, one of oldest neighborhoods in the city and a home to many artists and musicians.

I think that these complaints are missing the point.  An ambivalence towards tourists, the money they bring and the demands they make, is surely not unique to New Orleans.  Just about every city that has parlayed its unique history and culture into a tourism industry has had to struggle to maintain its character in the face of overwhelming popularity and the need to cater to the lowest common denominator.  And though I agree that Treme is deliberately opaque when it comes to the city's traditions, where it really counts the show is entirely transparent.  Do we really need to know why Albert dresses up in garishly-colored, hand-sewn and -beaded, vaguely Native American-inspired costumes to appreciate how important this tradition is to him, when his entire plotline revolves around his determination to put on a show for Mardi Gras, to which end he recruits his neighbors and his children, and even braves an unfriendly police force?  Is it really necessary know what distinguishes a Second Line parade from any other parade?  People playing music and dancing in the street strikes me as a fairly self-explanatory concept.  We may not understand how these traditions came about and what their significance and nuances are, but the importance they hold for their participants, the pleasure the show's characters take in them, especially after the devastation wrought by Katrina, transcend all barriers of culture and geography.

Most importantly, though both Treme and its characters are unapologetically chauvinistic about New Orleans, I never felt shut out by this chauvinism.  On the contrary, it seemed to me entirely inviting.  For all their passionate defense of New Orleans, only some of Treme's characters are locals.  Others, like Creighton, Janette, Sonny, and Annie, are outsiders who came to New Orleans, fell in love with it, and became its ardent proponents, and over the course of the season we see several minor characters undergo the same process.  Taken as a whole, it strikes me that Treme works very hard to encourage the same infatuation in its viewers.  Yes, there are scenes in which outsiders are lampooned or resented, but more often than not we're encouraged to stand by the main characters and join them in doing so.  At the end of the season's third episode, Albert and the few friends he's managed to find hold an impromptu Indian send-off for their friend, whose body has been discovered in his wrecked house.  As they sing and dance, a bus carrying tourists on a 'Katrina Tour' stops next to them and the driver asks them to explain their quaint customs to the passengers.  Reviews of the series have singled out this scene as the epitome of Treme's viewer-unfriendliness, but again it strikes me as the exact opposite.  I think the show expects us to think of ourselves as locals, standing alongside Albert--at whose side, after all, we found his friend's decomposing body, and observed his horror and sadness--resenting the voyeuristic tourists' callous incomprehension of the solemenity of the event they are interrupting, and chasing them off. 

If anything, I'd be inclined to say that Treme is too welcoming to its viewers, too eager to win them over to New Orleans's side.  The affinity that Treme encourages in its viewers is, after all, entirely illusory.  I've been to New Orleans once, and though I had a wonderful time, I was exactly the sort of play-it-safe tourist the show and its characters disdain.  It would be foolish to pretend that what I didn't learn about the city in the five days I spent there could be learned from Treme's ten episodes, or that being a fan of Treme makes me the sort of person who knows what it means to miss New Orleans.  Especially when one considers that in its zeal to convert its viewers, Treme is often guilty of the same filing off of the city's rough edges that characters like Davis chastise the tourist industry for doing.  The show is too well made, its premise is too dispiriting, and its events too often wrenching, for it to be called sentimental, but nevertheless there is a whiff of sentimentality in the way Treme's writers construct New Orleans.  Through their eyes it comes to seem almost magical--a place where everybody knows your name, where people form instant connections, where any moment people around you might burst into song and dance, and where the sense of community is overpowering and omnipresent.  The characters, even those who aren't connected, run into one another with a regularity that is surely unrealistic even in the months immediately following Katrina, which creates the false impression of New Orleans as not much more than a neighborhood.  In scenes like the jazz funerals, the parades, and even quieter moments as when Antoine, desultorily waiting to see a doctor at the emergency room, starts singing and is soon joined by a dozen other patients, the writers suggest some ineffable New Orleans-ness, and then turn around and invite the audience to share it.  Though Treme pours a great deal of scorn on New Orleans's institutions and what it describes as a culture of corruption and inefficiency governing them, only one character, Delmond, questions the New Orleans ethos of non-stop music and partying, asking his father's neighbor whether the symbolism of holding Mardi Gras parades after the hurricane isn't less important than the practicalities of rebuilding the city, and whether its inhabitants' time and energy wouldn't be better spend on the latter.  Even he, however, is won over, caught up by the magic of the very celebration he had questioned, and by the end of the season he has joined his father's efforts to bring the Indians out for St. Joseph's Day.  Now, maybe New Orleans really is just that magical, but it seems more likely to me that Treme's construction of it is another fantasy, a more sophisticated version of the tourist brochure.  Come see the real, the authentic, unmediated, New Orleans, the show promises, but what it delivers is, in its own way, as manufactured as Bourbon Street.

Still, if Treme veers towards the sentimental in its worldbuilding, it is remarkably clear-eyed in its character work.  Watching Treme has really brought into focus why I've come to hate the term 'character-driven' when it's applied to television shows.  As used by the overwhelming majority of television writers, character-driven means a show whose writers have figured out, one or two seasons past the point where this would have done them any good, that they have plotted themselves into a corner, and are now desperately trying to pretend that the story was never the point of exercise.  Treme is deliberately, and from its outset, a character-driven show--The Wire was frequently compared to a novel, and Treme too seems very much in the vein of the modern, multi-threaded, plotless novel of character exploration--and is such a great example of the form that it has reinvigorated my love for it.  Like the best novelists, Treme's writers make such recognizable human beings out of their characters that it is impossible to dislike any of them, which is not to say that the cast is made up of angels.  Some characters--Ladonna, Toni, Janette--are extremely positive, but others are selfish, immature, and self-destructive.  Antoine is a shiftless charmer, who neglects his children with Ladonna and cheats on his current girlfriend and the mother of his new child.  An accomplished bullshitter, he lies to appease the women in his life, to save cash (his dickering with cab drivers over his fare, which invariably goes unpaid, is one of the season's recurring jokes), and to stave off embarrassment.  Davis is a buffoon, whose social consciousness is skin-deep and mostly an expression of his pride--he repeatedly talks himself out of jobs by being too proud to, for example, direct tourists to Bourbon street instead of more authentic New Orleans hangouts, or play his radio station's pledge drive compilations--and comes to seem less principled when we discover that he is mooching off his wealthy family.  Creighton, who in some ways is the best version of the person Davis could grow up to be, is nevertheless too consumed by his anger and frustrated feelings of superiority--at his employers at Tulane, at the city administration, at the whole of America--to make any meaningful difference in the lives whose destruction who claims to abhor.  Sonny is emotionally manipulative, and clearly holding Annie back from the career she could have if she weren't tied down to his lesser talent.  (It has just occurred to me that all of the characters I singled out as positive are women and all of the negative characters are men.  Even Annie only missed being on the good list because I found her sweetness overdone.)

