Monday, December 31, 2012

This blog will now serve chiefly as an archive, as most of my reviewing energy is presently going into my music writeups for Tiny Mix Tapes:

However, I can't promise that I won't occasionally surprise myself with a book review (and I have... see below)

All the best,


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Passage To India: A South Asia Special

Arising as a consequence of recent peregrinations...


Gita Mehta – Karma Cola (1979)

No doubt in 1979 an important antidote to Western Orientalism about the 'inherent spirituality' of India, these days it reads like a string of snarky and clichéd anecdotes about the dubious aspects of spirituality in the context of East-meets-West globalisation.

William Dalrymple – The Age of Kali (1998)
White Mughals (2002)
The Last Mughal (2006)

Dalrymple is, of course, at heart a colonialist sympathiser – though not of the same unrepentant and black-and-white ilk of, say, a Niall Ferguson, he clearly sees the Raj (at least in the early days) as replete with heroic eccentric humanists (despite a few bad apples), and misses the 'order' and rule of law that he thinks India had under the later period of British rule. Yet he is a wonderful, oldfashioned storyteller and an engaging travel writer. The Age of Kali is a series of essays on various aspects of his reporting from India, some of which now seem a bit dated in their discussion of the unexpected juxtapositions of globalisation (reminiscent of Pico Iyer's Video Night In Kathmandu), but featuring some interesting political moments. Far more engrossing, however, are White Mughals and The Last Mughal – the former dealing with a marriage between the British representative in Hyderabad in the late 1700s to a Mughal princess, and the latter with Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, the Sepoy Rebellion and the siege of Delhi in the mid-1800s. Both are rich and tragic narratives, but for my money the latter is the pick – with its Emperor-esque (Kapuscinski) glimpses of the last days of the Mughal court and of important figures such as Ghalib, and its harrowing tales of the atrocities of the siege, tales which bring to mind J. G. Farrell's Siege of Krishnapur, but with the addition of the attempt to give various sides of the story (though sadly the perspective of the sepoys themselves, as opposed to the British and the Mughal court, is lacking).

Yasmin Khan – The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (2007)

I've long been interested in Partition from my perspective as a genocide studies scholar – and my personal interest in India, on the one hand due to childhood Orientalism and on the other as a Buddhist. Deciding on a specific book about Partition was difficult, but I settled on Khan's. Khan's work is not limited to high politics or the personalities of the leaders involved; she deals both with everyday experience, and with the specific context and events which happened in different areas. Particularly interesting is her analysis of the fluidity of meaning in terms and concepts like swaraj ('self-rule') or 'Pakistan,' and the outcome of this indeterminateness in terms of human suffering. There is a strong sense of the contingency of the fact that partition happened at all. Khan consciously tries to extend analysis beyond the Punjab, usually seen as the 'ground zero' of Partition or the 'place where Partition happened.' In tone and style, it's somewhere between an academic work and a work of popular history. Without having read other books specifically on Partition it's hard to judge what criticisms might be levelled – the kind which always exist around controversial events such as Partition – but for me this seemed like a thorough introduction which had no obvious agenda in relation to nationalism or religion, and which examined the complexities of the situation within a work of manageable length accessible to the non-specialist.

Katherine Boo – Behind The Beautiful Forevers (2012)

Boo tells a New Journalism-style story of Annawadi, a small slum near an airport, following a number of inhabitants. Boo's previous work had been related to quality journalism about poverty in the United States – here, she transfers this interest to Mumbai. Based on years of participant-observation and thorough examination of sources to corroborate her personal interviews and observations, the book is written in novelistic style, except for an afterword in which Boo speaks in her own voice. It's an interesting story, though at times the pace flags, and also an interesting exercise, but one which raises questions about the choice of presentation which are not addressed, reminiscent of those around works like Capote's In Cold Blood – doesn't the presence of the author change events, and shouldn't it be at least acknowledged in the text, rather than given from a 'God's eye view' with an inevitable whiff of colonialism? How are we to know that the claims made on the basis of interviews and documentary corroboration actually stand up if they are not even discussed? Nonetheless, it's a fascinating and admirable work.


Bhisham Sahni – Tamas ('Darkness,' 1974)

Sahni's is an emblematic work on Partition, and has been filmed for television (on 1986). The novel is a lightly fictionalised version of his personal experiences as a young man during the events depicted, in Rawalpinid in the Punjab (today, part of Pakistan). It's not an easy novel – not only because of the violence and trauma of the subject matter, but also because it reads as do accounts of real life events, episodic, and dealing with a plethora of characters. The voice is impersonal, the eye jaundiced, and the tale without redemption, as befits the events in question.

Aravind Adiga – The White Tiger (2008)
Last Man In Tower (2011)

Despite the Booker, I wasn't particularly impressed by White Tiger, a story of the entrepreneurial and murderous rise of village boy Balram Halwai – it was entertaining enough, but lacking urgency in its narrative, somewhat unsophisticated in terms of language (even taking into account the first-person narration), and a little too knowingly clever in tone. Last Man In Tower, however, is another thing altogether – an impressive and deeply moving story (set in Mumbai) of a lone hold-out who refuses to leave a crumbling apartment building to make way for a gleaming new tower block, and the fate that befalls him. Up there with the best of Rohinton Mistry. Speaking of whom…

Rohinton Mistry – Such A Long Journey (1991)
Family Matters (2002)

Unless and until he publishes further, A Fine Balance will remain Mistry's masterpiece. But his other works are not far behind. As with Mistry's other works, each deals with Parsi families – Such A Long Journey in Mumbai in the 70s, with the backdrop of Indira Gandhi's machinations and the war with Pakistan, while Family Matters is set in the same city 90s. Each display Mistry's talent for baroque Victorian narrative and observation of everyday detail intertwined with the bigger picture of Indian socio-politics. The former was withdrawn from the University of Mumbai's syllabus in 2010 after complaints from the family of Hindu nationalist politician Bal Thackeray – in typical fashion, reading the views experessed by characters as if they were expressed directly by the author.

