Tuesday, September 15, 2015

After-Dinner Conversation: Thoughts on Hannibal

Two years ago, writing after the end of Hannibal's first season, I called the show a rich but ultimately unsatisfying feast.  I admired a lot about Bryan Fuller's take on Thomas Harris's novels and their sadistic, cannibalistic central character: its use of visuals and music to set an almost oppressively dreamlike tone, its willingness to flout the conventions of good storytelling, its clever reinvention and reuse of the central set-pieces of Harris's novels.  But at the end of its first season, I still didn't have a strong sense of what Hannibal wanted to be, what story it wanted to tell.  The show seemed to be having far too much fun staging gruesome tableaux of murder victims and letting its demonic title character (played with a perfect dry mischievousness by Mads Mikkelsen) pull the wool over all the other characters' eyes.  What it wanted to achieve with any of those elements, what emotion it wanted to evoke, was utterly unclear to me.

Two years later, with Hannibal having recently aired what is almost certainly its final episode (Fuller has announced his desire to continue his story through TV movies, but production on the show has ceased and the actors have moved on to other projects), that complaint feels both prescient and out-of-date.  At some point in its second season, Hannibal finally locked into the story it wanted to tell, in the moment when it realized that the conflict between its title character and the FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), whom Hannibal torments and, at the end of the first season, frames for his own crimes, was not a game of cat and mouse, but a demented courtship.  In its second and third seasons, as Will first turns the tables on Hannibal and then pursues him halfway around the world, and as Hannibal's attacks on Will become more and more nakedly an attempt to keep the two men in each other's orbit, the show becomes an obsessive, abusive, incredibly destructive love story.

That this is a love story between two men has raised a lot of questions.  What does it mean that Hannibal is so obviously abusive and bad for Will, who is otherwise attracted to women?  Is it an issue that Will and Hannibal's attraction appears to be purely emotional, with no sexual component?  What can we read into the fact that the fandom that reacted with revulsion when Clarice Starling fell into the same obsessive bond with Hannibal Lecter at the end of Hannibal the novel is now ecstatic over Will and Hannibal?  Most of these questions probably can't be addressed by a show that is, at the end of the day, more about style than substance (and anyway, as this article by Aja Romano notes, most of these issues are only a problem because male romances are so rare on TV, thus forcing Hannibal to shoulder the burden of representation all on its own).  But there's no denying that, in the queasy, codependent bond between Hannibal and Will, Hannibal found itself, far more decisively than I ever imagined it could when I wrote about it two years ago.

And yet, for all that my complaint about it has been addressed, I've come to the end of Hannibal feeling the same dissatisfaction I felt two years ago.  I admire Hannibal a great deal; I never missed an episode; I think that it was unquestionably unlike any other show on TV, and that we are the poorer for its end.  But I never really liked it, much less loved it as so much of the fandom (and the critics) now mourning it did.  If I try to put my finger on why, I think it would have to be that though I recognized what Hannibal was doing with its two main characters, I never bought into their obsession with each other, much less wanted it consummated in the slightly sickened way that a lot of the fandom seemed to.  And that, I think, has to do with the way that, in order to make the Will/Hannibal romance happen, Hannibal found it necessary to sacrifice--literally or figuratively--nearly all of its female characters.

Something that does not get said nearly often enough is that Thomas Harris is a feminist writer.

You can see the hints of this already in Red Dragon, a novel that, despite being thoroughly male-oriented, has some of the most unusual and independent-minded female characters in a genre that more often depicts women as disposable bodies and figures of motivation than as human beings.  Molly Graham, who in all of her filmed adaptations has been transformed into the standard supportive, long-suffering wife of a troubled but determined law enforcement officer, is in fact the polar opposite of that figure in her original appearance in this book.  Far from blindly supporting Will as he delves into the heart of darkness, Molly in the book pulls away from him when she realizes that he will always love his work more than her.  When that work endangers her and her son, she leaves him and doesn't look back (both of the movie versions of Red Dragon elide the fact that Molly's son is from a previous marriage; Hannibal does not, but changes his name from Will to Walter; in the book both elements are clearly meant to send the same message--that Will does not belong in this family, and that he can be ejected from it as soon as Molly chooses).  Reba McClane, the blind woman who falls in love with the killer Francis Dolarhyde, could have been a pathetic figure, but Harris quite deliberately makes her smart, resourceful, and confident.  She's a woman who is determined to be self-sufficient, unabashed about wanting and asking for sex, and forthright in all her dealings.  Both of them get heroic endings--it's Molly, not Will, who finally kills Dolarhyde, and Reba manages to escape the trap Dolarhyde lays for her.  Harris even makes sure to include a scene in which Will reassures Reba that she attracted the man in Dolarhyde, not the monster, and that there is nothing wrong with her for doing so.

Harris's feminism comes to its fullest flower, however, in The Silence of the Lambs (which aside from everything else is a brilliant, impeccably written and plotted novel in which there isn't a single extraneous word and whose every scene lands with perfect effect).  It's not just that this is a novel about a heroine, or even a novel about a woman who rescues a woman.  The Silence of the Lambs is a novel about women.  Clarice Starling and the kidnapping victim she is trying to rescue, Catherine Martin, both draw strength from the example of their mothers.  Catherine, in fact, rescues herself as much as Clarice rescues her--if it weren't for her ingenuity and courage, she would have been dead long before Clarice found her.  Clarice is supported in her work on the case by her roommate, the clever and compassionate Ardelia Mapp, and develops a strong empathy for two of the previous victims, Kimberly Emberg and Frederica Bimmel.  Silence is a story about women moving through a man's world, but not on their own--they support and sympathize and talk to each other in a way that they never could with men.