Though the show's exploration of the characters' negative aspects sometimes falters--in an early episode, Albert viciously beats a young man he finds stripping copper out of houses under construction, enraged at this act of destruction in a city so desperately in need of rebuilding, and the show never fully examines this darker manifestation of his dedication to New Orleans's revival; Sonny's character arc should have worked well, as what show about musicians is complete without the character who is embittered by the realization that they don't have the talent to succeed, but he is too snide and superior to elicit any sympathy, and his and Annie's plotline is the weakest of the lot--in most cases it is remarkably subtle and winning.  We get to know these people and to understand the reasons for their flaws.  We see that Antoine is terrified of becoming the latest in a long line of minor, half-forgotten New Orleans musicians, and that his restlessness and compulsive lying are a mask for that fear, and probably a better, more generous choice than Sonny's bitterness.  We see that Davis is fundamentally innocent, and capable of a childlike kindness and, more importantly, of learning from his mistakes.  Over the course of the season, these characters do terrible and wonderful things--Antoine gives away an expensive trombone to his old music teacher who lost all his instruments in the flood, but at the end of the season, when the more successful members of his latest gig break out the poker chips, he can't stop himself from betting away his latest paycheck; Davis helps Annie and Janette when they're both at their lowest, but when his political parody gives him a platform from which to call attention to urgent issues, his thoughts are only for the money he's raking in, and he takes the first opportunity to cash out; Creighton is a loving husband and father, but he ends the season with an act of breathtaking, unforgivable selfishness--which, taken together, create entirely understandable, entirely lovable, people.

Beyond being people who are caught in difficult, perhaps impossible circumstance, Treme's characters are also, for the most part, artists, and their travails as they struggle to improve themselves and further their careers are as important to the series as post-Katrina reconstruction.  The series wholeheartedly rejects the romantic cliché of the tormented artist starving in his garret, and the American Idol-inspired conception of art as a binary state, a choice between being a nobody or a star.  In Treme, art is work.  It's something that you do for love rather than stardom, but it is also how you pay the bills--"Play for that money, boys," Antoine tells the members of the funeral bands in the season's first and last episodes, and later in the season he takes embarrassing jobs at the airport or in a French Quarter strip club to make ends meet--and to do it professionally requires money and a head for business--Janette's restaurant is packed every night and her cooking is praised to high heaven, but she still can't stay afloat.  And it's a communal act, with many of the season's scenes revolving around characters jamming together, or riffing off each other's music, or inspiring one another, or helping each other to find work and new opportunities.  Art in Treme is both a lofty thing that the characters pursue past all reason, and a practical matter--a tension that is maintained in all of the characters just as the series's tension between comedy and tragedy is.  As all of the characters understand, there are no promises: they might not be good enough, or they might be good enough and still fail, or they might succeed for a time and discover that that success is still not as rich as it might have been.

So the central question that Treme's first season asks is, can you stick it?  Can you keep doing what you love despite the risks of disappointment and failure?  Can you lose everything, and then pick up and start over again?  Can you fight the indifference and cruelty of governing bodies so much greater and more powerful than you are?  Can you stay in a ruined city and rebuild it with almost no help and no sympathy?  Can you maintain your faith in that city, and in humanity in general, despite repeated proofs of its corruption?  Some of Treme's characters--Janette, Delmond, Creighton--finally conclude that they can't, and leave New Orleans by one means or another, while others give qualified answers.  Ladonna pursues her brother relentlessly, and rejects her husband's pleas that she sell her bar and move permanently to Baton Rouge where he and her children have settled comfortably.  But when Daymo is found dead and Toni wants to pursue the circumstances of his death, Ladonna refuses, seeing no benefit in proving that Daymo died due to his jailers' abuse or indifference, and preferring to give herself and her family some peace.  Between their character work and their work crafting New Orleans, the show's writers make the choice to quit as understandable as the choice to stick, and it is through those choices that Treme creates its most nuanced, most complicated portrait of the city, as a city that demands much and gives much, a city where great pleasure and great pain are constantly intermingled.  "There are so many beautiful moments here," Davis tells Janette when trying to convince her to stay.  "They're just moments.  They're not a life."  She replies.  It's the choice between the two that is at Treme's heart.

(And yes, I promise that I will watch The Wire.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

The most interesting question raised by Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is why it left me feeling delighted rather than quivering with feminist rage. I bounced hard off the first volume in the film’s source material, a six-volume comic book series by Bryan Lee O’Malley which follows the titular twentyish slacker as he battles the seven evil exes of his beloved, Ramona Flowers, in order to be with her.  I couldn't get over the way Scott treated his teenage girlfriend Knives Chau, lying to her, neglecting her, and letting her fall deeper in love with him even though he’d already fallen for Ramona, all because he could’t face the onerous task of breaking off their relationship. Even the assurances of my friends, who are fanatic lovers of the comics and have been anticipating the film and the final volume in the series with bated breath, that O’Malley does eventually acknowledge the creepiness of Scott’s behavior, wasn’t enough to bring me back. Wright’s film, meanwhile, shies away from such an acknowledgment.

To the horror of my friends when I told them about it, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World deviates significantly from the comics, especially towards the end of the story where most of Scott’s soul-searching happens.  Even outside of Scott’s self-absorbed point of view, the film's treatment of its female characters leaves much to be desired. Ramona is a near-blank whose attraction to Scott never really makes sense. Knives’s growing attachment to Scott, and her anger when she realizes he’s fallen in love with Ramona, are portrayed alternately as funny or pathetic, at least until the end of the film when she forgives Scott, helps him to defeat his last opponent, and urges him to make it work with Ramona. The fights between Scott and Ramona’s exes are explicitly described as duels in which Ramona is the prize, as opposed to the fight between Ramona and Knives, which is about Knives’s hurt feelings, without any expectation that the winner will get Scott. The only other person that Ramona fights is her female ex--otherwise, she stands back and lets Scott take a pummeling. Finally, Ramona’s behavior in the film’s last act is inexplicably out of character, and turns out to be the result of mind-control, a condition whose significance the film all but ignores and which is resolved with no fanfare whatsoever. Walking out of the theater with a big smile on my face, I couldn’t help but feel that, like Todd, the evil ex whose superpowers are revoked by the Vegan Police after Scott tricks him into drinking half-and-half (Brandon Routh, in a performance so deliciously hammy that it’s impossible to believe he made such a lackluster villain in this season of Chuck), I should be deprived of my feminist credentials.