Friday, October 7, 2011

...mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita...

a.k.a, recent reading, as follows:


Mary Elizabeth Braddon – Aurora Floyd (1862-3)
Classic Victorian sensation fiction – I actually enjoyed it more than the one for which Braddon is now best-remembered, Lady Audley's Secret. The plot centres around bigamy (it's also a canonical work in the 'Victorian bigamy novel') and so, as you can imagine, is of interest on all kinds of levels, but gender and sexuality especially.

Margaret Oliphant – Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
A delightful tale (part of the Chronicles of Carlingford) which bears resemblance to Trollope's slightly preceding Barsetshire Chronicles, of which I'm also a fan. Lucilla, our heroine, is determined to behave sensibly, and also to resolve the lives of everyone around her. Here there are echoes of Austen's Emma (1815), but unlike Emma Woodhouse, Lucilla's management is not wholly unsuccessful. Subversive to an interesting degree yet still moralistic in the classic Victorian mold. I must read the rest of the Carlingford novels.

George & Weedon Grossmith – Diary of a Nobody (1892)
For someone who's got a Victoriana obsession and also a research interest in the rise of the modern bourgeoisie, Diary of a Nobody is perfect. Of course, it's funny, and also a nice counterpoint to more 'serious' Victorian novels (see above) which are yours truly's usual diet.

Assorted Novels

Elizabeth Bowen – The Death of the Heart (1938)
These days I'm not much into 'writerly' writers but I'll gladly make an exception for Bowen, who I hadn't previously read. Her modernist prose makes you want to use clichés like 'crystalline,' and I'm also always a fan of the English novel of manners. In some ways she reminds me of Janet Malcolm (or vice versa) in that both have an exquisite sense of human frailty, but they also like to slyly slip the knife in.

Cornell Woolrich – Rendezvous In Black (1948)
Compared to Chandler and Hammett, Woolrich these days tends to be forgotten as an important noir figure, but the films based on his works are still remembered – Rear Window, The Bride Wore Black, Night Has A Thousand Eyes (one of my favourite titles) among others. Actually, though, his work is much darker, less procedural-driven and even more psychological than the aforementioned, full of dread. Rendezvous In Black is a revenge narrative following a man whose fiancée has been killed (bizarrely) in an accident with a low-flying plane and an empty liquor bottle. I have two other novels of his waiting, but I'm worried that it'll be too traumatic a reading experience…

Shirley Jackson – The Sundial (1958)
I'm a huge fan of Jackson's fiction, especially the stories other than 'The Lottery' (which is over-proscribed) - and of the great novels The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived In The Castle (1962). I've been slowly making my way through her lesser known work, which I find uneven. In The Sundial, as in We Have Always…, we find ourselves in a crumbling mansion on the outskirts of a village, both filled with eccentric characters. Aunt Fanny has a vision, delivered by her dead father, of an impending apocalypse, and preparations begin. I didn't warm to this novel though it was interesting, and in some ways could be seen as a test run for some of the themes of We Have Always… I wonder, too, if there is an influence on Stephen King's The Shining (King wrote about The Haunting of Hill House at length in Danse Macabre), particularly in scenes set in mazes.

J. G. Ballard – The Drowned World (1962)
It's impossible not to recognise in Ballard one of the twentieth century's great prophets – which is why I'll reiterate. The Drowned World, an early novella, tells the story of a dystopian Earth on which the ice caps have melted, the seas risen, and the entire planet become tropical. The slow impact of this on the psyche of the survivors – the opaque excursions into psycho-evolutionary biology – along with the tropical/aquatic gothic setting make this a fascinating and prescient piece, if not always compelling.

J. G. Ballard – Crash (1973)
Again, although Crash's reputation preceded it, it didn't do anything to dint the pleasure of reading the work. Like a lot of Cultural Studies and pop culture research people, I find that 'body horror' area/era particularly interesting in which the body-machine complex starts to be overtly represented in forms both erotic and monstrous (note to self: Men, Women and Chainsaws is still waiting to be read). Ballard, Burroughs, Cronenberg, Lynch, and so on. I'm ashamed to admit that Crash (and Dead Ringers) are the two Cronenberg films I've yet to see, but I'm glad to have read the book first – and, like a few other of the works I describe here, it is every bit as stunning as one has heard. And amazing to imagine that it was written in 1973. The blank erotics and stark futurity, the sharp vision of the city and technology, the mutual violation and traumatic inseparability of body and machine and body-as-machine… it's all there. See also Mark Seltzer (thanks again for the recommendation Dr Swan) and also, of course, Donna Haraway.

