Sunday, September 30, 2018

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2018 Edition

Usually when I write these roundups, it's to review the new network shows that premiere in the fall.  But as we all know, there hasn't been a season for TV for some time now, as evidenced by the fact that the various streaming services delivered several new, high-profile projects in September, just when you'd expect everyone's focus to be on the networks.  I might still write about the network shows, though right now none of them have grabbed me enough to seem worthy of discussion.  But in the meantime, here are a few of the shows I've watched as the fall has started.  None of them are amazing, but a few hold promise, and together they form an interesting snapshot of what TV is becoming, for better and worse.
  • Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 social novel, about the travails and adventures of hard-hearted social climber Becky Sharpe, has gotten fewer bites at the adaptation apple than other 19th century favorites like the novels of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens.  ITV's new miniseries, written by Gwyneth Hughes, is the first adaptation since Mira Nair's 2004 film, and the first TV adaptation since the BBC's 1998 version.  It's never been clear to me why Vanity Fair is so comparatively ignored, since it contains all the ingredients of a genuinely excellent period soap--a wide cast of characters who are both ridiculous and compelling, a plot that romps across the continent and the early 19th century's major events, and a theme, the moral bankruptcy of so-called polite society and its shining figures, that will probably never lose its relevance.  And yet judging by Hughes's efforts, translating Vanity Fair to the screen is a lot tougher than you might think, as she struggles to capture Thackeray's wit and his story's delightedly scandalized tone.

    The miniseries benefits from an excellent cast.  Olivia Cooke is perfect at conveying Becky's combination of smarts, charisma, and utter narcissism.  Tom Bateman, who I enjoyed as a surprisingly affecting Claudio in the National Theater's production of Much Ado About Nothing, takes the opposite emotional journey as Rawdon Crawley, starting out a cad who seems like Becky's equal in hedonism and self-absorption, and then unexpectedly growing a heart just in time to realize that he's married the wrong woman.  Claudia Jessie perfectly captures the infuriating, soppy helplessness of the saintly Amelia Sedley, and while Johnny Flynn initially feels far too sexy to play the repressed, lovelorn Major Dobbin, he actually ends up defusing the undertone of creepiness that often accompanies the character's decades-long pining for Amelia, conveying Dobbin's awkwardness and fundamental decency.

    But good actors can only take you so far, and Hughes's script repeatedly fumbles the book's biggest emotional climaxes, and leaves out the complexity of most of its characters.  The joy of Vanity Fair is that no one in it is purely lovable or hateable.  You thrill to Becky's triumphs even as her rise in society allows her to more fully express her worst qualities.  You groan at Amelia's blind love for a selfish man-child, which persists long after his death, even as you're reluctantly forced to admit that she's a better person than most of the other characters.  You roll your eyes at the moralistic preening of Rawdon's sister-in-law, then stand back in dismay as she turns out to be one of the kindest, most benevolent people in the novel.  Hughes misses so many of these hairpin turns of plotting and characterization, chiefly when it comes to her heroine, who is here flattened into a proto-feminist figure whose failings are not really her fault, but a justified reaction to a classist society that leaves her no option but to social climb, and then disdains her for trying.  It's not that Thackeray didn't know that the world he had dropped his heroine into was evil; he just didn't see that as an excuse for being heartless.  Hughes repeatedly seems to think that she can do him better, while missing the entire point of the book--as in the bizarre choice to spend twenty minutes recreating the battle of Waterloo, which in the book is dismissed in a paragraph, not because Thackeray couldn't write battle scenes, but because his entire point was to look at what people do when they are at their leisure, even when that leisure is at the edge of a war.  The best I can say for ITV's Vanity Fair is that it has inspired me to reread the book and enjoy its genius first-hand, but this is once again a demonstration of how fleeting that genius is in anyone else's hands.

  • Forever - Before Alan Yang (co-creator of Master of None) and Matt Hubbard's new series dropped at Amazon, the creators apparently sent reviewers an itemized list of details they were asked not to reveal in their reviews.  I'm not a professional reviewer, and more importantly, there's really nothing to say about Forever without getting into those spoilers.  So I'm just going to reveal that in Forever's first two episodes, its two main characters, married couple Oscar (Fred Armisen) and June (Maya Rudolph), both die within a year of each other, and are reunited in an afterlife that looks like a pleasant but slightly dull suburban neighborhood.  In other words, Forever is a lot like The Good Place, but without the weight of ethical questioning that gives that show its purpose (not to mention the breakneck pace of hilarious jokes).  If that sounds a little boring, well, I'm both describing it right, and getting at the point that the show is trying to make.  June and Oscar's afterlife doesn't seem to have a point, or to be significantly different from the life they left behind.  They fill it with hobbies and genuine--though somewhat well-worn--affection for one another.  But for June, who was already feeling dissatisfaction with her life before Oscar died, this isn't enough, and she ends up going on a series of adventures with her equally discontented neighbor Kase (Katherine Keener), which leave Oscar feeling increasingly abandoned.

