Sunday, September 29, 2013

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2013 Edition

Well, here we are again.  With almost no time to grow accustomed to the glut, the new fall shows are here, and even omitting a huge number of them simply because there's really nothing to say, I've had to split the discussion of already-aired shows into two parts, with more to come.  I wish I could say that in the midst of all that quantity there are also signs of quality, but most of these shows run the gamut from promising to not-so-promising, with almost none genuinely good out of the gate.  Still, at least there's a lot to talk about.
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine - I often skip new comedies in these write-ups, because far more than dramas, comedies take time to find their voice.  It can be hard, judging from one or two episodes, to say whether a new sit-com will be appointment viewing, or amusing but not worth getting attached to, or just terrible (for a frame of reference, in past pilot season reviews I've been underwhelmed by the Community pilot, and thought 2 Broke Girls might be worth a shot).  Brooklyn Nine-Nine is, honestly, no exception.  The show has a cute premise--a comedy set in the titular police precinct and centering on the conflict between the goofball star detective (Andy Samberg) and his uptight new captain (Andre Braugher).  This results in some very funny moments in the two episodes I watched, and the interplay between Samberg and Braugher (whose stern demeanor, usually found in intense dramas like the legendary Homicide: Life on the Streets or last year's po-faced Last Resort, makes him a killer straight man) powers the show quite nicely.  But despite this potential, it's fairly clear that the show's writers are still putting its scaffolding together.  The supporting cast has mostly not been sketched in yet: Terry Crews is winning as a precinct sergeant suffering from anxiety issues, but Joe Lo Truglio is a bit of a chore as a physically and romantically inept detective, and with the exception of Chelsea Peretti as the precinct's loopy civilian administrator, the women on the cast are fairly forgettable.  And despite the pilot finding a good gag in Braugher's character's stiffness--he's such a good straight man because he's gay, and has spent his career doing things perfectly by the book so as not to give his superiors an excuse to get rid of him--neither it nor the second episode manage to find his personality, either as an extension of his gayness or in any other trait.  He exists mainly as a foil for Samberg's manchild antics, which, though less aggravating than this kind of behavior often is, probably can't carry the show on their own.

    So the truth is, there's really no way of knowing yet whether Brooklyn Nine-Nine will be worth watching, and the reason that I'm interested in the show, and hoping that it does prove to be a winning comedy, is its subject matter.  The show is clearly aware that it is a rare comedic voice in a genre characterized by intense, violent drama--the first scene in the pilot sees Samberg monologuing to the screen about the soul-killing nature of his job, only to reveal that he's performing a dramatic reading from Donnie Brasco while his partner exasperatedly processes a robbery.  In a television landscape that not only takes such speeches with deadly seriousness, but uses them to justify an increasingly fascistic attitude towards violence and the abuse of police power (in this pilot season alone, we have Ironside, an inspirational story about a man who won't let disability stop him from dangling suspects off rooftops, and By Any Means, a British series predicated on the assumption that the confidence games and feats of entrapment that were so charming on Leverage will be equally appealing when committed by officers of the law) it feels valuable, and even necessary, to have a series that recognizes them for the self-aggrandizing, faintly ridiculous posturing that they are.  In its first two episodes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine treats police work as a job that can often be aggravating and thankless, but which the characters on the show nevertheless genuinely enjoy and want to do well--which also means obeying the law and trying to minimize violence.  With a little luck, it could end up doing for police work what Parks and Recreation (with which it shares some producers and writers) has done for civil service--act as a necessary antidote to the cynicism that has permeated other, dramatic depictions of the job, not by ignoring the aspects of it that are frustrating and Sisyphean, but by acknowledging that these can often be inherently comedic.

  • Hostages - It's been amusing, these last few years, to watch as Israeli shows became the go-to source for inspiration for American TV--first a trickle following the respectable critical reception of In Treatment, and now a deluge as producers frantically try to find the next Homeland (most of these shows don't make it past the pilot stage, but thanks to the somewhat insular state of the Israeli news apparatus I hear about every project at its most preliminary stages).  Even if it weren't for their shared national heritage, it would be clear that Hostages (based on an Israeli series of the same name which hasn't aired yet) is an attempt to replicate Homeland's success--it has the same action-movie-with-a-cerebral-twist vibe, the same use of a unique angle to approach a story about politics and espionage, and the same game of wits between male and female lead characters.  The story, however, is quite different: on the eve of performing an operation on the President of the United States, hotshot surgeon Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) and her family are taken hostage by an FBI agent (Dylan McDermott) who wants her to kill her patient.  The obvious question the pilot needs to answer is how the show plans to stretch this story--which at first glance feels like it could, at best, power a feature-length movie--into even a single season.  Which makes it doubly unfortunate that in its first hour Hostages seems to feel so little urgency about justifying its own existence.  Like a lot of high concept shows, it seems to be working under the assumption that said concept is intriguing enough to keep people watching--even though hostage situations are one the most hoary tropes out there.  And so the pilot, instead of barreling through the familiar early stages of the hostage story--the introduction to the hostages on an ordinary day, the hostage-takers' violent entrance and their demands, the hostages' early attempts to get away--proceeds through them almost languorously, as if it genuinely believes that the audience has never seen a story like this one before.  It's only in its final seconds that the pilot does something unexpected--and sets the tone for the type of the story that the rest of the series will tell--but by that point I was pretty much running out the clock.

    In its handling of its characters, the Hostages pilot also demonstrates a dispiriting tone-deafness.  Instead of putting any sort of power into their plotting, the pilot's writers seem to believe that they can capture the audience's interest by piling personal issues on the Sanders family.  Which is wrongheaded going both ways: first, it assumes that people who have been taken hostage as part of a plot to kill the president need something else to make them interesting, and second, it assumes that the things we learn about Ellen's family--her husband is having an affair, her daughter is pregnant, her son is dealing pot and in hock to his supplier--are interesting, rather than a bunch of overwrought, predictable clichés.  There's some potential for interesting character development in McDermott's character--"we're not here to solve their problems," he tells one of his men who has performed an act of kindness for Ellen's son (showing him that the family dog wasn't killed but only drugged, because while pointing guns at children in their own home is something an audience can forgive, killing a dog is beyond the pale).  The sheer cluelessness of the line suggests that McDermott still sees himself as a good guy who can keep the situation he's created under control--and non-violent--and is genuinely surprised when Ellen and her family don't accept his assurances that he won't hurt them so long as they play along.  But instead of challenging this assumption, the pilot seems to be trying to bolster it by showing us that McDermott has a sick wife and a young daughter.  This leaves Ellen alone as the only source of character drama on the show, and although she gets some powerful moments--chiefly, after realizing that her family is in danger because of her unique access to the president, she takes advantage of her first moment alone to try to maim herself, but can't go through with it.  Even this, however, is undermined by the show's plot--we know that the entire premise of the series isn't going to be cancelled out halfway into the pilot--and only Collette's performance gives Ellen's dilemma even a little bite.  Carrie and Brody these are not, and despite the slight hint of intelligence at the end of Hostages's pilot, it's hard to believe that this show will ever come close to matching Homeland's twisty intensity and complex characters.

  • Agents of SHIELD - Bar none, the most hotly anticipated pilot of the fall, and now that I've seen it I can join in the general chorus of cautiously optimistic, perhaps overly-indulgent "meh"s that has greeted it.  A fairly standard "let's get the team together" hour only slightly enlivened by the presence of Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson (last seen biting it at the hand of Loki in The Avengers, and brought back by to life here through darkly-hinted means that are one of the pilot's few compelling mysteries), the SHIELD pilot is so nondescript that if I didn't know better, I would have assumed that Joss Whedon's role in it began and ended with a producer's input.  According to the credits, however, Whedon wrote and directed this hour, and once you know that it becomes easier to see (or maybe to imagine) a certain watered down Firefly quality to the show--the flying base that Coulson requisitions for his new team looks like Serenity reenvisioned by someone with little imagination and no fondness for texture, and the team, which comprises hackers, scientists, and fighters, is what someone fairly straight-laced and afraid of controversy might imagine as a motley crew (the only standout character is Ming Na as fearsome fighter Melinda May, though even she is characterized by a reserve that conceals some unspoken trauma that has left her reluctant to return to the field).  Still, the show that SHIELD most closely resembles isn't in the Whedon-verse, it's Torchwood.  Like that series, the show's central question is examining how a (fairly) ordinary organization of non-superpowered humans deals with a world in which superheroes, and the menaces they face up against, are a reality.

    With that new frame of reference, SHIELD looks very good indeed (though given the pilot's unrelenting blandness even Torchwood's over the top awfulness starts to look enticing by comparison), not least in actually finding some interesting questions to ask about such a setting.  The pilot's story revolves around an ordinary, down-on-his-luck man (J. August Richards, who will hopefully recur later on) granted superpowers by scientists experimenting with alien artifacts left over from the battle at the end of The Avengers, who is driven insane not just by the little-understood alien technology altering his body, but by the comic book expectations of heroism created, in the show's universe, by the existence of actual superheroes.  When Coulson corners him, Richards raves about a world that taught him to aspire to an ordinary sort of heroism--hold down a job, support your family--then made him feel inadequate in the face of beings who are more than human.  At the same time that it raises these questions, however, SHIELD also seems, quite often, to be plumping for easy answers--Richards can blame the Avengers for making him feel like a failure, not an economic and political system that has taken away his job and prospects and called him a failure for it, and the second issue raised by the pilot, SHIELD's right to hide the existence of aliens and superheroes from the rest of the world, is rather neatly resolved when the character who raises it, a hacker named Skye (Chloe Bennet), joins the SHIELD team and seemingly accepts their mission to perpetuate this deceit.  At the end of the pilot, it's hard to know which way the show will fall--there's room for Skye to reveal her own agenda, for example, and for Coulson's certainty about his mission to be punctured by the things about himself and his resurrection that he doesn't know; but the show could also function as little more than an adjunct to Phase Two, drumming up interest without really challenging any of the assumptions that underpin the movies' rather cartoonish universe.  Whether it comes from Whedon or someone else, one can only hope that someone involved with SHIELD will try to make it into its own, worthwhile story.

