Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Weekend's Films

Isn't it just the way: you go weeks without seeing the inside of a movie theater and then two movies you want to see come out on the same weekend.  That timing proved to be fortuitous, though, as the two films have in common a preoccupation with our world and our present moment, though one of them filters that concern through science fiction while the other makes a virtue out of being mimetic.  Only one of these approaches works, and it wasn't the one I was expecting.
  • Contagion - Steven Soderbergh's latest is a smart, effective, utterly engrossing movie that gets a lot of things right, but nevertheless I have trouble calling it a good film.  To get to the good stuff first, at its most basic level the film is gratifying simply for the things that it isn't.  There's very little hysteria here as a new strain of flu spreads quickly and lethally all over the planet, and very little emphasis on emotional dramas as a window on the epidemic--though the film features star-crossed lovers, crumbling marriages, and strained parent-child relationships, none of these are the point of the story, and at no point is it suggested that they, and not the millions of people dying, are the real tragedy.  Instead, Contagion focuses on professionals--World Health Organization officials, CDC researchers and administrators, DHS agents and military officers--as they matter-of-factly go about their jobs trying to identify the virus, figure out where it came from, and create a vaccine.  Nor does the film revel in the breakdown of civilization and its niceties--in fact, if anything, Contagion's version of social breakdown in the wake of an epidemic is a little too nice.  Matt Damon's character, whose wife and stepson are among the virus's earliest victims, spends the second half of the film trying and repeatedly failing to get food, but he and his daughter never look hungry or disheveled, and the film also severely downplays the economic consequences of the virus, as businesses, schools, factories, and international travel are shut down for fear of infection.  In contrast, what Contagion does stress are mostly acts of individual heroism and self-sacrifice--from Jennifer Ehle's epidemiologist character testing her vaccine on herself to prove that it works without waiting for approval for human trials, to Damon helping a woman who has been given MREs fight off looters even though he has no food.  Which is not to say that Contagion is triumphant or that its characters are too good to be true--Lawrence Fishburne's staunch CDC director, for example, shows his feet of clay when he alerts his girlfriend about an upcoming quarantine of her state--but more that it is a film about professionals, who try to put the responsibility that comes with their job ahead of their own interests.  Paradoxically, Contagion's muted tone, its refusal to surrender to full-on tragedy, actually intensify our awareness, and terrified reactions to, its events.  There's no comforting buffer of genre storytelling to stress that this is fiction.  The plot and characters behave in so believable a fashion that one can't escape the realization that this could and might happen to us.  There's a compelling argument for reading Contagion as a horror film, and probably one of the scariest I've ever seen.

    At the same time, that believability leaves Contagion feeling story-less.  What, in the end, is the film about?  Is its intended effect really nothing more than that supremely terrifying, because so plausible, sense of horror, or is the film trying to say something more?  A late scene in which Fishburne's character explains the origin of the custom of shaking hands (it shows that you're not carrying concealed weapons) suggests that Contagion is a film about human connection as a double-edged sword--in the reality imposed by the virus, contact with other people can end your life, but without that contact, is life worth living?  The opening scenes stress this dilemma by focusing on mundane, sometimes affectionate actions--handing your credit card over to pay a bar tab, hugging your child, helping a stranger when they collapse in the street--and imbuing them with a sense of menace as each one carries the virus to another unsuspecting victim.  This is even further suggested when it is revealed that Damon's wife, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), the virus's first human carrier, infected so many people and sent the virus to so many corners of the world because she was a warm, gregarious person.  In flashbacks to her last night on a business trip, spent partying at a casino in Macau, we see her putting her arm around a Japanese businessman who has given her gambling tips, gratefully pressing the hand of a Ukranian model who noticed that Beth had dropped her cell phone.  On her way home, she engages in another sort of intimacy when she meets an old boyfriend for an adulterous liaison.  Within days, all of these people are dead--personal connection has become toxic.  (Meanwhile, another form of impersonal connection is shown to be toxic in its own way, as Jude Law, the film's only purely villainous character--and perhaps its only real misstep--uses his conspiracy theory blog to plug an herbal remedy as the cure that authorities don't want people to know about, thus fueling a panic and making himself rich, then tries to persuade his readers not to take the government's vaccine.)

    The problem is that while Contagion is very good at making the benign and affectionate seem sinister, it doesn't have enough heart to argue convincingly for the necessity of emotion and connection.  When, at the end of the film, Damon's character finds Beth's camera with photos from her last trip and breaks down crying, we know academically what is happening--not only is Damon finally letting himself process his wife's death after months of thinking only of his and his daughter's survival, but he's forgiving his wife for betraying him before her death.  But for all of Damon's fine work--and he is one of the standouts in a top-notch cast that also features very good performances by Ehle and Kate Winslet--his grief doesn't carry through the screen.  The film is a little too cold and too schematic to support it.  More powerful is its final shot, in which the genesis of the virus is revealed and fingers are pointed back at humanity (albeit in a typically reserved fashion; though terrorism, Chinese chauvinism, and American capitalism are all suggested as the virus's possible cause, the real reason turns out to be a combination of factors that leaves no one blameless).  That cynicism feels much closer to Contagion's heart than any of its attempts to be heartfelt.

  • In Time - Andrew Niccol's 1997 film Gattaca is generally hailed as one of the best science fiction films of the last two decades.  I don't disagree with that assessment, but I also think that it is something of a backhanded compliment.  Gattaca is highly praised precisely because it's a film.  In mediums where science fiction is a more developed, more sophisticated genre, it would be considered middling at best.  Its core flaw--a fascination with its central conceit that nearly leads the film to simplify itself and its world into oblivion--is emblematic of highbrow SF cinema, but because of strong characters (and equally strong performances) and a surprising soulfulness, Gattaca works.  In Time, Niccol's first foray into science fiction since Gattaca, lacks these saving graces, and dives headlong into the pitfalls that Gattaca so nearly avoided.  On the other hand, it has a lot more car chases and shootouts.  The central concept this time around is that attainable immortality has turned time into a currency.  At the age of 25 your aging stops, and a clock (handily displayed on your forearm, which several Israeli reviewers have taken as a Holocaust reference but somehow didn't ping me that way at all) starts counting down from a year.  You can use that time to buy goods and services and earn more of it by working, but if the clock runs out, you die.

    The metaphor is clear.  Paolo Bacigalupi did something similar in his calorie universe stories, in which he tries to draw attention to resource scarcity and global food shortages by turning calories into currency.  Niccol's focus is income inequality, so he creates a world in which the rich have eons in the bank while the poor are lucky to scrounge together a few days, and where the connection between destitution and death is immediate.  Where Bacigalupi used the calorie economy to create a vibrant, complex world, however, Niccol spends most of the movie making puns--the regions divided according to their occupants' wealth are "time zones," criminals who siphon off time from the weak and helpless are "minutemen," the policemen who regulate the flow of time are "timekeepers," the poor who can't get ahead of their debts are "living day to day."  In the whole of In Time, there's only one truly resonant exploration of its premise, the observation that the poor do everything quickly so as not to waste their precious minutes, while languor and dalliance have become status symbols for the rich (however, when this observation clashes with Niccol's passion for fine attire, it produces several moments of presumably unintentional comedy; despite speed being such an important attribute to the poor characters that they spend several scenes literally running for their lives, hoping to reach a charge-up point or someone who can top them up before their clock runs out, every woman in the film, rich or poor, wears slinky dresses and stiletto heels).  This single, affecting note aside, In Time brays its message, the better to stress the real world parallels of its nightmare economy.

    Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, a poor man who is given 100 years by a suicidal tycoon (whose claim that death is necessary for the human soul is only one of the many avenues of its premise that In Time fails to explore; the film isn't even particularly good at creating characters who are trapped in much younger bodies--Olivia Wilde, Vincent Kartheiser, and Matt Bomer are completely unconvincing as middle aged or ancient people).  This is such a disruption to the system that the timekeepers, led by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) are dispatched to arrest him, allegedly because they believe he stole the time, but really because they fear he might give it away to the poor and upend a balance that allows a precious few to live forever while the multitudes die.  Leon is the film's best character, a true believer despite the fact that the system benefits him only slightly, but the film squanders him--his purpose is either to spout speeches meant to illustrate how evil and exploitative the system is or act as an audience to Kartheiser's even more villainous speeches about same (the phrase "Darwinian Capitalism" is uttered with an entirely straight face).

    Having established the weighty parallel with real-world economic hardship, Niccol takes it in the most predictable, cloying direction possible.  Shortly into the film, Will kidnaps Kartheiser's daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), and the two quickly fall into a romance and embark on a Bonnie and Clyde-style robbery spree, distributing stolen time to the poor.  But both the romance and the robberies are thin stuff, and the latter in particular call attention to the plot's many holes.  In Time is, if you'll forgive the pun, a timely film--the injustices it rages against are on everybody's lips as Europe teeters on the verge of bankruptcy, social protests emerge all over the world, and income inequality becomes a buzzword--but beyond pointing out this unfairness Niccol turns out to have little to say about it.  His simplistic world might strain the viewer's patience, but the Robin Hood solution he posits to it insults our intelligence.  In Time's characters repeatedly tell us that there is nothing worse than wasting time, but the film's failure to say much of anything about such a relevant topic suggests that it is a far worse thing to waste good timing.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, October 24-28

The first of this week's reviews is Richard Larson's take on Jesse Bullington's The Enterprise of Death.  Richard is impressed with Enterprise, both as a fantasy and as a piece of historical fiction.  Liz Bourke is similarly impressed with Erin Hoffman's debut fantasy Sword of Fire and Sea, though she notes some problems with the book's characters and plot.  Sofia Samatar is intrigued by Nina Allan's collection of linked stories, The Silver Wind, though she wonders if the cumulative effect of the book, in which the same characters appear in different situations and with different backgrounds, as if they were alternate versions of each other, isn't ultimately more alienating than engaging.  See also Niall Harrison's thoughts on The Silver Wind at the Strange Horizons blog.

As part of the project to redesign the Strange Horizons website, we're holding a design competition for a new logo.  Details about the competition, its rules and prizes, can be found here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2011 Edition, Part 3

As fall draws into winter, the new TV pilots grow less frequent and more prestigious.  By which I mean more expensive and featuring more high concepts, but not, as the following write-ups demonstrate, necessarily better. In fact, it's been a lackluster fall.  2 Broke Girls and Pan Am have disappointed me.  Ringer and Revenge haven't, but my expectations from them were never very high.  There's only one new show this fall that is genuinely good (see below), and though that's hardly a tragedy--my TV dance card is too full already--it's depressing that this is the best the medium can come up with.
  • Homeland - For various reasons, I ended up banking the first three episodes of Homeland until my holiday last week, and then real-life events caught up with me in a way that made watching the show without preconceptions and emotional baggage utterly impossible.  Homeland is based on an Israeli series, Chatufim (Prisoners of War), which addressed the national trauma and media circus surrounding the various hostage crises of the last decade.  The latest of these was brought to a profoundly moving close last Tuesday with the release of Gilad Shalit, an event that is probably going to be one of those "where were you when" moments for my generation of Israelis (answer: in front of the TV, in tears).  In the wake of which, I found it very difficult to watch a story in which the rescued captive, Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), is the bad guy, or at least a victim who has been coerced and brainwashed into doing bad things.  It's even harder to see the show take such a matter-of-fact approach to the indifference and cynicism with which Brody is treated by his military superiors and the political establishment, the total lack of medical and psychological support he receives from the military, and the press's disrespect for his and his family's privacy.  I don't know how realistically Homeland depicts the reaction to the rescue of a kidnapped American soldier--at least some of these devices are clearly ways of making the plot flow more smoothly, and a few, such as the military's desire to use Brody as a morale-booster, are components of the show's ambivalent portrait of the military and the government--but with the image of the frail, overwhelmed Shalit before me (especially during his exploitative, invasive interview with Egyptian TV before being handed over to Israeli representatives; the Israeli establishment and press have, thankfully, been a great deal more respectful of his privacy and of his medical and psychological needs), it's hard not to react much more strongly and much more negatively than the show obviously expects me to at the sight of Brody's mistreatment.

    It took a while for me to overcome these visceral reactions, but when I did I found a smart, engaging espionage thriller that not only asks some pointed questions about the surveillance state, as Brody's house is rigged with cameras and microphones that record his and his family's every move, but points an accusing finger at the audience as well, for our voyeuristic desire to know the details of the Brodys' reacclimitization, even as we shake our heads over the press's voracious hounding of them.  In a way, Homeland is a show within a show--a family drama about a damaged man returning from a terrible ordeal and the family who have moved on without him and now must struggle to reintegrate him into their lives, and a spy thriller about a lone wolf CIA analyst who is convinced that he has been turned by his captors, and observes him in the hopes of finding proof.  That character, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), is Homeland's greatest asset.  She reminds me a lot of Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck--both fearless, self-destructive, casually promiscuous, and suffering from some sort of personality disorder (in Carrie's case, an actual mental illness that she conceals from her superiors and medicates with anti-psychotics).  Like Starbuck, Carrie is very good at her job but tends to burn through professional and personal relationships in her zeal to do what she believes is right and her conviction that she alone has a handle on the truth, and Danes and the script do a great job of balancing her competence with genuinely off-putting behavior.  Carrie is a less overwrought portrait of this type than Starbuck, however (she's a great deal less self-absorbed, and less prone to subjecting others to her dysfunction), and Homeland gives us more space to feel ambivalent about her, which to my mind makes her not only more bearable but more interesting.  This is a boon in a show that, on the one hand, positions Carrie as a hero, and on the other hand, gives us little in the way of confirmation that Brody has indeed been turned.  It's unlikely that the whole premise of the series will turn out to be a figment of Carrie's fevered mind, but the show's ambivalence towards both of them, and even more than that, its hints that these two damaged people have more in common with one another than with their friends and loved ones, gives it an extra hint of complexity.

  • Boss - Since the end of The West Wing, political storytelling in American television has tended to focus on the relatively smaller scale of local politics.  Shows like The Good Wife, Treme, and Boardwalk Empire convincingly argue that politics is not a matter of who can come up with the best policy or deliver the most convincing rhetoric, but of who can best maneuver the complicated maze of conflicting personalities and tribal affiliations, amassing enough power to get their own way.  Boss is the latest entry in this group, set, like The Good Wife, in Chicago, and focusing on that grand, often corrupt and byzantine city's mayor, Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer).  As the pilot opens, Kane is diagnosed with an untreatable, Alzheimer's-like degenerative illness, and instead of stepping down sets about, with redoubled enthusiasm, to cement his legacy: untying the endless red tape (and some legitimate objections) standing in the path of new runways at O'Hare airport, and putting a young up-and-comer in the Illinois governor's office.  The show is fast-paced and talky, and won me over with a willingness to demand intelligence from both its audience and its characters as it charts the various interest groups and power centers whom Kane negotiates and strong-arms.  But there are also some of the familiar pitfalls of "serious" cable dramas in the pilot--gratuitous nudity and sex, of course, and also a cynicism about Boss's subject that may cross the line from realism to the kind of faux-realism that glorifies "darkness" as an end in its own right.  The main problem in the Boss pilot is how violent it is, and how unbelievable that violence is in the show's context.  Not only does Kane physically assault a political operative who has displeased him in front of several aides, who neither try to stop him nor react as if he's done anything out of the ordinary, and not only does he "gently remind" his doctor to keep his career-killing diagnosis to herself by dispatching a man to assault her, but the episode ends with him receiving confirmation that the man who has thrown the latest impediment in the path of the new runways has been suitably chastised, in the form of that man's severed ears.  I don't know whether the overdone violence of the pilot is evidence of teething problems or an indication of the tone the show intends to strike, and there's enough that appeals to me about Boss that I'm willing to take another episode or two to find out, but if the violence doesn't tone down very quickly, it'll become impossible for me to take Boss's more intelligent aspects at all seriously.