    The problem with writing a show about boredom and discontent, even one with as high a concept as Forever, is that it's hard to do without making your audience feel the same emotions, and there's only so far you can take the attitude that "that's the point!"  There's a reason why the best episode in Forever's (first?) season is the one that spends the least time with the main characters, as we follow a pair of realtors played by Jason Mitchell and Hong Chau who embark on a years-long quasi-affair centered around the same house.  These characters are doing things, making choices, experiencing change, and while, again, that is clearly the point the show is making, it doesn't make it any easier to go back to June, Oscar, and their slower-moving and less engaging dramas.  There's some pleasure to be had in the show's excellent production, smart writing, and of course its cast, but even over a short season (which, as noted, takes two episodes just to set up its premise), those pleasures wear thin.  Forever ends up feeling like an interesting experiment, one that you're overall pretty glad you tuned in for, but you can tell that it wanted to be a lot more.

  • Maniac - Netflix has been taking some heat for its quantity-over-quality approach in the last few years, so you can see what they were aiming for when they recruited Cary Joji Fukunaga, of True Detective fame, to direct Patrick Somerville's miniseries about a journey into the mind.  Between the presence of bona fide movie stars like Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, the distinctive, retro-futuristic look of the mini's world, and the trailers' promise of a trippy, Eternal Sunshine-esque exploration of the characters' psyches, it's clear that Netflix was building Maniac up to be an event, the sort of thing that people might obsess over in the same way that they furiously debated True Detective's fusion of mystery storytelling and the fantastic.  What the show ends up delivering, however, is both more idiosyncratic, and more conventional.  Maniac is extremely watchable and very well made, but it's also completely self-indulgent.  There is simply no reason for this story to be a ten-part miniseries rather than a movie--neither the basic story it tells, nor the flourishes and ornamentation it piles on top of it, justify that kind of excess.  It's only the skill of the people involved that keeps the entire thing from devolving into a slog.

    Maniac centers on two people, Owen (Hill) and Annie (Stone) who volunteer for a pharmaceutical study, which turns out to be a combined drug-and-guided-hallucination protocol meant to cure all mental illness and replace psychiatry.  Owen has suffered from hallucinations and paranoid delusions for years (there is initially an impression that we're meant to wonder how much of the show is happening in his head, but there are too many scenes outside his perspective for this to be a plausible reading), while Annie, who joins the study because she's drug-seeking, has alienated her family and friends with erratic, anti-social behavior in the years since her sister's death.  A malfunction in the process causes Owen and Annie's hallucinations to combine, and they end up having a series of adventures in different genres, from a 1940s heist to Tolkienian high fantasy to a Doctor Strangelove-esque spy story with aliens.  These sequences are sumptuously realized, and they look extremely appealing in the trailers, but it doesn't take very long to realize that they are actually the least interesting aspect of Maniac's story.  Far more interesting are the glimpses we get of the show's world, with its 80s technology, 70s hairstyles, and bizarre, Blade-Runner-on-acid details like the ability to hire a "friend proxy" who pretends to be an absent figure from your life, or to pay for services by agreeing to be shadowed by an "ad buddy", who reads commercials to you.  A subplot about the scientists overseeing the project (Justin Theroux, Sonoya Mizuno, and Rome Kanda) struggling with substance abuse, a failed love affair, and a poisonous relationship with their mother (Sally Field, who also plays the AI who oversees the subjects' hallucinations) ends up feeling a great deal more engaging and substantial than a lot of what happens to the show's putative main characters, not least because it's the site of most of the series's absurdist comedy.