Lew McCreary – The Minus Man (1991)
I have a long-neglected sideline interest in serial killers, and Mark Seltzer's eponymous work brought a number of references to my attention, including this novel. Generally, I tend to find serial killers a tiresome subject for fiction (particularly as they are now so implicated in crime fiction and television, and don't require a motive, hence obviating the plot work that writers would otherwise have to put in), but The Minus Man (Lydia Lunch has also named a song on her most recent studio album after the phrase) is much more of a psychological work (and, unlike my favourite serial killer novel, Joyce Carol Oates' Zombie, or Dexter, that other tale of a killer hero, uninterested in satisfying gruesome voyeuristic fantasies). While the controversy around the novel (which was also filmed) centred around the sympathy that the reader feels for Vann Siegert, the serial killer from whose perspective the story is told, in fact this seems like a ridiculous over-simplification; in straightforward prose, McCreary sets out a cold but very human psychological study of the killer as a human inhabiting a lifeworld which happens to include the compulsion to destroy others. A work which, as Seltzer pointed out, is thought-provoking both in terms of its original approach to its content, and when considered as a symptom of the violence and trauma at – and reflexively considered to be at – the heart of the modern social-technological complex.

Assorted Non-Fiction

Jessica Mitford – The American Way of Death Revisited (1998)
As is evident elsewhere, although death has been an ongoing theme – as it is for all of us – my recent Death Studies sojourn has been the locus around which various reading has centred in recent times. Mitford's revised version of her classic work takes us through the usual hideous juxtaposition of the biological and the consumer banal (as well as the institutionalisation of capitalist profit-making on the backs of the bereaved). Little of the older material will be news to anyone who's read Waugh's classic, The Loved One – but what rankles and intrigues is the extent to which, despite her original revelation, the deeply cynical corporatisation of the funeral industry has continued unabated. As with any good piece of muckraking – and Mitford's up there with the best – the indignation and disgust flow unabated (to take just one of myriad examples, the fashion for expensive 'double coffins' in which the outer layer is intended to be impenetrable by the elements - causing a build-up of gas inside the coffin due to anaerobic bacterial decay and leading to explosions - the solution being 'burping coffins,' which vent the gas so as to avoid the former, and presumably greater, indignity).

Simon Reynolds – Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction To Its Own Past (2011)
There's so much that could be said about this book, but that will have to await a more thorough review. I loved Reynolds' work on post-punk, Rip It Up and Start Again, but this one is a bit more personal, also more theoretical and coming from a position of critique, which is interesting but at times fails to gel or seems a little like a mid-life crisis. What I will note here, which others have before me, is that the irony is that Reynolds' thesis - that we now create music which does not attempt to be new, and that this is a bad thing - actually looks back to the time when music saw itself as new (Reynolds thinks '65 was the turning point) as an original golden age. Definitely worth reading - both enraging and engaging.

Scott Carney – The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers and Child Traffickers (2011)
This book is as gruesome as the title sounds, but it's necessary reading for anyone interested in necro- or thanatocapitalism and the reification of the human body on the unequal playing field of the global 'free market' – while not being as heavy a read as any of that sounds (it's written in an easy journalistic style). Carney's interest in the area began when one of his students, on a group tour to India, committed suicide and he was in the position to supervise the treatment and return of the body. From that point, he explores the various areas mentioned in the subtitle, including the fascinating nexus between holy or ritual head-shaving and the hair industry. For those who enjoyed Mary Roach's Stiff, there are many more interesting explorations to be had into the 'afterlife' of the human – or human biological material. Particularly recommended for the Death Studies cohort (Tim and Pia – also Meredith, you may find this one interesting if you haven't seen it already).

Jon Ronson – The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (2011)
I'd really enjoyed Jon Ronson's Them, and so I had high hopes for The Psychopath Test, particularly since, as you're now aware, it deals with a subject I have a deep interest in. But although, as always, Ronson uncovers various near-unbelievable histories and anecodotes, and employs his typical and typically entertaining strategic deployment of his own awkwardness and his unique style of reported dialogue, I found the book a little all over the place. Ronson isn't quite sure what he's interested in (Psychopathology itself, as a concept and as manifest? The 'madness industry' and its pernicious allies in other state and corporate institutions? Institutions and their impact on mental health?) and there is a particularly problematic chapter in which he interviews a former Tonton Macoute, trying to apply his new knowledge of psychopathy checklists – whereas those of us who know much about the area of organised mass violence know that it's precisely necessary not to employ sadists or psychopaths as violence workers because they're too unreliable and anti-systemic - you would think a book on psychopathy, even if not an academic work as such, might pay attention to this kind of thing. Still, all in all a lot of fun.


Rohinton Mistry – A Fine Balance (1996)
Just as good as I'd always heard it was – a Dickensian (I'm not always a huge fan of Dickens, but that's another conversation), addictive narrative set during the massive upheaval of Indira Gandhi's Emergency. In terms of other great recent English-language novels of India, I didn't love it as much as A Suitable Boy, but although Mistry's writing is less exquisitely fine-tuned than Vikram Seth's, the story itself grows powerful very early on.

Gita Mehta – Karma Cola (1979)
A good corrective to the neo-orientalist New Age view of India as a source of wisdom, particularly prevalent in the '60s and '70s – there are some great anecdotes of gurus and devotees, and the intermesh with capitalism, but I found Mehta's 'flip' style to be a bit casual and offputting.