So, assuming that I'm not simply a Bad Feminist, what is it about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World that made it so easy for me to ignore the shitty way it treats its female characters?   The most obvious possibility is that the film is Just That Good, and there have been other cases where I've allowed the quality of a work to obscure its more problematic aspects (The Lord of the Rings, Anathem, various Pixar films).  But that's really not the case where Scott Pilgrim is concerned.  The film isn't so much good as it is very, very fun.  The comic's central gimmick is that the story is constructed like a video game, with Scott battling Ramona's exes and gaining points and experience as he defeats each one, until the final boss battle with her most evil ex Gideon (Jason Schwartzman).  The film takes to the video game idiom so naturally that it's hard to believe that the story wasn't created for this medium, effortlessly combining a naturalistic setting with cartoonish violence, and adding to both the visual tropes of a comic book--split screens, titles that introduce characters or announce location changes, spelled-out action noises. 

This could have all resulted in an unholy mess, of course, but Wright, who as the director of Hot Fuzz is no stranger to cartoonish, over-the-top comedic action, handles his material beautifully.  He establishes the ground rules of his world with a scene in which Scott and Knives play, in perfect synchronization, an arcade game that is a cross between Mortal Kombat and Dance Dance Revolution, then starts delivering the action scenes, which are sweeping and exhilarating, and the jokes, which are frequently uproarious.  This cartoonishness is offset and grounded by a strong cast who help us care about all this candy-colored action--Michael Cera is recycling the same performance that he's worn nearly to the nub in a mere half-decade in film, but it suits the character of Scott Pilgrim so well that one might almost imagine that the comics were written with him in mind for the role; Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives Ramona heft, ably conveying the character's understanding that both the people around her and the story she's in think of her as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and her exasperation at this; Kieran Culkin is a delight as Scott's roommate Wallace, who vacillates between trying to steer Scott towards better, more mature choices and taking a childish pleasure in the trainwrecks that occur when Scott fails to do so, and nearly steals the film in both capacities; everyone else is underused, but the only sour note is Schwartzman, who isn't nearly as charismatic or as evil as the build-up to Gideon's introduction leads us to expect.

Fun, however, is not quite the same thing as good, and as much as I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim, it does outlast the exhilaration created by its innovative format and Wright's sharp direction.  The problem here, clearly, is the necessity of cramming a six-part story with a cast of dozens into a two-hour, three-act film.  It's obvious even to someone who hasn't read the comics that the majority of the cast are being seriously under-served, their plotlines reduced or entirely redacted, but their presence means that the film feels overpopulated, and by the its midpoint I was getting a little tired of the frenetic pace at which Wright was throwing characters and plot twists at me.  And if, when it came to secondary characters, Wright had some wriggle room, the story's central premise was untouchable, even though Scott Pilgrim would probably have been a much tighter film with only four evil exes for Scott to battle.  Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, and Mae Whitman are all good as exes 2-4, but between them they slow the film's pace, and it would have been better to keep only one of the three.  Meanwhile, exes five and six are so unimportant that they don't even get lines or a close-up, but they still warrant a long, explosive fight scene, which is fantastic in itself but which, coming so late in the film, only stalls the story, delaying Gideon's introduction, Scott's one moment of character growth, and the climactic battle.  I was thus ready for Scott Pilgrim to end a good ten or fifteen minutes before it actually did. 

Besides these structural problems, however, there is the more crucial flaw that Scott Pilgrim doesn't really know what to do with its main character.  Scott defeats Gideon by, as the film puts it, gaining the power of self-esteem (which is represented by a sword), but it's not as if a tendency to be self-abnegating or retiring was ever this kid's problem--if anything he's overconfident, taking it for granted that his selfishness and failures as a boyfriend will be shrugged off and forgiven--and the character's final triumph thus rings a little hollow, more like the standard Hollywood template of what character growth at the end of a summer blockbuster should look like than anything relating to who Scott actually is.  In the original comics, I'm told, there is a character called nega-Scott who forces Scott to face up to his self-serving recollections of his past relationships, and to the hurt he's caused the women in his life, which is more like the kind of growth this character needs, but in the film nega-Scott is done away with with an (admittedly quite funny) gag.  None of these are fatal flaws, and the film's energy and inventive look are more than enough to carry it through its rough patches, but taken together they do keep Scott Pilgrim from the greatness that might have justified, or at least made it easier to ignore, its misogyny.

So, if Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not a searing masterpiece for the ages whose quality overwhelms any and all problems with its politics, why was it so easy for me to ignore those problems?  Another possible answer is that the film is too silly, too steeped in and conscious of its unreality, to take seriously enough to criticize.  This is probably closer to the mark, though not for the obvious reason that Scott Pilgrim is a semi-cartoon about people who fight video game battles in real life.  Rather, it's because of the way the film depicts romance and sexual attraction.  The male gaze is almost entirely absent from Scott Pilgrim.  Its female characters are not sexualized or fetishized--most of them spend the film covered from head to toe and muffled in heavy coats, the better to protect themselves from the snowy Toronto weather that is almost its own character.  Scott, meanwhile, is almost asexual.  He gets a huge kick out of modest intimacies such as holding hands or cuddling--or rather, he doesn't.  His excitement at these acts is emotional, not sexual, and the sexual component of his desire for Ramona and Knives gets almost no play in the film.  This approach has the effect of making the film and its characters seem innocent and childlike.  Scott isn't a manchild; he's just a child.  It's easy, therefore, to disassociate his behavior towards the women in his life from the familiar figure of the entitled nerd/gamer/musician/hipster who believes that having been the target of bullying absolves them from ever examining their behavior towards others--the same figure that, as I understand it, the original Scott Pilgrim was created to examine and, to a certain extent, decry.

To this mitigating factor I'd add another, which is that the film offers other pleasures besides the romance between Scott and Ramona.  In fact, I would go further and say that, unlike (500) Days of Summer, a film that it resembles in several respects, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World doesn't really try to hook its viewers by getting them to root for the romance or feel a vicarious infatuation with the object of the main character's affection.  Instead, like the best computer games, the pleasure of the film is rooted in the quest itself--defeating the seven evil exes--rather than in Scott's pursuit of Ramona, who is literally his reward.  This is, of course, risible, but it also means that there are aspects of the film one can enjoy without buying into a poorly conceived, unconvincing romance.  In fact, at the very end of the film Scott and Knives team up again to fight Gideon, mirroring their game session at its start, and do such a good job that even Ramona comments that they make a good team right before walking off because she thinks that there is too much drama in her relationship with Scott.  For a minute it seemed entirely possible that the film would end by pairing up Scott and Knives, or leaving Scott on his own but more confident, and so uninvested was I in the relationship between Scott and Ramona that this seemed like an entirely reasonable and satisfying ending (it helps that Ellen Wong's effervescent performance as Knives is so much more accessible than Winstead's, whose work is mostly done below the surface).  So on the one hand, Scott Pilgrim is a romance that pays very little attention to the female half of its central couple, but on the other hand, it doesn't force its viewers to buy into that couple, or even pay it a great deal of attention, if they want to enjoy the film.