  • Peaky Blinders - If The Hour was the BBC's answer to Mad Men, Peaky Blinders is its response to Boardwalk Empire.  Like the Prohibition-set HBO show, it takes place in the 1920s, and focuses on borderline gangsters and the obsessive, amoral policemen who hunt them.  The setting, to me, is far more enticing than Boardwalk's Atlantic City, however.  The Peaky Blinders are the ruling gang in the working class neighborhoods of Birmingham (so named because of their habit of sewing razor blades into the brim of their peaked caps, which they swing at opponents' eyes in a fight; I'm sure that this is a historical detail since no one could make something like this up, but it doesn't make the name or the fighting tactic any less silly).  Run by the Shelby family and headed up by son Tommy (Cillian Murphy), they run crooked books and collect protection, but also keep the peace and make sure to spread at least some of their ill-gotten gains around.  When what should have been a simple robbery of motorcycles nets Tommy a crate full of automatic guns and ammunition bound for Libya, he calls down on Birmingham the wrath of Sam Neill's Inspector Campbell (backed by then Secretary of State Winston Churchill, played with a refreshing callousness by Andy Nyman) who suspects either the IRA or the communists, both rising forces in the city, of taking the guns.  The result is a tangled web of allegiances, with the law pitting gangsters against Irish nationalists and labor organizers without seeing much difference between them, and the three groups vying for each other's support on the grounds of their shared disdain for government, fueled by the carnage of WWI.

    The result can feel more than a little overstuffed (especially when the show adds to the story of the missing guns Tommy's plans to advance the family's position by involving himself in a war with gypsy gangs and scheming to undermine the city's leading bookmaker), and as a result some subplots come off feeling rather perfunctory.  This is particularly true of the romance plots--the star-crossed love between Tommy's sister and the lead communist, his boyhood friend and comrade in war (Iddo Goldberg), and Tommy's own flirtation with an Irish barmaid (Annabelle Wallis) who turns out to be Campbell's plant.  Even at its most expansive moments, however, it can be hard to tell if Peaky Blinders is more than just an exciting, twisty story, and whether it has anything to say about its era, or about the changing, sometimes ugly face of policing in times of economic and political instability.  The show is extremely well-made, beautifully shot and directed (and makes some amusing, if perhaps too-clever, choices in its soundtrack, using modern music like Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand," which opens each episode).  But what makes it work is Murphy's performance, which imbues the series with some much-needed gravitas.  His Tommy has been driven to nihilism (and opium) by the trauma of his wartime experiences, and whenever he makes a move in his war with the police and the city's other criminals it's left to us (and the other characters) to wonder if he's being a cunning chessmaster, or imploding spectacularly.  Murphy, however, finds the humanity behind Tommy's poker face, a sense of humor and some occasional moments of compassion (when his former friend is incensed at his accusation that he only wants Tommy's sister for the advantages that a connection with the Shelbys would offer the communists, you can see a flicker of shame cross Murphy's face before it once again goes hard).  It's not quite a person, but Murphy's performance is magnetic enough to make the guesswork that surrounds Tommy compelling, and with him, the entire show.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox + Strange Horizons Fund Drive

My review of Elizabeth Knox's YA novel Mortal Fire appears today at Strange Horizons.  As I write in the opening of the review, I was introduced to Knox by Nina Allan's Short Fiction Snapshot about Knox's short story "A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill."  Mortal Fire turns out to be less focused and not nearly as weird as the story, but it is nevertheless an intriguing, richly detailed, sharp novel that marks Knox out as a writer to become better acquainted with.

This is also a good opportunity to mention that Strange Horizons is running its annual fund drive this month--see the arrow below tracking the drive's progress.  The money raised during this period will be used to pay our contributors and to help Strange Horizons remain (she said, with some admitted partiality) one of the best sources online for speculative fiction and non-fiction.  The main fund drive with details about how to donate and publicize the drive can be found here.  Anyone who donates will be entered in a prize drawing whose prizes are listed here (prizes are updated regularly so check back).  And as donation levels are reached, we'll be releasing bonus content (which already includes several reviews) which is collected here.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Where the Cool Kids Are: The New Breed of TV Anti-Heroes

"We had a name for people like you in prison.  We called you the mean clique."
Community, "Competitive Ecology"
The era of the anti-hero is over, so says everyone.  In TV reviews and discussion boards, there is a growing consensus that shows about white middle class men behaving badly (and often illegally) and taunting the audience with how outrageous, destructive, and toxic their behavior is have become passé, and that when Breaking Bad wraps up its story in less than a week, it'll be time for TV to come up with a new shtick (never mind that Mad Men, to my mind the most innovative twist on the anti-hero concept, still has two seasons left to run).  You could see this most clearly this summer, in the genuine contempt that seemed to waft off reviews of latter-day anti-hero wannabes like Ray Donovan or Low Winter Sun.  These shows, reviewers agreed, desperately wanted to snag the coolness points of departing series like Breaking Bad (or, hell, even Dexter, which surrendered what little coolness it still had left years ago and ended its run earlier this week with one of the most dispiriting whimpers ever heard).  With no idea how to replicate that kind of achievement, these shows plumped for tone-deaf mimicry, and so their sad-sack protagonists commit murder, beat people, abuse their families, and in general behave like awful human beings without giving the audience any reason not to change the channel in disgust.  After a whole summer of this, everyone seems to agree that it's time to move on.

In general, that everyone includes me (though as I've written in the past, before the death knell is rung on this genre I would have liked at least one of its canonical iterations to have featured an anti-hero who was not a man, or not white, or--heavens forfend!--not either one).  But at the end of a summer in which so many TV reviewers have found themselves losing their last shred of patience with anti-hero shows, I've started to notice their tropes infecting shows that should seemingly want nothing to do with Sopranos-style moral murkiness.  It's not that anti-heroes are going anywhere, but that they've evolved into something new, and along the way injected a welcome cynicism into some of the most cherished, valorized tropes of American TV.

Somewhat to my surprise, the trailblazer here is Breaking Bad.  Excellent though it is, Breaking Bad is, on the whole, a show that perfects the anti-hero concept, rather than one that innovates within it.  It's a fantastic story, extremely well told and performed, but it doesn't usually tell us anything new (for a more critical restatement of this observation, see this excellent post, which quite correctly points out how little Breaking Bad has to say on the subject of the drug trade).  The one exception is the increasingly toxic mentoring relationships between Walter White and his assistant, Jesse Pinkman.  Other anti-heroes have had mentees--Tony had Christopher, and Don has Peggy--but the relationship between Walt and Jesse is unique for being so all-consuming, in ways that are both good and bad.  Walt is, at one and the same time, the only truly nurturing presence in Jesse's life, and the worst thing that has ever happened to him.  When the two first meet, Jesse is a dropout and layabout, estranged from his parents, cooking bad meth for small-time crooks, with some combination of prison, serious drug addiction, and an early death in his future.  Walt gives him a purpose and boundaries, teaches him discipline, and trains him in the same problem-solving techniques that have made Walt so respected, in his legitimate and illegal activities.  Through knowing Walt, Jesse becomes more confident and better able to use his intelligence.

But of course, what Walt is teaching Jesse to be is a more effective purveyor of addictive poison, and as the two climb the ranks of the Albequerque drug trade Jesse becomes involved in a level of criminality that he never would have aspired to, much less reached, on his own, finally culminating in his murder of Walt's one-time assistant Gale.  At the same time, Walt systematically isolates Jesse from anyone who might represent an alternative influence--most notably, when he stands by and watches as Jesse's girlfriend Jane, who had encouraged Jesse to rebel against Walt, chokes to death on her own vomit.  Walt also undermines Jesse's faith in his own judgment and perceptions, breaking down his identity and encouraging a dependence that leaves Jesse a psychological wreck, wracked with guilt over what he and Walt have done but incapable of making a break with his mentor--until he discovers a sufficiently great violation of their trust which finally cuts through Walt's conditioning.

Where I see the influence of the anti-hero shows on television as a whole is in the increasing depiction of toxic mentor-mentee relationships that have more than a little bit of Walt and Jesse in them.  American TV, it has been said many times, is obsessed with the workplace.  It has a tendency to treat workplace relationships, and the loyalty between colleagues (and especially between superiors and underlings), as somehow sacrosanct--more worthy than the bonds of family or love, more important than laws or ideals.  This is a TV landscape, after all, which has given us The West Wing, a show in which, as I've written, the characters evince a loyalty to their workplace and their superiors that is almost feudal, and in which the courtly love between a president and his advisers trumps any personal relationship (or indeed the desire for personal relationships).