    Most importantly, Annie and Owen's journeys of self-exploration never feel as deep or as revelatory as the series's gonzo visuals and psychedelic themes seem to promise.  Annie needs to let go of her anger and guilt over her sister's death, but this is both a simpler concept than the show's repeated dressing it up in metaphor and costumes can acknowledge, and a much bigger one than the series's fine-but-unremarkable writing can hope to encompass--the closest the show comes to a novel approach to this familiar topic is when Annie hallucinates an entire story whose purpose is to allow her to advise the future mother of the man who will cause her sister's fatal accident not to have children.  Owen has deeper mental health problems, but it's telling that the one scene in which we get a sense of how painful and scary it is to live with his condition takes place in the real world, when he tells Annie about his first psychotic break (Hill is genuinely excellent here, perfectly conveying Owen's anguish at not being able to trust either his perceptions or his family, who treat him like a freak or an encumbrance).  When it comes down to it, Maniac tells a very simple and familiar story, about two damaged people who unexpectedly find solace and support in one another, and who discover that friendship can help them bear seemingly insupportable burdens.  The visual and storytelling flourishes that Fukunaga and Somerville pile on this premise don't end up elevating it, nor do they give us insight into their characters.  Fukunaga's hand on the tiller is sure enough that Maniac is never boring to watch (in particular, it's interesting to observe that he avoids Netflix bloat by making each episode only as long as it needs to be, resulting in playing times that range from 47 minutes to 26), and you do end up hoping for good things for its characters.  But when the credits roll, it's impossible not to conclude that the show is a lot less interesting and experimental than all its preening and marketing had suggested.

  • The First - Hulu's series about the first manned mission to Mars looks and sounds like many millions of bucks.  It's full of moments of breathtaking cinematography backed by a sweeping orchestral score.  But all that grandeur often seems to be in service of obscuring the fact that The First has so little to say about its putative topic.  Despite what promotional materials may have promised, the season takes place on Earth, after an accident during the launch of the first stage of a semi-private venture to the red planet leaves the rest of the project in jeopardy.  Tech visionary Laz Ingram (Natasha McElhone) brings in former astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), with whom she had previously feuded, to lead the next mission and help convince the public and politicians not to pull funding.  But even this logistical, political, and technical challenge isn't where the show's heart really lies.  Instead, The First turns out to be much more of a character drama, about the kind of people who choose to risk their lives on a long, arduous, dangerous journey into the unknown, and the people they leave behind.

    As such, there are some aspects of the show that are worth experiencing.  In particular, Anna Jacoby-Heron gives a very fine performance as Hagerty's troubled daughter Denise, struggling with substance abuse and the death by suicide of her mother as she grapples with the possibility of losing a father who has always seemed to be more drawn to the stars than to her side.  But even leaving aside the fact that this is not what most viewers will have tuned in for when promised a show about space exploration, there simply isn't enough of this to justify the season's stately pace.  Ultimately, the show keeps circling around the same question--isn't it wasteful to expend vast resources, and possibly lives, on a journey to another planet, when the one we're on still has so many problems?  And what kind of person would leave their family for years, possibly forever, if they didn't have to?  The problem is, these are not very interesting questions, because the answers to them are not rational.  Humans explore because we have a drive to, not because we can find a justification for it--a justification that, in many cases, is thin and unconvincing.  That fundamental irrationality can be an inspiring, stirring thing, but not when you keep worrying at it for eight episodes as The First does, trying and failing to come up with an argument that will win the day when the truth is that this is a purely emotional choice.

    Another problem with the show is Hagerty, who ends up taking an outsized role in the story, with the other crewmembers barely getting their own storylines.  Casting Sean Penn was already a big hurdle to my enjoyment of the show, and as if to rub my face in it, The First keeps putting Hagerty in a position to talk down to women--Ingram, Denise, random journalists, his wife, even the president of the United States.  A particularly annoying storyline involves his second, Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton), who was originally intended to lead the mission but was bumped down because of Hagerty's greater media profile.  Hamilton gets some great scenes to express the frustration of having clawed her way to the upper echelons of her profession as a gay black woman, only to find that just at the end, the real prize is snatched away.  But having given her such a justified grievance, the show is too invested in Penn's stardom to give her (and us) the requisite happy ending, so instead it pretends that she needs to adjust her attitude and learn to appreciate Hagerty for the great guy that he is.  Similar subplots recur throughout the season, with the entire story feeling warped by the need to shape it around a specific male hero (even Ingram gets sucked into Hagerty and Denise's family drama), when in fact the more interesting story would have been the one about a team coming together to do a great thing.  It's a shame, because there are moments when you can imagine the show that The First would have been without Hagerty (or even just Penn) at its center--scenes like the astronauts, on their last morning on Earth, pausing to appreciate things like the feel of running water, or the pull of gravity, that they will soon have to live without--and it seems like one that I would have enjoyed watching.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee at Lawyers, Guns & Money