Even more importantly, Harris is clearly cognizant of the fact that while the killer Buffalo Bill is his novel's main antagonist, he is far from the only danger that women face in the world.  Every woman who gets a point of view in Silence--Starling, Catherine, Catherine's mother Senator Martin--is shown to be constantly evaluating her behavior for the effect it will have on the men around her.  They're all aware of the need to be attractive enough to be noticed and considered human, but not so attractive that they're dismissed as nothing but a sex object.  They've all had to put up with being leered at and catcalled, and learned to put up defenses and develop coping mechanisms against that.  In a novel whose villain believes that he can become a woman by wearing women's skins, Harris makes it clear that none of the women he writes about are comfortable in their own skin, and that this is the fault of men--even well-meaning ones like Jack Crawford, who thoughtlessly throws Starling under the bus when he needs to make nice with a sexist small-town sheriff.  That discomfort, Starling realizes, is what makes women like Kimberly and Frederica--women who were not beautiful, and thus had it repeatedly hammered in that they had no value--vulnerable to the likes of Buffalo Bill, and his death does not make them any safer.

Jonathan Demme's 1991 film version of The Silence of Lambs preserves some of the book's feminist subtext: Starling's rebuke to Crawford after he sells her out to the sheriff; the moment in which she calls on the memory of women who came before her to "do" for the dead when she's faced with Buffalo Bill's latest victim; Starling's friendship with Mapp; the very fact that Silence is a story about a woman rescuing a woman; Catherine's active role in her own rescue.  But it also loses a lot, and most of what it loses is the notion that women have relationships with each other and draw strength from them.  Starling's empathy for the previous victims is gone, and her memories of her mother are replaced with those of her father.  In Demme's hands, Silence becomes a story about a single woman buffeted between good and bad men.  In her brilliant essay about the movie (which you should go and read right now if you haven't already), Genevieve Valentine writes about the problems with Demme's conception of that goodness, and how so many of the men in the movie betray Starling and use her to their own purposes.  Whether intentionally or not, Silence is a movie in which the only man--the only person--who fully respects Starling as a human being is Hannibal Lecter.

Perhaps for this reason, perhaps because of Anthony Hopkins's iconic performance as Lecter, the effect of the movie has been to warp both the popular perception of what Silence is about, and Harris's own grasp on his characters.  His next novel, Hannibal, is a bad follow-up to Silence on several levels, most blatantly the way the previous two books' admirable economy of language is replaced with a florid style and an almost fawning need to describe every meal, bottle of wine, and European landmark the characters consume or come across.  It's also a profound betrayal of Silence's central message, famously ending in a scene in which Lecter manipulates Starling into eating one of her enemies at the FBI, after which she joins forces with him and they travel the world together, enjoying the finer things in life.  Having reread Silence in preparation for this essay, it was brought home to me yet again what a violation this is.  Starling is defined in the earlier novel as someone who needs, more than anything else, to help and save people.  To have given up on that is to have given up on herself, and there is no way to defend that failure.

Having said that, there is still a feminist core in Hannibal that is clearly a deliberate choice by Harris.  Starling gives up on herself not because of an overpowering attraction to Lecter, but because the world gave up on her first.  All of the "good" men who recognized Starling's value in Silence--Jack Crawford, the Quantico weapons instructor John Brigham--are gone or powerless.  They've been replaced by the odious functionary Paul Krendler, who resents Starling for rejecting his sexual advances and has stymied her career ever since.  The women she might have relied on for support, like Senator Martin, have also lost their power to help her.  Krendler ends up allying himself with Mason Verger, a misogynistic caricature who is obsessed with killing Lecter, forcing Starling to either stand back and let evil take place, or destroy her career to save a sadistic murderer.  If Silence presented a world in which women were threatened at every turn but still had enough allies to triumph, Hannibal's world is one in which misogynists like Krendler and Verger have the upper hand.  Starling's choice to join with Lecter and eat Krendler thus becomes a feminist rebellion--if the world doesn't want her as a human being, she'll become a monster, and the novel's afterword suggests that she is a far more terrifying figure than Lecter ever was.  I don't personally buy it, but the intent feels very clear.

All of this is forgotten in Hannibal the show.

Clarice Starling and the events of The Silence of the Lambs could never have appeared in Hannibal the show, because the rights to that book do not lie with the show's creators.  Nevertheless, echoes of the character and the events of her story in Silence and Hannibal the novel recur throughout the show.

Starling appears in the guise of FBI trainee Miriam Lass (Anna Chlumsky) whose recruitment by Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), seen in a flashback during the first season, is a direct quote of the scene in which Starling is recruited by Crawford in Silence.  Crawford sends Lass to pursue the killer known as the Chesapeake Ripper, and the scene in which she recognizes him in Hannibal Lecter is taken from Red Dragon, where it happens to Will.  Unlike Will in the novel, however, Miriam does not escape Hannibal.  She's presumed dead, but in the second season Jack finds her in one of the Ripper's hideouts, at the bottom of a dried-out well (another quote from Silence--this is where Catherine is kept by Buffalo Bill).  During her years of captivity, Miriam is manipulated and brainwashed by Hannibal.  She identifies Fredrick Chilton as the Chesapeake Ripper, and shoots him (seemingly fatally, though hardly anyone dies for good on Hannibal).  Her fate after this is unknown.