Up until a few years ago, perhaps the most trenchant deconstruction of this attitude was the American version of The Office.  Steve Carell's inept manager Michael Scott clearly thought of himself as a sort of Jed Bartlett, inspiring undying loyalty in his "troops."  As the show repeatedly pointed out, he believed that being someone's boss was a good way to become their friend (or rather, to make them your friend), but in the reality the show presented, Michael's employees were working for the same reason that most of us do, and eager to end the workday so that they could leave to be the with the people they really liked and do the things they really cared about.  In the last few months, however, I've watched three different shows that seem to be doing something even more revolutionary.  They present a character who is Jed Bartlett-ish in their charisma and in the loyalty they command in the workplace, and then slowly suggest that this character is actually a sort of Walter White, and that the loyalty they inspire in their underlings is actually the result of manipulation and gaslighting.

The first of these shows is Scandal, which is in many ways a sort of dark, perverted mirror of The West Wing.  As I wrote in my post about the show last month, Scandal initially presents its heroine, Olivia Pope, as a champion of the downtrodden (she is repeatedly referred to, with an increasing degree of irony, as a "white hat").  Her employees' fanatical loyalty to her is rooted, as we discover, in the fact that she has saved each of them, from prison, abuse, or simply from their own self-loathing.  It is also, however, rooted in the fact that they derive much of their self-worth from working for Olivia, which makes them, as one of them memorably announces in the series pilot and then wastes no opportunity to remind us thereafter, "gladiators in suits."  As the series draws on, and as we discover more details about Olivia's past that make her claim on the white hat increasingly tenuous, that confusion of workplace and personal identity comes to seem less and less healthy--and more like something that Olivia has encouraged in order to keep her people in line.  Like Walter White, she isolates her people--sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes deliberately--from any outside influence that might cast her behavior in a different, less positive light, and encourages them to view anyone who comes at her as a communal enemy.  She creates a bunker mentality that leaves her people incapable of questioning her choices, even as they puff themselves up at the thought of the power that being associated with Olivia Pope has conferred upon them.

A less imaginative spin on this story comes from USA's summer series Graceland, which was inspired by the suggestive true story of a group of undercover agents living together in a repossessed beach house in Southern California.  The series begins with newly-minted FBI agent Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) being assigned to the titular mansion, where he finds a motley crew of FBI, DEA, and customs agents, presided over by the charismatic but secretive Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata).  Mike is soon informed that his real assignment is to spy on Briggs, who is suspected of stealing seized drugs, even as the older, more seasoned agent trains him and teaches him the skills that Mike will use against him.  It's a premise that sets the stage for some interesting questions about trust and false identity, especially when it's revealed that while Briggs is indeed stealing drugs, he's doing so as part of an unsanctioned undercover operation.  Posing as a new drug supplier (whom the other agents at Graceland repeatedly try to capture), Briggs hopes to flush out the cartel assassin who kidnapped him, forced him to become addicted to drugs, and then pumped him for information that led to the deaths of Briggs's own training agent and his girlfriend.

Unfortunately, after a few promising and well-paced early episodes, Graceland devolves into a dull slog.  Mike and Briggs never develop much in the way of personalities, and the bond between them, which should have given the show its backbone and its themes of trust and deception their bite, is never palpable.  Nevertheless, it is possible to perceive an echo of the way that Scandal makes Olivia Pope simultaneously cool and pathetic in the show's construction of Briggs and his relationships with Mike and the other agents at Graceland.  Throughout the first (and, in all likelihood, only) season, Briggs acts as a father figure to the other agents, settling their disputes with clear authority and a dose of sardonic wit, and protecting the community they've formed, a safe haven of sanity from a life spent among criminals and thugs.  His belief in his own authority clearly extends to his criminal activities--he behaves as if he has an airtight master plan, and as if his desire for revenge justifies lying to his friends (not to mention flooding the streets with drugs that would otherwise have been destroyed).  But in reality, Briggs spends much of the season flying by the seat of his pants, and his crimes reverberate on his friends and on the house in ways that he can neither predict nor control.  By the end of the season, even the purity of Briggs's motives is in doubt--his quest for revenge seems less righteous than like a way of avoiding his own guilt.  What makes Briggs a Walter White-ish, Olivia Pope-ish figure is that neither he, nor the agents he's mentored and trained to look up to him, see this.  In the season's final episode, the agent who has suffered the most because of Briggs's scheme--she has lost a friend, was forced to use drugs in order to maintain her cover, and came close to being viciously murdered--breaks down in tears and apologizes for ever doubting him, and when a completely unrepentant Briggs calls Mike to ask for his help in another harebrained scheme, all Mike can think of is how much he enjoyed being Briggs's sidekick.  Despite its lackluster execution, Graceland is intriguing as a portrait of a man who has gotten everyone around him, including himself, to buy into the myth of his own awesomeness.

A much better variation on this character type can be found in another USA show, Suits.  Now on break from its third season, this lawyer show has been slowly gaining momentum among TV critics, who have pronounced it more than just "good for USA" (see Carrie Reisler at the AV Club, and Matt Zoller Seitz at The Vulture).  Personally, I think the praise is exaggerated--almost everything that Suits does well is done better by The Good Wife, which also doesn't suffer from the show's flaws of soporific, barely comprehensible legal plots and a dearth of interesting female characters (not to mention ones whose lives don't revolve around men--though 50% of Suits's main cast are women, the show seldom passes the Bechdel test).  Nevertheless, Suits is a sharp, well-made and acted, often quite funny show, and if it outdoes The Good Wife in any respect it is in the viciousness with which it skewers the world of corporate law.  The pilot sees Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), a genius whose academic career was derailed when he sold a test and who now makes a living taking law school entrance exams for other people, crossing the path of superstar attorney Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht).  Bored, and impressed despite himself with Mike's ability to absorb and comprehend any information laid before him, Harvey agrees to hire Mike as his new associate and to help him pretend to be a lawyer in the corridors of his cutthroat law firm, Pearson Hardman.

It is, quite frankly, a ridiculous premise, and one that the show seems less and less invested in (even as it remains essentially inescapable, unless Mike himself leaves the series).  Though season finales and premieres frequently revolve around someone at the firm discovering or almost discovering Mike's secret, for the most part what drives Suits is the politics at Pearson Hardman, the frequent back-stabbings and shady deals through which the various associates, partners, and senior partners at the firm buck for power (which, among other things, has led to the firm's name having changed several times already).  At the top of this pyramid stands managing partner Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), who plucked Harvey out of the firm's mail room and groomed him into the James Bond-ish shark he currently is.  Though the relationship between Harvey and Mike--in which Harvey mentors Mike in everything from practicing the law to dressing sharply, and Mike challenges Harvey's callous detachment from the cases he argues and his no strings attached lifestyle--is how Suits sells itself, the real power in the show comes from the mentorship relationship between Jessica and Harvey, and the permutations it goes through, from Harvey acting as Jessica's white knight, to her blackmailing him with Mike's secret, to him scheming to unseat her as managing partner.

It is through the relationship between Harvey and Jessica that we initially glimpse the questions that make Suits more interesting than the sharply made legal procedural it mostly is.  When we first meet Harvey, he is casually but cruelly belittling a colleague in front of Jessica.  Well, OK, we might think.  Supremely talented assholes are in right now, and maybe the show will be about the character learning to behave with some basic civility.  What the show reveals as we continue to watch it, however, is that the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the less the characters we encounter feel bound by any norms of human decency.  Pearson Hardman is literally the sort of workplace where, if you're not a big enough deal, people will gather in corners to snigger over how upset you are at your cat's death.  In a second season episode, Jessica is discriminated against by a judge who bears a grudge over a prank Jessica played on her when they were in law school together, in which Jessica got the other woman drunk and then left her to be found naked by their professor.  For a while, it seems that the episode is expecting us to accept a little too much youthful indiscretion on Jessica's part (not least in continuing to describe as a prank something that sounds a lot more like sexual assault).  But the final scene between the women reveals a much more shocking truth--Jessica assaulted the judge not out of mean-girl-ish exuberance, but in order to scuttle her chances of getting a recommendation for a job they both wanted.  Jessica blithely admits this to the judge, and even announces that she has no regrets over what she did.  It's an episode that most clearly establishes what at other points in the series is only hinted at--that these people, who are funny and attractive and well-dressed, and whom the show expects us to root for and admire, are all terrible, terrible human beings. 

The character whom Harvey insults in the series pilot (who is also the person whose cat dies) is Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman), the most frequent lightning rod for Jessica and Harvey's mean-spirited disdain.  In fairness to the show, Louis is far from an innocent victim.  He's a bullying martinet who harangues and harasses the firm's junior associates and will stoop to spying on his colleagues to get ahead.  But he's also the only person at Pearson Hardman who suffers from the Michael Scott-like delusion that your work colleagues are your friends, and he has a loyalty to the firm and his superiors that is rarely reciprocated.  Though the show too often uses Louis as broad comic relief (a scene in the late third season has him blowing a crucial negotiation because the opposing counsel baits him with, yet again, his cat), it also repeatedly stresses that he is an excellent lawyer (this also goes some way towards justifying his treatment of the junior associates, since his brutal training gets results and holds them to a standard that he more than meets).  And yet Jessica and Harvey feel free to treat Louis with open contempt.  From the beginning of the series, Louis makes it clear that he wants to be a senior partner, and they agree that he has the skill, and brings in enough money, to justify that promotion.  But nevertheless they refuse it to him for no apparent reason.  In a second season arc that is the best story the show has done, ousted name partner Daniel Hardman (David Costabile) offers Louis a senior partnership in exchange for his vote stripping Jessica of power.  When Louis accepts, Jessica and Harvey have the gall to behave as if he has betrayed them, instead of simply acting to further a career that they seemingly had no interest in advancing.  What's even worse, though, is that Louis eventually comes around to their way of seeing things, feeling terrible guilt for turning his back on a woman who has never shown any loyalty to him.