William Dalrymple – The Age of Kali (1998)
Edward Luce – In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (2007)
I'd already read, and mostly enjoyed, Dalrymple's book on practitioners of different spiritual traditions in India, Nine Lives. But reading Western travel literature on India is difficult in that the writers often haven't caught up with post-colonialism, and that's unfortunately the case both for Dalrymple, who at times appears something of an imperialist nostalgic (I'm also finding that in the work of his I'm presently reading on Delhi, City of Djinns); and for Luce, bureau chief for the Financial Times in South Asia (and now Washington), who is too sympathetic to anti-statist freemarketism for my tastes (not saying that there aren't any problems with the Indian state as such). Nonetheless, Dalrymple's descriptions are gorgeous (and his encounters with Benazir Bhutto particularly stick in the memory), while Luce had access to some very interesting people and the anecdotes, situations and interviews he lays out are both hilarious and chilling, the latter particularly in relation to Partition and inter-communal violence (again, a theme of City of Djinns). I now intend to read some specific Partition histories, which I think may also be helpful for my mass violence research…

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Anika - Anika (2010)

Do we live in a post-modern age of recombination? Apparently so, judging from a recent review which unfavourably contrasted one fresh-minted album with another – the failing of the first in contrast to the second was that, using the same set of influences, the musicians hadn’t managing to do anything which one might appreciate. But perhaps there’s nothing really so post-modern about recombination as an activity – it’s more that it’s now the acceptable face of a dominant paradigm. So for those of filled with ‘satiable cultural curiosity our task becomes not so much to distinguish, even in passing, what is original from what is unoriginal (or to distinguish between pleasurable and unpleasurable unoriginality), but to ask about process – about how recombinations take place, not only about the materials from which they are formed.

Unlike other new music where enjoyment lies in the faithfulness of its recreation, Anika assumes the work of recombination seriously, taking as its main elements a Nico-esque chanteuse; dry, dubby drum & bass (as in, the instruments, not the genre) employed with organic synth touches and an emphatic No Wave sensibility; and covers of sixties and seventies classics from Twinkle’s Terry to Bob Dylan’s Masters of War (plus a few originals, and a much-appreciated inclusion of a dub version of the latter). These elements turn out to be a much more likely match than one might consider – turning out pieces which, far from multi-genre novelty tracks, add a gravitas to the originals, and a sense of nihilism, of the end of history as farce not as triumph.

Of course, as a fan of dub reggae, no wave, Nico, and sixties pop, I’m biased, but this was far from an album I had ever previously envisaged (in contrast, say, to synthabilly, which I’m still waiting for – with the possible exception of the ill-fated Silicon Teens). We might speculate that the glue holding all of this together is the Beak production (Geoff Barrow of Portishead) and – although the connection isn’t immediately obvious – in the use of dub influences, in a certain sweetness (more usually provided by a creamy soulful voice, but here by the nature of many of the songs themselves), and in the adoption of the depressive position so in evidence upon Portishead’s self-titled album, we see a dark development of the signature elements of triphop – not in the more well-known dubstep direction spearheaded by the likes of Burial, but into something in quite a different tradition.

But while we’re with tradition and points of comparison, Nico’s criminally under-rated, John Cale-produced masterpiece Camera Obscura must be mentioned; and speaking of criminally under-rated work, for those who like any of the combinations of names and styles mentioned here, if you don't know them already Sally Strobelight and Judy Nylon are both points of reference. Finally, the darkness lurking behind renditions of folk-pop songs more usually associated with girlish wistfulness may evidence the skeleton of Shirley Collins lying unquietly in the closet.

There is a sense here of the dark side of the decades of socio-cultural rebellion, of the burn-outs that they would leave behind, of their failures and co-optation; echoes, also, of contemporary events, as in the moving soldier’s testament on Iraq which is sampled in the closing moments of Masters of War (and anti-systemic politics are also in evidence, though never heavy-handed, in the two originals). But we also experience a personal ennui, a more interior feeling of end times, in covers such as ‘End of the World,’ ‘Sadness Hides The Sun’ and ‘I Go To Sleep’ (made popular by Skeeter Davis, Greta Ann, and The Kinks respectively). There is a sense, too, of the crumbling saudade, the feeling of social claustrophobia but also of the dissatisfactoriness of the possibilities of empowerment, inherent in the British kitchen sink realism milieu, so beloved of Morrissey (another Twinkle fan).

The choice of covers (which also includes Yoko Ono’s ‘Yang Yang’) is inspired here – rather than songs which were brilliant but have become culturally ubiquitous (‘Tainted Love’ or ‘Hallelujah’), the choices on Anika are defamiliarising not only in performance, but also in selection. We are in territory which is purposefully but defiantly Unheimliche. Indeed, as with Nico, dislocation and liminality are very much the appropriate tropes: upon entering the environs of Anika, we find we are trapped in a desolate ennui which at the same time is both angry and melancholy – a landscape which is found not only internally, as is so often the case with much pop music, but in which particular constellations of internal emotions and external socio-political conditions reflect each other.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Charles Dickens - Our Mutual Friend (1865); Hard Times (1854)

As I may have mentioned previously, though a rabid fan of Victoriana I’m not a huge admirer of Dickens (I suspect I’ve been made bitter by his ascendance over his worthier and far more interesting colleague, Wilkie Collins). Having said that, however, his work always makes for worthwhile reading, even when it infuriates. Of course, the Victorian style of the episodic novel doesn’t necessarily lend itself to consistency in writing, and this, to me, is one of Dickens’ biggest flaws. However, my biggest gripes with Dickens are his characterisations, and the didacticism of his politics and sanctimonious moralising. Neither of the two volumes in question here are free of these flaws, but this is by no means to condemn them (as I would, for example, Oliver Twist).

Some of Dickens' works which have some of the most amazing characters and moments – of those I’ve read, I think of Great Expectations, in particular – also have some of the most infuriating (Joe, Magwitch & Wemmick). While Dickens was a progressive for his time, and did excellent work as an advocate for social justice reform in Victorian England, his class and gender politics (particularly disappointing given his own unusual household arrangements) remain highly problematic for the modern reader. In pursuing these prejudices even while critiquing social practices, his novels have a tendency to reify these values into flat characters who are made up of nothing more than idealised and stereotypical values. But at the same time Dickens’ gift for caricature, his sharp social observation, and his occasional prose passages of great beauty and originality, mitigate these tendencies.