Let's be clear--the mitigating factors I note here are not intended as a defense of the film against the accusation that it is misogynistic.  There is no such defense.  This is a misogynistic film.  It's also a fun one.  When it comes to Hollywood blockbusters, that's often the best one can hope for, and Scott Pilgrim might almost be described as a better sort of misogynistic film because if offers distractions from its misogyny rather than foregrounding it as so many others do.  But especially given that, according to my friends who are its fans, Scott Pilgrim the comic is a story that tries to combat much of the misogyny that underlies Scott Pilgrim the film and other works of its ilk, it's a shame that this is the best Edgar Wright could come up with--a film that uses flashing lights and bright colors to distract its viewers from the unpleasantness at its core.  In an aside to a blog entry from a few months ago, Sady Doyle discusses consuming pop culture while feminist, and touches on a lot of the issues I tried to raise in this post last year, doing a much better job at articulating the frustrations I tried to express in it.  How firmly, Doyle asks, should we cling to our feminism goggles?  Is it right to always filter art through a political stance?  Is it right to let that stance take a back seat to artistic appreciation?  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World raises these questions from a direction I wasn't expecting--is it OK to enjoy a silly, frivolous piece of art even though you can clearly see that it is toxic?  I'm not sure what the answer is, or whether it even matters--it won't change the fact that I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim, and I'm not so masochistic as to wish I'd suffered through it for the sake of ideological purity.  What I do wish, however, is that I lived in a world in which the choice between the two was not forced upon me quite so often.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sherlock

Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, and entered the public domain some time in the 20th century.  Long before he did so, however, he entered the public consciousness.  There are many more people who know who Holmes is, and can identify his defining qualities and tropes--his keen intelligence, his ability to deduce the most intimate details about a person from a brief observation of their appearance and behavior, his friendship with Doctor Watson--than have ever read a single one of Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories or novels, or even seen them adapted.  One of the most interesting recent indications of the depth to which Holmes has permeated Western culture is the fact that Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss's Sherlock, which concluded its three-episode 'season' this week, doesn't simply borrow Holmesian tropes from Conan Doyle's originals, but from intervening adaptations.  The jangling score seems to have been lifted from Guy Ritchie's 2009 film.  Holmes's reconfiguration as a sociopath with substance abuse problems, who pursues cases solely for the joy of stimulating his intellect and without a thought for the lives that are often at stake, is ground that has been well trodden by House.  And though Moffat, at least, writes Holmes in a manner so similar to his take on the Doctor that there were moments in his episode, "A Study in Pink," that I could have sworn the character was being played by Matt Smith instead of Dominic Cumberbatch, Cumberbatch himself sometimes seems to be channeling Jeremy Brett, particularly in the way he uses his voice.

Of course, with the possible exception of the music, it is probably premature to identify any influence on the show's tone or direction, because at present there isn't really a show.  The season, comprising three 90 minute stories, is probably best thought of as a proof of concept for the idea of Holmes transposed to the 21st century.  Or rather, as an attempt at such a proof that isn't entirely persuasive, but rather demonstrates that the though the idea has potential, its pitfalls are numerous and not easily avoided.  Of the three episodes, "A Study in Pink" is superb, a witty, effortlessly involving story with an irresistible hook--how can a killer force his victims to commit suicide--that also doubles as compelling introduction to the reinvented Holmes and Watson, and to the beginning of their partnership.  Steve Thompson's followup, however, "The Blind Banker," is terrible, and Mark Gatiss's "The Great Game" is good, but achieves that goodness only by stuffing its running time to the brim with puzzles, close shaves, explosions and near-explosions, and the introduction of a new Moriarty who doesn't quite light up the screen as the new Holmes and Watson do.  It achieves through brute force what "A Study in Pink" managed with a much lighter, more elegant approach. 

More importantly, the three stories don't create a sense of belonging to a single series.  They vary in tone and in their treatment of their characters.  Holmes is a Doctor-ish blur of super-excited intelligence in "A Study in Pink," but more subdued in the other two.  Watson is stiff but stalwart in "Study," a bumbling pushover in "Banker," and an audience surrogate, whose normalcy sheds a light on Holmes's cold detachment, in "Game."  The two meet for the first time in "Study" and spend the episode forming a tentative bond, but the two following episodes take their partnership for granted rather than building it up.  "Study" introduces Holmes's drug addiction and strongly hints that his personal growth will be the series's overarching theme, but this is abandoned in "Banker" and "Game."  There is, in short, no sense that a single vision is driving this reinvention of the character.  The three stories feel disconnected from one another, as though Thompson and Gatiss were writing fanfic in Moffat's world, and failing to get the feel of it quite right.  (Of course, given how brief the season has been, it might be equally possible to say that Thompson or Gatiss have the true measure of the show and that Moffat is the fanfic writer, but as I like his story best, I'm inclined to think that it's his vision that should prevail.)

The problem, I think, is the running time.  90 minutes is an unforgiving timeslot for a writer who can't plot or keep their plot moving--which is, quite frankly, most television writers.  Moffat manages the task with ease and Gatiss barrels through it, while Thompson produces a stultifying hour and a half.  But because each of them is aware of how easily a less than engaging mystery might lose the audience, they put most of their eggs in the plot basket--the longer running time demands it.  So that the variations in the way Holmes and Watson are presented in the three episodes are compounded by the latter two's willingness to put the two characters, and the relationship between them, on the back-burner in favor of moving the plot along.  A one-hour episode, meanwhile, can afford to be a little slack on the story front, and to develop its characters instead.  Another way of putting it, of course, is that Sherlock is keeping faith with Conan Doyle himself, who famously did little to develop either Holmes, Watson, or their friendship.  Like Moffat and Gatiss's versions, they have a brief introduction, agree to live together, and set off on their adventures.  From that moment onwards, the status quo--Holmes's feats of deduction, his uncontainable personality, and Watson's total devotion to him--is established and only rarely deviated from.  I liked the idea of a more traditional type of television series centered on Holmes, which Moffat's episode seemed to promise, and my mixed feelings about Sherlock are mainly rooted in the fact that it doesn't seem interested in becoming that series.  But there is also the simple fact that the status quo established by Moffat and Gatiss isn't as compelling or as well-crafted as Conan Doyle's.  None of the three writers can consistently deliver Holmes-ian deduction, and their take on Holmes itself is not only, as Dan Hartland (who has written more effusive praise about all three episodes) says, a less rounded character than Conan Doyle's Holmes, who was principled and compassionate on top of being brilliant and cold (to which I would add that it also smacks disappointingly of the all-too typical tendency to vilify intellect and those who possess it), but also a lesser version of a character that's been done definitively.  House is by no means great television, but it has surely plumbed the depths of what it means to always be the smartest guy in the room, to always know that people are lying and keeping secrets, and to more easily find pleasure in intellectual pursuits than in the company of others.  It's pretty clear that neither Sherlock nor Cumberbatch--who may have a performance of Hugh Laurie's caliber in him but is not being given the chance to demonstrate this--are interested in delving that deep, so I'm not sure what the point of this watered down version of the character arc is.