What I finally realized, after one too many scenes in which Jessica and Harvey behave horribly to Louis for no discernible reason and he tolerates such treatment with even less cause, is that the principle governing professional behavior at Pearson Hardman is essentially the same as the one you'd find at a high school--the cool kids can do whatever they like, and the nerds take what they can get and feel grateful.  Harvey and Jessica are suave, well-dressed, and confident, whereas Louis is bumbling, insecure, and not very attractive, and this justifies their treating him like crap, with the occasional scrap thrown in.  There's a little more to it than that--a lot could be said about Jessica's seesaw of trust and paranoia, the way she constantly gives people around her power so that they can support her position, and then immediately undermines them out of fear that they will use that power against her (which, in fairness, is often what they do, though at least some of the time it's Jessica's distrustful behavior that drives them to it)--but what it ultimately comes down to, on Scandal and Graceland as well as Suits, is coolness.  Olivia Pope, Paul Briggs, Harvey Specter, they're all the cool kids, and characters like Quinn Perkins, the new employee who joins Pope & Associates in Scandal's pilot, or the two Mikes, Warren and Ross, are the new kid in school who has been taken under the cool kid's wing.  That in itself isn't new--American TV is workplace TV, as we've said, and the guy in charge is, by definition, the coolest guy (Jed Bartlett may not have been cool in the strict sense of the word, but within the world of the show he redefined what coolness meant, and then embodied it).  But what I see as an influx of anti-hero show attitudes into all walks of TV is the fact that that coolness is being questioned--that it is frequently exposed, as it is on Suits, as assholish behavior.  Our mentee protagonists, then, find themselves playing the Lindsay Lohan role in Mean Girls--with the crucial difference that unlike Cady Heron, they may not come to their senses before they become just as shallow and immoral as their mentors.

What's not clear to me is whether this shift is deliberate.  As I wrote in my post about Scandal, I couldn't entirely swear to the fact that the show means for me to see Olivia's relationship with her team as abusive and manipulative, and it's equally unclear to me whether Suits intends for me to see Harvey and Jessica as off-putting and self-satisfied rather than cool (on the latter show, it doesn't help that Mike and Harvey often seem to be in different stories, so that while an important theme of the show is how working for Harvey is making Mike more ruthless, for the most part when the show wants to discuss how working at Pearson Hardman wears away at norms of human decency, it centers that story on Harvey and Jessica's relationship and their increasingly fraught power struggles).  It's possible that something else entirely is going on--that writers have become so emboldened by the popularity of anti-hero shows that they inject that kind of behavior into characters whom the audience is nevertheless expected to root for wholeheartedly.  In which case, I agree with the critics I quoted at the beginning of this article--it's time for the anti-hero story to go.  But I'd like to believe that I'm right, and that what anti-hero shows have taught television is to be more willing to puncture the myth of unquestioning loyalty to your boss and workplace, and to look more closely at what it means to be the coolest guy in the room.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Four Comments on Upstream Color

It's been a week since I watched Shane Carruth's second film Upstream Color, and since then I've been trying to work out not what I want to say about it, but whether I wanted to say anything at all.  Which is not to say that I didn't like the film--I found it rich and moving, and incredibly exciting for the growth it shows in Carruth's abilities and interests as a filmmaker, and an SF filmmaker in particular.  But Upstream Color is also a film that seems to demand not a review, but a dissection.  To write about it, I would have to explain what the film means.  There have been some great reviews along these lines--in particular, I found much to think about in Caleb Crain's review in the New Yorker, and Nicholas Rombe's review in the Los Angeles Review of Books--but I don't really want to try to add to them (and I'm not sure that I could if I wanted to).  The meaning of Upstream Color feels bound up in the lovely and sometimes disquieting experience of watching it.  Perhaps if I were a better reviewer I could capture that experience in words, but instead I think I'll just recommend that you watch the film.  The following, then, is not a review so much as a collection of thoughts, in no particular order and with nor particular theme.
  • Perhaps the first coherent thought I formed about the film when the credits rolled was "why, that was practically self-explanatory!" so it was a bit of a shock to look up its reviews when I got home and find so many of them calling Upstream Color opaque in the same vein as Primer.  While it's true that there are huge, lingering questions left behind by the film, these are of such a completely different nature than the ones raised by Primer that the two films feel almost like opposites.  Carruth's first film leaves you wondering what happened (and having to resort to complicated timelines in order to make sense of it).  His second film is, on the whole, rather clear on this point--barring a few fuzzy points and what I suspect are probably plot holes, its story is fairly linear and not very difficult to follow--and what it leaves you wondering is what it all means.  This is reflected in the different types of stories Carruth tells with the two films.  Primer is, when it comes down to it, a character sketch of two money- and status-obsessed, emotionally deadened technology workers who don't really know what they want from their lives except that it's not what they've got.  Upstream Color is a philosophical treatise, one that even Carruth himself has struggled to explain but which touches on the alienation of modern life and the (possibly dangerous and dehumanizing) allure of a return to nature.

    What I find interesting about all of this is how the two films use--or don't use--dialogue to achieve their different affects in a way that is the precise opposite of what we might expect.  The reason that Upstream Color might appear, at first, to be as opaque as Primer is that it doesn't employ many of the devices with which most films explain their plot to the audience.  The connective tissue between many scenes is missing, and there is never the kind of dialogue we're used to in movies (science fiction movies in particular) in which the plot is explained to us through the characters.  In fact, dialogue of all sorts is in short supply in Upstream Color, so much so that its characters stop speaking entirely twenty minutes before it ends, while its affect is achieved through its overpowering score and sound effects (the importance of sound in the film reaffirms my belief that we're in desperate need of popular criticism that speaks about the technical aspects of filmmaking more than about plot and character; I don't think it's possible to say anything meaningful about Upstream Color without discussing its soundtrack).  This is, of course, in stark contrast to Primer, a film that is almost overburdened with language, whose characters frantically, obsessively explain their world to themselves and each other, interrupting one another in their impatient need to be the one to speak (since first watching the film, I've gone to work in the technology industry, and I can now confirm that that is actually how engineers talk).

    But of course, it's Primer that is difficult to follow, which is at least in part because that glut of dialogue, with its technical terms and missing logical leaps (in my review of the film I quoted John Clute, in a review of a different work, who describes this kind of dialogue as "a deincentivizing fug of unverb"), overwhelms the audience, who have to puzzle out meaning from that deluge of information.  In Upstream Color, on the other hand, dialogue is beside the point, which the film drives home through the fact that nearly every time that a character seeks to explain the world to themselves or each other, they're either lying or mistaken.  When the Thief tries to get hold of the enthralled Kris's money, he doesn't issue commands, but tells her things about the world that aren't true, but which she, in her suggestible state, believes--that his face is as bright as the sun, that her mother has been kidnapped, that the water he's given her is delicious and sustaining.  Kris and Jeff tell each other stories about why their lives are in shambles--she's mentally ill, he's a drug addict--that the audience knows aren't true.  When Kris goes to the hospital, her doctors patiently explain to her that she's survived a cancer that we know never existed.  The only time the characters gain insight through speech is when what they're saying isn't rational--when Kris and Jeff quote Walden to one another, and finally prove the connection they've both sensed but have been unable to articulate--because it is so far outside the realm of rationality, where a story like Primer takes place.

  • It's impossible not to say something about the fact that Upstream Color is a film that begins with a rape.  I can't be the only person who watched the film's first act, in which the Thief gains control of Kris, holds her in her own house, and compels her to give him all her money, with extreme discomfort, anticipating with dread the moment when he would make her have sex with him.  Even though that doesn't happen, the completeness of Kris's violation, the thoroughness with which she is unmade, is brutal to watch (I was stunned, the second time I watched the film, by how short this sequence turned out to be; I was so uncomfortable watching it the first time around that it seemed endless).  Carruth himself seems to deliberately be evoking rape in this scene--the Thief finds and drugs Kris in a club, where women are often warned to be on the lookout for date-rape drugs; when Kris returns to herself after the worm is removed from her body her first act is to examine herself physically for signs of rape; her obsessive cleaning, of her house and her body, after her ordeal is a frequently described reaction to rape.  But of course, Kris isn't the only character in the film to be victimized by the Thief, and the difference in the way that the film depicts her violation and its aftermath, and Jeff's, is heavily gendered.

    Even after she's regained (some diminished form of) control of her life, Kris continues to be acted upon.  Her relationship with Jeff consists almost entirely of him acting and her reacting--or rather, resisting and then being won over.  He calls her, and then chastises her for not taking his calls.  He initiates their first sexual encounter, overcoming her initial reticence.  Most blatantly, after Kris has a health scare, Jeff proposes marriage, and then immediately announces "I'm married to you right now ... I'm marrying you, do you understand?" as if marriage were something that can be done to someone.  The depth of Jeff and Kris's feelings for one another is never in doubt (though given other aspects of the story there is some doubt over where those feelings come from), and despite her passivity during the process of getting their relationship off the ground Kris is an active participant in the relationship once it happens.  But whereas the person Kris was before the Thief attacked her was self-contained and in control of herself, after her ordeal she becomes someone with seemingly no protective boundaries, and that, combined with the shape of the story and relationship she's in, forces her into some heavily gendered roles.  She is the mad wife.  She is emotional and irrational.  She is someone for Jeff to take care of, to humor in her flights of fancy, and to enable.  She is a woman who has to be told--despite her objections to the contrary, which are not heeded--what's going on inside her own body. 