  • American Horror Story - Last year, FX engaged in the curious experiment of trying to draw out the familiar beats of the boxing movie over a 13-episode season.  I lasted only a few episodes into Lights Out, but most of the reactions to it I saw took the form of complaints that there simply wasn't enough story in this hoary plot to fill out a whole season of TV.  American Horror Story is a similar experiment--its basic plot, dysfunctional family moves into haunted house, is mostly the stuff of movies, and on paper the project of porting it to a television series seems implausible.  Perhaps anticipating this difficulty, Glee creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk try to avoid it by cramming seemingly every single haunted house story in existence into a single location.  Three episodes into the show, the house at its center has been revealed to have been the home of a mad scientist, an illegal abortionist, a family destroyer, a murderous woman scorned, and a gay couple who die by murder-suicide (along the way a psychotic killer drops by to kill two nurses).  This makes, predictably, for some very gruesome and effectively staged murder scenes, and even outside of these--when it focuses on Ben and Vivien Harmon's crumbling marriage, or their daughter Violet's increasing alienation, or the deranged people who have survived living in or near the house but have been affected by it--American Horror Story is very stylish and atmospheric.  It achieves those effects, however, without ever reaching for an emotion as raw as horror, or indeed for anything resembling compassion, empathy, or even interest in most of its characters.  The murders are not events that happen to real people but well-staged tableaux, and though this might be acceptable in a horror story, the living characters, and especially the central family, are equally inhuman and hard to care about, and only become more so as their relationships grow more overwrought under the house's baleful influence.  As if that were not enough, American Horror Story is breathtakingly misogynistic, with every single woman in the series reduced to a shrill, often over-sexualized lunatic, and expresses a weirdly regressive disability fetish in the form of a woman with Down's Syndrome who has a psychic connection to the house.  That device feels so out of place in 2011 that one almost suspects Murphy and Falchuk of having a laugh.  Even if they are, the character is still very offensive, but that uncertainty about how seriously we're expected to take anything that happens on the show is the source of its weird appeal.  As it piles gruesome murders, kinky sex scenes, and utterly absurd character interactions one on top of the other--all while looking like, and probably costing, a million bucks--American Horror Story achieves, deliberately or not, a level of camp that renders it oddly compelling.  It's bad, but it's never boring.  I don't have much hope that the haunted house story will resolve in a satisfying or interesting way by the end of the season (or at all), but it will be interesting to see if the show can sustain its gonzo tone, and my half-disgusted, half-delighted interest, for 13 episodes.

  • Once Upon a Time and Grimm - If effective horror is relatively common in film and TV, effective fantasy--especially the kind that requires elaborate worldbuilding--is fairly uncommon, and the filmed examples of the genre tend to either fall into the trap of cutesiness, or veer into horror, as these two shows, both of which imagine that the heroes and villains of fairy tales are real and living in the real world, respectively demonstrate.  As its name suggests, Once Upon a Time takes the Disney approach to fairy tales.  In one of the pilot's plot strands, bounty hunter Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison, who seems, like Lisa Edelstein and Olivia Wilde, to be cashing in on her karmic payback for having played a female character on House for so long; she's not very good in Once Upon a Time, but then the show doesn't give her much to work with) is contacted by the son she gave up for adoption ten years ago (played by a child actor who is either bad or needs elocution lessons, possibly both) and travels with him to Storybrooke, Maine, where he insists that the townspeople are enchanted fairy tale characters who need Emma to rescue them.  In the second plot strand, Snow White and Prince Charming's wedding is crashed by the Evil Queen, who promises to curse them and "take away all your happy endings."  Their only hope, offered to them by the morally ambiguous Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle, proving that your career can actually go downhill from Stargate: Universe), is to spirit away their child, Emma, so she can return and rescue them.  If this sounds more like a prologue than the stuff of a whole pilot, then I've come close to describing how slack and underperforming Once Upon a Time's opening hour is, but that's not even the show's greatest fault.  That would be the infuriating laziness of the fairy tale world's construction, which amounts to little more than a few snazzy costumes, and in all other respects not only looks like a Hallmark movie, but is characterized by the same tone-deaf earnestness that renders these so completely inert.  The show's creators put so little work into winning us over to the storybook world, or creating a sense of wonder and numisnousness, that when characters say things like "I can't believe it!  Evil can't win!" they seem as ridiculous as that line does in print.  In the real world, meanwhile, there's no sense of what Storybrooke is like as a town, nor why living there is such a punishment for the fairy tale characters.  It may be that later episodes will illuminate the town and show us its dark underbelly (though that is not only something the pilot should have done, but had more than enough room for), but so far the show seems to be saying that hell on earth is an affluent, picturesque small town, which is actually quite insulting to people who live in genuine poverty and hardship.

    On the other hand, Once Upon a Time does establish that the three major players in its story--Emma, Snow White, and the Evil Queen--are all women, while in Grimm women are, with only one exception, victims, villains (and not even boss villains but their lackeys), or oblivious, endangered love interests.  As that description suggests, Grimm is essentially a retread of Supernatural, with main character Nick Burckhardt (David Giuntoli) learning that he is descended from the Brothers Grimm, and thus endowed with magical powers that allow him to battle and destroy evil fairy tale monsters.  Predictably, given the horror-tinged take on its subject, Grimm is a lot more effective at creating atmosphere than Once Upon a Time, but it's also a lot wittier about combining fairy tales with the modern world.  There's more punch to the pilot's opening minutes, in which a jogger in a red hoodie is attacked as she runs through the woods while the Eurythmics's "Sweet Dreams" blares on the soundtrack, than there is in all of the Once Upon a Time pilot.  On the other hand, the pilot's actual plot, in which Nick investigates the jogger's murder, is soporific, and the scenes in which he discovers his legacy--imparted to him by his aunt, a former monster-killer who might turn out to be an interesting character, but who spends the pilot either dying or comatose--are so by the numbers that I might have scripted them myself.  In the end, for all its atmosphere, Grimm's flaws are the same as Once Upon a Time's--a thin plot and even thinner characters, and an apparent reliance on its fantastic premise winning it an audience without actually doing any work to develop that premise into something new or interesting.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, October 17-21

In the first of this week's reviews, Indrapramit Das dives into Neal Stephenson's latest doorstop, Reamde, and finds novel with definite airport thriller qualities that nevertheless is not only entertaining, but suggests that the present setting of these sorts of novels has become SFnal.  Katherine Farmar reviews the putative next big thing in the YA fantasy circle, Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns (The Girl of Fire and Thorns in the US) and likes what she finds, though she wishes for a more complex handling of the story's religious aspects.  Finally, Chris Kammerud reviews the latest literary zombie novel, Colson Whitehead's Zone One, which takes a slightly different approach to the topic by setting its story some time after the struggle for survival has ended and with its characters desultorily cleaning up a ravaged world in anticipation of civilization's return, and wondering if that's a good thing.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, October 10-14

The first of this week's reviews is of the Booker-longlisted The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, a literary dystopia of reproductive collapse that, per Niall Harrison's take, is a lot more interesting and worthwhile than that (to me, at least) unappetizing description indicates.  Lila Garrott is similarly impressed with Livia Llewellyn's Engines of Desire, a collection of erotic horror stories whose use of sex and the human body, Lila concludes, is intended to elicit more horror than eroticism.  Finally, Martin Lewis is equally impressed and nonplussed by Margaret Atwood's essay collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, finding within it both a perplexing attitude towards her subject and a brilliantly idiosyncratic point of view.