Starling also appears in the guise of Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park), an FBI forensic technician who befriends Will in the first season and is horrified when he's arrested for multiple murders at its end.  Nevertheless, Will is able to persuade her to investigate Hannibal, and the relationship they develop becomes an echo of Lecter and Starling's "quid pro quo" relationship in Silence--Will gives Beverly insights into her current serial killer cases, and in return Beverly looks into Hannibal.  When she becomes persuaded that Hannibal is a killer, Beverly goes to his house to find evidence, and is cornered by him in his basement.  That scenario--a female FBI agent pointing a gun at a serial killer in his dungeon of horrors--is the final set-piece of The Silence of the Lambs, but unlike Starling Beverly does not emerge triumphant.  When a shot rings out, it isn't her taking Hannibal out, and when we next see her he has left her body in a gruesome display for Jack and Will to find (Beverly is one of a few characters on Hannibal whose death is unquestionably real).

Starling appears in the guise of Bedelia Du Maurier, played by Gillian Anderson, whose most famous character was modeled on Jodie Foster's performance as Starling in the movie of Silence, and who was in the running to play Starling in the movie adaptation of Hannibal when Foster passed on the role.  A psychiatrist who treated Hannibal, Bedelia claims to have been manipulated by him, as he did to Miriam and tried to do to Will, into becoming a killer.  She starts the first season as Hannibal's semi-willing traveling companion, and there are multiple repetitions of the scene at the end of Hannibal the novel, in which Lecter and Starling sit down to a meal that consists of the third person at the table.  By the end of the season, however, we learn that she's easily as twisted as Hannibal, and though perhaps not as eager a killer as he is, takes pleasure in observing the suffering of others.

Finally, Starling appears in the guise of Alanna Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), who in the show's first two seasons plays the love interest, first to Will, and then to Hannibal.  In the third season, embittered by her failure to see Hannibal for what he was and by the serious injury she sustained in the bloodbath that closed out the second season, Alanna undergoes a personal transformation.  She becomes tougher, more cagey, more open to moral compromise (her wardrobe also gets a serious upgrade, soft sweaters and pencil skirts replaced by well-tailored suits in bold colors, always with a blood-red accent).  In that new persona Alanna becomes entangled with Mason Verger (Michael Pitt in the second season, Joe Anderson in the third) and his sister Margo (Katherine Isabelle).  Where Starling works against Verger, Margo helps him trap Hannibal, but like Starling she is forced to join forces with Hannibal when Verger threatens Will as well.  For her trouble, Hannibal promises her to come back and kill her some day.

Hannibal scatters Starling liberally throughout its storytelling, but always with one consistent theme.  Every moment where Starling achieved a triumph in the books is transformed into failure.  Every moral victory is transformed into complicity and compromise.  Even the moments in the books in which Starling loses her way are made lesser in the show--Bedelia runs off with Hannibal as Starling did at the end of Hannibal the book, but in this version of the story she's merely a paltry replacement for Will, who is the person Hannibal really wanted to run off with.  Alanna is marked for death for her betrayal and rudeness, but that's of secondary importance in comparison to Hannibal's obsession with Will.  If nothing else, you could always count on Thomas Harris to recognize that Clarice Starling held a special place in Hannibal Lecter's heart.  Hannibal the show treats her like a distraction.

Will Graham is introduced at the beginning of Hannibal as a troubled, wounded person.  "I'm on the spectrum," he tells Jack Crawford, and Alanna Bloom worries that he may not be able to cope with the horrors that working on serial killer cases would expose him to.  It's for this reason that he's sent to Hannibal for treatment, and he spends the first season repeatedly demonstrating an inability to cope with the world.  When he impulsively kisses Alanna, he immediately runs to Hannibal to obsess over the act.  Throughout the first season, he is nervous, unfocused, unkempt (all of these traits are exacerbated when Hannibal begins manipulating Will's grasp on reality, for example concealing the fact that he has a serious neurological condition).  It's a portrait of mental imbalance, but it is also decidedly unmasculine.

Will's realization that Hannibal has betrayed him, and murdered the young girl Abigail Hobbes (Kacey Rohl), for whom Will had conceived fatherly feelings, helps to focus him.  Beverly Katz's murder fans his rage and lust for vengeance.  Thomas Harris was never able to convincingly argue that Will had the same impulses towards violence as the murderers he hunted, but Hannibal finds a much more persuasive alternative explanation for his growing willingness to commit violence and murder--revenge.  Driven by his rage towards Hannibal, Will comes into himself, and it's impossible not to notice how much that process of becoming involves adopting traditionally masculine behavior.  When Will is exonerated and released from the mental hospital, he visits Hannibal to show off his physical transformation.  His bird's nest haircut has been replaced with a slicked-back 'do; his clothes are sharp and stylish; his fidgety demeanor has given way to a controlled, commanding presence.  The old Will was a wounded bird; this one is a man.

And a man is defined by engaging in violence on behalf of "his" women.  Will can't do anything to help Abigail or Beverly, so the show gives him another woman to protect in the form of Margo Verger.  Though she is a lesbian, Margo sleeps with Will in order to conceive the child that will help her secure her inheritance and independence from her odious brother, but when Mason finds out about this scheme he has Margo kidnapped and forcibly sterilized.  This is done mainly in order to set up the subplot in Hannibal in which Margo schemes to steal Mason's sperm so that she can conceive a Verger heir with her girlfriend and claim the inheritance (as I said, it's a pretty bad book), but it also serves the purpose of letting Will deliver some good-old-fashioned masculine vengeance, when he beats up the Verger henchman who committed the deed and tries to kill Mason.

So, from a story about women gingerly navigating a world where notions of masculinity, even supposedly benign ones, are more often a danger than a shelter, Hannibal becomes a story about a man embracing those notions, while the women in his life suffer so that he can better embody them.