All of this is not to say that there aren't things I like about Sherlock.  I think Martin Freeman's Watson is very good; I think the combination of humor and horror is very effective; I really like the way the writers use on-screen titles (will it ever make sense to show the screen of a cell phone again?).  But again, these are all things that worked very well in "A Study in Pink" and were either abandoned or handled less effectively in the following episodes.  The one thing that Sherlock does well and consistently is its recreation of Victorian London in the 21st century, which is nothing short of masterful.  The music plays a part in this, of course, and so do directors Paul McGuinan and Euros Lyn, who ensure that interiors are always close and overstuffed and exteriors always dark and foggy (I suspect that we will never see an episode of Sherlock set in summer or spring), and who carefully point their cameras away from billboards, neon lights, logos and trademarks, showing only the bricks and cobblestones that are still there underneath it all.  But it's the writing that truly transposes Victorian Holmes onto the 21st century, so perfectly that you'd swear the character had been written for our era.  It's darkly funny that Watson can just as easily have sustained a war injury in Afghanistan in 2010 as in 1887.  Blogs and text messages map perfectly onto popular magazines and telegrams, and anonymous commenting is as good a way to keep in touch with a mysterious contact as cryptic messages in the personals page.  Cabs are, of course, as necessary a means of transportation in today's London as they were 123 years ago.  The writers' eagerness to play around with Conan Doyle's original material contributes to the series's sense of Holmes-ishness, whether it's Moffat's clever inversion of the dying message in "A Study in Scarlet," or Gatiss's more straightforward incorporation of "The Bruce Partington Plans" as a sub-plot of "The Great Game."  In a way, Sherlock is as much, if not more, a work of steampunk as Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes--it overlays a Victorian sensibility over modern technology, and creates an unreal world that is all its own.  If I'm enchanted with the series despite its many flaws, it is mainly because of the overpowering sense of that world that it creates, which often overwhelms those flaws.

There is, of course, a dark underside to Sherlock's fascination with Victoriana, and it is very much on display in "The Blind Banker," which on top of being a slack, overwrought mystery is suffused with so many Asian stereotypes straight out of a pulp novel (or out of Conan Doyle's more objectionable Holmes stories) that it has to be seen to be believed: sinister Chinese triads masquerading as circus performers, chasing down a vulnerable and doomed young woman just trying to escape her past, and torturing our heroes with deadly chinoiserie (as if this were not enough, the episode kicks off with a non-sequitor of a scene in which Holmes is attacked by a robed swordsman straight out of a 19th century penny dreadful).  It's tempting to read the episode as a ham-fisted attempt to comment on Victorian Orientalism that ends up participating in it instead, but Sherlock has been so very bad with other issues of representation that one can't help but assume that the fault is in the intent rather than the execution.  SelenaK has a nice summary of "The Great Game"'s rather troubling treatment of homosexuality, and then there are the women: Mrs. Hudson, whose job is to be unquestioningly accommodating and, on occasion, to provide comic relief through cheerful dimness; Sally Donovan, a bitter shrew who earns the audience's ire for being mean to Holmes and has yet to demonstrate a shred of competence in her job as a police detective; Molly the pathologist, a pathetic doormat who makes obvious, doomed passes at Holmes, and whom he casually humiliates on a regular basis; and Sarah, Watson's love interest who clearly has no existence beyond that role, because her response to a first date that ends with her being kidnapped, tied up, and nearly killed is to agree to a second one.  Just about the only positive thing that can be said about Sherlock's depiction of women is that it doesn't happen very often, unless they are the victims of a crime.

I've written a lot here about the things that frustrate or anger me about Sherlock, so it may sound strange if I say that I actually like the show a lot and look forward to the next batch of episodes.  The thing is, the problems with the show are the things about it that stick out--the inconsistency between chapters, the laziness of borrowing Holmes's characterization from another television series, the often shoddy plotting, the ghastly writing for women--whereas what works, what I found enjoyable and even lovable, is more in the realm of ambiance--the worldbuilding I've already written about, but also the chemistry between Freeman and Cumberbatch, and more than either of these the sense that this really is Holmes, not quite Conan Doyle's Holmes but Holmes nonetheless, brought to the 21st century.  That's certainly enough to bring me back, even though I suspect that the series will never deliver the character development that "A Study in Pink" seemed to promise, and that its female characters will never improve.  What I'd like, however, if the Sherlock that I wanted can never be, is a little more care in the construction of the episodic, Conan Doyle-esque Sherlock that Moffat and Gatiss seem interested in.  Let's have a lot more "Study in Pink"s, and a lot fewer "Blind Banker"s.

Friday, August 06, 2010

The Fortunes of War by Olivia Manning

Six and a half decades after its end, the second World War continues to be one of the most popular and fruitful foundations for works of fiction in Western culture.  This is in part due to its influence--there are probably very few people on the planet, even today, whose lives were not shaped to some extent by the war and its aftermath.  But it's also because there are so many stories to tell.  In my to be read stack right now you would find Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, about German dissidents under the Nazi regime, and Israeli author Nir Baram's Good People, whose characters are forced to collaborate with the Nazi and Communist regimes in order to survive.  One of the most well-received books of this year, Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge, is a story of Jewish lovers on the run from the Nazis.  HBO's The Pacific spent ten hours telling the story of the Marine takeover of the Japanese-held Pacific islands, and came under fire for not telling the story of the Navy's role in the same battles.  Still, if war stories and stories of survival, Jewish or otherwise, under Nazi rule are relatively commonplace, Olivia Manning's six-volume work The Fortunes of War presents an unusual and thus fascinating perspective of the war, telling the story of British civilians fleeing before the German forces in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The Fortunes of War is grouped into two trilogies.  The Balkan Trilogy consists of The Great Fortune (1960), The Spoilt City (1962) and Friends and Heroes (1965), and tells the story of the series's central couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, as they make their way out of increasingly Nazi-friendly Romania and into Greece.  The Levant Trilogy--The Danger Tree (1977), The Battle Lost and Won (1978) and The Sum of Things (1980)--follows the Pringles to Egypt, and later follows Harriet on a journey to Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem, and also adds the character of Simon Boulderstone, a young lieutenant with the British forces who takes part in the battle to repel Rommel's forces from North Africa.  NYRB Classics has recently republished The Balkan Trilogy and will hopefully do the same for The Levant Trilogy soon, but I was lucky enough to find both (as well as several other works by the prolific Manning which I will be checking out in the near future) in a used bookstore, and quickly made my way through the entire series.  It's a long work--1500 pages all told (though spread out over six books, which means that in modern terms, Manning was practically writing novellas)--but also a compelling and eventually compulsive read.  Not because it depicts exciting events or close brushes with danger--on the contrary, Manning deliberately defuses much of the danger that Guy, Harriet, and eventually Simon face, and shies away from nearly every trope of the war story--but because of Manning's character work, her close and intimate descriptions of the effect that the peculiar combination of normalcy and danger her characters are subjected to has on their personalities and lives.