My latest Political History of the Future column discusses Revenant Gun, the final volume in Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire trilogy.  More broadly, it talks about the way the entire trilogy constructs its world, and how the central metaphor of a space empire that powers its technologies, its weapons, and its internal policing apparatus by enforcing a particular calendar gives Lee a rich and versatile tool for exploring the way that oppression and totalitarianism perpetuate themselves.
It's a slippery concept at first, but once you wrap your mind around it, it becomes clear just what a brilliant metaphor this is. Imposing a timekeeping method, a common tool of cultural imperialism, becomes a weapon of plain old ordinary imperialism. The Hexarchate propagates itself by literally winning over hearts and minds, forcing people to live according to its calendar (or risk being suppressed by one of the many arms of its doctrine-enforcing police force), which gives it the power to continue oppressing them. And, in order for any rebellion against the empire to succeed, it has to impose its own calendar, which is to say its own way of seeing the world, on a sufficiently large population.
I actually ended up liking Revenant Gun rather less than the two previous volumes in the series, Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem.  Its focus ended up being a lot less on the area I was interested in, the complicated problem of building a better society in a setting where calendrical weapons and technology are the dominant paradigm, and more on the character of Shuos Jedao and his quest for redemption, or at least a level of monstrousness he can live with.  I found Jedao rather problematic (and honestly, not that interesting) in the first two books, and the increased emphasis on him was frankly rather tedious.  (Also, this is maybe not the best time to be telling stories about tortured, justified killers; we keep seeing real-world examples of how society bends over backwards to make excuses and try to read goodness into utterly depraved people, and it should be obvious that the character type of Jedao comes from the same place.)  If I were recommending this series to people, I think I would tell them that the first two books work perfectly well as a duology about rebellion within the Hexarchate, and to only read Revenant Gun if you're particularly invested in the character of Jedao.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Recent Reading Roundup 48

The theme of this recent reading roundup is awards lists.  Specifically, mainstream literary award shortlists like the Booker and the Women's Prize.  That's not an area of literature I tend to frequent, since the books nominated for those awards often strike me as flat and narrowly-focused.  But there are certainly enough exceptions to make these awards worth the occasional look--this year's Booker longlist, for example, is full of enough off-the-wall choices to almost make me reevaluate the entire award (I wrote elsewhere about Richard Powers's The Overstory, which challenges commonly held notions of what a novel is and what its focus should be; nor is it the only book on the longlist of which this could be said).  I didn't love all the books I write about here--and some sadly conformed to my prejudices about award-nominated litfic--but there are definitely reads here that were more than worth the effort.

  • A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James - I was a great fan of James's previous novel, the dark, feverish Book of Night Women.  So I'm not sure why it took me so long to get to Seven Killings, which after all won the Booker in 2014, but perhaps there was some self-protective inkling that here, our interests would diverge.  Like Night Women, Seven Killings is a historical novel set in Jamaica, this time concentrating on the mid-70s, and taking as its linchpin the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976.  Like, I suspect, a lot of outsiders to Jamaican history, I knew that story mostly as an inspirational anecdote: Marley was shot the day before being scheduled to appear at a peace concert, and despite being lightly wounded, insisted on taking the stage, saying "The people who are trying to make the world worse aren't taking the day off.  How can I?"  James doesn't seek to explode this perception of Marley--on the contrary, to most of the novel's characters, he is a secular saint, and the man himself appears only briefly, as if he were too grand and holy a figure to attempt to depict in fiction.  But the point of Seven Killings is to set the stage for the assassination--the warring political parties and their associated street gangs whose violence Marley was trying to stop (while also associating himself with the left-wing government of Michael Manley); the CIA's halfhearted but nevertheless baleful interference in the island's affairs; the desperation of ordinary Jamaicans to get away from the island's poverty and generational violence.

