Sunday, April 29, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

For the last ten years, Marvel Studios has been doing the impossible.  Just look at the list of decisions they've made on the road to total dominance of the movie box office, Hollywood's action-adventure machine, and sizable chunks of the cultural conversation.  Every one of them, at the time it was made, elicited loud cries of "why?", and more importantly, "how?"  How can Marvel create a movie universe without the rights to tentpole heroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men?  How can they launch their new franchise with C-list weirdos like Iron Man and Thor?  How can they create a successful team-up movie combining the heroes of five previous films?  How can they incorporate genuinely out-there concepts like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and Ant-Man into their burgeoning cinematic universe?  How can they re-incorporate Spider-Man into that universe, relaunching the character for the third time in fifteen years?  How can they accommodate directors with a more definitive viewpoint and agenda, like Taika Waititi or Ryan Coogler?

And yet, every single time we've asked this question, the answer has been "like this".  I don't like all of the MCU movies and I don't think all of them are good, but every single one of them works.  Through a combination of inspired casting choices, a firm grasp of the kind of world they wanted to build and the stories they wanted to tell in it, and sure-footed leadership from mastermind Kevin Feige, Marvel has created a universe that is always entertaining to visit, with characters we can care about, settings we can become attached to, and, even in the worst films of the bunch, moments worth experiencing.  It's all the more impressive an accomplishment when you look at other studios' (and even Marvel's sister division in charge of Star Wars) attempts to replicate it, almost all of which have resulted in half-baked or genuinely unwatchable fare.

So even though I wouldn't say that I walked into Avengers: Infinity War with high hopes, I had certain expectations from it.  I'm not a great fan of any of the MCU's team-up movies--I think Avengers is more impressive for being attempted than for its limited success; I get more annoyed with Age of Ultron whenever I think about it; and though I praised Civil War when I first watched it, it has aged very poorly for me, and I now remember mainly its risible politics and the fact that it has made me dislike Steve Rogers.  But for all that, I still believed that the question aroused by the Infinity War concept--how can Marvel rope together dozens of characters from multiple storylines into a battle against a single universe-destroying villain, and make a successful and entertaining movie out of it?--would be answered with the same definitive success as previous ones.  I didn't expect to love Infinity War, but I expected it to work.

Instead, it is barely even a movie.  The answer to "how can you give each of these lovingly crafted characters the space and attention they deserve" turns out to be "you can't".  Characters in Infinity War turn up to prop up the plot and move it along, nothing more.  There's barely any space for meaningful interactions or even the occasional revealing plot point.  In fact, there's barely any space for story.  Infinity War is simply non-stop event, one fight scene leading into another with only the minimum of connective tissue.  And if that conjures up images of something energetic and exhilarating like Mad Max: Fury Road, Infinity War is the exact opposite, dutiful and airless.  None of the fight scenes are bad, but they're the same CGI spectacle we've seen many times before, and all so clearly in thrall to the demands of the plot that there's no space to be excited, surprised, or worried.

Infinity War proceeds along three storylines.  In the first, the Guardians of the Galaxy pick up Thor, left adrift in space after his crew of Asgardian refugees was slaughtered by Thanos, who was in search of the Tesseract Cube (along the way Thanos kills Heimdal and Loki; Valkyrie's whereabouts are never mentioned).  Thanos is, of course, the estranged father of Gamora, and she reveals that his goal is to kill half of all living beings in the universe, to which end he needs to collect all six of the Infinity Stones, which will give him control over all aspects of reality.  In a second storyline, an advance party of Thanos's henchmen arrives on Earth looking to collect the Time Stone (wielded by Doctor Strange) and the Mind Stone (currently powering Vision).  Strange, Tony Stark, and Peter Parker fend off the invaders but in the process end up trapped on Thanos's ship on its way to his homeworld, where they decide to mount an attack against him.  Finally, nearly every other major MCU player converges on Wakanda, where they hope to detach the Mind Stone from Vision so they can destroy it and foil Thanos's plan, and where they end up in a last stand against Thanos's regrouped forces.

The third of these storylines is nothing more than make-work, wasting the presence of such vital MCU players as Captain America, Black Widow, and pretty much everyone from Wakanda.  The emotional crux is meant to be the revelation that Vision and Wanda have been carrying on a secret affair since they ended up on different sides in Civil War, which now turns to tragedy since only Wanda's powers can destroy the Mind Stone.  But introducing a romance half a scene before telling us that it is doomed is a tough sell even if the lovers in question are well-developed characters (as seen with the example of Natasha and Bruce in Age of Ultron).  Doing it with Vision, who is underwritten, and Wanda, who is inconsistently written, is a losing proposition, and so the entire storyline ends up feeling perfunctory, a chance to check in with our favorite characters--here's Shuri showing up Bruce!  Here's M'Baku doing the Jabari war-bark!  Here's Natasha with a new hair color!--without letting them actually be the people we've come to care about.

The Tony/Strange/Peter storyline is little more than an excuse for three of the MCU's most inveterate quippers to quip against each other, which is entertaining as far as it goes but not much more than that.  The film's only real weight of emotional significance comes, strangely enough, from Thor and the Guardians.  There's a genuinely touching scene between Thor and Rocket in which the former recounts the losses he's experienced in the last few years and tries to convince himself that he's still up for a fight.  But most of the heavy lifting is done by Gamora, who struggles with her fear of Thanos, her guilt over the role she played in this atrocities, and her terror that he will capture her and learn from her the location of the Soul Stone, the final, lost Infinity Stone.

The problem here is that Gamora is by far the MCU's most underdeveloped headliner.  She has an incredibly fraught, complicated backstory, and yet the character who has shown up on screen has always been overshadowed, playing a sensible mom type to her more flamboyant crewmates (and sister).  And that's before we even get to the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 apparently took place four years ago, and that Infinity War has so little space to fill us in on what's happened to the Guardians since then that it has Peter awkwardly reveal that he and Gamora are romantically involved during a fight with Thanos.  So when Thanos tricks Gamora into thinking she's defeated him in battle and she breaks into uncontrollable sobs, it comes as a surprise in the worst possible way.  We know so little about Gamora and how she feels about Thanos that we have no idea how she'd react to his death, how she thinks she'd react, or how she'd like to react.  Zoe Saldana does the best she can, whether it's urging Peter to kill her if it looks like Thanos is about to capture her, or breaking down when Thanos tortures Nebula to get her to give him the location of the Soul Stone, or multiple scenes opposite Thanos himself.  But she can't get around the fact that we have no idea who Gamora is, and that the writing for Infinity War isn't really interested in changing that, as the first Avengers did for Black Widow and Bruce Banner.