How does all of this play out in OMF and HT? The first was my favourite of the pair – probably, indeed, my favourite Dickens (thus far) after Bleak House. HT, in contrast, is more interesting than gripping – but interesting, and unique in Dickens’ oeuvre, it certainly is. Both of these are later works, and it shows – they demonstrate both complexities and stylistics which are absent in earlier novels.

OMF, like Bleak House, takes as its central pole a legal process – in this case, the will of the miser Old Harmon, who made his fortune in the dust trade. Various characters become involved in the horse-trading and identity shifts and concealments which ensue. These include the young John Harmon (and his mysterious doubles), presumed drowned in the Thames (the Thames itself is really the central character of the work, along with, more generally, the dark and noisome city in which it is embedded – of all of Dickens’ works this is perhaps the most a novel of London); Mr Boffin, a working-class dustman to whom the fortune reverts, with unfortunate consequences for his open-handedness (and his contrasting employee, the scheming & unscrupulous Silas Wegg); Bella Wilfer, determined to marry into riches for their own sake, but with a heart of gold which may yet prevail; the Veneerings and the Lammles, odious and opportunistic socio-economic climbers; and Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie, who make their living finding corpses of the drowned in the aforementioned river.

As will be evident from this description, the two central themes here are the instability of riches (and of identity, both in relation to wealth and otherwise), their corrupting effect, and the unfortunate consequences of attempts to cross the class barrier; and decease and decay, both in the deaths, natural and unnatural, which take place over the course of the novel, and in the rubbish which silts the Thames (while at the same time the contrasting symbolism of water as baptism and rebirth is employed), and the dust-heaps on which the contested Harmon fortune was made. These latter, along with other examples such as the trade of Gaffer & Lizzie Hexam and that of Mr Venus the taxidermist, provide the symbolic and actual connection between these two concepts – which we might describe as ‘filthy lucre.’

This is a very dark novel, and I deeply enjoyed the gothic aspects of the plot, which are reinforced by Dickens’ very frequent Biblical allusions (which, of course, tend back to the much-neglected Biblical teachings fulminating against wealth and reflecting on its transitoriness, as part of the transitoriness of the human condition, as well as emphasising another characteristic Dickensian theme present here in spades, the visiting of the sins of the patriarch upon the head of the child). On the religious note, Dickens presents here a character, Mr Riah, who is a kindly and sympathetic Jew who owes a debt of obligation to the rapacious and antisemitic Christian Mr Fledgeby which he pays by serving as a stereotypical front for his moneylending business. This character, it seems, was purposefully created in order to allay the hurt that was felt in regard to the antisemitism perceived in the character of Fagin (and in writing thus, Dickens was charged with creating a one dimensional character of the opposite type, an accusation which contains some justice without being wholly accurate). In Riah’s sometime protégé, the disabled child-woman and dolls’ seamstress Jenny Wren, Dickens has created perhaps his finest character (although I am torn here thinking of Miss Havisham). In the latter part of the novel, as betrayal, passion and murder begin to play an ever greater part in the twisted complexities of the unfolding plot, we move almost into the realm of the sensation novel, a development which I found anything but displeasing.

The novel displays some of the typical faults of Dickens’ work mentioned above. Some characters here, in particular his women, are far too saintly to be believable and the unsatisfactoriness of their saintliness is thrown into sharp contrast by the fascinating minor characters. Dickens’ mixed feelings about class, and its instability in the Victorian milieu, are evident inasmuch as, on the one hand, parvenus are condemned and we are shown how the lower classes will never feel at home in the upper social echelons – indeed, they are gently ridiculed, as in the (nonetheless very sympathetic) character of Mrs Boffin – and that we should admire them for the virtue of rejecting charity, as in the case of Betty Higgs – while on the other, mixed class marriages are admitted as acceptable. There are numerous scenes which appeal to the extremely overblown Victorian sense of sentiment (as Wilde put it, ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”) and the plot itself is impossibly intricate (and, typically for the time, makes liberal use of coincidence) – although inasmuch as it is so, it washes over the reader like the lapping tidal shifts of the Thames – and in being so, it is highly taxing on the suspension of disbelief, as for example in Mr Boffin’s shift from generous spirit to miser and back again.

Stylistically, in the earlier parts of the work, we encounter some of Dickens’ most gorgeous and original passages, descriptive and metaphorical, but as the work progresses descriptions become more stock and the writing more functional – although this may be due, on the one hand, to the pressure of the episodic form, and on the other, to Dickens’ involvement in the Staplehurst Rail Crash during the writing of the novel (he had the manuscript with him in the rail-car), which seems to have caused him a great deal of psychological trauma (criticism of the systems which allow rail crashes to occur makes a brief appearance in the novel).

One of the most relevant concerns for the present moment which OMF gives us is, as part of its examination of the various aspects of the ephemeral nature of wealth, the criticism of market speculation, both literal and as it is found in human relationships (for example, in the newly-prosperous Mr and Mrs Boffin’s search for an appropriate orphan to adopt). HT also deals with concerns which remain highly relevant both in their resemblance and their dissimilarity to the contemporary moment, in its examination of industrialisation and its discontents.