The Great Fortune finds the Pringles, who met and married during Guy's summer vacation from his job as a lecturer for the British Council in Bucharest, traveling back there by train in the fall of 1939.  The war has only just been announced and all is confusion.  On the train are refugees who are not quite certain what they are running from, or to, and the staff is nervous and unfriendly.  The Pringles observe this nervousness with sympathy, but also detachment, and the business of The Balkan Trilogy is the slow loss of that detachment.  Looking back on it six and a half decades later, it's easy to think of World War II as a single, clearly delineated block of time in which the rules of the world changed, from peacetime to wartime, from normalcy to a battle for the future of humanity.  Even if we realize that people living through the war would not have thought of it as World War II, 1939-1945, that they would have feared, as the characters in The Fortunes of War frequently put it, spending their entire lives in the shadow of this all-consuming monster, it had never really occurred to me that they would have had trouble telling when the war had started.  When Harriet and Guy arrive in Bucharest life is still, for the most part, moving along its familiar grooves.  They quickly immerse themselves in the city's society of British ex-pats, meeting at bars and restaurants, dimly observing subtle changes in the country around them--food disappearing from stores and restaurants as Romania tries to buy Hitler off by feeding the German army, the ouster of anti-German government ministers, louder and louder voices calling for the abdication of the British-backed king, growing sympathy for Germany as threats from the Soviet border become more pronounced.  This slow erosion of normalcy is the focus of the first two books in the trilogy, and it is masterfully handled and, to someone who lives in a country where the boundaries between war and peace seem to have all but vanished, terribly familiar.

As well as being a war story, however, The Fortunes of War is also the story of the Pringles' marriage.  Guy is a brilliant, vivacious, gregarious man, an idealist who believes in the coming Communist utopia and who greets every person as a friend.  Harriet is more reserved and, as we soon discover, more observant.  If Guy (who, in a slightly trite device, is near-sighted and can barely make out people's faces) assumes the goodness and benevolence of everyone he meets, Harriet judges people more shrewdly, correctly gauging their weaknesses and selfishness, and the ways in which they might take advantage of Guy.  In Bucharest, Guy is beloved for his friendliness, his boundless energy, and his progressiveness.  Towards the climax of the novel he arranges a production of Troilus and Cressida, as a way of showing the British colors even as British forces retreat from the continent at Dunkirk and the German army advances on Paris.  He manages to recruit the entire ex-pat community and their hangers-on and transforms them, for a single night, into a company that gives a dazzling performance.  It's only Harriet who sees how this willingness to give himself to everyone is also an unwillingness to commit to anyone, including herself, and what thoughtlessness underpins Guy's generosity.  When he and Harriet rent a flat, he begins offering their spare room to whoever happens to elicit his sympathy, and only Harriet's firmness prevents it from becoming a hostel.  He does, however, manage to bring in two tenants--Prince Yakimov, an aging dandy descended from White Russians who has lived his entire life from one never-to-be-repaid loan to another and finds himself, in an increasingly impoverished and unfriendly Bucharest, on the verge of starvation, and Sasha Druker, the son of a Jewish industrialist whom the Romanian authorities arrest in order to get their hands on his oil holdings.  It's only Harriet who realizes that the thoughtless and selfish Yakimov would inform on Sasha, who has defected from the Romanian army, in a minute, she who has to deal with the practical necessities of concealing Sasha and feeding both him and Yakimov, and when the time comes to ask Yakimov to leave, Guy leaves the uncomfortable task in her hands.

The Fortunes of War is autobiographical work--like Harriet, Manning married shortly before the war and followed her husband to Bucharest, Athens, Egypt, and eventually Jerusalem.  It's easy to guess this from the lived-in details of Guy and Harriet's ordeal--for example, while working for the American Embassy in Cairo in The Danger Tree, Harriet arrives at the office to find her coworkers gone, having fled before a presumed German invasion and left her, an unimportant foreigner, behind, and the offense Harriet feels at this slight feels very much like Manning's.  But it's also noticeable because Manning is as shrewd an observer of humanity as Harriet is, capable of humanizing and making sympathetic even the most unpleasant personality.  Yakimov is the prime example.  He shares point of view duties with Harriet in The Balkan Trilogy, and his head is an uncomfortable, frustrating space to inhabit.  A middle-aged child who has never been forced to grow up, Yakimov has spent his life going through his money, his lover's money, and the money lent to him by increasingly exasperated friends against an allowance that he burns through the minute it comes into his hands.  He takes this as his due, and never thinks to make his own way in the world or pay his debts, feeling only self-pity for his inability to live as he had once been accustomed.  When the Pringles take him in, he feels only resentment--at Harriet for not purchasing the rich and now prohibitively expensive food he craves, and at Guy for making much of him when he was the star of Troilus and Cressida but shifting his focus to other interests once the play is staged.  Yakimov's thoughtlessness and self-absorption shift into the horrific when, in The Spoilt City, he travels to Cluj, which is about to be handed over to Hungary as part of Romania's efforts to appease Germany.  The city's inhabitants are fleeing before what they fear is a massacre, but Yakimov only cares about visiting a friend--the German legate--whom he hopes will offer him richer hospitality than the Pringles can.  The panicked flight of Cluj's Romanian (and Jewish) inhabitants, seen through Yakimov's naive, uncomprehending eyes, is one of the most affecting sequences in The Fortunes of War, but it is outdone when Yakimov, a natural raconteur who earns his suppers by telling humorous tales, thoughtlessly tells his German friend about a blueprint he found in Guy's papers--part of an attempt by British intelligence to recruit him to sabotage strategic Romanian resources in case of a German invasion.  Without even realizing the significance of his actions, Yakimov gives Guy's name to the Gestapo as a possible spy.  You want to hate Yakimov at this point, but Manning's portrait of him is so subtle, so sympathetic, that you can't help but understand him--his learned helplessness, his incurable childishness, his fundamental, though potentially destructive, innocence.  When Harriet, having barely gotten out of Bucharest and desperate to discover whether Guy has done the same, encounters him in Athens at the end of The Spoilt City, you can't help but feel, as she does, that his familiar face, flawed as it is, is welcome.