And then there's Thanos himself, who has been looming over the MCU since Avengers in 2012, for the most part to very little effect.  Infinity War doesn't quite rescue him from the MCU's villain curse, but there's a solid argument to be made that he is the film's most interesting, rounded character, perhaps even its protagonist (that would certainly be one way to interpret the end title informing us that "Thanos Will Return").  After so much buildup, and with so much hatered registered towards him from Gamora, Nebula, and Drax, it's a reasonably clever choice for Infinity War to depict Thanos as even-tempered, patient, and wistful.  When he listens to Gamora rail against him, or explains to her that in killing half the population of the planets he visits, he's saving them from resource scarcity, it's hard not to feel (despite the absurd purple CGI) that there's a thinking, feeling person in there, however monstrous his reasoning.  In the end, however, the film can't quite make Thanos work.  His relentless pursuit of carnage can't be squared with his oh-so-reasonable demeanor.  Unlike, say, Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Infinity War doesn't do the work of building a character whose tremendous power and longevity has led them down a path of destruction that to them feels entirely rational.  One eventually comes to feel that Thanos is pursuing his horrific plan of galactic genocide simply because the plot needs him to

(It should go without saying that Thanos's overpopulation bugbear and his proposed solution for it are hideous claptrap.  Reducing a population by half, whether through violence as Thanos used to do, or by making people simply disappear as he wants to do with the Infinity Stones, would result in immediate economic and industrial collapse, and therefore mass starvation and most likely war.  It should go without saying, but because Hollywood continues to linger in the grip of Malthusianism decades after the rest of the world saw it for the racist nonsense that it is, I'm not sure that it does.  After all, we see Thanos tell Gamora that her home planet, whose population he massacred only twenty years ago, is now a paradise, which suggests the film does want us to see merit in his approach.  So, before the first thinkpiece suggesting that "Thanos Was Right" drops, I want it on the record that no, Thanos is a moron.)

To be clear, none of what I've written so far is the reason I've come down so hard against Infinity War.  If the movie was only what I've described in the preceding paragraphs, my reaction to it would be a resounding "meh".  Not as good as Avengers, not as bad as Age of Ultron, possibly better than Civil War but mainly because it has no political message with which to infuriate me.  The thing that makes me say that Infinity War is barely a movie is its ending, in which, well, Thanos wins.  The film climaxes with an epic battle between most of our heroes plus the Wakandan armies, and Thanos's forces.  (This would be a lot more exciting if it weren't so painfully dumb; naturally, if one side is invading from space, and the other is surrounded by a force-field dome, the thing to do is to have armies square off against one another on open ground like in The Lord of the Rings.)  The point of this battle is to give Shuri time to remove the Mind Stone from Vision without killing him.  But when Shuri's lab is overrun, Vision convinces Wanda to kill him and destroy the Stone, which she does.  At which point Thanos, who already has possession of Strange's Time Stone, rewinds back a few minutes and retrieves the Stone, killing Vision.  He then completes the Infinity Gauntlet and uses it to remove half the living beings in the universe, including Bucky Barnes, Wanda, Sam Wilson, T'Challa, Peter Parker, Doctor Strange, all of the Guardians except Rocket, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill.  Roll credits.

Look, I don't have to tell you what this means, right?  The combination of comics + lots of major character death + an established McGuffin that can and already has rewound time pretty much writes the story for you.  True, some fans are already debating how much of the carnage of Infinity War is going to be rewound in Avengers 4 (personally, I think it's obvious that it's going to be everything, though perhaps some minor characters will die in the new timeline, just for appearances' sake).  But to be honest, if the argument we're having while walking out of the movie theater is "how much of the movie we've just watched is going to be cancelled out of existence by the next one?" I think we can probably agree that we are not the richer for having watched it.

One of the reasons that I despise the way pop culture has come to conflate character death with meaningful drama (a development for which I mainly blame Game of Thrones, but which the MCU has happily indulged in) is that even when that death sticks, it never ends up feeling real and significant--more like a gimmick to make people gasp and then move on to the next big moment.  The previous Avengers movies teased us relentlessly with inane "who will die" slogans, only to kill off minor characters (one of whom was revived almost immediately on TV).  Infinity War obviously couldn't take that approach again, so by the time Thanos killed Gamora as a sacrifice to earn the Soul Stone, I was pretty sure that her death, and the ones that had come before it, were going to be rolled back.  The ending of Infinity War virtually guarantees this.  It's not that I want wholesale slaughter, but when characters die, I want it to matter.  When characters suffer, or argue, or even just talk to one another, I want it to matter.  The way Infinity War ends is a promise that nothing about it--the entire 160-minute slog--is going to matter.  That the purpose of the whole exercise was the "gotcha" of the credits rolling on Thanos's victory.

You can get away with something like this in comics or TV, where it's clearer that you're telling a chapter in a story.  (In fact I would argue that the excellent second season of DC's Legends of Tomorrow tells a story that is virtually identical to Infinity War, to the extent that I'm pretty sure the Avengers will use the same tactic as the Legends did to defeat Thanos.)  But those formats usually have enough space to make the journey worth the readers' while, even if parts of it are going to be erased.  Infinity War, as I've written, is nothing but forward momentum, so to discover that the only thing that momentum was leading us to was its own cancellation--and that we're going to have to wait a year before the actual story happens--feels very much like having been cheated.  It certainly doesn't help that Marvel has been insisting for years that the Infinity War story hasn't been split into two, even changing the names of Infinity War and Avengers 4.  As the saying goes, you can trick your readers, but you can't lie to them, and pretending that Avengers 4 isn't Infinity War 2 was a lie.

A lot reviewers are going to praise Infinity War for having a "brave" downer ending, but that's not what we've gotten.  A downer ending has weight.  It leaves you feeling something besides shock.  But shock is all Infinity War has to offer, bolstered by the freedom to do whatever it wants with its world, because none of it is really going to matter.  It's the kind of emptiness I've come to associate with the DC movies (Wonder Woman excepted), where grandiosity and melodrama are allowed to stand in for genuine emotion and meaning--something I thought the MCU knew instinctively to avoid.  There's no substance to Infinity War, only spectacle, and the fact that this was the capper that the remarkable ten years of the MCU have been leading up to leaves me thinking that I have massively overrated this entire effort.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Recent Movie Roundup 29