    Of course, all of this is a lie.  Jeff is just as damaged, just as undone, by his ordeal as Kris is, and the only difference between them is that he hides his damage beneath a mask of normalcy that also reaffirms his masculinity.  Kris tells people that she is, as she believes, mentally ill, and wears her dysfunction on her sleeve.  Jeff admits to the more socially acceptable (and certainly less emasculating) flaw of drug addiction, but lies about other things--he lets Kris believe that he has a respectable, high-powered profession when really he's a disgraced lackey--and conceals the same compulsive behavior that she engages in openly, staying up late at night to weave chains from straw wrappers.  Even when Kris and Jeff experience the same irrational, inexplicable things--the trauma of losing "their" piglets--they react in different ways that correspond to stereotypes of gendered behavior; Kris lashes out at herself, slamming her fist into a pane of glass, while Jeff turns his violence outwards, attacking his coworkers and chopping down a tree.  Aside from that moment, all of Jeff's behavior is geared towards playing the accommodating, caretaking, sane husband, but he can only maintain that facade by refusing to acknowledge what's happened to him--even when it becomes undeniable, as when he uses his connection with Kris to compel her to call him and direct her to him.  Eventually, that pretense becomes untenable.  When Kris hears a noise coming from under the house (really the result of her lingering psychic bond with the worm that grew in her and the pig it now resides in), Jeff initially tries to play the reasonable, accommodating husband humoring his wife's increasingly hysterical delusions.  But finally, he's forced to admit that he hears the noise too.

    Ultimately, Kris's willingness to openly acknowledge how her experience has changed her makes her stronger than Jeff.  When Jeff announces that he's married her, you can see that he thinks this will make everything better, but all Kris can think about is finding out what's been done to her.  She keeps insisting that she wants to go somewhere, and finally Jeff pauses, realizing what marriage to Kris actually means, and then goes along with it.  For the rest of the film it's Kris who directs their journey, even if Jeff pretends that it isn't one, and for that reason it is Kris who is able to find the Sampler and his farm.  But then, something unexpected happens.  After Kris and Jeff find the farm and contact the other Sampled, Jeff disappears.  He isn't seen again after the scene in which Kris is reunited with "her" pig.  Her joy at learning that the pig is pregnant, and the final scene in which she holds the baby piglet, feature Kris alone.  In its middle segments Upstream Color feels like a romance, and the love story between Kris and Jeff is what powers its plot.  But the final scenes suggest that perhaps the love story was never what this film was about.

  • Something else that surprised me during my post-viewing reading was Carruth's statements that he views the Sampler, who retrieves the worms from Kris and Jeff after they're released by the Thief, as an ambiguous figure, and his murder at Kris's hand as an unfortunate case of mistaken identity.  Carruth's argument is that the Sampler isn't responsible for what happens to Kris and Jeff since he isn't in league with the Thief (I'm not sure this makes sense--it would require the Sampler to have just happened to set up his lure for worm-infested individuals somewhere close enough to Kris's house that no one would have noticed a half-naked, bleeding woman wandering the streets; but then, as several reviewers have noted, Upstream Color takes place in a strangely empty world, in which many of the bonds of human connection have fallen away, or otherwise the Thief probably would not have been able to hold his victims for so long and take their money without anyone noticing).  Even if I accept this argument, however, it still seems to me that the Sampler is guilty of a terrible indifference.  He makes no effort to explain to the Thief's victims what has happened to them, and leaves them to the agony of not knowing, and the stigma of mental illness or drug addiction.  And then, despite the fact that these people have already been violated in almost every way imaginable, he invades their privacy and uses what he sees as fodder for his art.   Even the word for what he does--sampling--implies that the Sampler isn't aware of these people's humanity.  That to him they are just livestock.

    Whether or not you think this indifference justifies the Sampler's death, it is what ends up killing him.  If the Sampler had thought of Kris and Jeff as human beings, capable of reason and independent action, he probably would have lived.  If he had explained to Kris his role in what happened to her, she wouldn't have jumped to the--entirely reasonable--conclusion that he and the Thief were the same person when she found him.  And if he'd ever considered the possibility that there might be feedback from the pigs back to the Sampled, and that as a result the human beings at the other end might be able to figure out who and where he is (and might experience distress as a result of his treatment of the pigs), he wouldn't have been caught off guard by Kris doing just that.  What's interesting about this is that the Sampler represents the highest ideal of Thoreauvian return to nature and isolation from human society (he also, as several reviews have noted, represents the filmmaker, with his work as a soundman mirroring the film's reliance on sound).  And yet it is precisely that detachment that gets him killed, and allows his "livestock" to take over his operation.  In a film that, at points, seems to treat Walden like a blueprint for living, this is perhaps the most profound note of ambivalence towards that philosophy, suggesting that the only way to get in touch with nature is to lose your humanity, and that to do so leaves you vulnerable to other humans.

  • Trying to find a way to sum up the unique, remarkable flavor that Carruth brings to his SF filmmaking, the word I keep landing on is "novelistic," which may require a bit of unpacking.  Most SF films, whether they're action movies with an SFnal gloss or a more thoughtful effort, approach SFnal tropes as a metaphor--in this summer's Elysium, for example, the separation between the 22nd century poor living on Earth and the super-rich living on the titular space station reflects real-world divisions between the rich and the poor.  The few films that treat their SFnal worldbuilding as something real in its own right tend not to do much with it--Moon, for example, excellent as it is, has a thin story that does little with its SFnal premise except use it as a jumping-off point.  They're the equivalent of short stories.  The reason for this thinness is that most SF films keep one foot firmly planted in the familiar, for fear of alienating their audiences.  They're capable of imagining the future as bad--and usually end by restoring the status quo familiar to the viewing audience--but they can't imagine an SFnal world that is simply different.  When I call Carruth's films novelistic what I mean is that he develops his SFnal ideas, and uses those ideas to fuel his stories and develop his characters, with a depth that I'm more accustomed to seeing in novels.  He does so by not being afraid of imagining a world transformed, irrevocably but not necessarily for the worst, by the SFnal novum he's introduced into it.

    Both Primer and Upstream Color start off from a fairly simple, metaphorical concept.  The time travel in Primer, which the heroes use to make a killing in day-trading, can be seen as a metaphor for the bland sameness of their everyday lives.  The bond that forms between Kris and Jeff could be a thoroughly mundane one, an obsessive, not entirely healthy romance between two troubled people, who both support each other and enable each other's delusions.  But the hallmark of a good SF novel, to me, is that it can't be contained by this metaphorical reading, and neither can Carruth's films.  As ridiculous as the basic concept of a psychic bond with pigs is, Upstream Color takes it seriously and develops its implications.  More importantly, it isn't driven, as most SF films with such a concept would be, by Kris and Jeff's investigation of what's happened to them.  Instead, the film is perfectly happy to posit that its characters are somehow no longer entirely human, and to end without resolving (or rather, without solving) that situation--just as Primer ends with the suggestion that one of its duplicate time travelers is about to let the dangerous, unpredictable technology discovered by the film's protagonists out into the world.  The result is a rich fantasy world that feels satisfying and compelling even if you can't work out what it all means.  Of all the many things that make Carruth special as a creator, this is the one that should make him important and vital to fans of science fiction, and to those who hope to see the genre's full complexity and potential on screen.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Shattered Visage: Thoughts on a Phone Call

"I'm impressed that with 2 eps to go, #BreakingBad has produced a moment inspiring as much debate as the Sopranos finale," tweets Dave Crewe yesterday.  And indeed, Breaking Bad's antepenultimate episode, "Ozymandias," has caused a flurry of online discussion, analysis, and argument.  Or, to be more precise, one scene, late in the episode, has spurred all this discussion.  In this scene, Walter White, cancer-ridden chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, calls home and speaks to his wife Skyler.  The police are at the house and listening in; Walt has been exposed as a meth cook and a murderer and has lost most of his ill-gotten gains; his attempts to persuade his family to go on the run with him ended with his own son calling 911 on him, to which Walt responded by kidnapping his baby daughter Holly.  As Skyler begs for her daughter, Walt rants and raves, calling her stupid and a bitch, bragging about his criminal empire, complaining about her attempts to curtail his crimes.  The camera remains fixed on Skyler's face for most of the conversation, but when we cut to Walt, we suddenly see that he is crying, not raging.  When the shot pans away from him to the safe haven of a fire house, we understand his ploy.  Having cleared his wife of willing complicity in his crimes (of which she is actually guilty), Walt leaves his daughter in a fire truck and drives off.

Almost everyone who has written about or discussed "Ozymandias" agrees that the phone call was planned for the sole purpose of exonerating Skyler, Walt's one last attempt to protect his family.  Where the question lies is in the substance of the ugly, hateful things Walt says to Skyler.  Is he merely putting on a show, saying the most awful things imaginable to make himself look like a monster and her like an abused, innocent woman?  Or is he giving free rein to real emotions, exposing the real Walt whom he has kept hidden behind a reasonable, occasionally bumbling facade?  If you've been following certain people on Twitter for the last few days, you'll have seen this argument rehashed again and again, with most TV critics tending towards the second view and defending it with increasing vehemence (Vulture reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz, in particular, has been repeating the point with subtle variations almost nonstop for the last 24 hours).  In longer form, too, there's been much insistence that the phone call was not, or at least not entirely, an act.  At The Huffington Post, Maureen Ryan writes that "Walt's no hero"; Seitz himself has written a slightly over-determined analysis which describes Walt as an almost schizoid personality, with the phone call representing Heisenberg, Walt's drug-dealing alter-ego, acting on Walt's behalf; perhaps the most subtle analysis comes, unsurprisingly, from Emily Nussbaum on the New Yorker blog, in which Nussbaum, who initially took Walt's rant at face value, analyzes the ways in which the phone call plays into fan perceptions, and mis-perceptions, of Walt and Skyler. 