Friends and Heroes sees the Pringles quickly reunited in Athens (in one of Manning's signature moves, she ends The Spoilt City with Harriet frantically waiting for news of Guy's escape, but begins the next novel with the anticlimactic announcement--delivered to Harriet by Yakimov--that he's made it out and will soon be with her).  The threat of German capture and incarceration (and probably worse for Guy) no longer looms over them, but it quickly becomes clear that imminent danger is what was keeping their marriage going in Bucharest, despite Guy's inattention and neglect, his habitual preference for the company of new friends over that of his wife.  In Athens, in relative safety, the cracks soon begin to show.  A crisis occurs when Harriet, just beginning to decompress from those last tense months in Bucharest, is overjoyed at the news that in British-friendly Athens, British films are still showing.  A new film makes its way to the city and a party is planned, and Harriet makes Guy promise to take her.  But when the night arrives it turns out that Guy forgot his promise and is engaged to meet a group of local students of left-wing politics.  He refuses to take Harriet to the film because "the meeting's much more important."  Which is what's wrong with Guy Pringle in a nutshell--it never occurs to him that there might be difference between what's important and what's important to him, because he truly doesn't perceive the barriers between himself and the world.  It's why he's so friendly (and why he refuses to see flaws in people even when they betray him and hurt him), and simultaneously, why he's so inconsiderate of Harriet's wishes and needs--because he thinks of her, as he frequently tells her, as a part of himself, to which he owes no courtesy or consideration.

Harriet, faced with this kind of infuriating neglect, does what any sane woman would do and has an affair, or rather flirts with the idea of one--the morality of the novels and the characters is very much of their time (there is only one mention of sex between Guy and Harriet, and the narrative literally fades to black the minute anything gets started), and though Harriet walks right up to the precipice in her not-quite-romance with the British officer Charles Warden, it's only very late in the relationship that she even allows herself to acknowledge that she's considering an affair.  What's best about Manning's depiction of Guy and Harriet's relationship in Friends and Heroes, however, is that even as she makes us feel how frustrating and infuriating Guy's tiny slights against Harriet are, she subtly undermines the romantic cliché of Harriet finding another, more appreciative man--a cliché that not even Harriet fully believes in.  The fact is, as selfish and neglectful as Guy is, he is a much better person than Harriet, whose mundane concerns while living in Bucharest often obscure her understanding of the horrible events she's living through--she would not, for example, have offered Sasha Druker a place to live on her own, even though his life depended on it.  More importantly, being married to Guy is actually the most interesting thing about Harriet.  In a scene in Friends and Lovers, she sneers at the British ex-pats in Athens who, before the war, lived idly on their family money, but it never occurs to her that she is living no less idly, flitting from cafe to restaurant, on her husband's salary.  Even when she gets a job in Athens, Harriet remains painfully conventional, and so is her affair with Charles, which is depicted in the most unromantic terms possible as an uneasy negotiation between a woman uncertain of what she wants and a man barely out of childhood.

It's easy to see what a boring, middle-class life Harriet would have with Charles, which may be the reason that she hesitates for so long before committing to the affair (which she anyway only does once the war situation heats up and it becomes clear that Charles will soon be sent to the front lines).  So that even as he continues to fail as a husband, it's hard not to want Harriet to stay with Guy, who at least makes her life worth reading about.  The one flaw in all of this, of course, is that Manning never really makes it clear why Harriet and Guy married in the first place.  It's easy to imagine Harriet falling, as everyone else does, under Guy's spell, but why does Guy, whom Harriet describes as possessing a core of selfishness that protects him from the worst excesses of his impulse towards indiscriminate friendliness, marry her?  The obvious answer is love, but there's nothing loving in Guy's behavior towards Harriet--it's only in The Sum of Things that he demonstrates any outward affection for her, anything resembling a desire or need for her presence, which leaves us with the unsatisfying cliché of the man who loves his wife deeply but doesn't change his behavior in any way that reflects this, and anyway doesn't explain why Guy married Harriet when he clearly has no interest whatsoever in being married.

Friends and Heroes, however, is not simply a novel about Guy and Harriet's marital troubles, though these quickly come to dominate it.  The move to Greece gives Manning a chance to stretch her descriptive muscles, in particular when it comes to Greek society.  The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City are deeply critical of Romanian society, though acknowledging the forces--a deeply corrupt ruling class backed by the British Empire--that have shaped it.  They depict Romanians as predatory towards their own peasants and towards the no-longer powerful foreigners among them--British ex-pats, Polish refugees, Jews--and as sympathetic towards Hitler's fascist ideals.  Manning is a great deal more sympathetic towards the Greeks.  She describes them as welcoming towards their  British allies, and staunch in their opposition of the Germans and Italians.  It's heartbreaking, therefore, to follow Greece's fading fortunes over the course of the novel, as it first experiences terrible loss of life but manages to defend its borders, and finally succumbs to the German war machine.  This is the closest that The Fortunes of War comes to being a typical war novel, but because the story is told through Harriet's slightly disinterested (and, as her affair with Charles heats up, increasingly distracted) eyes, even this narrative undercuts the familiar romance of the story about the doomed defense of these European nations.  As a British citizen, Harriet sympathizes with the Greek people, but like the British military she eventually leaves them to their fate, more concerned with her and Guy's survival.

The Levant Trilogy is less successful than The Balkan Trilogy.  This is in part due to the decreased tension of the Pringles' predicament.  Arriving in Cairo in 1942, they spend a tense year anticipating Rommel's takeover of Egypt, but the war never threatens them as closely as it did in Europe, and by the second volume in the trilogy the German army is already being repelled and the Pringles and their fellow ex-pats are safe, albeit stranded in the Middle East (the Mediterranean is crawling with German U-Boats, and a major sub-plot in the trilogy's last two books involves an evacuation ship carrying British women and children back to England, which is torpedoed, leading to the loss of all but one passenger).  It's a very different Middle East to the one we're used to, and part of the appeal of The Balkan Trilogy as far as I was concerned was the glimpse it gave me of this region under Imperial British rule, when people could hop a train from Cairo to Baghdad, or drive from Beirut to Jerusalem.  The first two volumes of the trilogy, however, remain in Cairo, where Guy and Harriet settle, more or less comfortably, to wait out the war and observe the final collapse of their marriage.  Guy's neglect of Harriet becomes total, to the extent that even when she's hospitalized with dysentery he can't bear to spend more than a few minutes in her room and away from his work.  Ashamed of his exemption from fighting due to his poor eyesight, he's consumed with the need to think himself useful, and takes on more and more projects--tutoring local students in English, putting on revues for the troops--that keep him away from home, even as Harriet finds her own crowd in which he takes no interest.