Avengers: Infinity War is just around the corner, which in some way feels like the true beginning of 2018's movie year.  We've mostly wrapped up last year's Oscar hopefuls, and the more experimental action-adventure fare of the year's early months, and now it's time to get down to business.  I'm not feeling terribly hopeful about Marvel's fourth attempt to wring a coherent dramatic work out of mashing all of their characters together (on twitter, I did the traditional thing and ranked all the MCU movies, and the team-up movies all ended up in the bottom half of the list) but I do think it offers a useful opportunity to sum up the last few weeks' movie-watching.  This is probably the last batch of "grown-up" movies to reach my part of the world for several months, so this is also an opportunity to look fondly back before world-destroying mayhem takes over our screens.
  • I, Tonya - A semi-mockumentary about the rise and fall of competitive figure skater Tonya Harding, who was embroiled--to a degree that has never been fully established--in a plot to assault her competitor Nancy Kerrigan in the lead-up to the 1994 winter olympics, the most surprising thing about I, Tonya is that deep down, it is a straight-up sports movie.  Though the climax it's leading up to isn't victory or honorable defeat, but humiliation and ignominy, the beats of I, Tonya are familiar, predictable, and best of all thrilling.  We see Tonya start training as a child, until by the time she's in her teens (at which point she's played by Margot Robbie, very good in the role but also far too old and imposing to play the slight, young-looking Harding, who was only 24 when her saga ended) her entire life is devoted to skating.  We see the key figures in her life, who spur her on but also hold her back with their tangled emotional connections--her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), physically and emotionally abusive but also very perceptive in her judgments of Tonya and the people who latch onto her; her on-and-off husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who initially seems like a perfect, loving counterpoint to the harshness of Tonya's home life, but quickly reveals himself as abusive; her coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), who nurtures Tonya as hardly anyone else in her life does, but also keeps trying to push her to embody a genteel ice princess type that doesn't suit her rough-and-tumble personality.  Most of all, there are the skates, thrilling sequences at which every bit of work and suffering that Tonya has endured are summed up in a few minutes of performance, encompassing triumph--when she becomes the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition--and defeat--when she can barely make it through her program in the 1994 Olympics.

    It's interesting to note how similar I, Tonya is to Molly's Game, and how different their approaches to their subject matter end up being.  Both movies are about high-powered, talented women who discover very quickly that the line between fame and infamy is razor-thin, who are not innocents, but who also probably didn't deserve the harsh punishment they received for, essentially, being a Bad Girl.  But whereas in Molly's Game Aaron Sorkin runs in horror from the very thought that his heroine is not a completely admirable person, in I, Tonya screenwriter Steven Rogers revels in Tonya's contradictions.  In his hands, she is at once a badass, who trains with total determination and literally marches to her own drum, performing routines to ZZ Top when everyone expects her to be gentle and demure, and an emotionally unstable fuckup, incapable, even in the most charitable reading of her story, of disentangling herself from toxic relationships and habits.  But it's not just Tonya who gets this treatment.  Everyone in the movie is at various points lovable, hateable, pitiable, and kind of a moron.  (This is a bit of a problem in the case of Jeff, whom Stan plays as a soft-spoken nebbish even as he's tossing Tonya across the room.)  None of them deserve a happy ending, but it's also made clear that the bad ending they do get is rooted as much in circumstances outside of their control--in the prejudices of the skating world, the authorities' tolerance of domestic abuse, and the public's need to tear down and hate women who don't live up to an image of perfection--as in their own actions.

    The problem that I, Tonya eventually bumps up against is the one that almost any attempt to depict or sum up the Harding/Kerrigan scandal encounters--there is, ultimately, no lesson that can be taken from this story, because everyone in it is wrong in one way or another (except, obviously, Kerrigan, who is instead a victim).  It is undeniably true that Tonya Harding was unfairly dismissed by the public, the press, and skating authorities because of her looks, her demeanor, and her lower-class background.  It is undeniably true that the public outrage that built around her after the assault was completely out of proportion to what she actually did (if indeed she did anything), and had more to do with her gender, her appearance, and a ravenous press cycle.  But against all that, there is the simple fact that a woman got her knee bashed in.  I, Tonya soft-pedals its condemnation of both Tonya and Jeff, somehow arguing that both of them stumbled into the attack on Kerrigan.  Though at the same time it also pokes at its own assertions by constantly breaking the fourth wall, having characters in the midst of scenes of great emotion and violence turn to the camera and complain that these events didn't happen, that the person telling the story is lying to make themselves look like the victim and everyone else look like a villain.  It's a clever conceit, but the end result is that the film can feel a little centerless, uncertain about what it wants to say about its heroine or story except perhaps that there is nothing to say.  This, however, doesn't change the fact that I, Tonya is massively entertaining, cleverly constructed (it is genuinely baffling that Molly's Game and Three Billboards received best screenplay nominations while Rogers didn't), and truly moving.  Whatever you end up thinking about Tonya Harding and the people around her when you leave the movie theater, I, Tonya wants you to remember that they are people, and at this it handily succeeds.

  • The Shape of Water - Guillermo del Toro's latest dark fantasy is an homage to old Hollywood, mashing up mid-century romantic melodramas and monster flicks to produce a tale in which the doe-eyed, beautifully emotive heroine falls in love with a fish-monster.  Working as a cleaner in a military research laboratory in the early 60s, mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) befriends the lab's latest subject, an amphibious anthropomorphic creature (Doug Jones) retrieved from the Amazon.  As their friendship deepens, the lab's security officer, Strickland (Michael Shannon) agitates to have the creature vivisected, prompting Elisa to mount a daring rescue.  The film is, as is typical with del Toro and in keeping with his obvious inspirations, a lush visual and auditory experience.  The rich shadows and colors, the evocative imagery (such as Elisa living over a movie theater whose sounds penetrate her dreams), the constant presence on the soundtrack of music, from show tunes to jazz, all combine to create the impression of a setting that is half dream-world, of a movie that knows that it is a movie, whose characters see themselves as movie characters.

    Describing The Shape of Water as a mashup, however, creates the expectation of something that pushes against boundaries, and instead the film feels much more like a retread than the sensational terms of the conversation around it suggest.  The problem, as it has been for several of del Toro's recent projects, is in the script, and while the one for The Shape of Water isn't as underdeveloped as, say, Crimson Peak, it is a story that substitutes bald declaration for any hint of subtlety or complication.  The film is a lovely, surprisingly hopeful (and refreshingly sexually frank) story of seemingly impossible love, but it never suggests what it can loudly say.  Whether it's the parallel between Elisa's muteness and the creature's difference (something that has left disability activists divided), which the film has Elisa spell out in a pivotal moment.  Or the fact that Strickland is literally every sort of evil you'd imagine from a character like him, and spends his every moment on screen reminding us of this fact, from pointlessly browbeating his underlings, to making racist comments to Elisa's friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to drooling over his latest status-symbol-slash-phallic object, a new Cadillac.  Or a subplot about Elisa's neighbor, an aging gay man (Richard Jenkins), who declines to help her because he still hopes to claw himself back to respectability, only to come to her aid when the young man he's been lusting over turns out to be a homophobe and a racist.  The closest The Shape of Water comes to offering a mixed, challenging message is when the only scientist in the lab who sympathizes with the creature (Michael Stuhlberg) is revealed to be a Soviet plant, but even then, we're quickly reassured that his handlers are just as eager to exploit the creature as the American military.