The Strange Horizons fund drive concluded on Sunday, having reached and exceeded its goal.  A huge thanks to anyone who contributed or helped to publicize the drive.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

In my recent post about Northanger Abbey, I cited several discussions of art by and about women as examples of the way that femininity can be a double-edged sword for female artists and women in general.  One of them was this article from The Millions by Gabriel Brownstein, wondering why Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, a novel about America in the present moment, was getting so much attention and hype, while Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector, a novel about America in the recent past, had received so little.  Was it because of Goodman's gender, of the novel's girly title, and its central focus on two sisters, Brownstein wondered?  I haven't read Freedom so I can't say whether, like Brownstein, I think it and The Cookbook Collector are in the same league in terms of quality and relevance (though as Goodman is one of my favorite authors of literary fiction, and I found Franzen's The Corrections utterly forgettable, I'm perfectly willing to believe that The Cookbook Collector is not only as good as Freedom, but better).  But while I was reading The Cookbook Collector, I found myself comparing it to another extraordinarily well-received work of fiction by a man, and wondering why Goodman's novel--which is more thoughtful, more insightful, and most importantly, much more generous towards its female characters, than this work--hadn't received the same accolades.  That work isn't Freedom, or any other novel, but The Social Network.

Several of The Cookbook Collector's reviews have described it as a loose retelling of Sense and Sensibility.  You can sort of see where they're coming from--be they cancer research labs or orthodox Jewish communities in the mid-70s, the keen attention to detail and calm detachment with which Goodman sketches in her milieus has that "little bit of ivory" whiff to it that makes calling her a modern-day Austen almost irresistible, and with The Cookbook Collector's central characters being a pair of sisters, level-headed businesswoman Emily and emotional philosophy grad student Jess, the comparison seems obvious.  It's best, however, to approach the novel without those expectations, not only because they have the effect of making its early chapters seem rather schematic--look, there's Edward!  And there's Colonel Brandon!--but because the scheme doesn't hold.  The differences between the two sisters' personalities mirror Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood's, but nothing else about their experiences or the people they encounter matches those in Sense and Sensibility--Jess doesn't really have a Willoughby, and Emily's love interest is a great deal less stalwart than Edward.  More importantly, unlike Austen, Goodman writes about men, and she writes about work, and both of these subjects are too present in The Cookbook Collector for the Austen comparison to be very profitable.

Work, for Emily, means being the CEO of Veritech, an internet start-up on the verge of its IPO.  The novel starts in late 1999, and when Veritech goes public shortly into it Emily becomes, on paper, a multimillionaire.  Her boyfriend Jonathan is hoping for the same good luck with his company, ISIS, though the speed at which the company is growing and the exuberance with which investors are throwing money at it alarms his co-founder Orion and the company's HR director, the middle-aged Mel.  This, obviously, is where the Social Network comparison comes in, but whereas my main complaint about that movie was that Aaron Sorkin's script demonstrated not just ignorance but disdain for the technology industry, and constantly stood outside the revolution it claimed to chart without trying to understand it, The Cookbook Collector paints a multifaceted, surprisingly generous portrait.  It would be fairly easy, after all, for a novel set on the very cusp of the dot com bubble's explosion to take a sneering, finger-wagging attitude towards what was, after all, a culture of excess and irresponsibility, but though there is some of this in The Cookbook Collector, it also depicts the characters' genuine love for their field, and their determination to create something real and lasting.

"How is it majoring in an auxiliary field?"  Orion is asked when he first meets his girlfriend's father, an eminent physicist.  Eight years later, with ISIS about to go public, the tone of the conversation is very different, but for Orion, Emily and Jonathan, the answer has nothing to do with money.  "This is a time in industry where theory and practice are coming together in amazing ways."  Emily tells an interviewer who asks about her lapsed academic career.  "Yes, there's money, but what really interests me is that private-sector innovation happens faster.  You can get more done and on a larger scale and have more impact."  This is not to say that The Cookbook Collector is entirely sentimental about the tech boom.  Jonathan agrees with Emily entirely--in fact it's that interview that first attracts him to her--but he also has a ruthless streak, a businessman's mind that sees opportunities, advantages, and most of all rivalries and how to win them.  He spends the novel struggling with the temptation to steal a Veritech idea that Emily, in a sort of test of both of their affections, has revealed to him, and eventually surrendering to that temptation.  This ruthlessness concerns Orion, who loves programming but doesn't have the commitment and drive of his fellow founders.  Jonathan wants to rush products to market, to cement ISIS's hold on the field, while Orion would like to perfect them, weeding out every bug and security hole; the novel shows us the flaws in both of these approaches. 

Most of all, however, The Cookbook Collector is concerned with the inherent paradox of the internet start-up--all that money and enthusiasm poured into something that is not only ephemeral by its nature, but doesn't even work yet--and with the characters' attempts to conquer it.  When ISIS's share price drops precipitously as the bubble starts to burst, Jonathan tries to rally the troops: "You guys are not geeks for hire. ... You didn't come looking for a quick buck.  You came to build something.  You came to change the way the world does business."  Another important question, however, is just what those changes are, what it is that's being built: the idea Emily reveals to Jonathan is a system of electronic surveillance that, she's decided, is too ethically dodgy for Veritech to pursue.  The Social Network took the attitude that its central characters were being rewarded for doing nothing, and that their willingness to accept that reward (and pursue it through legal means when it was denied them) indicated a flaw in their character.  The Cookbook Collector, for all that it acknowledges this flaw, and the many other flaws in the field that led to the dot com bust, also sees how important the technology field is, and how determined the people who work within it are to make something new.

(Another point on which The Social Network received a fair bit of criticism was its depiction of women.  There are no female programmers in the film; women are either unattainable objects of affection, shallow floozies who flock to Facebook after the company takes off (and who go crazy when dumped), or maternal lawyers who don't quite get what all the fuss over a social networking site is about.  The hi tech world of The Cookbook Collector is not quite as male dominated as the film's, but it's significant that the two women we meet within it--Emily and an ISIS programmer named Sorel with whom Orion falls in love--are depicted, despite their tech-savvy and business acumen, as unsuited to the industry's cutthroat mindset.  Sorel treats ISIS as a day job, a way of funding her physics studies and musical career.  Emily, meanwhile, has the same desire as Jonathan to build something and change the world, but lacks his ruthless, competitive streak, and the corporate culture she creates at Veritech is friendly and curteous to ISIS's macho belligerence.  This is, obviously, a more varied portrait than The Social Network's, but I'm not sure that it doesn't cater to the same stereotypes.)