The difference in Manning's depiction of the Pringles' marriage in the two trilogies is that Harriet is growing while Guy is diminishing.  She's discovering her own interests and making her own friends while Guy consumes himself with frivolous, ephemeral projects whose actual purpose is to give his life meaning.  It's no longer possible to say that Guy is the most interesting thing about Harriet, who explores the new, foreign world she finds herself in more thoroughly than Guy does, and gains a greater understanding of Egypt and the Middle East than Guy does in his cafe conversations with political sympathizers.  The justification for the existence of the Pringles' marriage thus fades away, and my reading of the later chapters of The Battle Lost and Won was accompanied by a constant and, by the end of the book, almost deafening mental refrain of leave-him-leave-him-leave-him, especially in the scene that breaks Harriet's resolve to stay with Guy in Egypt, in which he notices a gaudy but expensive piece of jewelry given to Harriet by a friend and, over Harriet's objections, takes it, explaining that Harriet can't possibly like it (she does) and that he might as well give it to the star of his latest revue (who has been shamelessly flirting with him).

The Levant Trilogy, however, is also about the war, and as the civilians are so removed from it Manning gives us Simon Boulderstone, whose point of view alternates with Harriet in the first two books, and with Harriet and Guy in the third.  In keeping with her resistance to the romantic tropes of the war novel, Manning makes Simon's experiences of the war deliberately unglamorous.  In The Danger Tree he is assigned to a unit at the far end of the British line.  He spends most of the novel waiting and struggling to instill respect in his increasingly bored men towards their obviously unqualified commander.  His single engagement with the enemy is a confusing melee in which he abandons his men in a doomed effort to save his batman.  In The Battle Lost and Won, Simon is reassigned, on the whim of a superior officer with whom he makes a passing acquaintance, to HQ, and given the job of ferrying messages between it and the fighting units as the second battle of El Alamein rages on.  It's closer to the center of the action but at the same time far away from it.  Simon is literally passing through, watching soldiers advancing, sappers removing mines, tanks burning, but never participating in the action--he just delivers his messages and moves on.  Through his eyes, Manning crafts a view of the desert war (which, as far as I know, is underrepresented in WWII fiction) that is both panoramic and remote.  The war is just as bewildering when seen from HQ as it was from a unit in the middle of nowhere.  Unfortunately, though Simon makes for an interesting vantage point, he's a bit underwhelming as a character (especially as a substitute for Yakimov, who dies at the end of The Balkan Trilogy).  This is no doubt deliberate, as it is part of Simon's journey that he grows from the half-formed child he was at the beginning of the trilogy into a man, but that man isn't particularly interesting, and Manning keeps having to tell us how much he's changed and grown because Simon himself can't convey that growth through his thoughts or actions.

At the end of The Battle Lost and Won, an infuriated and fed-up Harriet agrees to go on the evacuation ship to England, but changes her mind at the last minute and accepts a ride to Damascus from a Wren she'd made friends with.  There she settles down to recover from the emotional trial of trying to sustain a marriage single-handedly and of Guy's increasing disinterest in her, reasoning that because the ship will take two months to reach England, she can wait at least that long before letting Guy know where she is (though this is clearly an excuse, and a way for Harriet to avoid having the admit that she's left her husband).  But the ship, as I've already mentioned, is torpedoed, and at the beginning of The Sum of Things Guy hears the news and believes that Harriet has died.  For the first time since a brief interlude in The Great Fortune, Manning gives Guy his own point of view, the better for him to grieve for Harriet and be confronted, finally, with the common perception of their marriage as unloving, and of his behavior as a husband as cruelly neglectful.  This is, of course, a very trite device, and the first half of The Sum of Things, in which Guy is repeatedly confronted with characters who have finally bothered to point out to him that he never spent any time with his wife, is a little aggravating.  What saves the book is first that so much of it is spent with Harriet in her adventures in the Middle East, and that the region as viewed through her eyes--before the collapse of the British Empire, before the British and French mandates, before Israel, before OPEC, before Islamic fundamentalism and 9/11--is utterly fascinating, a wholly different world already on the verge of collapse due to the war, but expertly and vividly described (and, of course, it's fun to read about fictional characters banging about in familiar places--I know the King David Hotel and the YMCA, where Harriet and her group stay during their sojourn in Jerusalem, very well--and my next foray into Manning's bibliography will be School for Love, which takes place in wartime Jerusalem).

The other reason that Manning's depiction of Guy learning a valuable lesson about appreciating his wife doesn't rankle as much as it should is that Guy doesn't actually learn that lesson.  When Harriet discovers that the ship she was supposed to sail on sank and that Guy thinks she's dead, she immediately makes her way back to Cairo.  Guy is overwhelmed at the sight of her and breaks down in tears--to the shock of everyone who knows him--but within a few hours he's back to his old tricks, making plans to work late and leaving Harriet to entertain herself.  The one who's changed is Harriet, who has apparently decided that for all his flaws, she's going to stick with Guy because he's a better, and more interesting, man than all the other options that have presented themselves, and who has gained a bit of self-confidence--when Guy, showing the barest smidgen of self-awareness, asks her to promise that she won't run away again, she simply says that she probably won't, and laughingly accepts his flaws.  This is an unsatisfying end to the trilogy, for Guy's sake as much as for Harriet.  Throughout The Levant Trilogy, but especially in The Sum of Things when he's left on his own, Manning makes it clear that though he possesses prodigious amounts of both, Guy doesn't know how to direct either his energies or his affections.  He wastes himself on worthless people and pointless projects, and when seen from his point of view rather than Harriet's this comes to seem sad rather than infuriating.  You can't help but wish that he'd learn to understand himself and the people around him a bit more, to be more stinging with his time in some quarters, and more generous with it in others.  As Manning portrays him in The Sum of Things, he is a man who is squandering the chance at a remarkable life and marriage.

A more prosaic reason that the ending of The Sum of Things is unsatisfying is, I think, that it wasn't intended as the end of the story.  The book was published in 1980, the year of Manning's death.  Especially given how closely The Fortunes of War shadows Manning's wartime experiences, it's impossible not to believe that she was planning another, concluding trilogy, one that followed Harriet to Jerusalem, where Manning went when her husband was made the head of the Palestine Broadcasting Station, and finally back to England after the end of the war, and which might finally bring some balance and happiness to her and Guy's marriage.  Alas, it wasn't to be, and we're left with the six books that Manning was able to write, and the incomplete portrait they paint of both the war and the Pringles' struggling marriage.  This is by no means, however, an unsatisfying work, though I might argue that The Balkan Trilogy stands better on its own than as part of an unfinished work with the inferior Levant Trilogy.  Manning's unique take on the war, and her intimate, bemused, and infinitely compassionate portraits of Guy, Harriet, and the people they meet, should not be missed.  They do what so many war novels fail to do--make the experience of living through terrible upheavals, helpless to affect the events directing your life, an immediate and familiar one, and one that resonates even six and a half decades after the war's end.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Review: Under the Dome by Stephen King

My review of Stephen King's latest opus, Under the Dome, appears today in Strange Horizons.  It's a strange book--definitely not up to the standard of King's heyday, but suggesting so many new directions he might have gone in, and then failing to follow through, that I ended up finding it simultaneously invigorating and depressing.