    Of course, subtlety isn't always something to strive for.  I've seen some reviewers complain about the unmitigated awfulness of Strickland's character, for example, when to my mind he feels like the perfect villain for this moment, in which there's value in reminding people that racism and homophobia and authoritarianism and a complete disrespect for the rights of others often go hand in hand, without any redeeming characteristics.  (If there's a complication of Strickland's character, I'd say it comes from outside of him, in a scene in which his superior makes it clear that there will be no tolerance for his failure to reacquire the creature, and we watch Strickland realize that the toxic system he's bought into has no qualms about treating him as badly as he's treated others.)  But when I compare The Shape of Water to other best picture nominees like Call Me By Your Name or Phantom Thread, it feels thin despite its visual and textural richness.  In a way, the film feels of a piece with other recent "Hollywood does Hollywood" Oscar nominees like La La Land or The ArtistThe Shape of Water is about more than either of these other movies, but its obviousness means that it doesn't quite escape their gravity well.  It's a film that is luxurious to watch, but didn't leave me with very much when I left the movie theater.

  • Mudbound - Dee Rees's historical drama unfolds on a Mississippi farm in the 40s, and charts the growing, racially-charged tensions between two families, one white and one black.  The McAllans, Henry and Laura (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan), buy the farm on a whim, to indulge Henry's fantasy of being a landowner.  The Jacksons, Hap and Florence (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige), have been sharecropping the land for generations, with no hope in sight of climbing out of subsistence living.  The early parts of the film skip nimbly between different characters' points of view, letting them narrate to us the subtle currents of power and prejudice that govern the two families' interactions--the fact that Henry feels entitled to call on Hap for help at any moment, and to dictate the terms of their financial relationship; Florence's reluctance to help Laura at home, born partly out of a desire to care for her own children, and partly out of a recognition that if anything were to happen to Laura's children, she would be blamed; Laura's mingled insight and detachment, her refusal to take an active role as a white landowner's wife that might allow her to mitigate some of the injustice she observes.

    Things come to a head when WWII ends and the two families' soldiers return home: Henry's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), a rakish pilot, and eldest Jackson son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), a decorated tank commander.  Both are having trouble readjusting to civilian life, and they find in each other a sympathetic ear, someone who understands the traumas they've experienced.  Jamie is also struggling with his feelings for Laura, and with his bullying, racist father (Jonathan Banks), while Ronsel chafes against a society where he is seen as barely human after having been lauded as a hero in Europe.  The small oasis from intolerance and inequality formed by their friendship is compelling, but clearly also doomed.

    Even ignoring the long stretches of voiceover, it's easy to see that Mudbound is based on a novel (by Hillary Jordan), and while this might sound strange given that I haven't read it, the adaptation (by Rees and Virgil Williams) feels respectful and faithful.  The way the film slowly develops each of its wide cast of characters, and follows them along tangents that expose their unique point of view, feels novelistic, and unlike what you often find in feature films.  Sometimes the result can shade into melodrama--a scene in which Jamie reveals that his racial prejudices were exploded after his life was saved by the Tuskegee Airmen might have worked on the page, but feels hopelessly mawkish on screen--but for the most part it makes the film's world and characters feel vivid and lived in.  It helps that the film gives its actors a chance to shine, with Blige, Morgan, and Mulligan in particular giving deeply human and touching performances as complicated people hoping for better but not sure how to achieve it, and whether a path is even available to them.

    As Mudbound approaches its climax, however, one becomes more and more cognizant of the fact that there is only one way for this story to conclude, with tragedy, and it's hard not to resent the film for this--for introducing us to strong, hard-working, hopeful people like the Jacksons only to tear them down, because that's how historical dramas about black people in the south have to end.  It feels a little as if Rees shares that frustration, because Mudbound's final act is rushed and more than a little confusing, as if the film were trying to quickly get through the horror that it knows it has to depict.  That this horror is ultimately mitigated, and that the Jacksons find a way to build a better life for themselves in spite of it, is a tremendous relief, but nevertheless Mudbound is stronger in its beginning and middle than in its end.

  • Pacific Rim: Uprising - I wasn't a huge fan of the original Pacific Rim, which seemed made up of really compelling pieces that never really cohered into an interesting whole (again, see Guillermo del Toro's perennial problems with scripts--the one for Pacific Rim just gives up the ghost in act three).  But it's genuinely fascinating to see what happens when that film's universe and core concepts are handed to a more conventional director (Steven S. DeKnight, mainly known for TV stuff like Daredevil) and writers.  It's not just that the fleshy weirdness of del Toro's visual worldbuilding is gone, but so is the weirdness of some of his core concepts.  The idea of drift compatibility, for example, which in the original Pacific Rim was such a rich metaphor for empathy and connection, is here turned into just another skill that people need to develop, at which point they can drift with anyone--a way of proving individual fitness, not a connection to a specific person.  (It's not surprising that the first Jaeger we see in the movie is a small model piloted by a single person.)  There are other ways in which Uprising streamlines the original Pacific Rim's messiness, moving it in line with Hollywood's standard template for heroic movies.  Introducing a heretofore-unheard-of son for Idris Elba's character from the first movie, who is a hotshot who doesn't follow orders well, is particularly old hat.  So is a subplot that someone on twitter aptly summed up as "Jaeger Hogwarts", in which a group of aspiring young Jaeger pilots squabble and eventually learn to put their differences aside and work as a team.

    None of this is to say that Uprising is a bad movie.  It's just that it's good (for a given, limited value of "good") in very different ways than the original Pacific Rim, conventional and fun to its predecessor's charming but messy.  And it is a lot of fun, precisely because it wears its conventional plot lightly, and spruces it up with a lot of forward plot momentum.  Not to mention Jaeger and Kaiju fights, which continue to be this series's not-so-secret weapon, cheerfully bashing giant robots and monsters into buildings and each other with utterly delightful abandon.  Tying it all together is John Boyega, without whom this film would totally fall apart (proving this point is Scott Eastwood as Boyega's rule-following counterpart, who barely even registers on screen).  Boyega's charisma is so instantly engaging that he manages to make an underwritten character in an unconvincing situation completely engaging, and that in turn powers the rest of the movie.  Between that, the Jaegers and the Kaiju, Uprising makes for an utterly enjoyable evening out, even if it isn't nearly as soulful as its predecessor.

  • The Death of Stalin - Armando Iannucci's latest black comedy brilliantly dramatizes the days before and after the death of the Soviet tyrant, and the chaos into which the Politburo, the NKVD, and the Russian army are thrown by the sudden removal of a figure who had not only consolidated a horrific amount of power into his own hands, but who erected such a monumental cult of personality around himself that even the people he hurt most don't know how to go on without him.  The historical details are no doubt fudged or even outright invented, but Iannucci's clever script wastes no time in establishing the complex political web that exists around Stalin, and how it's overturned by his death.  We meet Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin's devoted deputy who initially balks at but is quickly won over by the idea of taking over as dictator.  Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the venal, cynical head of the secret police who immediately starts scheming how best to position himself in the new reality, including trying to reinvent himself as a reformer and a friend of the people.  And our point of view character, Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who scrambles with Beria for survival before realizing that he's in position to grab the entire pot.  The cast is rounded-out by a who's-who of British and American comedy actors, all in top form, but standouts include Stalin's drunken wastrel of a son Vasily (Rupert Friend, suddenly reminding everyone how wasted he's been in dour action hero roles like Homeland) and Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs, magnificent), whose WWII heroism is perhaps the reason that he's the only one willing to admit that what's happening in the wake of Stalin's death is not an orderly transfer of power in which everyone has the best interest of the people and the Communist ideal at heart, but a plain and simple coup.