    A Brief History of Seven Killings is a dense book.  Told in alternating point of view segments by people who are connected to the shooting in various ways--a gang boss who is inspired by Marley to try to rise above his history of violence; a stringer for Rolling Stone who senses that there is a bigger story developing, but can't convince his bosses, for whom reggae music is a sideshow at best; the local CIA station chief--James writes in a slippery stream-of-consciousness, often heavily inflected by Jamaican patois.  It makes for a challenging read, but a rewarding one in the novel's first two thirds, in which we count the hours and days leading up to the shooting, and address its immediate aftermath.  But in its later segments, in which James follows the people involved in the shooting for years after it (well past Marley's own death from cancer), this approach starts to drag.  It's easy to see his project--he wants to chart the reverberations from this single act of violence until every person involved in it is in the ground.  But for me at least, following along on this journey required too much investment--not least, in the assumption that Marley's shooting was a major event worthy of this kind of minute attention.  I found the segments of Seven Killings that used Marley, and his near-assassination, as a window to Jamaica's history to be quite fascinating, especially the way that Jamaica's left-right political conflicts, and the US intelligence agencies' attempts to influence them in favor of the right, end up presaging a lot of conflicts we see today.  But the later parts of the novel seemed to require more interest in Marley, and in the still-open mystery of his shooting, than I could make myself feel.

  • Sabrina by Nick Drnaso - The big buzz about this book is that it's the first graphic novel ever to be longlisted for the Booker, and I'm here to say that--overdue as that distinction obviously is--it's also entirely earned.  Drnaso's style is highly reminiscent of Chris Ware, with many small, spare panels depicting characters in static positions, standing in their under-furnished houses or walking down nondescript suburban streets.  But instead of general-purpose ennui, as in Ware's work, the focus in Sabrina is on a terrible violation, the disappearance of the title character, and how it affects the people in her orbit--her sister Sandra, her boyfriend Teddy, and Teddy's childhood friend Calvin, who agrees to take him in after the other man suffers a breakdown.  Drnaso's choice of style is a perfect fit for his subject matter, effortlessly avoiding sensationalism and instead highlighting the horrifying mundanity of life in the wake of a tragedy.  This horror is only compounded when, after Sabrina's body is discovered (this happens fairly early in the book, and with a typical lack of sensationalism) the media attention lavished on her case brings out troupes of internet crazies who begin harassing Sandra and Calvin, while Teddy falls down a rabbit hole of internet conspiracy theories that help to make sense of the nightmare his life has become.

    It's an excellent turn of plot, very topical and sadly common, but if I have one complaint about Sabrina, it is that Drnaso takes the too-common approach of treating the poison spewed at his characters as a general-purpose failing of the internet.  In reality, these kinds of mobs tend to be rooted in various forms of right-wing fanaticism--racism, misogyny, gun nuts insisting that victims of mass shootings never existed.  In Sabrina, while the trolls who persecute our heroes evince traits of misogynistic hate mobs or gun right conspiracy nuts, there's no indication that there's any ideology at the back of their behavior, or a specific reason why Sabrina's case should have caught their attention, beyond simply being attracted to anything that gets a bit of a spotlight.  It's a choice that leaves the book feeling less relevant than it could have been, and maybe even a little misleading--identifying a symptom while eliding the actual disease.  Nevertheless, this remains a powerful work, brilliant at depicting the crushing weight of grief, and the toll that a sudden eruption of violence takes, even on people who are two or three degrees removed from it.

  • Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin - As well as being nominated for several other major awards, this is the book that won this year's Tournament of Books, and what's more, did so by playing a perfect game, winning every single round on its way to the championship, and sweeping aside such contenders as Lincoln in the Bardo, Exit West, and Eugene Lim's Dear Cyborgs--three of my favorite books from the last few years.  And, I'm sorry to say, I'm just not feeling it.  I can see how in certain cases, the brevity and immediacy of Schweblin's horror novella would feel like a refreshing change of pace from a heavier read.  But taken on its own, it feels like a gimmick whose main claim to fame is knowing not to outstay its welcome.  Told as a dialogue between a dying woman, Amanda, and David, a boy who is obsessively trying to figure out when and where she came across the supernatural menace that is now killing her, Fever Dream offers a detailed narrative of the last few days in Amanda's life, in which she obsesses about protecting her young daughter even as weirdness closes in around her.  Her narrative begins with a nested story in which David's mother Carla tells Amanda about an illness he barely recovered from as a baby, after which he became altered and sinister.  This is probably the best part of the story, full of dark imagery and portents of doom.  But the follow-up to it feels mechanistic.  We know we're meant to be scared, but most of what Amanda describes are by-the-numbers horror film tropes, and the story's opaque ending leaves it feeling like much less than the sum of its parts or its atmosphere.