You might be wondering how cookbooks come into all of this, and that's because I haven't mentioned the book's second focal point--alongside the impulse to create something new, its characters are concerned with preserving what is.  Jess works in a rare book store belonging to George, a Microsoft retiree who is growing increasingly misanthropic and reactionary with middle age.  Despite his roots in the tech industry, George is dubious about technology, and increasingly reverent towards the old books he collects.  The novel's title comes from a collection he pursues and finally purchases, of dozens of 18th and 19th century cookbooks.  Jess, meanwhile, is engaged in her own brand of preservation, becoming involved with an environmentalist group (and with its creepy leader Leon) who are trying to save millennia-old California redwoods from being felled by loggers.  Jess and George start out unsympathetic to each other's interests and opinions--George in particular manages to belittle everything about Jess from her environmentalism to her vegan diet, though at times this seems like Goodman setting up rather easy targets--but gain an appreciation for them, and for each other.  Their plotline eventually transforms into a very sweet love story, not least because being with one another has the effect of mellowing most of George and Jess's annoying qualities.  That said, I have to admit--a little shamefully, given the discussion of domestic fiction by women with which I opened this review--that I find this aspect of the novel a lot less interesting than the hi tech strand.  The contrast between preserving the old and creating the new is an instructive one, but Goodman delves into Jess and George's stories--for example, with Jess's research into the identity of the titular collector, and that of the women whose drawings he tucked into his books--to such a degree that she clearly views them as significant in their own right, and yet that significance didn't register with me.

A few weeks ago, Niall Harrison and I discussed the term historical fiction, and specifically where the line between contemporary events and historical ones lies.  I suggested that an event may be called historical when its effects and consequences have been fully digested and comprehended.  9/11, in this scheme, is not historical, but the 90s--that sealed capsule of a decade, after the Cold War, before the War on Terror--are.  (You can read Niall's thoughts on this here, and Martin Lewis weighs in here and here.)  The Cookbook Collector feels like a novel about the moment at which that historical decade became the now.  The novel is littered with images of falling--Jess, though terrified of heights, agrees to squat in one of the endangered redwoods, but when she gets to the top she can't stop thinking about the fall to the ground; later, she and Richard describe falling in love with one another as an endless, dizzying drop; the fall of the tech sector's stock prices is described as a swoon:
Like a beautiful diver, the Nasdaq bounced three times into the air and flipped, somersaulting on the way down.  Tech stocks once priced at two hundred, and then seventy-three, and then twenty-one, now sold for less than two dollars a share.  Companies valued in the billions were worth jut millions, and with a blood rush, investors thought, So this is gravity, this is free fall.
All of this is leading up to that other fall, that other collapse of seemingly solid, immovable objects which the novel describes only obliquely.  After it, the tech sector changes: "Vaporizing into usefulness, online shopping, e-mail, and instant news, the Internet lost its mystique"; "The new reality was clear-eyed.  Start-ups scaled back on spending, hiring, and hype. ... Such were the lessons of learned from the prior generation, those high fliers from two years before: Reap what you sow, and look before you reap."  At ISIS, Jonathan's stolen surveillance idea is deemed a perfect technology for this new age (prompting one of the novel's few missteps as Orion, who was on-board with selling the technology to private companies balks at selling it to the government; in 2011, with corporate violations of our privacy as ubiquitous and worrying as ones by the government, this seems like a quaint, irrational distinction).  Goodman ties the two changes together in a way that's rarely been discussed in popular fiction, and in so doing manages to find something new to say about both.

The Cookbook Collector is not my favorite of Goodman's novels.  That remains Intuition, a more cohesive, more engaging work with fewer subplots and and less of a tendency to diffuse into them (it also does a better work servicing all of its characters; if The Cookbook Collector has a glaring flaw it is that Emily is a far less developed character than Jess, and that her growth at the end of the novel, after experiencing several emotional blows, is rushed through off-page).  On the other hand, it's an Allegra Goodman novel, which means beautifully written, furiously, and yet not ostentatiously, smart, and thought-provoking.  And perhaps most importantly, it's a novel about technology, and about the present moment, that is still girly and concerned with traditionally feminine things like cooking and cookbooks and romance.  That's an impressive accomplishment and one worth celebrating--especially in the face of the kind of praise lavished on less deserving works like The Social Network.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Science Fiction Encyclopedia is Up and Running

This has already been widely reported, but for those of you who haven't seen it, the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (to which I have contributed entries on television) went live yesterday.  There are still teething problems, and the text, as some subjects of the encyclopedia's entries have been discovering to their own annoyance, is not yet complete, but it's still an enormous, fascinating resource well worth losing several hours to.

The Encyclopedia's launch comes in conjunction with Gollancz's SF Gateway, an ebook imprint that has begun to publish selections from Gollancz's massive catalogue of classic SF and fantasy.  There's a large selection already available, with more authors to come.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Balm of Sisterly Consolation: Thoughts on Northanger Abbey and The Mysteries of Udolpho

In the chapter dedicated to Northanger Abbey in Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club, the titular club's discussion of the book kicks off with Grigg, the club's sole male member, making some comments on The Mysteries of Udolpho, the Gothic novel whose reading so confounds young Catherine Morland that she begins to see dark and murderous plots wherever she goes.  He's stunned to discover that none of the other members of the club have read Udolpho--"Black veils and Laurentina's skeleton? ... Didn't you think it sounded good?"  They, on the other hand, are equally stunned that anyone would have sought it out; "We'd thought it sounded overheated, overdone, old-fashionedly lurid.  We'd thought it sounded ridiculous.  Actually it hadn't occurred to any of us to read it."  In my one and only reading of Northanger Abbey my reaction to Udolpho was very much of the latter kind.  Once Fowler, through Grigg, raised the issue, however, reading Udolpho seemed obvious--how can you understand a parody without understanding the thing it's a parody of?  Especially as Northanger Abbey is the one Austen novel that I have never managed to get a handle on, the one whose point and purpose completely escaped me.  And, five or six years later, that's exactly what I've done.  Rather than answering my questions about Northanger Abbey, however, The Mysteries of Udolpho leaves me with even more questions, and feeling even more uncertain, about both books.

The introduction to my Oxford World's Classics edition of Udolpho, by Terry Castle, takes it as a given that most 21st century readers who pick up Ann Radcliffe's 18th century bestseller do so because of the book's connection to Northanger Abbey, or at least with their expectations of what Udolpho is like having been determined by Jane Austen.  But as Castle points out, Udolpho is a much stranger novel than Austen gives it credit for being, and much harder to sum up.  True, a large portion of the novel does take place in the titular castle, a remote, imposing edifice in the Italian Appenines, where innocent orphan Emily St. Aubert is held against her will by her late aunt's grasping, heartless husband Signor Montoni, who tries to bully her into signing over her inheritance to him on the dubious promise of freedom and safe passage home if she acquiesces, and in whose darkened passages, freezing turrets, and damp catacombs she is exposed to all manner of psychological and actual horrors.  But this is only the middle portion of the novel.  The events leading up to it--including the shucking-off of Emily's parents, the introduction of her love interest Valancourt, her aunt's marriage to Montoni and their departure for Italy--which we'd expect Radcliffe to hurry through in a few chapters, take up more than 200 pages.  These feel like a novel in their own right, one whose tone and emotional register are very different from the Gothic style of the Udolpho segment.  Their main thrust is a long, hallucinatory journey through the French countryside undertaken by Emily and her father--allegedly for the sake of his health though the entirely predictable hardships of the trip actually end up hastening his death--and later Emily's journey to Italy and sojourn in Venice with her aunt and Montoni, where her supposedly incurable sorrow over being parted from Valancourt is quickly assuaged by the beauty of the scenery.