    I'm not sure what Iannucci's reasons were for embarking on this project, but in our current political moment it ends up feeling utterly essential.  At the heart of the film's comedy is the denial, sometimes necessary and sometimes self-serving, that the characters need to deploy in order to survive and advance in their increasingly irrational world.  They must pretend to live in a worker's paradise, because to acknowledge Stalin's tyranny, the cruelty of his whims, and the capriciousness of the state's organs of policing and punishment, might be more than their lives are worth.  After Stalin dies, the Politburo pretend to be working together to stabilize the Union, even though they all know that a purge is coming, either from the people or the military or each other.  When they gang up against Beria, they pretend to be rooting out a cancer afflicting the purity of Communism, even though, as he indignantly insists, they've all committed atrocities and abused their positions.  Most importantly, they pretend that this latest round of violence is the last one, and that after it they'll be able to set things right, and put a stop to the arrests, executions, purges, and gulags.  It's all very, very funny--standout scenes include a Politburo meeting in which the veneer of free discussion quickly crumbles under the need to make every decision unanimous; or a scene in which Khrushchev and a barely-hanging-on Molotov (Michael Palin) compete to see which one of them can more fervently denounce Molotov's wife, imprisoned for allegedly plotting against Stalin, while Beria keeps trying to interrupt them so he can spin the new narrative in which she was wrongly accused; when we meet Vasily, he's desperately trying to whip into shape a Russian hockey team made up of replacements after the previous team was killed in a plane crash, which he can't acknowledge because Soviet planes aren't supposed to crash.  But underlying it all is a deadly serious, and horrifying, truth: that all it took to erect and maintain this system of abuse and oppression was the cowardice and selfishness of these thoroughly unimpressive men, and that none of them will do anything to make things better.

    The Death of Stalin also feels essential in the context of the conversation about how comedy can function in the era of looming fascism, and whether mocking dictators does anything but normalize them and minimize their potential harm.  Iannucci offers a master-class in how to ridicule totalitarianism without losing sight of its dangers, as well as a demonstration of how hard that is to do.  The film doesn't always keep a steady grip on its tone.  It occasionally slips from exposing its characters' absurdity to a more generalized gawping at the Russian people's acceptance of their deranged situation--as in a minor subplot about a young man who directs the secret police to his father's location to save his own skin, only for those prisoners to be released as part of Beria's attempted reinvention.  But in its best moments, The Death of Stalin knows who it's meant to be laughing at, and it laces that laughter with palpable anger and disdain.  Its primary focus is in revealing its characters' paltriness, their desperate need to have someone to blame for everything that's gone wrong around them--Stalin, then Beria, then Melankov, and eventually Khruschev--in order not to see that it's the system they've created and are propping up that is to blame.  Even as it mocks their weakness, The Death of Stalin keeps reminding us that we allow such weak people to rule us at our own peril.

Monday, April 09, 2018

A Political History of the Future: The Expanse, at Lawyers, Guns & Money

Just in time for its third season premiere on Wednesday, I dedicate my latest Political History of the Future column to The Expanse, a show with tremendous potential as a piece of political storytelling that is mostly being squandered.

I haven't written about The Expanse since I reviewed the first few episodes, and the impressions I formed then have mostly persisted--the worldbuilding is still great, the production values are still amazing, and the story is still pretty dull.  And, as I observed back then, the show's tendency to downplay the importance of popular organization has led to some frustrating blind spots.  The Expanse has a premise that should naturally lend itself to depictions of labor unions, political parties, and liberation struggles, but like a lot of Hollywood products it is reflexively suspicious of all such bodies.  It thus falls into the traps of dividing the underclass into those who suffer passively, and are to be pitied, and those who act, and are to be viewed with suspicion.  And, as I write in the essay
It’s an emphasis that seems particularly perverse given the event that closes the first season, in which Jules-Pierre Mao’s plans to investigate the protomolecule’s properties reach their horrific next stage. His agents place an activated strain of the protomolecule on Eros Station, which within a day transforms the station’s 1.5 million inhabitants into a blob. It’s Bhopal times one million, except on purpose. It’s an act of war that is also a war crime. It’s, well, genocide. And it’s not something the show really expects us to care about.
If I found The Expanse's first season unengaging, the second has frustrated and infuriated me with its handling of the aftermath of genocide.  I elaborate on that in this essay.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Recent Reading Roundup 46

The first reading roundup of 2018 covers an eclectic bunch of books, some of which I really liked and others I found pretty meh.  It veers back and forth between rather experimental fare and stuff that sits squarely in the mainstream of literary fiction.  It's not the best possible start to the year, but it's a solid one, and one that reminds me that being adventurous in my reading usually pays off.

  • Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin - Part literary fantasy, part historical fiction, Irwin's novel takes as its subject Anthony Woodville, a 15th century knight, courtier, and scholar whose sister Elizabeth's marriage to king Edward IV destabilized the tentative peace achieved after the initial York victory in the Wars of the Roses, and set in motion a chain of events that left both sides in the dispute decimated.  I've written in the past about the different approaches that historical novelists have taken to this period, and more generally, about the way that the choice of genre, tone, and even literary style can affect our view of history.  Irwin's approach--which is only semi-serious--is to ask what history actually is.  His characters exist in a moment where the very idea of history, and of how we narrativize it, is still being codified.  In one scene, Anthony is shocked by the thought that people in the past dressed or spoke differently than him, or had access to less sophisticated weapons or ships.  A running subplot involves an abbot who is trying to work out the age of the world through the simple expedient of working backwards through the known events of the past (he ends up concluding that there are too many centuries and eliminates the sixth through ninth from his timeline).  The difference between legend and actual events is impossible to discern, and sometimes nonexistent.  Characters talk of King Arthur and his knights as if they really existed, but at the same time, one scholar wonders whether Charlemagne could have been a real person, since surely no single man could have achieved all the feats ascribed to him.

    It's a slippage that is often reinforced for blatantly political reasons.  In order to obscure the roots of his reign in treason and usurpation, Edward tries to model his court on the fictional Camelot, staging tournaments and sending his courtiers on quests.  His advisers grumble that such fantasies have no place in this "modern" age, but at the same time they ignore the frequent encroachment of magic and wonder into their world.  Anthony begins the novel by dying at the Battle of Towton, only to come back to life because there are so many dead that the afterlife has overlooked him.  For the rest of his story, the supernatural dogs his steps, whether it's the ghosts of the dead, or figures out of the heroic deeds invented about him by Edward's agents in order to cement the Woodvilles' legitimacy.  The narrative of the novel is frequently interrupted by stories, told by the characters or to them.  By the end of the novel, the fiction that has been built up around Anthony--that he is a virginal, virtuous knight who has even seen the Holy Grail--is so powerful that it steps into the world as its own entity, whose first act is to chastise the real Anthony for being an ordinary, sinful human.