    Another point that leaves me feeling rather cold about Fever Dream--and which I am surprised (but, honestly, not that surprised) that the ToB judges weren't struck by--is the story's handling of disability.  When Carla tells Amanda about the change in David, she describes a happy baby who suddenly goes cold and distant, who becomes obsessed with minutiae, whose speech patterns are strange, and who has bizarre preoccupations that seem oddly adult.  In other words, the classic description of an autistic child.  And yet David is meant to be a monster--even described at one point as missing a part of his soul.  I don't know whether Schweblin intended this analogy--though the fact that the town the story takes place in appears to have an epidemic of birth defects and developmentally delayed children suggests that she is at least aware of the connection--and if she did, I'm really not certain what she meant by it.  There is, of course, a long history of horror fiction using disability, and the conflicted feelings of the parents of disabled children, as a metaphor or a trope.  But that history is not without its problems, and there is nothing in Fever Dream that suggests that it is trying to engage with those issues.  Instead, it ends up feeling just as flat on this level as on every other--an impressive performance, but one that lingers with you, if it does at all, for entirely the wrong reasons.

  • Everything Under by Daisy Johnson - In its early chapters, Johnson's second novel (she is also a respected poet) feels like something very familiar, a novel of middle class ennui told in spare prose that is nevertheless plugged directly into its characters' emotions.  Narrator Gretel lives a solitary life, shuttling between her evocative but improbable job at a dictionary, and her remote cottage.  That life has recently been disrupted by the return of her mother Sarah, who disappeared when Gretel was sixteen, abandoning their already precarious existence, and vanishing so completely that Gretel has made a habit of periodically calling local morgues to see if her mother's body has turned up.  Now suffering from dementia, Sarah insists that Gretel tell the story of her teenage survival and of her search for her mother, and in turn she tells the story of Gretel's early childhood, when the two were living on a boat on an unnamed river, and befriended a runaway teenager known alternately as Margot or Marcus.  It's in the dive into these linked stories that Everything Under makes its turn into weirdness, and becomes a slippery, slipstreamy narrative that is half realism, half mythology.  Is Fiona, the woman who had such a profound impact on Marcus's life, just an ordinary trans woman, for example, or is she Tiresias, the gender-swapping prophet?  Is the Bonak, the monster that Sarah, Gretel, and other river-dwellers fear, an actual supernatural creature, or a serial killer preying on people who live half-outside the law and the reach of the authorities?

    Johnson shows her hand a little too soon--about halfway into the story, you suddenly realize what she's doing, and from that point it's hard not to wait impatiently for the obvious turns of plot to occur.  But her control of tone is so impressive, balanced just perfectly between dark fantasy and social realism, and her characters are so winning--in particular, Marcus's adoptive parents, who initially seem like a forgettable middle class couple but reveal themselves to be people of profound kindness who have suffered far too much, are a wonderful creation that I could have stood to read a lot more about--that even knowing where the story is going, the pleasure of getting there is significant.  If I were to describe in bald terms what Everything Under is doing, it would sound glib and uninteresting, but Johnson's execution makes it feel like a world in its own right, experimenting with genre and theme in a way that few other authors do (I'd be interested to see if the novel makes the Tiptree list next year), and ending up so much more than the sum of its parts.

  • Warlight by Michael Ondaatje - The most conventional of the Booker longlistees I've read, and not coincidentally, the one that I feel most confident predicting for the shortlist.  Ondaatje's short, dreamy novel starts from what I can only describe as a completely serious, dramatic retelling of the first chapters of A Series of Unfortunate Events.  Two siblings, Rachel and Nathaniel, suffer the sudden loss of their parents, albeit not from death but from a genteel sort of abandonment.  It is shortly after WWII, and Rachel and Nathaniel's parents announce that work is taking them abroad.  The children are to be left in the care of the family's lodger, a shady character referred to as The Moth, who quickly fills the house with an array of demimondains--forgers, race fixers, veterinarians who moonlight as robbers' assistants, ethnographers who moonlight as spies.  These all turn out to be connected to the children's parents through their activities in the war, when their semi-legal talents were put to work in espionage.  Now, with the world order still asserting itself, some of them are active in counter-revolutionary activity, or mopping up resistance groups that don't quite fit the new status quo.  The children are only dimly aware of all of this, but nevertheless they manage to get sucked into the Moth and his friends' world.  Rachel becomes an actress, while Nathaniel becomes the assistant of The Darter, who illegally imports racing greyhounds.