Nor does Emily's (anticlimactic, almost accidental) escape from Udolpho herald the end, or even the beginning of the end, of her story, but rather the beginning of a new one, as Emily returns to her native France and ends up in an entirely different Gothic edifice with an entirely different dark history to puzzle out (in fact, despite the novel's name there are more mysteries in this chateau than there are in Udolpho), while Montoni, entirely forgotten by the main characters, is done away with for unrelated reasons by his political enemies, his death reported to us long after the fact.  Throughout all three of these stories Radcliffe returns again and again to themes and styles that have little to do with horror or sensationalism.  Parts of Udolpho, especially Emily's journeys in France and Italy, read like nothing so much as a travelogue.  Emily's own narrative is so suffused with discussions of her religious faith and how it sustains her that it sometimes feels like devotional writing.  An important theme is the valorization of nature and secluded living over cities and high society, which are held to be corrupting and soul-destroying, despite the fact that Emily's story doesn't lend itself to an exploration of this contrast; Radcliffe gets around this difficulty by having Valancourt try to drown his heartbreak over losing Emily in the pleasures of Paris, where he quickly becomes dissipated, and in those brief chapters the novel feels more like a Balzac-esque social novel.  The narrative is frequently interrupted by poems, allegedly composed by the characters on the fly, and though the novel is supposed to be a historical piece--it is set in the late 16th century, and the Italian civil wars of that period feature in it--that foreignness feels like a thin gloss of exoticism against which Emily (whose Frenchness feels, to me, equally thin) can be all the more effectively threatened.

It's tempting to call Udolpho bad, or at least so far outside the as-yet uncodified conventions of its form--then less than half a century old--that 21st century readers could never hope to stomach it.  And there is some truth to this.  The narrative's frequent pauses to describe scenery or recite poetry might have been overcome (in fact as I write this it occurs to me that I've just described The Lord of the Rings, a novel that is no less sui generis than The Mysteries of Udolpho, and one that is nevertheless beloved by millions of modern readers), but the anticlimactic resolutions to most of the Udolpho's mysteries--towards the end of the book it seems inevitable that Emily was born out of wedlock, but Radcliffe is so desperate to avoid tainting her heroine (and Emily's sainted father) that she pulls a last-minute revelation that preserves both their honors by the simple expedient of asking us to believe that Emily could have grown up entirely ignorant of her father's having had a second sister--and even more so, the contrast between the feverish pitch at which Emily's emotions are set by the horrors she experiences and our own placid responses to those horrors, are insurmountable obstacles.  The crowning moment of the novel's horror is Emily lifting the veil that hangs in an uninhabited, usually locked room in Udolpho, and being so horrified by what she sees behind it that she immediately faints (to be fair, something she does quite a lot) and, upon waking, suppresses the memory of the experience so thoroughly that for the rest of the novel it is merely a dim recollection of something unpleasant on which her mind refuses to linger.  This is serious buildup indeed--the first mention of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey involves Catherine's frantic speculations on what might lie behind the veil--and Radcliffe waits until the novel's very last pages to pay it off.  A 21st century reader, however, has so little reason to expect the answer to the mystery of the veil to be truly shocking that its constant teasing quickly become aggravating, and the actual solution--which is anyway delivered rather inelegantly--is simultaneously overwrought and deeply silly.

At the same time, to classify Udolpho as bad or unsuited to modern tastes is too dismissive, too easy a judgement.  This is more than just a bad read; it is a profoundly strange one, so uncertain of what it wants to be and what affect it is striving for that its very inability to settle on a tone, a mode, a style, and even a coherent narrative structure comes to seem almost like a success.  As Castle writes, "Udolpho has a way of escaping critical formulas: it is always bigger and baggier and more uncanny than one thought it was.  No trite summing-up can capture the novel's dreamy, surreal flow of incident, the odd, mediumistic shifts through space and time, the often bewildering vagaries in Radcliffe's handling of plot, character, and scene. ... Virtually anything one might say about the work--down to its most basic textual features--will be countered.  The book is its own antithesis; the clichés fail to hold."  While I certainly wouldn't say that I enjoyed Udolpho, or that I recommend it to other readers, I'm just as certain that its representation in Northanger Abbey is reductive and unjust.  There's more to the novel than Austen's portrait of it as an overwrought, cliché-ridden horror-fest, even if that more doesn't cohere into a whole or successful work.  But as my second reading of Northanger Abbey revealed, Austen's novel is less a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho than it is a parody of its readers.

Before we delve into that, I should say that this second reading has done little to endear Northanger Abbey to me.  Reading Udolpho may clarify Austen's references and the targets of her parody, but it does nothing to obscure Northanger's rather significant faults.  To put it simply, Northanger Abbey doesn't sound like a Jane Austen novel.  It was completed around the same time as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, but whereas they stayed with Austen for the better part of a decade before being published, during which she presumably revised and polished them, Northanger was sold to a publisher in 1803, then allowed to languish unpublished for 13 years.  Probably as a result of this, the published novel gives off the impression of a writer who has not yet found her style, and who is using a parody of another style to conceal that fact.  Northanger's narrative voice is much more present than in Austen's other novels, frequently addressing the readers directly.  This has the effect of placing a buffer between us and the characters, but it also means that almost everything that Austen tries to tell us is Northanger Abbey is right there on the surface.  The frequent criticism of Bath as a city of relentless bustle and equally relentless triviality, for example, is delivered in bald, blatant terms whose obviousness undercuts their effect.  (Austen lived for several years in Bath and was, from what I've read about her, deeply unhappy there, and it's therefore easy to assume that there is more than a little score-settling in her unflattering portrait of the city.)  The barbed wit that characterizes all of Austen's novels is already here, but the surgical control over it that she develops in her later novels, the silk and velvet beneath which she conceals her stilettos, are not yet in evidence.

It is with a similar forthrightness that Austen explains her plans for Catherine, who is introduced to us in the novel's opening sentence with the unpromising assurance that "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy could have supposed her born to be an heroine."  Such asides persist throughout the book (though they fade a little in its middle segments), telling us how Catherine's mundane adventures in Bath, her first experience as a young woman away from her parents, fail to live up to the standards set by novels of Udolpho's ilk--her father is "not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters," her mother does not die giving birth to her "as anyone might expect," when she first arrives at the Upper Rooms in Bath, "Not one [young man] started with rapturous wonder on beholding her, no whisper of eager inquiry ran round the room, nor was she called a divinity by anybody," and when she's disappointed in her hopes of dancing with a young man who caught her eye, her heartbreak takes the following ignominious form: "It appeared first in a general dissatisfaction with everybody about her, while she remained in the rooms, which speedily brought on considerable weariness and a violent desire to go home.  This, on arriving in Pultney Street, took the direction of extraordinary hunger, and when that was appeased, changed into an earnest longing to be in bed; such was the extreme point of her distress; for when there she immediately fell into a sound sleep which lasted nine hours, and from which she awoke perfectly revived, in excellent spirits, with fresh hopes and fresh schemes."  Leaving aside the again uncharacteristic lack of subtlety displayed in this device, and even admitting that it can be quite funny (though personally I think it overstays its welcome quite quickly), the question has to be asked--who is it that's supposed to be harboring these expectations?