    In its handling of Anthony, Wonders Will Never Cease is reminiscent of Hillary Mantel's humanizing, deliberately modern historical novels.  Like Mantel's Cromwell, Irwin's Anthony is defined by his ambivalence, his willingness to learn about the world and consider different points of view, and his detachment from more florid, dogmatic figures like Edward, or his chief constable and avid torturer Tiptoft.  But its frequent forays into symbol-laden Arthurian pastiches (which reminded me very much of the novels of John Crowley) mean that this realism is constantly, and clearly deliberately, being undercut.  The result is a heady, dense mixture, by no means a quick or straightforward read.  It can be easy to get lost in the weeds of the novel's frequent detours into stories-within-stories, or its near-invisible transitions between realism and allegory.  But whenever one is in danger of being permanently disoriented, the force of history reappears and carries Anthony, and us, along with it.  In its final moments, as Anthony approaches a date with destiny that will transform him into a character in other people's narratives, the project of Wonders Will Never Cease becomes clear--to convince us of a thing that is almost impossible for most of us to believe, that history is real, and that we are a part of it.

  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng - I found myself, in the opening chapters of Ng's recent novel, being reminded strongly of HBO's mega-successful Big Little Lies, which I watched a few weeks before reading the book.  Like that series (itself based on a novel by Liane Moriarty), Little Fires Everywhere starts with a lower-class single mother moving to an affluent, orderly community, allegedly in order to send their child to a better school, but really because of the still-simmering secrets of their past.  Both stories start with a shocking crime, which the narrative then flashes back from in order to explain the background and events leading up to.  And both involve the community being split over a dispute in which the personalities and social class of the people on either side make as much of a difference as the facts of the case.  (Somewhat unsurprisingly, the rights to Little Fires Everywhere have been purchased by Reese Witherspoon, who produced Big Little Lies.)  It's perhaps because of this familiarity that I found Little Fires Everywhere a little underwhelming, or perhaps because consuming several stories of a similar type (see also USA's The Sinner last year) drives home the fundamental limitation of all of them--that the secrets these narratives tease are rarely as salacious or as shocking as the buildup to them always tries to promise.  "Idyllic town with dark currents running beneath the surface" is a classic for a reason, but one of the effects of its having been repeated so many times is that we've seen most of the likely variations on it, and few of them are likely to surprise us.

    What's left, then, is the execution, the characters, and the issues underpinning it all, and on all of these counts Ng is accomplished though, again, not terribly thrilling.  The heart of the novel is the conflict between its two mothers, well-off Shaker Heights doyenne Elena Richardson (almost always referred to as "Mrs. Richardson" by the narrative)--whose house will burn down in the novel's opening chapter, setting up the narrative's climax--and itinerant artist Mia Warren.  When Mia and her quiet teenage daughter Pearl rent the Richardsons' second house, the two families end up in constant contact with each other, with Pearl entranced by the blithe, privileged Richardson children's confidence and normalcy, while they in turn find in Mia a figure who gives them permission to be imperfect and make mistakes, as they don't feel comfortable doing around their mother.  Some of the best scenes of Little Fires Everywhere are the ones where the characters are allowed to simply be, as opposed to moving the novel more deliberately towards its promised destructive ending--when Mia works on her abstract photographs, or when the youngest Richardson child, the misfit Izzy, seethes over injustices that she can sense, but can't articulate or productively respond to.  As the novel's plot heats up, however, it becomes, somewhat predictably for this kind of story, more mechanical and more contrived.  Mia's mysterious backstory is dumped on us in two chapters that suddenly yank the narrative away from the novel's carefully naturalistic progression through time.  A laboriously set up gun-on-the-mantelpiece, one character using another's name while procuring an abortion, goes off in exactly the manner and time we expect.  It's all leading up to an ending that is a great deal less interesting than simply letting the characters continue with their ordinary lives might have been.

    Underlying it all is the issue of race and how it intersects with class, which Ng approaches in subtle, oblique ways.  Mia and Pearl's relative poverty colors how the rest of the community, and particularly Mrs. Richardson, perceives their behavior, particularly when it comes to sex and motherhood.  This coincides with the legal case that divides the community, in which a Chinese immigrant tries to regain custody of the baby she abandoned, who is in the process of being adopted by an affluent Shaker Heights couple.  The community--one of the US's first planned cities, where Ng herself grew up--prides itself on its progressivism and inclusiveness, but is unwilling to admit how deeply these values are rooted in affluence and the expectation of it.  When the baby's mother is accused of unfitness, the accusation always ends up hinging on her poverty, and the idea that Shaker Heights parents have options and support systems that a woman like her doesn't is always present, but rarely acknowledged by people like Mrs. Richardson.  Repeatedly challenged by the case, by Mia and Pearl's very existence, and by hints that her own family is not as perfect as she believes, Mrs. Richardson crumbles, finally using her wealth and power as a weapon against those whose "badness" is really just a lack of options.  It's a powerful moment, but once again it feels as if Ng doesn't trust it.  She ends the novel instead on several contrivances (including one with a gaping plot hole) that reinforce my impression that Little Fires Everywhere, like Big Little Lies and other stories like them, is more interesting for its parts than its whole.

  • Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi - The early chapters of Makumbi's epic are very much what a reader might expect upon being told that the book they're about to read is "the great X novel", where X is a country in Africa--in this case Uganda.  Set in 1750, they are a richly detailed, vividly described portrait of the life of a provincial governor in the Buganda kingdom, focusing on the customs and social orders that govern his life, and on the events that overturn it despite his best efforts to follow what he sees as the correct, moral path.  The influence of Things Fall Apart is strongly felt, albeit with some notable and clearly deliberate alterations.  The hero of these chapters, Kintu Kidda (a name that has a rich significance in Ugandan folklore and tradition, signifying the first man) is, unlike the hero of Achebe's seminal work, a kind, thoughtful man, whose adherence to tradition is tempered by his nuanced understanding of human nature.  In one particularly charming scene, Kintu and the other married men of his family sit with his soon-to-be-married son to have a frank discussion of marital relations, which focuses as much on the need to be open and responsive to the needs of one's partner as it does on dirty jokes.  Nevertheless, Kintu's life is on a collision course with tragedy.  When he accidentally kills his adopted son, a member of the Tutsi minority, Kintu is too overcome by shock and guilt to admit his responsibility and give the boy proper funeral rites.  Cursed by the boy's biological father, he quickly watches his family fall apart, and dies in the knowledge that future generations will carry the curse forward.