A far less satisfactory novel, but one which remains fascinating for the social moment that it depicts and the ambiguities in the authorial stance, HT, unusually for Dickens, is not set in London. Instead, the action takes place in the fictional Coketown, an industrial mill-town which Dickens partially based upon Preston. Again unusually, the novel is short (originally published episodically, but in shorter sections than his other works) – only 235 pages in my Wordsworth edition (as opposed to the 800-odd of OMF). Dickens apparently wrote the novel in the hope of boosting the sales of his weekly periodical, Household Words, and this was successful, though in the event it was not well received critically. The novel is in essence a didactic critique of the industrial system which had been in the process of transforming Victorian England (Dickens had been horrified by visits to Manchester factories), and at the same time – and here equated with it – of the doctrine of utilitarianism (intertwined with the new science, if such it may be termed, of Political Economy), understood by the authorial voice not as a particular approach to happiness but rather as an inherently exploitative reduction of the human (and hence human dignity) to the level of the unit of labour and the bureaucratic account. In making this critique, Dickens also attacks the laissez-faire capitalism (hypocritically enabled by government at the behest of the rich and powerful, as he notes) which was also a feature of the time and which, though it was a theory and practice which already had a solid history by Victorian times, was transforming with the rise of industrial technology and practices. Another central and related concern is education – Dickens targets education by rote learning, the cramming of facts and figures deprived of meaning or context into the heads of pupils (by teachers who have only recently graduated from such methods themselves, and know no others – such a figure is Bradley Headstone in OMF, and he also comes to grief as does Louisa Gradgrind in HT).

If you think that all of these issues sound extremely contemporary (consider for example the debates of recent decades over the ethics of globalised industrial production and labour conditions, the smashing of labour power by conservative governments, the growth of Kafkaesque bureaucratic-administrative procedures of power and surveillance by governments who claim free markets as an unchallengeable secularised religion, or the ‘culture wars’ over education in areas such as history, literature and language acquisition), you wouldn’t be wrong. In this sense we can see one of the things about the Victorian era which gives it a part of its endless fascination, for me at least – for us (post)moderns, to examine the period is akin to recognising ourselves through a distorted mirror.

Again, however, in taking on his role as social reformer Dickens remains a conservative at heart. The narrative concerns Josiah Bounderby, a ‘self-made man’ (or so we are led to believe) and manufacturer with endless contempt for those who have not managed to raise themselves up by their bootstraps (again, a familiar figure in the modern context, particularly in terms of the strength of the Horatio Alger myth, with its convenient concealment of systemic factors and its equation of wealth with industry & hence morality, in the USA and the Anglophone world more generally). Bounderby is the boss of Gradgrind, a schoolteacher who has brought his own children up to reject all fancy and all emotion and to worship fact and reason. Meanwhile, Mr. Sleary’s travelling circus is set up as the positive antithesis of these exploitative, self-satisfied, cruel and unempathetic figures. In creating a further foil for these, we are given Stephen Blackpool, a downtrodden and deeply moral factory worker, and Rachael, a woman whom he loves but can never marry on account of his previous marriage to a woman now become a violent alcoholic. Dickens takes this opportunity to expound upon the hypocrisy of marriage laws in the era, whereby divorce could only be attained either through annulment or a private bill in parliament, and thus was available solely to the very rich and well-connected – this would change three years after the publication of OMF with the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act.

Like many of Dickens’ other characters, Stephen and Rachael are little more than ciphers of morality, rather than well-rounded characters; Stephen’s despair has more than a whiff of Hardy (and, as in OMF and in Hardy, we find an overt Biblical allusion in the titles of the three volumes – Sowing, Reaping and Garnering). And like those other characters, they are not to be allowed a happy ending but must redeem themselves either through death, or through patient acceptance of suffering as one’s lot. The really interesting aspect of this pair, though, is the way in which they reveal Dickens’ ambivalence about the conditions of labour in England, and their relationship to the class system. On the one hand, the upper classes as well as the up-and-coming bourgeoisie and capitalists – such a feature of the period – are depicted as hypocritical and morally corrupt. As well as Bounderby and Gradgrind, the upper-class James Harthouse, corrupter of marriages, and the influence he exerts upon Tom Gradgrind, exemplifies this – Tom is in many ways a similar character to Charley Hexam in OMF, an upwardly mobile young man who is quite prepared to sacrifice his sister upon the altar of his own socio-economic advancement.

But before we conclude that Dickens’ sympathies lie entirely with the miserable and inequitable conditions of the working classes, we must examine his condemnatory depiction of unions and labour solidarity. Slackbridge, the trade union leader, is painted in extremely unattractive lights as an outsider, a trouble maker, dishonest and on the make; and because of a promise Stephen has made Rachael not to get involved in any politicking related to labour, he is condemned by Slackbridge and cast out by his fellow workers (interestingly, the reason for this promise – the rage Stephen feels over Rachael’s sister past loss of her hand in an industrial accident, and Rachael’s injunction to ‘let such things be, they only lead to hurt’ – was cut from the published text). It has been suggested that in having class harmony as his ultimate social goal, Dickens was unable to provide either a meaningful solution to the workers’ problems, or an optimistic conclusion, and this is seen in his failure to propose any better measures for addressing the concerns he raises than employers choosing to treat their labourers better by seeing that, morally, they should do so.

As well as the character problematics mentioned above, we have here – again as is typical in Dickens – more than one unrealistic change of heart as the events of the novel conclude. Perhaps the most interesting character here, though, and an unusual woman in Dicken’s novels (even if not granted a happy ending) is Louisa Gradgrind, who agrees to a loveless marriage to Bounderby for purely rational reasons, according to her inculcated utilitarianist lights, before almost falling into the arms of a seducer when emotion, or fancy, begin finally to rebel; passing this test of morality, Dickens allows her at least to physically escape her marriage. But her strange façade, and her later, somewhat quixotic alterations, make her one of Dickens’ more interesting characters (a later echo is found in OMF, in the person of Sophronia Lammle).