My first reaction to this debate is that it is unfortunate how an obsession with the phone call has obscured the rest of the episode.  "Ozymandias" is one of Breaking Bad's most harrowing, heartbreaking hours, and the episode itself is impeccably made, tense and fast-paced without giving short shrift to any of the many world-shattering events that occur in it.  It deserves to be remembered, and discussed, for more than a single scene.  This is the episode in which Walt's criminal empire comes crashing to the ground, and in which the people he loves are destroyed in the wreckage.  Skyler, who has been abetting Walt at the expense of her bond with her sister Marie, finally has enough and tells him to leave; Walt's teenage son Walter Jr. learns the truth about his father and then witnesses a knife fight between his parents; Walt abandons Jesse, his former assistant and surrogate son, to torture and imprisonment, though not before revealing that he is responsible for the death of Jesse's girlfriend Jane; and, of course, Walt's brother-in-law Hank is murdered by Walt's former associates (as is Hank's partner Steve Gomez, Breaking Bad's only non-villainous adult male Latino character; in the midst of all the deserved celebration of the show, it's worth remembering how thoroughly Breaking Bad has failed in its depiction of brown people, for example through Garland Grey's searing indictment of it on this point).

The reason, I think, that the phone call is what people talk about when they talk about "Ozymandias" is that unlike the rest of the episode, it is a blank moment.  To clarify, it's not a moment that actually tells us anything about Walt.  Critics like Ryan and Seitz have taken the scene as a final, definitive statement on who and what Walt is, but the way that the scene is shot, directed, and acted isn't aimed at that goal, but rather at the switcheroo, the trick, of revealing Walt's final scheme.  For most of the phone call, we're supposed to fooled, not gaining some new insight into Walt's personality--as Nussbaum notes in her essay, the things Walt says are all things that fans have said about him, either in admiration or disgust.  This is certainly reflected in an interview with episode writer Moira Walley-Beckett and director Rian Johnson (best known for Brick and Looper, but who has also directed some of Breaking Bad's seminal episodes) who are almost surprised to discover that the phone call, which they seem to view more as a plot point, has spurred such debate (Walley-Beckett also gives her own definitive judgement on what the phone call means, but I'm with Ryan and Seitz in choosing to ignore this; not only because the author, as we all know, is dead, but because to take her word as gospel would put an end to all the fun).  It is also reflected in the fact that almost no argument I've seen for an interpretation of the phone call scene actually brings any evidence from the scene itself, because there is none--we see the call in isolation, without knowing what Walt did before placing it; we don't see his face throughout most of his rant; he remains grimly silent after it.  As a statement about Walt as a person, there is hardly any information here, and so, like The Sopranos's infamous cut-to-black ending, the phone call becomes a Rorschach blot.  Whatever you bring into it, in terms of how you see Walter White, is what you take out of it.

In light of this, it's easier to understand why there's so much emotional investment in interpreting the phone call scene, especially when you consider that high profile critics like Ryan, Seitz, and Nussbaum see a much broader swathe of fandom than the rest of us, and that they are repeatedly exposed to the kind of viewer who watches anti-hero shows in order to root for the lead (Seitz, in particular, has been quoting some of the pro-Walt interpretations of the phone call, in which Walt is seen as a hero doing one last thing to protect his ungrateful, betraying son and wife, on his twitter stream, and they are indeed baffling in their wrongheadedness).  But the result of this is a weirdly binary insistence: either you believe that Walt, despite also working to exonerate Skyler, was speaking 100% from the heart during the phone call, or you're one of those people who watched The Sopranos because they just wanted to see Tony whack people; if you think that Walt was deliberately exaggerating and playing up a monstrous persona for the benefit of the police then you probably also believe that everything he's done since the beginning of the series is justified because he was just trying to protect his family.

What I don't understand about all this is why such a stark division is even necessary.  In Breaking Bad's entire five season run, there isn't a single episode that does more to dismantle and explode Walt's "protect my family" ethos than "Ozymandias," which finally shatters what faint hope we might still have had that only Walt would suffer for his crimes, and that his family would be spared their consequences.  When Hank is killed, Walt, who has been frantically pleading and bargaining for the man's life, falls to the ground in a silent, agonized scream.  It's not because he loved Hank so much, but because he realizes what Hank's death means for his family.  Marie is a widow; she and Skyler will probably never repair their bond, already horribly damaged when Skyler helped Walt make a recording fingering Hank for Heisenberg's crimes; Walter Jr. has lost the man who would have stepped in as his father figure when Walt succumbed to his resurgent cancer.  Later in the episode, when Walt tries to salvage something from the wreckage by going on the run with Skyler and the children, Hank's death continues to reverberate and tear apart what's left of the White family.  It's the realization that her husband has killed her brother-in-law that finally shakes Skyler out of willingness to enable Walt's crimes, and it's what convinces Walter Jr. that his father is really a criminal.  Walt's inability to accept that Hank's death has irrevocably separated him from his family is what leads to the knife fight with Skyler, and is the reason that Walter Jr. will spend the rest of his life with the memory of having to come physically between his mother and his knife-wielding father.  And as we know from the flash-forwards that have appeared throughout the season, after Walt's escape Skyler will lose everything--her house, her business, her reputation--which might not have happened if Hank, a DEA agent, were still alive to argue for her.

Breaking Bad begins with Walt turning to drug production because of his desire to protect his family (officially, from destitution after his death from cancer, but under the surface, from having a paterfamilias so weak as to get cancer in the first place).  What "Ozymandias" shows us is how that desire actually ends up destroying Walt's family.  There will, no doubt, still be viewers who choose not to see this (as Nussbaum writes, some people just watch TV wrong), but that doesn't change what the episode's events are saying loud and clear: that everyone in the White-Schraeder clan would have been better off if Walt, upon receiving his cancer diagnosis, had just quietly bankrupted his family with medical bills and then died.  If anything, the phone call scene strikes me as offering some slight hint of a counterpoint to this conclusion.  It is a reminder that, for all its terrible destructiveness, the "protect my family" ethos is real.  If it's to be taken as a statement on the kind of person Walt is, then that person is the man we met in the pilot--a smart, resourceful, determined man who never met a problem he couldn't think his way out of.  The intervening five seasons, and all of "Ozymandias," have shown us the terrible consequences of Walt's problem-solving--how, by treating his medical bills and his family's financial future as a problem to be solved, Walt has created greater, insurmountable problems that will poison the rest of their lives.  So isn't it permissible for one final scene to show us that those skills, that intelligence, that ruthless capacity for self-sacrifice for the sake of some masculine ideal, are also real, and still there?

I think that "Ozymandias" teaches us how to read the phone call in its opening scene, a flashback to the pilot and to Walt and Jesse's first foray into cooking meth.  As he waits for the process to end, Walt steps away to call Skyler and explain why he'll be late for dinner.  We see him practice and hone his story, in which his boss has forced him to work late, and even compose a script for the phone call ("he's insisting that I... he's demanding that I stay").  But when he calls to deliver this story, the conversation turns into something real--he and Skyler joke about her side business selling ugly tchotchkes on eBay, and tentatively settle on Holly as the name of their unborn daughter.  It's a warm, loving exchange in the midst of the first lie Walt ever told Skyler about the criminal activities that would one day destroy their family.  I think that the phone call at the end of "Ozymandias" is the mirror image of this scene.  I think that Walt planned, scripted, and rehearsed what he would say for the police's benefit, but that when he actually made the call something real emerged from him--hatred, this time, instead of love.  In every marriage there are things that people think in their darkest moments--ugly, hurtful things that hopefully never get said.  How much more so, in a marriage like Walt and Skyler's, which has gone from loving to oblivious to abusive to steeped in blood?  That's what I see when Walt calls Skyler a "stupid bitch" and asks how she dares to tell his son the truth about him.

Because the fact is, the focus of the phone call isn't Walt, it's Skyler.  It's her face that we see throughout most of it, as we realize with her (actually a little after her) what Walt is doing.  The loving, happy phone call in the flashback can be seen as Breaking Bad's small, insufficient attempt to make up for its poor handling of Skyler in its first two seasons, in which she has almost no personality (this neglect has contributed--but is by no means the only reason for--the virulent, misogynistic hatred of Skyler evinced by some of the show's fans, which has even spilled over to affect the actress portraying her).  It shows us that Skyler is more than the happily oblivious nag she was before she realized that her husband was a drug dealer, and that her and Walt's marriage was real, and founded in love and affection.  The phone call at the end of the episode shows us that that bond, perverted and painful as it's become, is still there.  Alone in a room full of people who now see Walt purely as a villain, Skyler understands what her husband is doing, and plays along with his final, pathetically insufficient attempt to continue protecting his family.  It doesn't make him a good man.  It doesn't make up for anything he's done.  But it reminds us--maybe proves, for the very first time--that their marriage is real.