In the hiatus between Hannibal's second and third seasons, Bryan Fuller made several statements about having made a conscious choice never to feature rape or sexual assault on the show.  This was around the time that the public discussion about the use of rape as a plot element in TV storytelling was at its most feverish pitch, spurred mainly by Game of Thrones, and Hannibal was frequently held up as an alternative to the perception that there was no way to "realistically" depict horror without indulging in rape.  You'll still see a lot of praise for the show for not plumping for this trope, a lot of people holding that choice up as a reason why Hannibal is a progressive, even feminist series.

I have several problems with this meme.  For one thing, just because none of the women on the show have been raped doesn't mean that sexual violence doesn't exist on it.  I don't see how you can call what happens to Margo anything but sexual assault.  Hannibal sleeping with Alanna under false pretenses (and largely to get back at Will) also verges on that territory, and might even be considered rape-by-fraud under certain legal codes.  When Alanna learns the truth about the man she's been sleeping with, her reaction is not at all unlike that of a rape victim--she speaks of losing her sense of self, of being unable to think of anything but her violation, of feeling dirty and not knowing how to make herself clean.  Bedelia, too, loses her sense of self under Hannibal's control, and it's hard not to read a sexual component to that loss.

But the most important reason why I don't feel that Hannibal deserves to be praised for not featuring rape is that it never for a moment occurred to me that it could.  Hannibal bills itself as a horror show, but that horror is not rooted in the crimes around which its story revolves.  Those murder victims are rarely anything more than props--often literally, used as components in elaborate sculptures left for the police to find.  Harris's novels, particularly Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, overflow with disgust at the cruelty that human beings can visit on one another, and with pity for the victims of that cruelty (who are sometimes, as in Red Dragon, also the killers).  Neither of those reactions exist in Hannibal.  It's a show in which violence is always beautiful and artful, not ugly and pointless (this is one of the reasons why the show's retelling of the Red Dragon story in the second half of the third season is largely unsuccessful, despite excellent performances from Richard Armitage as Dolarhyde and Rutina Wesley as Reba; Hannibal can't recreate the horrible mundanity of the Tooth Fairy killings, the sadness of Dolarhyde's belief that he is transforming, and of his desire to stop after he falls in love with Reba).  Horror, in Hannibal, is found only in the wounds that Will and Hannibal inflict on each other, in the constant question of whether Will will finally succumb to Hannibal's coercion, or whether he will finally commit the ultimate betrayal and kill his tormentor-slash-beloved.

There's no room for rape in this equation.  Rape is a fundamentally mundane, prosaic act.  It can't be made beautiful or poetic (or if it can, I hope I never see it).  And in a show in which the only characters who matter are two men, the rape of women wouldn't really register (and I rather doubt that anyone in the writers' room had ever considered staging a rape between Hannibal and Will).  Fuller, it seems to me, was making a virtue out of a necessity.

In Hannibal's third season, as the romance between Will and Hannibal solidifies and begins transitioning from subtext to text, it becomes more obvious just how much the women in both their lives are mere stepping stones to its fruition.  Hannibal and Will both spend part of the season in romantic or pseudo-romantic relationships with women.  In the first half of the season, Hannibal and Bedelia pose as husband and wife in Italy, and their relationship often feels like a parody of a dysfunctional marriage in which one partner can't stop obsessing about their ex and the other would really like to stop being treated as a rebound.  Will's marriage to Molly (Nina Arianda) is more functional, at least to begin with, but when Hannibal sics Dolarhyde on the family and she tells Will that she needs time before they can resume their marriage, it's hard to sense any real regret from him.  He seems as relieved as the show to be rid of the encumbrance of his wife and child.  Lingering over all this is the spirit of Abigail Hobbes, who turned out to be alive and completely under Hannibal's thrall in the second season finale, only to be killed again as yet another act of revenge against Will.  It becomes clearer and clearer that any woman who gets between Will and Hannibal is slated for a sticky end.

The exception to this rule is also the oddest female character in the third season.  Chiyoh (Tao Okamoto), an old friend of Hannibal's whom Will encounters, is a character from Hannibal Rising.  It's the only Lecter novel I haven't read, so I'm not sure how accurate her depiction is to that story, but in the show, nothing we learn about her makes any sense.  Chiyoh tells Will that she was the handmaiden of Lady Murasaki, Hannibal's mentor, and that she met him when he came to train with Murasaki as a boy.  But Okamoto is a full twenty years younger than Mikkelsen, a fact on which no one remarks.  Will finds Chiyoh in Hannibal's ancestral home, where she has lived for an unspecified number of years, guarding the man who, Hannibal has told her, killed his sister Mischa.  She is doing this in exchange for Hannibal not killing this man, but somehow it doesn't bother her that he has killed literally dozens of people while out in the world.  When Will reveals that it was actually Hannibal who killed Mischa--something that Chiyoh herself seems never to have considered despite it being quite an obvious logical leap--she leaves the estate and sets out to find Hannibal, not, as you might expect, to avenge herself on him, but to protect him from Will, whom she tries to kill several times.  Chiyoh repeatedly announces that she is saving Hannibal's life because she wants him "caged," and yet she never makes any steps towards achieving this.  It's possible that Fuller had plans to flesh out Chiyoh's story and explain her contradictory behavior in the fourth season that we will probably never see, but in the show as it stands, she is a character who literally appears to have no reason to exist except to extend the life of a vicious, sadistic murderer.  This is presumably the reason why she gets to walk away from the season with her life and sanity still intact.