    It's at this point that Kintu changes radically from the novel we might have expected it to be.  Instead of proceeding forward through time to reveal how each subsequent generation of Kintu's descendants faced the curse in their turn, it instead jumps forwards 250 years, to 2004, and visits with four members of the present-day family.  Kanani is a joyless missionary for a dying Christian sect, who spends his days trying to spread the word by pretending to have committed horrific crimes which have now been washed away by god's forgiveness, and his nights ignoring the dysfunction in his own family, his twin children's all-consuming relationship and his grandson's disaffection.  Miisi is a former academic who returned to Uganda after years of exile in Britain during Idi Amin's rule, and is now trying to make amends for his absence by raising his grandchildren, most of whose parents have been felled by war or AIDS.  Isaac is a self-made man, hardened by a loveless, impoverished childhood, who is riddled with indecision over whether to test himself and his young son for HIV.  And Suubi wafts through life as if she has no past, having suppressed the memory of her abandonment as a child and convinced herself that her adoptive parents were her real ones.  All are haunted by the recurring motifs of the curse: twins, one of whom tries to overpower the other; people of Tutsi heritage; and the presentiment of murder or suicide.

    As Aaron Bady writes in his introduction, one of the interesting (and, again, clearly deliberate) choices that Makumbi makes in Kintu is the decision not to discuss colonialism or European influence in Uganda.  These forces are present in the background, and their impact has clearly shaped the lives of the modern characters--most notably in the case of Kanani and Miisi, both adherents of Western systems of thought, which they regard with varying degrees of ambivalence.  But the project of Kintu--both the novel and its characters--is moving forward from an ugly past.  Isaac, for example, must come to terms with being the product of rape and with the abandonment of his mother, while Suubi must face up to the past she has suppressed, including a twin who died at birth and whose ghost haunts her.  For all of them, the project of the novel is to redefine themselves and come up with a stronger, more grounded identity, which they do by both embracing their heritage and position as part of a family, and discarding the past that weighs them down.  That duality defines Kintu, a novel that is both aware of itself as part of a tradition of "African" novels oriented at Western audiences, with particular expected tropes, and trying to reinvent those novels for a Ugandan audience.  So we get the multifaceted portrait of modern Ugandan society, the mingling of realism and folklore, the references to crushing poverty, government corruption, and AIDS.  But we also get nuances of Ugandan society--naming conventions, for example, or slippery definitions of familial relationships--that a reader from outside the culture might find difficult to parse.  Perhaps deliberately, Kintu thus ends more with a question mark than with a definitive statement, offering the chance of a different, better future, but not yet certain what that future looks like.

  • Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan - It's been seven years since Egan published the magnificent, heart-rending A Visit From the Good Squad, but even after all that time, a follow-up to that novel was sure to send me running to the bookstore.  Manhattan Beach turns out to be a great deal more conventional than that earlier, time-hopping novel.  It's an absorbing read, but lacks Goon Squad's force and clear intent.  Set in early 40s New York as the American war machine begins to work in earnest, churning out materiel and soldiers for the European and Asian theaters and upending the lives of the people left back home, Manhattan Beach focuses on two such individuals.  Nineteen-year-old Anna Kerrigan is a technical worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard who dreams of becoming a diver, repairing ships and clearing obstacles under water.  Dexter Styles is a gangster with one leg out of the life, married to a respectable banker's daughter and slowly moving his business interests towards the legal end, but still with strong ties to the families that helped him on his way up.  Tying the two together is Anna's father, Eddie, who disappeared five years ago after taking clandestine work for Dexter--a fact of which Anna and her family are unaware, assuming that Eddie abandoned them.

    Manhattan Beach is at its best when it explores little- or under-discussed aspects of this time and place in history: the wartime work of women in places like the Navy Yard; the rigors and challenges of diving; the life of merchant marine sailors and the dangers they faced while transporting supplies for the war through U-boat infested waters; the hierarchy of Depression-era shipyard work, and the way the mobbed-up unions controlled it; perhaps most importantly, the way that New York of the early 20th century was still primarily a port city, defined by its rivers, harbors, waterways, and the people who knew their secrets.  It's no surprise to come to Egan's acknowledgments and find several pages of personal and documentary resources she drew on during what must have been more than a decade's work on this book.  But these elements don't tie together into a particularly engaging narrative.  The overarching theme of the book is escape and reinvention.  The war allows Anna to slip out of her old life and become a completely new person several times over.  But when Dexter, inspired by the atmosphere of change and reinvention around him, tries to go completely legitimate, he finds that not just his mob connections, but his respectable ones, resist this transformation.  This is a little too grand and amorphous a concept to give the novel much of a shape, however, or at least it is in Egan's handling of it.  As a result, Manhattan Beach feels more like a bunch of things that happen than a complete novel--far less so, in fact, than the superficially more bitty and aimless Goon Squad.

  • The Tiger's Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera - Rivera's debut novel is set in an Asian-inspired fantasy world, where the Hokkaran empire rules over several disparate nations, imposing both its military rule and its cultural norms.  To the north of the empire lies the magical Wall of Flowers, beyond which the four demon generals lie in wait, periodically sending out their minions to harass humans, often infecting them with "blackblood", which turns its victims into bloodthirsty fiends and for which there is no cure.  It's a very familiar setting, and but for its cultural inspirations one might easily call it derivative.  But what sets The Tiger's Daughter apart is less its premise and more what Rivera does with it, and with what style.  Though its narrative ranges back and forth across the empire, the framing story of The Tiger's Daughter is that Shizuka, the young, troubled empress, has received a long letter from Shefali, her childhood friend--and eventually, lover--in which Shefali describes how their lives have been intertwined since birth, and even before that, as their own mothers were legendary warriors who fought side by side against the demon generals.

    The style Rivera uses in The Tiger's Daughter reminded me of Sofia Samatar's The Winged Histories, and even more than that, of Kai Ashante Wilson's Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.  The language is rich, emotional, focused on the small details of character interaction, even in the midst of great drama or intense action.  More importantly, the focus of Shefali's letter is on the shifting currents in the friendship between her and Shizuka, as well as their relationships with their mothers, or their growing awareness of how Hokkaran cultural hegemony has warped the empire's other nations.  Shefali's people, the Qorin, are clearly based on Mongolian steppe tribes, nomadic people with a great love of horses and the open sky, whom the Japanese-inflected Hokkarans deride as barbarians.  This frustrates Shefali, who sees her people's culture as beautiful and sophisticated (and who also keenly observes how other Hokkaran protectorates, such as the Korean-inspired Xian-Lai, have been warped by being forced to accept Hokkaran conventions, for example outlawing same-sex relationships).  Her narrative therefore becomes not just a story of her coming of age and sexual awakening, but of her growing political awareness.  In the present, meanwhile, we get to see how Shizuka's dreams of creating a better, more just world have met with only limited success.  She's wrested control of the empire from her cruel, racist uncle, but the heartbreak of having been separated from Shefali--due to a tragedy that the latter's letter builds up to--has kept her from becoming the leader and hero her people deserve.