(The purpose of all this, of course, is to say that I'm on Twitter now, as @NussbaumAbigail.  I'm still rather dubious about the platform, or more precisely, about its suitability for me--as you'll probably have noticed, I'm not exactly someone who fits into 140 characters.  Nevertheless, if you feel like following me, and without making any promises, I shall endeavor to be someone worth following.)

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

"As I was a stranger in Olondria," the narrator of Sofia Samatar's debut novel tells us in its opening sentences,
I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses.  I did not know the vastness of the spice markets of Bain, where the merchants are delirious with scents.  I had never seen the morning mists adrift above the surface of the green Illoun, of which the poets sing; I had never seen a woman with gems in her hair, nor observed the copper glinting of the domes, nor stood upon the melancholy beaches of the south while the wind brought in the sadness from the sea.  Deep within the Fayaleith, the Country of the Wines, the clarity of light can stop the heart; it is the light the local people call "the breath of angels" and is said to cure heartsickness and bad lungs.  Beyond this is the Balinfeil, where, in the winter months, the people wear caps of white squirrel fur, and in the summer months the goddess Love is said to walk and the earth is carpeted with almond blossom.  But of all this I knew nothing.  I knew only of the island where my mother oiled her hair in the glow of a rush candle, and terrified me with stories of the Ghost with No Liver, whose sandals slap when he walks because he has his feet on backwards.
It's a hell of a first paragraph, not least because of how much it tells us about the book we're about to read.  It tells us, even if we weren't already aware of this fact, that A Stranger in Olondria is a secondary world fantasy and a travelogue.  It tells us that this is a book whose power is rooted first and foremost in worldbuilding and language, and that both are executed in a manner that is ornate and even a touch overwhelming.  And if we pay attention, it also tells us something else: that despite its elaborate, eye-catching worldbuilding, what A Stranger in Olondria is about isn't its fantastic locations but their ultimate unknowability.  The book begins not with a litany of its fantastic world's wonders but with the narrator distancing himself from them.  The paragraph ends by stressing that distance, the wide gulf between the world the narrator knew and the one the story takes place in.  Despite the implicit promise of the paragraph's past tense--the narrator was a stranger in Olondria, suggesting that he isn't one anymore--it is that strangeness that lies at the heart of the novel.

The speaker here is Jevick of Tyom, a native of the Tea Islands, which lie to the south of the great empire of Olondria.  The son of a prosperous pepper merchant, Jevick's relatively normal upbringing takes an odd turn when his father returns from one of his trading expeditions with an Olondrian tutor, Lunre, who teaches Jevick not only the Olondrian language, but also how to read, an unknown skill in the Tea Islands, and introduces him to the culture's great epics.  When Jevick's father dies unexpectedly, leaving him the heir to his business, the young man leaps at the opportunity to travel to the Olondrian capital, Bain, and see the wonders that he's only read about.  But if A Stranger in Olondria opens with an affirmation of strangeness, within the story, young Jevick is convinced of his belonging in Olondria; in reading about it, he believes, he has become a native.  During the ocean passage, Jevick sneers at what he views as the pretense of the other traders, who think of themselves as men of the world for their familiarity with Olondria and Bain, but who, to him, are just rubes because they don't fully appreciate Olondrian culture: "None of them knew as much as I; none of them spoke Olondrian; their bovine heads were empty of an appreciation of the North."  Later, in the city, he protests when a group of young people he falls in with call him a foreigner, exclaiming that "I've been raised on the northern poets..."  But if Jevick is convinced that having been immersed in Olondrian culture means that he is not, despite the novel's title, a stranger in it, the novel shows us that it has already estranged him from his own culture--before his death, Jevick's father resented his son's fascination with books, and the young man's urgent desire to see the great city and experience its wonders confuses and frightens his servants, who are used to the journey to Bain being treated in a more utilitarian, profit-oriented manner.

An emphasis on rich descriptive language and elaborate worldbuilding creates the expectation of a Tolkien-ishly thorough work of creation--the sort of thing that M. John Harrison has called "the clomping foot of nerdism," which some authors and readers have adopted as a badge of honor.  And indeed, reading A Stranger in Olondria, there can be no doubt that Samatar knows far more about her world than she tells us in this novel--the map at the beginning of the book is much broader than the scope of its events, and throughout his narrative Jevick references literary works and historical events that the reader remains ignorant of, thus adding another wrinkle to the confused meaning of his claim to be a stranger.  (If there were any doubt about the scope of Samatar's worldbuilding, this recent entry on her blog by "guest-blogger" Ethen of Deinivel, who expounds on the Olondrian alphabet, would surely put it to rest.)  But A Stranger in Olondria is a very different book from the kind of Tolkien-esque epic fantasy in which such obsessive construction of secondary worlds is usually found.  Though there can be no doubt of the detail work that has gone into Samatar's worldbuilding, what shows up on the page is more impressionistic.  The references that Jevick makes are rarely explained; later in the novel, when he travels outside of Bain into regions that have been conquered by the Olondrians, he comments darkly about their history as though assuming that his readers will know what he's talking about (which, given what we later learn about the book's intended audience, may not be a reasonable assumption).  His experiences in Bain itself feel almost like a fever dream--certainly when Jevick, ignoring the warnings of the proprietor of his hotel, participates in the city's licentious Feast of Birds.  For all of Samatar's behind-the-scenes worldbuilding, her focus is on how Jevick reacts to the world she's built, on how he's overwhelmed by the richness and strangeness of his new experiences.  It is these feelings, and not a precise description of Olondria and Bain, that she tries to convey.
There was never an end to Bain.  I never felt as though I had touched it, though I loved the book markets under the swinging trees, the vast array of books on tables, in boxes, stacked on the ground, and the grand old villas converted into bookshops.  I loved the Old City also, which is called the "Quarter of Sighs," with its barred windows and brooding fortified towers, and I loved to watch the canal winding below the streets and bridges and the stealthy boats among the shadows of trees.  Laughing, replete, I raised a glass of teiva in a café, surrounded by a bold crowd of temporary companions, a girl at my side, some Ailith or Kerlith whose name I no longer recall, for she was erased like the others by the one who followed.
The effect of this is that the first half of A Stranger in Olondria feels utterly directionless, literally like the travelogue that the book's first chapters seem to be emulating.  Coupled with the rich language and twisty turns of phrase, this can make for some slow reading.  This is especially true in the chapter describing the Feast of Birds, in which Jevick is caught up in the religious ecstasy and debauchery surrounding the celebration of Avalei, the Goddess of Love and Death.  The hallucinatory tone of these scenes--which reminded me of Jeff VanderMeer's "Dradin, In Love," the first story in City of Saints of Madmen, in which a missionary returning to the supposed bosom of civilization finds that it conceals madness--brings to a crescendo the impression that A Stranger in Olondria is beautiful but also aimless--only for it, and the novel's lackadaisical progression through its story, to come crashing down in a literal rude awakening, for both Jevick and the readers.  Coming to in a seedy brothel the morning after the festival, Jevick discovers that everything that was beautiful and transcendent the night before is now grimy and mundane.
I woke to glare and silence.  And then, beyond the silence, sound--the sounds from the street which I realized had awakened me, sounds of talk and footsteps, a burst of laughter, the whine of a door, the scrape of a wooden table across the pavement.  My mouth was dry, but I felt no pain until I tried to move, and then I began to ache in every limb, the agony concentrated in my skull, which throbbed rhythmically as if in time to the ringing of my ears.  With the pain came the realization that I was in a strange room, and that the silence of the room was the first thing I had heard, a blankness that made me uneasy because it was not like other silences: it was the dead sound of abandonment and squalor.
What's important is that this is the first time that we, the readers, have seen Bain without the sentimentalizing gloss that Jevick's narration has laid over it.  For the first time in the novel, it feels like an ordinary city--where you might be woken by the scrape of a table across the pavement--not a place of wonders.  But Jevick's disillusionment is far from done.  On his journey to Olondria, Jevick encountered a fellow islander named Jissavet, who was afflicted with a terminal illness and traveling to Olondria to find a cure--which neither she nor Jevick could see much hope for.  On the morning after the Feast of Birds, Jissavet begins to haunt Jevick, causing him to lapse into fits of terror and self-harm.  For Jevick and his servant, his affliction, though tragic, is easily comprehended as part of their cosmology.  Jissavet, they reason, has died and been buried, which has left her soul unable to move on, and she has latched on to Jevick, her countryman, so that he will find her body and release her by disposing of it "properly," in the island way.  But when Jevick tries to explain his situation to the Olondrians, he is seized and imprisoned.  For all his knowledge of Olondrian history and literature, Jevick is ignorant of its politics and religion.  He doesn't know that in Olondria, people who see ghosts (or rather, "angels") are revered as saints by the cult of Avalei, and that this cult has been deposed and hounded by the ruling religion, the worshipers of the Stone.  When Jevick is brought before the Priest of the Stone, his affliction is folded into the dominant worldview, which sees saints as charlatans, and Jevick in particular as a representative of an attempted power grab.
"our own people, as you may know, have a terrible passion for angels.  At one time, one could scarcely dream of one's dead grandfather without being dragged to the temple.  Those who claimed they could speak with the dead were revered, and people came to them with all sorts of questions, as if they were oracles.  How will the maize crop be, where is the necklace my mother gave me, whom will I marry, who stole my brown horse--all nonsense, chicanery, a farce!  Yes, the love of angels was once a canker of this country, and I am the physician who removed it. ... I will not have my people duped.  I will have them clean, and honest, and able to read the Vanathul.  Words are sublime, and in books we may commune with the dead.  Beyond this there is nothing true, no voices we can hear."
In genre fiction in particular, there is a tendency to fetishize books.  Whether it's the act of reading or books as an object, you'll often find authors rhapsodizing about the ability of books to transport readers, or the universality of storytelling.  It's not that I disagree, but the form that these panegyrics take often strikes me as precious and not a little self-aggrandizing (after all, these are writers and readers telling us how special and all-powerful writing and reading is).  In its first half, A Stranger in Olondria often teeters on the brink of that preciousness.  When Jevick first grasps the heretofore unimagined concept of writing, he perceives it as witchcraft ("My back and shoulders were cold, though a hot, heavy air came in from the garden.  I stared at my master, who looked back at me with his wise, crystalline eyes.  'Do not be afraid,' he said"), and as Samatar describes its effect on him, it does have elements of an enchantment: "In my room, in my village, I shone like a moth with its back to a sparkling fire.  Master Lunre had taught me his sorcery: I embraced it and swooned in its arms."  On his first morning in Bain, Jevick has an experience that many avid readers will recognize when he first walks into a bookstore:
There were so many books.  There were more than my master had carried in his sea chest.  The shop seemed impossible, otherworldly, a cave of wonders; yet it was not even a true bookshop like the ones I would discover later, lining both side of the Street of Poplars.  It was one of those little shops, tucked into various corners of Bain, which sell portraits of popular writers and tobacco as well as books, whose main profits come from the newspapers, whose volumes are poorly bound, and which always seem to be failing, yet are as perennial as the flowers.  It is unlikely that anyone before or since has experienced, in that humble establishment, a storm of emotion as powerful as mine.  I collected stack after stack of books, seizing, rejecting, replacing, giddy with that sweet exhalation: the breath of parchments.
Even in these early chapters, however, there's a sinister undertone to Jevick's bibliophilia--as noted, Jevick's knowing how to read drives a wedge between him and his father, and estranges him from his own culture.  When he meets the Priest of the Stone, that undertone blossoms into the novel's core theme, a profound ambivalence about writing and its power.  The acolytes of the Stone worship writing--the Stone itself is, from what we hear about it, similar to the Rosetta Stone, but it is described to Jevick in religious rapture: "The Stone... I wish I could show it to you.  Perhaps then you would understand.  It is black, heavy, miraculous, covered with writing..."  Jevick himself, of course, is closer to their view than to the religion of Avalei, and he anyway views his haunting in a much more materialistic light, and is as put off as the Priest of the Stone by the way that so-called saints like himself are used to take advantage of the bereaved.  But the Stone-worshipers' fanaticism, and the way that it ends up victimizing Jevick--he is imprisoned in a sanatorium, and when he escapes witnesses a brutal massacre of Avalei's followers--can't help but cast a pall on their beliefs.  Jevick himself never loses his love of books and the written word--throughout his ordeal he clings to the few books in his possession, and draws solace from reading and rereading them--but when the priests of Avalei free him and promise to help him find Jissavet's body in exchange for his services as a saint, it's hard for the reader not to take their bibliophobic side.