As strange as Chiyoh is, she's merely the logical extension of the thinking that seems to have gone into the writing for most of the female characters on Hannibal--whether they realize it or not, they all seem to exist in order to further Hannibal's existence and promote his romance with Will.  The women who chafe against this role are cast as villains.  This is the label placed on Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki), the tabloid reporter who has been dogging Will and Hannibal throughout the show.  Freddie is one of the few characters who refuses to buy into the drama that surrounds the show's central couple, and though she isn't punished for this, the show definitely seems to want us to think that she's morally questionable.  Will chastises her for publishing lurid stories about him and Hannibal in which she calls them "murder husbands."  But while in the books Will's disgust with Lounds, who invades his privacy and invents falsehoods about him, makes sense, in the show it is mere hypocrisy.  All Freddie is doing is putting a name to what everyone around her has already seen and is refusing to acknowledge--that Will and Hannibal are in a sick, codependent relationship whose collateral damage is closing in on the double digits (and nearly included Freddie herself, at the end of the second season).

Alanna, too, gets to question the primacy of Will and Hannibal's romance and be treated like a villain for doing so.  In the second half of the third season, she has taken over Chilton's role as Hannibal's jailer, and though she approaches that task with significantly more intelligence and a sense of purpose--she believes that it is her job to protect Will from Hannibal--it's impossible for the story she's been placed in to make her seem anything but petty (she has nothing to threaten Hannibal with but the loss of his amenities) and ineffectual (he manages to communicate with Dolarhyde and endanger Will's family regardless).  When Will conceives a foolhardy, thoughtless plan to lure Dolarhyde out, first by planting insulting stories about him with Freddie Lounds, and then by dangling Hannibal in front of him (which would involve removing Hannibal from the asylum), Alanna tries to distance herself from the proceedings.  "I'm not a fool," she insists to Will when he tries to enlist her in his plan.  But fool or not, Alanna is trapped in a story in which the only people who matter are two men, so she's caught by the ricochets no matter what she does, forced to go into hiding with her family when Hannibal, inevitably, escapes.  Alanna gets all the disadvantages of being caught in Hannibal's maelstrom, but she doesn't get to be the heroine of her own story, or even to make important decisions about its progress--everything that happens to her happens because of Will and Hannibal's choices, not her own.

The third season, and thus the show, ends with Will and Hannibal killing Dolarhyde together and collapsing into an embrace.  Then Will, who has seemingly accepted the inevitability of his and Hannibal's bond, pushes them both over a convenient nearby cliff.  It's hard not to feel that this is for the best.  At this point, Will and Hannibal deserve each other.  Their utter indifference to anyone but each other seems to strongly suggest that a lot of lives could have been spared if only Will had done the deed--by which I mean either killing Hannibal or succumbing to him--a lot sooner.  Whether or not Fuller planned for this to be the end of Will and Hannibal's relationship (if not, obviously, of Hannibal's life), it is probably the best ending that either of them could have hoped for, and certainly the best ending that anyone in their lives--that the women in their lives, in particular--could have achieved.

I go back and forth on whether any of this matters.

Hannibal's treatment of its female characters makes me very, very angry.  It's largely the reason why I've never been able to love the show.  But I also don't think it's fair to class it with so many other entertainments that forget that women are people in their own right.  Unlike Demme's film version of Silence, Hannibal is not a story that finds it impossible to believe that women might have relationships and find friendship and solace and inspiration in one another.  Its women, for all the frustrations of their roles, often feel more real, more rounded, than women in supposedly "empowering," female-oriented stories.  When Jack Crawford's wife Bella (Gina Torres) holds off on telling him that she has terminal cancer because she wants to prioritize her own feelings about her condition, it's not a sympathetic choice.  It goes against everything we've been told about how a loving wife should behave towards her husband, and Jack is horribly hurt by it.  But it's a thoroughly human decision by a woman who is her own person first, and a wife only second.  There are many moments like this in Hannibal, in which women refuse the nurturing, wise, strong roles that pop culture, whether progressive or regressive, confines them to, and get to be weird and twisted and self-absorbed.  For all that women on Hannibal exist only to promote the show's central couple, they still exist, far more powerfully and memorably than on many other shows.  (To put it another way, Hannibal is not Mr. Robot, another stylish, laddish show, whose female characters lack any interiority, and rarely behave like recognizable human beings.)

And then there's the fact that Hannibal is not queerbaiting.  It's not dismissing women in order to glorify a friendship between two men that no woman could ever come between or understand, but don't worry, no homo.  This is a show that has the courage of its convictions, a show that comes out and identifies itself as a love story between two men.  I'd like to believe that it's possible to do this without treating women like means to an end, but once again, it shouldn't be Hannibal's responsibility to be all things to all people.  It's already doing something incredibly rare and not a little bit brave, so does it really matter that it fails so badly on another front?

What it comes down to, for me, is this: I was twelve or thirteen when I first read The Silence of the Lambs.  And then I went back and read it a second time because I was so wowed by it.  And then I read it several more times over the next few years, because this perfectly written little book about a brave woman who rescues another brave woman, and is friends with other brave, smart women, and feels sympathy for women who weren't brave or smart but still didn't deserve what happened to them, and draws inspiration from the memory of a woman who was strong but still got pounded down by life, was like nothing else I'd ever read.  I can't remember when I realized that most people don't see this book that way.  That most people were more impressed by the clever, urbane murderer who makes jokes about eating census takers' livers with a nice Chianti than by the woman who constantly judges whether she's being too friendly or too aloof, who worries about not being taken seriously enough, who hoards her anger at a world that doesn't want to make space for her.  But for as long as I've been aware of this fact, I've held the book a little bit closer, and treasured those people who realize what it's actually about.  It breaks my heart that Bryan Fuller--an artist whom I greatly admire, and who in Hannibal has created something truly special--doesn't seem to be one of them.