As in so many cases, Dickens knows what he doesn’t like, but, apart from moral purity and submission to the natural order of society which can be discerned beneath the distortions of inequality – mixed, to be sure, with the more comical aspects of the working class and its pursuits – he is not sure exactly what he does. Where OMF is a novel which displays some of his flaws while giving the reader a final taste of a writer with literary powers in full flight, HT remains, if not socialist, certainly sullen and didactic, but nonetheless one which combines Dickens’ own social commentary with a demonstration of the classic ambivalence of the Victorian reformer; and threads this together with a narrative in a way more successful than, for example, the earlier Oliver Twist. Both of these are late works, drawing on archetypes, suffused with social and personal melancholy, even tragedy (despite lashings of Dickens’ characteristic humour and personal optimism), and opening up panoramic socio-cultural buffets which they are not always able to resolve into digestible morsels. Exactly herein, however, lies not only the frustration of the reader of these works, but also the pleasure.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Creature Feature: In Brief

Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza - REC 2 (2009)

The first REC, while by no means a masterpiece, was a solid and original piece of horror film-making, doing something a bit different with the zombie genre and making unwontedly welcome use of the hand-held camera – and indeed, managing to extend on the technology and hence the mise en scène. The second, to my lights, is even better – though straying outside the confines of the sealed-off apartment block in a way which breaks the claustrophobia which worked so well in the first instalment, the inclusion of further back story and character diversity makes for a more complex film without losing the simple momentum of the first (and now, with a twist…)

George A. Romero - Diary of the Dead (2008)

A disappointing Romero vehicle in which, unlike the aforementioned, the use of digital hand-held disappoints and irritates, encompassing all the typical flaws of these genres (i.e., severe frustration with the camera holder who however remains untouchable due to their status as such; unrealistic failure to put it down in life-threatening situations). Meanwhile, the internet themes fail to cohere into meaningful social commentary a la Dawn of the Dead. Watch Zombieland instead.

John McTiernan - Predator (1987)

Another in the ‘I can’t believe I’ve never seen this’ canon, this was a surprisingly atmospheric film, with the shadowy South American jungle as the main character – striated shadows dappling the blazing sun and the sweat and blood of the action film. The USA redeems its sanguinaceous Cold War interference in its ‘backyard’ through the trope of the pursuit of Latin terrorists (managing to allay the inhumanity of this killing and also feminize the victims even as we fear their violence by leaving alive the lone female terrorist as a prisoner who ultimately becomes an ally), while nodding to 80s political correctness, such as it was, in the black characters and, naturally the native American who has an intimate connection with the ways of the jungle (all of these sacrificeable, naturally). The ‘reveal’ comes surprisingly late in the piece, and the strangely honourable predator, before he (?) is revealed as an overgrown dreadlocked insect, segues in with the natural world as a ripple in the trees (with effects which haven’t dated too badly, unlike the technology he uses). Apocalypse Now, filtered through the lens of an unironic Schwarzeneggerian (gubernatorial?) all-Americanism.

Jon Harris - The Descent 2 (2009)

Another film in which the environment is the protagonist – in this case, the same cave system in which the protagonists of the first Descent (Neil Marshall, director of the original, returns only as executive producer) found themselves trapped – again, we spend somewhat more time outside the closed environment, here becoming a flaw, and there is also the somewhat unrealistic, but effective, choice to send the sole survivor of the first film back into the tunnels. Essentially we are re-exploring old ground in a less effective rehash of the first film, which was an entertaining diversion with some early moments of fear and claustrophobia before ‘descending’ into a fairly typical monster gore hunt (colour-coded, a nice touch) – here, without the benefit of that unfamiliarity, while the caves remain an original and atmospheric setting, despite a final twist there is nothing here which adds meaningfully to the film’s predecessor.

Wes Craven et al – A Nightmare On Elm Street 1-4 (1984-88)

I wasn’t actually sure if I’d seen the first, but I’d certainly never seen the sequels. And what pleasant – or should that be unpleasant? – surprises were in store! Unlike other the other classic protagonists of the genre – Jason Voorhees & Michael Myers – these films did not have the stigma of having given birth to the rather unnecessary slasher genre, but instead of playing an important role in the development of the blockbuster horror comedy (not to mention the ongoing horror-queering of the all-american dream suburbs) – and we love ‘em for it (and I’m not just saying that because we’re inhabiting here my favourite decade of the twentieth century – the 80s)! Camp as all get-out, with absurdist, ‘body horror’ pre-CGI special effects (reminiscent of other films of the era such as the unjustly neglected Society, or even Videodrome) which invoke a great deal of nostalgia – and a twisted, Burtonesque atmosphere to boot – not only the initial NOES, but also, unusually, the sequels, are extremely worthwhile. Part 2 is noteworthy really only for the extremely overt (and apparently intentional) homoerotic elements (with just a touch of B&D in the shower room), but 3 kicks into high and rather dark gear – featuring Freddy’s intended teenage victims in a mental institution as a result of their belief in the reality of their dreams, and the unexpected appearance of Patricia Arquette (not to mention Laurence Fishburne) - a punk edge, and rather nasty addiction and sexual violence themes (these latter in the development of Freddy’s backstory), also creep in. Part 4 can’t quite live up to the claustrophobic institutionalization and traumatic edge of the third film, but nonetheless it remains a romp, featuring particularly memorable scenes in which Freddy inhabits a roach motel and a pizza (!), as well as an extension of the theme, used to brilliant effect throughout the series, of the indistinguishability of the line dividing reality and fantasy, in a time-loop sequence. Oh, and I was forgetting, we also have a soundtrack showcasing Sinead O’Connor with MC Lyte performing the ultra-catchy I Want Your Hands (On Me) – not to mention the Are You Ready For Freddy rap by the Fat Boys featuring Robert Englund. Dark comedy of the absurd, accompanied by nostalgia for the tainted eighties.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gus Van Sant - Elephant (2003)