    It sounds very exciting when you describe it, and there are a few scenes of action around the middle of the book.  But most of the story is spent peering through the fog of a child's incomprehension of their parents.  When the children's mother returns, Nathaniel goes back to live with her for a few years, but achieves only a partial understand of her wartime and post-war activity, and why it has endangered her so much.  Later, as an adult, he learns more, but at that stage the point of the novel feels completely lost.  For a while it feels as if Ondaatje is gesturing at the fundamental seediness of intelligence work and nation-building--the act that has made Nathaniel's mother a target turns out to be as far from wartime heroism as it is possible to get.  But in this, as in so much else about the novel, he is extremely vague.  The ending includes a sudden return to Nathaniel's time with The Darter to reveal how his thoughtlessness and self-absorption hurt people, but again Ondaatje's handling of this subject is too polite and distant to have much of an effect.  Warlight is beautifully written, and joins the ranks of books about little-known aspects of the war that we will probably continue seeing for years (see Manhattan Beach from last year).  But beyond that, I don't see that it has a point.

  • Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor - The stories in this collection range wildly between past and future, reality and fantasy.  They have settings as diverse as ancient Rome, post-colonial Morocco, the well-appointed enclaves of the Upper East Side, and outer space.  It can be hard to pinpoint a theme that unites them--besides, of course, Tharoor's dry-yet-affectionate tone and his careful attention to details--until one suddenly realizes that what ties them all together is loss.  In the title story, the last speaker of an unspecified language plays host to ethnographers who want to record her speech, and muses about the insufficiency of their project, and her own inability to convey what this language and its loss mean to her.  In "Tale of the Teahouse", a nameless city prepares to be sacked by a nameless khan, as the dwellers in the titular establishment proceed with their usual indolence, insisting that by doing so they are giving the doomed city meaning--after all, in what other place could people who are completely useless be able to survive and maintain their pointless lifestyle?  In "A United Nations in Space", set in the mid-21st century, the delegates of the UN are evacuated to an orbital hotel after Manhattan is reclaimed by the sea, and observe helplessly as the planet roils beneath them, international order and even nations falling to climate catastrophe and war, while in space the Secretary General tries desperately to hold on to a dying idea of unity.  Some of the stories are series of vignettes--"The Mirrors of Iskandar" follows the exploits of a romanticized version of Alexander the Great, and "Letters Home" travels back and forth across the ancient world to follow travelers and their tenuous, often hopeless efforts to maintain contact with the places they've left behind.  All the stories are sad and beautiful, and together they create a sense of a world that is far bigger, more varied, and more full of lost and forgotten treasures than we allow ourselves to acknowledge.

  • When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy - I have a slight quibble with this book's inclusion in this year's Women's Prize shortlist, in that I really wouldn't call it a novel.  First, because long before this is confirmed in the book's afterword, it is obvious that what we're reading is a memoir only thinly concealed as fiction.  The excesses described here, during the nameless narrator's four-month marriage to a man who was emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive, are too specific to be anyone's invention--only real life can be this horrible and this absurd, at one and the same time.  And second, because despite being a work of prose, the book that I was most reminded of while reading When I Hit You was Claudia Rankine's Citizen, which is also presented in prose paragraphs but is still clearly a work of poetry.  There's a similar sense here that it's the weight and meter of Kandasamy's words we should be paying attention to, a similar feeling of a series of thoughts and moments strung together rather than a continuous narrative--which makes sense not only because Kandasamy is also a poet, but because the experience she describes can't really be captured in anything as straightforward as narrative.  In the book's opening chapter, the narrator listens to her mother tells the story of her escape from her husband, making herself the hero of it.  This leads the narrator to conclude that she has to write her story herself in order to reclaim it.  But another message seems to be that any attempt to tell her experience in a straight line will do violence to it, and therefore she's chosen a style that can be described alternately as an anti-novel, poetry in prose, or a poetic memoir.