Maybe there are people out there for whom Hannibal is special in the same way that Silence was special to me.  I would never want to deprive them of that.  But I have to believe that there's a way to do both: to tell a story that expands our notions of what a love story is, that imagines men in an obsessive yet oddly tender romance, without trampling the story about women trying to navigate a world built by and for men. 

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Recent Reading Roundup 38

For a number of reasons, I found myself neglecting my literary fiction reading in the first half of 2015.  I tend to bounce back and forth between litfic and genre--too much of the mimetic stuff and I find myself longing for something about more than a few people and their emotional issues; too much SF or fantasy and I end up wishing for something more concrete to hold on to.  So this last month I've been indulging in the "respectable" end of the literary spectrum (not all of the books below are properly litfic, but most of them are marketed that way), and, unsurprisingly, finding the same mixture of good and bad there that I do in genre.
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North - There was some surprise when North's novel ended up on this year's Clarke shortlist.  Or, at least, there was on my part, because the plot description for Harry August, in which a British man experiences his life during the middle decades of the 20th century again and again, eventually becoming embroiled in a mission to stave off the end of the world, fairly screamed "commercial potboiler with tangential genre connection" (it certainly doesn't help that in both its premise and its setting, Harry August feels like a genre-ified version of Kate Atkinson's decidedly literary Life After Life, though I suppose the two books' publications were close enough that North arrived at her premise independently of Atkinson, who anyway is hardly the first to have used it).  As it turns out, North is more ambitious than I gave her credit for.  She takes the time to work through the mechanics of her repeated life device, most especially in her invention of the Cronus Club, a society of repeaters (or "kalachakras," as they term themselves) who discover new members and teach them how to survive, send information back into the past for the benefit of curious researches and financial speculators, and most importantly, enforce the rule that no undue interference in the major events of history is allowed, lest it lead to the end of the world (as it already has in previous timelines).  The main thrust of the novel is Harry's attempt to figure out the fundamental laws of time and space that make people like him possible, in which endeavor he's joined by his sometimes-enemy and sometimes-friend Vincent, who is advancing technology at a dangerous rate in order to achieve this goal.  The last third of the novel, in particular, is a cat-and-mouse game between these two men, as they try to outsmart one another with their knowledge of the past and the future.

    For all that, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August still left me cold.  Partly this is North's doing--where Atkinson made no attempt to work out the rules and implications of her repeated life device, North is rigorous with hers, which paradoxically only calls attention to the fact that it doesn't make any sense except as a contrived and hopelessly artificial literary trope.  If you think for even a bit about the rules that North spells out for her novel's universe, the only conclusion you can reach is that they were laid down by a very present, interventionist, and rather capricious god (or an author), and yet none of the novel's characters acknowledge this--as they obviously can't, since trying to work out the laws of nature is the crux of the novel's story.  (For example, Harry frequently wonders whether the world ceases to exist after his death resets it, but the fact that he remembers the deaths of older kalachakra surely puts the lie to that assumption.  But if that's the case, then how is it possible that the woman who introduces Harry to the Cronus Club was on her twentieth life when she did so, when Harry was only on his fourth?  They should both be experiencing the same iteration, even if hers starts before his on the linear timeline.)

    But I think a bigger problem that Harry August reveals to me--one that can't be laid at North's feet--is that I just don't care for the repeated life device.  I understand its appeal--it's fun to imagine how the same story might have played out if things had been just a little bit different.  But to me, indulging in that impulse is almost inevitably depressing and demoralizing.  The freedom to live your life over and over again comes hand in hand with the knowledge that no matter how well you arrange it, in the end it'll all reset to zero.  Harry August, the novel and the character, are both aware of this fact, and much of the story revolves around Harry's attempts to find meaning in an existence that is empirically meaningless.  But, well, that's not a lot of fun to read about (pretty much the only writer to have managed it is Harold Ramis in the screenplay for Groundhog Day, which uses humor to both defuse and acknowledge the paralyzing hopelessness of its protagonist's situation).  Harry August tries to compensate for the bleakness of its story through spy novel antics, as Harry tries to outsmart Vincent and figure out his plan, but though these are well-written, they didn't do enough to distract me from Harry's own growing ennui.  In the end, I couldn't figure out what I was meant to be reading this novel for, what I was meant to be hoping for.  The premise of saving the world isn't enough to do it, since even Harry himself can't work up much enthusiasm for the project--he takes it on largely out of boredom, and even then he sets it aside for decades and even ends up working to bring judgement day closer for a bit.  And Harry's victory over Vincent is achieved less through his being particularly clever or resourceful, and more because he manages to wait his opponent out, and largely due to a quirk of his biology that means that when Vincent subjects him to a procedure that should erase his memory, he still retains it.  Perhaps if I found her premise less dispiriting, I would have been able to overlook these problems in North's execution in favor of what is still a smart and accomplished novel, but the combination of the two leaves me unimpressed.