    The Tiger's Daughter is not a mild or soft-spoken novel.  Every emotion is pitched to the rafters, whether it's Shizuka's arrogance, or Shefali's passion, or the two women's pain at being separated.  This suits the story Rivera is telling (as well as, one imagines, her project of writing an epic, heroic romance whose lovers are both women).  But for me, at least, it's a style that outstays its welcome, and especially when one considers that this is only the first volume in a trilogy.  It finally becomes difficult not to notice the fatal flaw in its premise: if, as we eventually learn, Shefali and Shizuka have been separated for years, why is the topic of Shefali's letter the years they spent together rather than her adventures during their separation?  More importantly, it becomes difficult to accept the novel's insistence that it is depicting a romance for the ages rather than a love story between two over-dramatic teenage girls, who might not be entirely good for one another.  I found myself much more interested in the politics of the world than in the novel's two heroines, which given that their voices and personalities are what give the novel its flavor ended up feeling like a fatal disconnect.  At a shorter length--not unlike Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, or the similar chapters in The Winged Histories--I might have loved The Tiger's Daughter, but given that it is a hefty volume in its own right that only begins to tell its story, my enthusiasm for it can only be described as qualified.

  • Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim - Lim's slim novel starts in a very familiar way: two teenage boys in late 20th century middle America, social outcasts for their nerdy demeanor and interests (and also, in this case, for being Asian), bond over a shared love of comics and all things geeky.  The only thing setting this iteration apart is the insistence of Lim's narrative voice, which flows from one incident to another in a rush that carries the reader irresistibly along with it.  Upon the chapter change, however, everything gets turned upside down.  Now we're in the present, and our protagonists are a group of friends, Dave, Muriel and Frank (sometimes joined by a nameless narrator who may be one of the boys from the first chapter, now grown up).  Dave is a disappointed artist, Muriel works at a hospital, and Frank is a political ghost writer, but in their down time they are a superhero team known as Team Chaos.  But this, too, is to suggest a familiar format that Dear Cyborgs immediately bucks.  The insistent narrative voice is still present, and its focus is not on superheroics but on the utterly mundane, as it follows the characters' trivial reminiscences, dreams, and the lives of the people they've met.  Even when Frank is sent in pursuit of a supervillain, Ms. Mistleto, she spends most of their time together talking to him, telling him her life story and trying to explain why she's turned to anti-social behavior.  Stories unfold within stories, fact is confused for fiction and reality for dreams.  The only thing keeping us afloat through all this is Lim's rigorous control of his narrative voice, which manages to make even the most mundane tale feel compelling, and to carry us along to the book's end.

    It might sound glib or pretentious to say that Dear Cyborgs is about modern living, but this is both true and a great deal more exciting than you might expect.  Running through all the nested stories in this volume is the question of how to create meaning when you're just a tiny component of a system that is, at its deepest levels, exploitative and corrosive.  The superhero premise reminds us of the fantasies of agency that pop culture is rife with, but even these heroic, powerful characters are struggling with the question of how, and whether, to resist.  Is it possible to create art, for example, that changes the world, or will it inevitably be co-opted by capitalism?  The book repeatedly features artist characters who destroy their own work rather than allow it to be taken out of their control, or sold to a market that values it as nothing more than an object.  More interestingly, it suggests that protest--the Zuccotti Park protests of 2011 are repeatedly referenced--is in itself a form of art, of performance, and just as vulnerable to commodification, and to losing its meaning through this process.  This discussion is interspersed with reminiscences of real artists, and real activists (many of them Asian-American) who tried to solve this conundrum, with varying degrees of success though never completely.

    The combination of exaggerated social realism, SFnal elements, and an arch, comedic tone reminded me strongly of the short stories of George Saunders, but Lim is an angrier writer, his ultimate conclusions more desperate even though they're cloaked in humor.  The conclusion that many of the characters reach is that the only ethical choice left, when all other forms of protest have been exhausted, defeated, or co-opted, is to become "parasites", participating in society only minimally.  But this is a solution that Dear Cyborgs refutes simply by existing.  It is too vivid, too loud, too exhilarating to be, ultimately, a novel preaching withdrawal from the world.  If it can't offer a solution to the problems it identifies, it is at least vitally insistent in how it defines them.

  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee - This multigenerational historical melodrama touches on a corner of history that I--and, I suspect, much of its target audience--knew very little about before picking up the book, the lives of Korean immigrants in Japan before and after WWII.  When Japan annexes Korea and begins hollowing out its economy and social structures in the early 20th century, peasants like boarding-house owners Hoonie and Yangjin are left scrambling for survival.  Their daughter, Sunja, is seduced by a married Korean-Japanese mobster and left pregnant, and the only option before her is to marry a passing missionary, Baek Isak, and go with him to Osaka.  In the years and decades that follow, the Baek family--Isak's brother and sister-in-law, Sunja's sons, and various in-laws and grandchildren--struggles first with survival during the harsh times of the 30s and 40s, and then with the evolving but insistent Japanese prejudices against Koreans throughout the 20th century.  Sunja's son Noa is constantly aware of the need to embody the "good" Korean, excelling at school despite significant financial and social challenges, but constantly haunted by his heritage.  His brother Mozasu goes into the pachinko business, surrendering not only to a Korean stereotype but to relentless rumors that he is mobbed-up.  Mozasu's son Solomon is set on a trajectory to "transcend" his background, growing up in cosmopolitan luxury, isolated not just from Japanese prejudices but from the reality of life for most Korean-Japanese.

    It's a fascinating bit of history, and Lee finds some compelling angles on it.  A chapter in which Solomon--who despite being second generation Japanese-born isn't a Japanese citizen--has to obtain a foreigner's identification card on his fourteenth birthday, to the distress of his loving Japanese stepmother, does an excellent job of outlining the mundane challenges of his existence.  The dimly-felt influence of the post-war Korean split pops up in intriguing ways--Solomon's Korean-American girlfriend is frustrated when Japanese people ask her whether she is north or south Korean, since to her there is no difference from such a vast geographical and generational remove.  As a story, however, Pachinko is alternately stolid and overwrought.  Both the frequency with which the novel lobs tragedies at the Baek family--car accidents, HIV infections, the atomic bombing of Nagasaki--and the resignation with which they endure these hardships end up feeling calculated, even manipulative.  For some of the characters, this resignation works--most of all Sunja, whose long, tumultuous life leaves her with many unanswerable questions about guilt, suffering, and endurance.  But Sunja is off-page for much of the novel, and the other characters feel less like people trying to navigate complicated challenges and political realities, and more like mouthpieces for whatever insight the current chapter has into Korean-Japanese relations.  Pachinko ends up feeling less like a story, or even a meditation on migration and statelessness, and more like a drawn-out historical soap opera.  It's interesting, but not very engaging.