In the heady days of my youth, I was a big true crime aficionado. But although I remained fascinated by perpetrator mentality, as my early twenties passed, I began to feel just a little too much empathy with the victims, and just a little too much of the uncomfortable voyeurism of the position of the true crime fan (in keeping with the pulpiness and sub-pop psychology of most of the writing, though not all), to keep pursuing this vein (having said which, interest in these things, I would argue, is an inherent part of human nature which a modern culture of sanitized medicinal miracles has – ironically – unhealthily shunted to one side).

So what was I to make of Elephant? This is the central film in Van Sant’s ‘Death Trilogy,’ (beginning with Gerry and closing with Last Days), each based on actual events and dealing with the eponymous event – though death is, of course, a major feature of virtually all of Van Sant’s films. In this case, the event in question is the infamous Columbine massacre, still perhaps the cultural paradigm for all the other mass shootings (including many in schools) to which the USA seems so tragically prone. While I’m not sure how I’d feel about such a work – released four years after the events – if I was personally connected to the tragedy, this work comes across as a thoughtful reflection rather than an exploitation, though there is always a certain question about purposefully creating a work of aesthetic beauty – which Elephant undoubtedly is – from such a subject.

In regard to Columbine, as was widely noted at the time of the film’s release, Van Sant offers no explanations (indeed, the killers as depicted here do not seem to fit any recognisable profile, for what such profiles are worth), and this is a strength of the film in that we are offered no pat explanations (nor resolutions), nor too-easy indictments of particular aspects of a society which produces such events. In any case, if we are to take Dave Cullen’s non-fiction work Columbine (2009) – which also uses fiction-style conventions (it’s been called a modern-day In Cold Blood) and has become the definitive work on the massacre – as a guide, most of what we think we know about these events is in fact mythical. So rather than watch analysis (and for that, after all, we have Bowling For Columbine), we drift in a leisurely way through the lives of various students in the period preceding the massacre, tension slowly building as we realize what is afoot. The film plays with time and perspective in Rashomon-esque fashion – scenes are presented numerous times as we follow different characters, and new aspects of each moment become apparent – although there are no secrets, no slowly unfolding narrative of truth or of revelation for the viewer – only a gradually mounting sense of unease which combines with an easy langurousness – slow, but never tedious – as we watch in extended tracking shots over the shoulders of the characters as their lives and social circumstances unfold.

The title itself comes from the (oft-misunderstood) Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant – Van Sant named the film thus in tribute to Alan Clarke’s BBC film of the same name (dealing with violence in Northern Ireland), as a reference to the way in which Clarke's and his own work explored one event as seen from different viewpoints – although he would later realize that Clarke’s title was in fact a reference to the phrase ‘the elephant in the room’ (and we may think here of the unexpected synchronicity of this denial with the incomprehensible US refusal to recognise the deadly consequences of the easy availability of guns).

Like many of Van Sant’s films – with the possible exception of Mala NocheElephant is somewhat imperfect – almost as if, as an artwork, it is realizing itself just a touch clumsily as it unfurls. This adds to the charms of Van Sant’s oeuvre, but keeps any one film from being a central masterpiece. Here, as well as occasionally unrealistic behavior in service of moments of drama, the addition of a homoerotic episode between the killers, despite making a stunning set-piece, seems a little too much like a rather queasy wish-fulfillment (the erotic object as embodiment of masculine violence), and sits uncomfortably with the real-life events on which the film is based, in which (as far as I’m aware) there was no suggestion of such a relationship between Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold, the actual killers – indeed, they seem rather to have been homophobic. In a similar vein, the scene in which they watch a television show on Nazism is unconvincing and indeed cliched and psychologically problematic - if watching material about 'evil' killers makes one a killer, then criticisms of Elephant itself would be grounded - though the connection with their actions is not laboured. The depiction of high school life is, if anything, somewhat idyllic (despite occasional moments of bullying), a too-vivid memory of a past full of promise in a way that is reflected in the gorgeous colours and languid cinematography – despite the troubled families and social ostracism, the pain of (some) teenagehood is elided in presenting a processual collage of the ‘ordinary’ which is contrasted to the murderous violence by which it will be shattered.

What this flaw reveals, though, is the way in which Van Sant’s work carves out a deliriously original territory which on the one hand is immersed in realism – the fragmentation, muttered dialogue, improvisation, lack of traditional narrative arcs, untutored actors, the naming of characters after the actors who portray them – and, on the other, a kind of hyper-real idealism expressed in the visual techniques he employs, the dramatic events he turns to and the stunning features of his male actors (in contrast to the everyday looks of female characters) – we might also think of his overt rejections of realism, as in the Shakespearian dialogue in My Own Private Idaho. In the character of John McFarland, indeed, we can see the germ of the way in which Paranoid Park – also dealing with death and teenagers – became virtually a paean to the features of Gabe Nevins. In refusing to reconcile these disparate tendencies – in its slipperiness, refusal to bow to emotional kitsch, low-key intensity and deeply memorable set-pieces – Van Sant’s work, of which Elephant is a stunning example, has a haunting quality of insinuating itself into the viewer’s consciousness.