  • The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel - There was a minor uproar over the title of Mantel's second short fiction collection when it was published last year.  Even without any strong associations, positive or negative, with Thatcher's name, I thought the title was a bit provocative.  Having read the stories in this collection, however, it feels entirely apt and earned, as nearly every one of them is deeply political and suffused with a profound and very specifically-aimed anger.  In the title piece, the narrator's home is invaded by an IRA member who plans to carry out the titular assassination when Thatcher leaves a nearby hospital after minor surgery.  Though the story engages with its counterfactual nature--the narrator pauses near the end to admit that, of course, the assassination never happened, but leaves it to us to decide whether it was aborted, or happened in a parallel universe, or was merely a wishful fantasy--its main thrust is the narrator's conflicted feelings about the unfolding events.  It's not that she doesn't want Thatcher dead, she explains, but she's worried about her own life, or being blamed after the fact, or her political issues with the IRA.  Other stories, like "The School of English" or "Winter Break," deal with the fraught and often abusive relationships between rich westerners and the poor, non-white people who wait on them, while "Sorry to Disturb" is a (probably autobiographical) narrative of a friendship between a bored British company wife in Saudi Arabia and a local businessman, which quickly develops unsettling undertones due to the expectations placed on both of them in a rigidly gender-segregated society.  Though Mantel's convictions are clearly and strongly felt, I found them a little overpowering--or at least, a little hermetic.  The best writing brings you into its writer's headspace, but for all that Mantel's language is beautiful and precise, I found myself shut out of most of the more political stories in Assassination--they were clearly written for someone who could remember themselves in that particular political context.  I enjoyed much more those stories in the collection whose themes felt more universal--"Harley Street," a piece about working relations and class tension which ends up, surprisingly enough, telling a vampire story, and "How Should I Know You?", about a writer making a gloomy journey to a small-town speaking engagement.  Even these, however, felt like a stopgap measure, while we wait for the third volume in Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy to be published.

  • Rustication by Charles Palliser - In 1989, Palliser published The Quincunx, a twisty, impeccably plotted melding of the Victorian sensation novel and the modern fashion for unreliable narrators and psychological realism.  It helped launch a subgenre--we probably wouldn't have had Waters's Fingersmith or Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White without Palliser paving the way for them--but it must be said that a lot of the authors who followed in Palliser's footsteps have improved on his work, particularly when it comes to writing believably complex characters, and to peering beneath the surface of Victorian mores about class, gender, and sexuality.  Nevertheless, Palliser kept plugging away.  He published one short work of contemporary fiction (The Sensationist), one novel that completely defies description (Betrayals), and another piece of Victoriana (The Unburied).  He returns to that last genre with Rustication, in which the young narrator, Richard, banished from Cambridge for unspecified crimes, returns to his ancestral home, where his mother and sister have moved after the death of his father and some dimly-referenced public shame.  The novel's overall Gothic tone--Palliser never misses an opportunity to stress the dilapidated condition of the house, the depressed state of the family's finances which often leads them to skimp on candles and fires, the gloominess of the weather and of the surrounding marsh, the unfriendly, secretive behavior of the servants and neighbors, and most of all the obvious (to the reader, if not to Richard) conspiracy between his mother and sister--is augmented by obvious references to staples of 19th centry fiction such as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Bleak House, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and even the real-life George Edalji affair.  In the foreground, meanwhile, the naive, opium-addled Richard is trying to work out why the women in his family have such extreme and changeable reactions to his presence in the house and what the various whisper campaigns in the neighborhood are about.  When malicious, vulgar letters are delivered to the women of the neighborhood, and the local livestock are mutilated, he finds himself under suspicion, and has to work out the secrets his family has been keeping from him.

    The actual mystery at the heart of Rustication isn't very hard to figure out--only the narrator's self-absorption and ingrained sense of entitlement keep him from working it out far sooner than he does.  But Rustication is short enough that that lag between the reader and the character's understanding isn't too frustrating.  What is frustrating, however, is that the novel is told from the perspective of a privileged, selfish young man who, even if he doesn't exactly deserve the nasty fate that is being cooked up for him, also doesn't do much to deserve the happy ending he actually gets.  So many of the authors who followed Palliser used the template he laid out to examine how restrictive and corrosive Victorian social mores were, especially to people who weren't rich white men.  Palliser himself did this, in fact, in The Unburied, which uses the revelation that its villain is gay to reflect on the fact that restrictive social conventions have forced this man to commit criminal acts, and even gives him a happy ending with his lover.  In Rustication, however, Palliser seems to serving Victorian conventions more or less straight-up.  The villains of this piece are all women, and there's only the faintest acknowledgment that what's forced them to behave so horribly is the marriage game in which they're compelled to sell their bodies, but also treated like damaged good if they do.  Sex, in this story, is inevitably associated with evil and corruption, and the only "good" women are the one who abstain from it entirely--a naive and virginal old woman; the neighbor who reenacts the plot of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, living in saintly seclusion and suffering slanders against her reputation because of the bad behavior of the abusive husband she abandoned--and the servant who makes herself sexually available to Richard, but does so because she really likes him, not for any expectation of marriage.  Palliser clearly wants Rustication to be the story of its protagonist's moral awakening and coming to maturity, particularly when it comes to gender roles--he ends it with a more rounded understanding of the pressures that are brought to bear on women in his society, and learns to forgive the ones who victimized him in an attempt to save themselves.  But this burst of empathy feels too sudden and unearned, especially at the end of an entire novel in which Richard treats every woman he comes across as a receptacle for his hurt feelings and sexual fantasies.  Becoming a better person does not justify the nasty person he was for most of the story, nor does it change the fact that while he escapes and gets a second chance at life, the women he leaves behind are given no such shot at redemption.