Not every reader of novels in Northanger Abbey expects real life to proceed like The Mysteries of Udolpho.  In Henry Tilney, Catherine's sardonic love interest, and his sister Eleanor, Austen gives us two examples of devoted fans of Gothic fiction, and Udolpho in particular, who are nevertheless rational enough to distinguish between fact and fiction, between the rules that govern a Gothic novel and the ones of real life.  But Catherine herself, and her friend Isabella Thorpe, are incapable of making that distinction.  Isabella, who introduces Catherine to Udolpho, romances and becomes engaged to Catherine's brother James, schemes to attach Catherine to her own odious brother John, and throws James over for Henry and Eleanor's caddish brother Frederick (who leaves her in a lurch), behaves at all times as if she were the star performer in a grand drama.  She pretends to be the kind of virtuous, principled woman of character she's read about in novels, but never quite bothers to live up to that self-image.  She feigns sisterhood with Catherine, declaring that she prefers her company to that of flirting young men, or that she means to pay her friend attention rather than James; she announces her indifference to the men who flirt with her and flatter her, and her determination not to behave improperly by, for example, dancing a second set with James before they are engaged.  But whenever the high-minded principles that, Isabella has decided, a heroine must possess clash with her desires, the latter win through--Catherine finds herself abandoned, James gets his second dance, the flirts and flatterers find a willing subject.  It's also worth noting Isabella's conviction that she is playing to an audience--she can't dance with James because it would be a terrible scandal, tongues would wag, she'd be the talk of the town.  When the truth--to Isabella's great sorrow, no doubt--is that no one is watching, because no one cares.

Catherine, who despite her descent into silliness over the course of the novel emerges from it as the kind of quietly principled person Isabella pretends to, but could never really, be, lacks Isabella's pride and self-importance.  Whatever Austen thinks our expectations of her might be, Catherine herself has no idea of being a heroine.  She does, however, arrive at Bath almost entirely innocent in the ways of the world, and is thus, on the one hand, convinced of the morality and honesty of the people around her, and on the other hand, all too ready to take a novel like The Mysteries of Udolpho as a reliable guide to human behavior.  In the Bath-set chapters of the novel, this strains credulity--Catherine may be young, and may have lived a sheltered life, but her inability to consider, except at the greatest provocation, that a person might say one thing and mean another comes to seem less like innocence and more like an autism-spectrum disorder.  Nevertheless, there is something quietly affecting about these chapters, in which Catherine blindly and painfully fumbles her way towards the realization that Isabella may claim to be her friend and to love James, but is really greedy and selfish, and that the people around her may claim to adhere to strict codes of propriety, but are really happy to ignore them for the sake of convenience.  The scene in which Catherine, after learning of Isabella's betrayal of James, is finally disillusioned, exclaiming that Isabella is nothing but a "vain coquette" whose protestations of fidelity and friendship are worthless, is quietly heartbreaking--we are watching something delicate and irreplaceable within Catherine as it is lost forever.

It's when she arrives at Northanger Abbey that Catherine's naiveté ceases to function as a human, albeit exaggerated, quality and becomes the tool of Austen's comedy.  The same Catherine who earlier in the novel tells Henry and Eleanor that she doesn't like reading popular history because too much of it is made up, considers The Mysteries of Udolpho to be such a reliable record that she supports her belief that their father, General Tilney, killed his wife by musing that "how many were the examples to justify even the blackest suspicions!"  This loss of perspective is actually a very short interlude--Northanger Abbey appears even later in the novel that bears its name than Udolpho does in Radcliffe's novel, and Catherine only lets her imagination run away with her for a few short chapters--but it lingers over the novel, and is its best-known segment.  As much as Northanger Abbey has determined the public perception of The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Mysteries of Udolpho defines Northanger Abbey.

One of the most famous passages in Northanger Abbey is Austen's spirited defense of the novel, in which she condemns other novelists, whose heroines are too intelligent or too sophisticated to ever read anything as insipid as the work in which they themselves appear, for their "ungenerous and impolitic custom," and angrily replies to the self-deprecating exclamation of the novel reader, "It is only a novel" with "[it is] only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language."  But Northanger Abbey also draws a worrying picture of the effect that novels have on impressionable minds, causing them to lose touch with reality and become blind to their own faults and the flaws of others, and justifying bad behavior.  This is only one of the ways in which Northanger Abbey, like Udolpho, seems not only flawed but deeply weird, though at least in Austen's case it is more obvious that this weirdness is deliberate and purposeful.  When Henry Tilney learns about Catherine's suspicions of his father, he delivers another famous passage (if nothing else this is a very quotable novel), a harangue in which he chides her for thinking that such horrible things could really happen.
"Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained.  What have you been judging from?  Remember the country and the age in which we live.  Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.  Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you.  Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?  Do our laws connive at them?  Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?  Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?"
Ian McEwan used this passage as an epigraph in Atonement, presumably to highlight the irony of a story in which dark and dastardly things do happen behind the walls of rich, Christian, English houses.  But that irony is present in Northanger Abbey as well.  When you think about it, this is actually a weirdly specific and cold-blooded objection for Henry to make--at a point where you'd expect him to be spluttering in anger at the insult to his family, he behaves like a lawyer before the court, calmly but forcefully arguing that the prosecution's case doesn't hold water.  The whole thing gets even stranger when you consider that, as Henry has reason to at least suspect, something dark and dastardly is happening behind the walls of Northanger Abbey.  General Tilney, fooled into believing that the rich neighbors who escorted Catherine to Bath mean to leave her all their money, has been effectively courting her for his son, and both Henry and Eleanor are shown to be surprised and suspicious of his solicitous behavior towards her.  Even Catherine, when she realizes the reason that the General first curried her favor, then threw her ignominiously out of his house upon learning of his mistake, muses that "in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty."

And yet, that weirdly sanctimonious speech from Henry.  This, by the way, is one of the reasons that although I may find Catherine annoying at points, Henry is the Northanger Abbey character I genuinely dislike.  It's not just the fact that he is more patronizing of Catherine than even an Austen hero should be allowed to be, but that that condescension often crosses the line into a cynical worldliness that in Austen's other novels marks out coarse, even dissipated characters.  Henry watches Isabella Thrope toy with James Morland's affections and his only response is that James--and Catherine, who doesn't understand Isabella's behavior--are fools.  He watches his brother flirt with an engaged woman with resigned detachment.  He calmly informs Catherine that, having been the cause of the breakup of Isabella's engagement, there is no chance that Fredrick will marry her because she's not rich enough.  Catherine's naive conviction that everyone around her shares the fervency of her moral convictions and could never knowingly do wrong may be a flaw, but it's a less off-putting one than Henry's calm, sarcastic acceptance of the moral bankruptcy of those around him.

In a way, though, Henry is as much a victim of Austen's scheme for the novel as Catherine--his cynicism, like her innocence, is in service of the novel's message, the conclusion Catherine comes to when she gets some sense knocked into her by Henry--"Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for. ... Among the Alps and Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters.  There, such as were not as spotless as an angel might have the disposition of a fiend.  But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad."  We're not meant to take Henry's assurances that these sorts of things don't happen here at face value.  Or rather, we're meant to realize that horror doesn't have to mean sinister foreigners hounding their wives to death and terrorizing innocent virgins; it can also mean living like Eleanor Tilney, a slave to her domineering father's caprices, forced to put a polite face on his boorish behavior.  There is no moment in Northanger Abbey that so thoroughly captures The Mysteries of Udolpho's tone as when a mortified Eleanor visits Catherine in the middle of the night to tell her that she must leave in the morning, and seems as close to hysteria as Emily St. Aubert ever was: "Eleanor's cheeks were pale, and her manner greatly agitated.  Though evidently intending to come in, it seemed an effort to enter the room, and a still greater effort to speak when there."  To be on constant lookout for the first kind of horror, as Catherine is during her stay at Northanger, is to miss the signs of the second.