    None of this should be taken as a complaint about When I Hit You's recognition by the Women's Prize.  On the contrary, since I don't tend to read memoirs or poetry collections, I might have missed this book if it hadn't been on the shortlist, and that would have been a grave loss.  When I Hit You is, simply, stunning.  Funny and thought-provoking as often as it is horrifying and infuriating, it moves back and forth in the narrator's marriage, as well as incidents that occurred before and after it.  Each chapter is dedicated to a different theme, as the abuse the narrator suffers progresses from manipulation, gaslighting, isolation, all the way to rape and attempted murder.  In one chapter, the husband demands access to the narrator's online accounts (he burns himself with matches until she agrees), and proceeds to answer emails on her behalf and even delete her entire online history.  In another, he becomes obsessed with getting his wife pregnant, dragging her to humiliating appointments with fertility doctors who talk over her head and don't respond to the obvious signs of abuse in the marriage.  Another chapter moves back in time to the narrator's previous relationship, which wasn't abusive but in which she was nevertheless taken advantage of, and which sets the stage for her marriage by classing her as used and soiled.  These incidents come together to create a hellscape that slowly stifles the narrator's willingness to escape, her ability to see the world through her own eyes, not her husband's.  It's particularly fascinating (and depressing) to read the scenes in which the husband uses his and the narrator's shared leftist ideology to tear his wife down, accusing her of petit-bourgeois hang-ups and claiming to be deprogramming her from her selfish, self-regarding feminism.  In one particularly cutting scene, the husband forbids the narrator from writing poetry expressing her anguish over the violence in their marriage, making convoluted, exhausting arguments that such an act is counter-revolutionary.  When she finds him writing poetry on the same topic, he insists that for him it's different--her poems are masturbatory; his are self-criticism.  The novel's title comes from one of these poems; the complete stanza is "When I hit you/Comrade Lenin weeps".

    It's in moments like this that one grasps the full genius of this book.  As much as it is a narrative of horror, it is also a brilliant act of vengeance.  Writing is both a liberation and a lifeline to the narrator--in her worst moments, the act of imagining how she will story this period in her life gives her the strength to believe that she will endure it.  And in committing her husband to the page, she exposes him in all his horrifying ugliness.  Without ever downplaying how malignant and dangerous the husband is, Kandasamy makes him look ridiculous and pathetic, and makes it clear how much of his abusive behavior is rooted in his own weakness and inadequacy.  This doesn't make him any less of a baleful influence on the narrator, but one of the book's points is that his power over her comes, at least in part, from the society around them, which encourages her to stay in the marriage.  The chapters describing the narrator's parents' minimizing reactions to her descriptions of abuse, in which they advise her not to talk back so much, or assure her that things will calm down after she has a baby, are terrifying precisely because these are the people she eventually has to rely on for her escape.  Their help, though it eventually comes, is always tinged with disappointment and disapproval.  From the rest of society, the narrator gets doubts, victim-blaming, and prescriptive demands whose sole purpose is to shut her up.  Some of these are ills specific to Indian society, but many of them will be familiar to women the world over, particularly the constant impulse to explain and justify abusive men, even when those men are strangers, and their victim is standing right in front of you.  However you want to classify it as a piece of writing, When I Hit You is a vital, brilliant work, a hugely important contribution to the growing conversation about abuse.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

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

My latest Political History of the Future column is up at Lawyers, Guns & Money.  This time, the topic is Humans, the Channel 4/AMC series which recently concluded its third season, about a world in which human-seeming robots have taken over most jobs in the service economy, and begin to develop consciousness.
One core difference between Humans and a lot of other science fiction shows about robots or despised minorities with special powers is that it doesn’t center violence—and, when violence does occur, it is used exclusively to horrifying, demoralizing effect. Synths are strong, quick, and agile, but there are hardly any badass robot fights in this show. On the contrary, it often seems as if synths are a great deal more fragile than humans, succumbing to beatings and abuses that a human might recover from (which makes sense if you consider that these are basically talking household appliances, the sort of thing you’d be expected to replace after a few years). Images of damaged and mistreated synths recur frequently throughout the show, as a reminder of both the danger that our main characters face in human society, and the fact that this is a story where problems will mostly be solved by talking (though some characters, like the belligerent, short-tempered Niska, find this incredibly frustrating). This is a role left primarily to Laura, who over the course of the show’s three seasons embraces the cause of synth rights, and Mia, who becomes a figurehead in the growing community of conscious synths.
I've enjoyed Humans since its premiere in 2015, and I often find it a great deal more thoughtful (and tough-minded) than more talked-about sentient-robot shows like Westworld.  But I also found the third season a bit of a disappointment, setting aside the show's refreshingly low-key approach in favor of shopworn tropes about despised, special minorities that the writers deployed without their typical insight and thoughtfulness.  Still, there's a lot to enjoy, and talk about, in this show, as I discuss in the column.