  • You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt - At the height of the Cold War, twelve-year-old Sarah and her best friend Jenny write letters to Yuri Andropov asking him not to start a nuclear war.  Only Jenny receives a reply, which includes an invitation to tour the USSR, and she quickly becomes a celebrity and child ambassador for peace while the neurotic, needy Sarah is left behind.  When Jenny dies a few years later in a plane crash, Sarah is left with nothing but questions: did her magnetic, adored friend really love her?  Why did they drift apart after Jenny's rise to fame?  What happened to Sarah's letter?  Ten years later, Sarah receives a message from a woman who claims to have met Jenny on her Russian tour, and claims, additionally, that Jenny is still alive, and that her death was faked to conceal her parents' defection.  You Are One of Them bills itself as a thriller--or perhaps was billed that way by its publishers, hoping to cash in on the post-Gone Girl craze for female-authored, female-oriented mysteries that play with perception and narrative reliability.  This, however, is not to its benefit.  The actual question of whether Jenny is alive turns out to be fairly unimportant to the novel, and the elements of the story that could be called a mystery or an espionage narrative appear only in its final third, by which point the solution feels both obvious and not very urgent.  The heart of the novel is Sarah, a woman with serious trust and self-esteem issues who saw in Jenny everything she wanted to be but couldn't.  The best parts of the novel are the ones that examine the sometimes nurturing, sometimes corrosive friendship between Sarah and Jenny, and the ways in which Sarah learns to cope with loneliness after Jenny's death.  Holt writes sensitively about these subjects, and weaves them into the history of the Cold War and descriptions of post-Communist Russia in interesting ways.  But for all that, it's probably to the novel's benefit that it is relatively short.  If you leave out the backbone of its sensationalistic premise (which was borrowed from the real-life story of Samantha Smith, whom I hadn't heard about before reading this book), You Are One of Them tells a rather thin story.  That it goes down quickly makes that thinness easier to stomach, but I hope that Holt finds something more substantial to write about in her next outing.

  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt - Disappointed by her reception in the art world and convinced that it is rooted in sexism, artist Harriet "Harry" Burden embarks on an ambitious project she calls Maskings.  She engages three male fronts to present three different works, and plans for the revelation of her authorship to expose not only the sexism rife in the art world, but the effect that attaching a male face to it has on the work itself.  When Harry's unmasking occurs, however, her final collaborator Rune, a renowned performance artist in his own right, denies that she had any input into his work, and her project fizzles into a damp squib that later takes a sinister turn when Rune kills himself as part of another work that borrows heavily from Harry's.  The Blazing World, which presents itself as a scholarly work compiled a decade after Harry's death (and her posthumous rediscovery by the art world), is made up of excerpts from Harry's diaries, reminiscences from her friends and family, and various document fragments relating to her work and the controversy surrounding Rune and his death, all converging on their break and the reason that Maskings failed.  Unlike other constructed narrative novels, however, The Blazing World isn't a mystery to be puzzled out.  There's never any doubt that Harry created the final part of Maskings, and the question of why Rune killed himself (and whether that was his intention or an accident) isn't very central to the novel.

    What The Blazing World seeks instead to achieve with its kaleidoscopic format is a fully-rounded, intimate portrait of Harry herself, a furiously intelligent, rage-filled, "difficult" woman who is riven between her burning desire for recognition and her disdain for the narrow-minded art world that could never figure out what to do with her.  Though Hustvedt's topic is unabashedly feminist (and though Harry herself is a staunch feminist, frequently breaking into rants about the suppression of women's art and the ways in which her intelligence and talent were diminished by colleagues who saw her only as the wife of a renowned dealer), The Blazing World and its heroine are much spikier and more complex than the straightforward narrative of sexist dismissal that Harry spins.  Harry is full of contradictions, as angry at herself for spending decades in her husband's shadow as she is at him for refusing to promote her art.  And her hunger for recognition (and for the right kind of recognition; several of the characters interviewed in the novel point out that Harry could have sought out alternative, women-friendly venues to display her work, but kept plugging away at the laddish, newness-obsessed New York galleries) is as offputting as it is righteous, often bubbling over into fits of rage and even violence.  For all these flaws, however, it's impossible not to fall in love with Harry, who is not just smart but endlessly fascinated with the world, full of snippets of information about art, philosophy, literature, history, psychiatry, neuroscience, and a myriad other subjects, which she weaves together into a fascinating, coherent artistic vision.  (Rather gratifyingly for genre fans, one of her reference points is the story of James Tiptree Jr., which also allows Hustvedt to hint at Harry's own ambivalence towards her gender identity.)  Flawed as she is, and frustrating as she is as a human being, there's never any doubt that Harry is the real thing as an artist, and perhaps the most profound feminist statement made by The Blazing World is that it allows a woman to embody those contradictions, so often reserved for men.

    As well as constructing this vivid portrait of a brilliant, complicated woman, The Blazing World is remarkable for how joyously, effortlessly erudite it is.  Nearly all the characters are artists, scholars, critics, or in some way immersed and fascinated by their chosen fields, and their narratives are dripping with references, quotes, allusions, and a sense of their love of knowledge.  This is a novel about intelligent people talking intelligently about complicated and abstruse subjects, and while this might sound dry or hard to get through, it's actually the most fun I've had reading a book in a long time.  I don't understand modern art at all, but Hustvedt's descriptions of artists creating and thinking about their work, of the thought and philosophy that go into installations that can seem random and cobbled-together, are endlessly compelling to me (in fact it's possible that I get more out of reading her describe how Harry's art comes together and the thinking that went into it than I would from seeing the actual work).  They make The Blazing World a story about one of my favorite subjects--people hard at work on something that means the world to them, even if no one else understands it.  It's impossible to put down The Blazing World and not want to remain immersed in its world of art and thought and creation, and impossible not to want to spend more time with Harry and her unusual, original way of seeing the world.