So, after a stirring defense of the novel that culminates with a list of its finest qualities--it displays the greatest powers of the mind, the most thorough knowledge of human nature, etc., etc.--Austen spends the rest of Northanger Abbey demonstrating that The Mysteries of Udolpho lacks those qualities, and laying out a very firm distinction between good novels and bad, between those in which humanity may be looked for and those in which it shouldn't--along the way placing her own novel very firmly in the former category.  Austen couches her defense of novels in the terms of sisterhood--"If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can we expect protection and regard?  I cannot approve of it.  Let us leave it to the reviewers to to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans.  Let us not abandon one another; we are an injured body"--and both that defense and the treatment of novels in the rest of Northanger Abbey make it clear that the prejudice against novels is tied up with gender, and with the perception that the readers at whom novels are targeted (and perhaps also the majority of authors) are female.  And yet one can't help but feel that this is an Isabella Thorpe sort of sisterhood, loudly proclaimed but ultimately false.  Austen may call for mutual support, but the distinction she draws between Northanger Abbey and The Mysteries of Udolpho speaks louder.  It says, I'm not like those other, silly girls; I'm cool.

Of course, sisterhood is not easy, especially when it's with the likes of The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Reductive as her portrait of it is, I don't actually disagree with Austen's claims about Udolpho's silliness, the melodramatic turns of its plot, and the inhumanity of its characters (though I would argue that Udolpho's problem isn't that it is shlock but that it's boring shlock; The Woman in White, which borrows many of Udolpho's plot points and is no less overwrought, has a rollicking plot and interesting characters, and is a great read).  Is she obliged, in the name of sisterhood, to defend a work she has so little regard for?  If you're a feminist, you've probably found yourself faced with some variant of this question.  Am I obliged, for example, to defend Twilight--which I actually found myself thinking of several times while reading Udolpho; Emily, who faints at the slightest provocation, who is irresistible to many of the novel's male characters, and who waits passively while the plot resolves itself around her, is a rather Bella Swan-ish character, and the book even expects us to find it romantic that before he makes his feelings for her known, Valancourt stands outside her window while she sleeps--when it is attacked, as it often is, in misogynistic terms, or simply for being a work that appeals primarily to girls?

It's a question that crops up again and again, whenever art by, for, or about women is discussed.  You see it whenever chick-lit--the term, the publishing category, and the question of who gets classed into it--is discussed, and especially when an author of literary fiction--usually a female one--comments disparagingly on it.  These discussions, if they acknowledge that chick-lit is rooted in some deeply problematic assumptions (and that it is equally problematic that women writing about the domestic, such as Austen herself, are assumed to be writing chick-lit, or at least less worthy work than male writers who write about it), will usually fail to admit that the perception of chick-lit as frivolous and shallow is rooted in misogyny, and vice versa.  During the discussion of the dwindling ranks of women writing SF, there were several surprisingly negative responses from female bloggers, which were partially explained by their argument that women haven't been driven out of SF but have left it for fantasy and paranormal romance, and that the prioritization of SF is just the flipside of the tendency to discount these genres.  But all is not well even within those fields: witness, on the one hand, Stina Leicht complaining about the expectation that a female fantasy writer must be writing paranormal romance, and on the other hand, M.K. Hobson's creation of a moniker for a female-oriented subset of steampunk which she dubs "bustlepunk."  And then there's the fact that what is meant by literature for women is often literature for white, middle class, heterosexual, cisnormal women, as discussed in the comments to Kyra Smith's review of a romance novel at Ferretbrain.

The truth is, there isn't really a good answer.  It's one of the traps laid for us by the patriarchy, which teaches us, on the one hand, that women must be feminine, and on the other hand, that femininity is bad, or at least trivial and shallow.  Even leaving aside the question of how femininity is defined, and what women are left out of that definition whether they want to or not, it's almost impossible to defy one part of that formula without validating the other.

One possible answer to this quandry can be found in the vengeance that time has delivered on Radcliffe's behalf.  For all of Austen's attempts to set the two novels in opposition, there's still a relatively large circle of readership that genuinely does not see the difference between Northanger Abbey and The Mysteries of Udolpho, and decries Austen's novels as the same sentimental, unrealistic, lovey-dovey fluff that she excoriates Radcliffe for.  The older I get, the harder it is for me to understand this perception of Austen, which leaves out her caustic wit and profound cynicism.  Perhaps that's one of the things that makes her a great writer--you can read her at 15 and see only the romance, then come back at 30 and find the bitterness that lies just beneath the surface (if Northanger Abbey has a core flaw, it is that it doesn't quite manage this amalgam).  The problem, of course, is that so many people don't bother to read Austen at all before passing judgement on her, based on her gender, her chosen subjects, and maybe a few movie adaptations.  Two hundred years after her spirited defense of the novel and equally spirited attempt to distance herself from the perceived girliness of the form, she is still subject to the same accusations, the same dismissal, the same condescension the fear of which causes the heroine of the novel Austen swore never to write to set aside her reading saying "Oh!  It is nothing! ... It is only a novel."  I don't know whether it's reasonable or right to always be guided by sisterhood, to refrain from criticizing the work of women just because those women are also being criticized by misogynists--and I can't say that I always have, or always will, live up to that exacting standard.  But seeing the way that our culture, despite her own best efforts, continues to misapprehend Jane Austen, it feels important to try.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, October 3-7

Victoria Hoyle kicks off this week's reviews with a review of recent World Fantasy Award nominee Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord.  Though charmed by novel, Victoria is also a little hesitant about it, wondering if it isn't a little too charming, and its resolution a little too neat.  Paul Kincaid follows with a similarly ambivalent review of Chris Adrian's The Great Night, a retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream set in present-day San Francisco which, Paul concludes, might be stronger in its mimetic portions than its fantastic ones.  T.S. Miller rounds out the week with a review of the second volume of Subterranean Press's The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick.  Though he admires the stories, he also finds much to question about Subterranean's editorial decisions.

We're going into the last few days of the Strange Horizons fund drive (I mistakenly thought this was two weeks ago).  This week, like last, the pace of donations has been strong, but we're still only at 2/3 of our target.  At the Strange Horizons blog, Niall Harrison is reporting on daily draws of bonus prizes for people who donate on that day--today's prize is two volumes of Paul Cornell's Lex Luthor arc for Action Comics.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, September 26-30

The reviews department rounds out the month with three reviews of odd, slipstream-y books.  First out the gate is Niall Alexander who reviews Christopher Priest's The Islanders, his first novel in nearly a decade and, an almost indescribable work that is, at its most basic level, a travel guide to an archipelago that doesn't exist.  Sofia Samatar follows up with a review of Yellowcake, Margo Lanagan's fourth short story collection, which maintains Lanagan's reputation of not being afraid of dark, gruesome material, and of doing new and unexpected things with it.  Rounding out the month is Andy Sawyer with his review of Helen Oyeyemi's Mr Fox, a story about a love triangle between a writer, his wife, and the writer's imaginary muse that also recalls the folktales about the title character, a seducer and murderer of women.

The Strange Horizons fund drive is still going on and this week has had a major bump with calls for contributions from several major venues and many writers and readers posting testimonials about the magazine.  Niall Harrison has several roundups of these posted at the Strange Horizons blog--1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  Nevertheless, the drive is still just at half its target with only a short time left to run, so please consider contributing if you're able.  The list of prizes that will be raffled off among contributors has also been updated.