In the second half of the novel, as Jevick makes his way through the Olondrian countryside, dodging pursuing troops, gingerly trying on the role of holy man, and befriending his rescuers-cum-captors, Samatar further complicates her novel's perspective on reading.  When Jevick witnesses the aforementioned massacre, he describes it to his readers but concludes that no written account could do justice to the horror of what he witnessed, seemingly limning the boundaries of what writing can accomplish: "The history books would tell of the burning of the Night Market of Nuillen, but they would erase the terror, the stench of blood and soot.  And the noise--the noise."  But when Jissavet makes herself known to Jevick, what she wants isn't for her body to be destroyed, but for Jevick to write a book of her life story--to put her in a book, as they both come to think about it.  Jevick's resistance to this request, which he describes repeatedly as madness, seems rooted more in his objection to mixing Olondrian and islander concepts than in any practical difficulties--"Write her a book, set her words down in Olondrian characters!  This ghost, this interloper, speaking only Kideti!"--but when he does finally agree to write down Jissavet's story, doing so forges a bond between them that knowing the actual woman never did.  "Those years, the years she lay in the doorway: every one of them hurts me, and every hour has an individual pain," Jevick laments after finishing Jissavet's story.  "Lost hours, irretrievable, hours that I could have taken up and treasured and which were scattered abroad in the mud."  These chapters--in which the adherents of the Stone are depicted as monstrous and tyrannical--are also the ones in which A Stranger in Olondria finally allows its readers to experience the fiction that has so enraptured Jevick, rather than hearing about it secondhand--we hear folktales, ballads, parables, and life stories. 

For a novel whose setting seems so ripe for a discussion of it (and coming from an author whose previous writing, fiction and non-fiction, has frequently dealt with it) A Stranger in Olondria seems, initially, strangely silent on the subject of class and colonialism.  Even though we know that Olondria is an empire and meet other peoples whom it has conquered, the relationship between it and the Tea Islands--over which it towers technologically and militarily--is strangely equitable.  There is no East India Company here, and Jevick's father can trade with Olondrian merchants as an equal without kowtowing to Olondrian colonial representatives.  It's only subtly that class issues begin creeping into the novel, and they do so first through Jissavet's story.  Born to a family without jut--a fetish which to the islanders represents their soul, and which is possessed only by the rich and influential--Jissavet spent her life envying and resenting people like Jevick.  When that resentment is introduced through her story, we realize that the privilege of our narrator has blinded him, and us, to some of the realities of his world.

And in Samatar's universe, that privilege is inextricably bound up with literacy.  When Jevick first meets Lunre, he assumes that he's about to be taught to keep accounts, a practical skill.  Instead, Jevick's father has brought the tutor as a status symbol, and being taught to do something as useless as reading is an indulgence (one that he ends up resenting his son for).  While the Priest of the Stone treats the criminalization of saint-worship as a liberation of his people, the priests of Avalei treat it as the eradication of a conquered culture: "Our people can no longer bear it.  They cannot bear, anymore, to be kept from all unwritten forms of the spirit."  When they tell Jevick that, following their victory over the followers of the Stone, they will burn down the Olondrian libraries, they treat literacy as a class marker.  "We are not criminals, but the protectors of those without strength," the priest tells Jevick, and when the latter protests that the new prince, who is friendly to the cult of Avalei, will be as monstrous as his father, the priest shrugs that "You may be right.  But he will save a future, a way of life.  For those who cannot read, he will save the world."

But Jissavet herself sees it otherwise.  A book is a jut, she tells Jevick after he's finished writing her story, implying that literacy is an equalizer.  When he returns to the Tea Islands after Avalei's victory, Jevick turns them into a bastion of literacy, but in a way that is uncoupled from the Stone's fanatical worship of lifeless words and from the class divisions that eventually overturned it.  He recasts the Olondrian alphabet to reflect the islander language, and teaches it to its children.  They, in turn, take their newfound ability and use it to create their own stories, an act that Jevick describes as revolutionary.
In the schoolroom they show me the words they have written during my absence, whole stories in Kideti, embryonic poems.  This alphabet was developed in Olondria, I tell them, but it is our own; it was used to pen the first work of written Kideti literature, The Anadnedet, by Jissavet of Kiem.  This is why we call it Jissavet's Alphabet.  At the end of each lesson I read aloud from this seminal work.  And I introduce them to others, books I have translated from Olondrian in the most violent and sacrilegious form of reading.  And I tell them: This is a journey to jepnatow-het, the land of shadows.  Do not mistake it for the country of the real.
By poking at it and questioning it, and by tying it to issues of class that also apply in the real world, A Stranger in Olondria earns its bibliophilia.  It shows us the worst of what books can do to us--how they can flatten the horror of real events, how they erect yet another barrier between the privileged and not-privileged, how reading only one kind of book can blind us to the realities of the world while making us think that we know it, and how one can become fonder of the people one meets in books than of the ones in the real world.  But having done that, it can justify the argument for the wonderful things that books can do--their ability to broaden our point of view, to make us see and understand people who have been denied their voice, and, of course, to take us to far off places.  Many odes to books can feel flat and self-congratulatory, but by tying its meditations on them to the adventures and misadventures of Jevick, and his growth into wisdom and compassion, Samatar cut through my cynicism about such a project.  Near the end of the novel, she delivers the following meditation about the pleasures and griefs of reading.  By that point, she has done so much to cut through the treacle of reflexive bibliophilia, and to make Jevick a real, flawed, but ultimately wise and kind figure, that it not only feels earned (and accurate to how avid readers often see their love of books), but like a description of the book that we are about to finish:
Earlier, frightened, you began to have some intimation of it: so many pages had been turned, the book was so heavy in one hand, so light in the other, thinning towards the end. ... Then, the silence comes, like the absence of sound at the end of the world.  You look up.  It's a room in an old house.  Or perhaps it's a seat in a garden, or even a square; perhaps you've been reading outside and you suddenly see the carriage going by.  Life comes back, the shadows of leaves.  Someone comes to ask what you will have for dinner, or two small boys run past you, wildly shouting; or else it's merely a breeze blowing a curtain, the white unfurling into a room, brushing the papers on the desk.  It is the sound of the world.  But to you, the reader, it is only a silence, untenanted and desolate.  This is the grief that comes when we are abandoned by the angels: silence, in every direction, irrevocable.