Monday, April 15, 2019

Tom Hanks – ‘Uncommon Type’

No one has typewriters anymore, none that work. But typewritten letters are special. Some folks come with letters they’ve composed on a computer they want me to type out for them and make one of a kind. Before Valentine’s or Mother’s Day, I could sit here for hours and type notes for folks lined up around the block. If I charged, I’d be as rich as a good florist. (pp. 381-2, from ‘Our Town Today with Hank Fiset: Your Evangelista Esperanza’)
Typewritten letters are special? No, no, no: handwritten letters are special. But let’s go with it for a while. In the story ‘These Are the Meditations of My Heart’, a typewriter salesman makes his pitch along similar lines: ‘You are seeking permanence’ (p. 235). Most of the characters in these stories (all of which feature typewriters in some capacity) are seeking something like that: they need something to cling to in a world in flux. Some are refugees or newly naturalised citizens; others are film stars or property magnates worth billions of dollars. Some stories are set when typewriters were current technology; most are contemporary. Most feature broken relationships, too, and there is more than a suggestion that while people will inevitably let you down, these sturdy machines, well looked after, will not. The salesman again:
        ‘They are made of steel. They are works of engineers. They were built in factories in America, Germany, Switzerland. Do you know why they are up on that shelf right now?’
        ‘Because they are for sale?’
        ‘Because they were built to last forever!’ The old man actually shouted. In him, she heard her father hollering, ‘Who left those bikes on the front lawn? … Why am I the only one dressed for church? … The father of this house is home and needs a hug!’ (p. 232)
There is a touch of Alan Partridge maleness about this: the reliance on understanding the mechanical as a substitute for understanding people.

Some variations on the nuclear family, cracked or otherwise: the boy in ‘A Special Weekend’ spends a weekend with his mother and her new partner, just prior to his tenth birthday. They take him for a plane ride as a treat, even allowing him to take the controls for a while, but he knows this is no substitute for the home life he has lost, so young. In ‘Welcome to Mars’ a young man goes surfing on his nineteenth birthday, busts his leg on his board, and in trying to get help sees something he shouldn’t’ve: his father kissing a stranger in a car. In ‘Christmas Eve 1953’ two Word War Two veterans drift further apart every year. One is a lone wanderer, and gay; the other is a family man, missing a leg but utterly settled: he loves his family and they love him, there is no longer any story. ‘A Month on Greene Street’ is better: a mother and children move into a new neighbourhood following her divorce, and she tries to avoid encouraging the friendliness and ‘Are you doing anything tonight’-ness (p. 126) of her new neighbour, a teacher with a telescope which fascinates all the children nearby, and some of the parents too. The mechanical substitute, again (isn’t that what’s bad about the internet age? People on their phones ignoring other people? Is the debate about the quality of the distraction?)

Permanence is an illusion for the rich, too, they just have more liberty to chase it, more garish ways to imagine it. In ‘The Past Is Important to Us’ a billionaire pays $6m to travel back in time to the New York World Fair of 1939. He meets a woman there who begins to obsess him, perhaps because she is so obviously unattainable, as the rules of the travel company, and the pseudo-science, dictate that he can only ever travel back to the same day, and can only spend 22 hours there each time. On every trip he manages to spend slightly longer with Carmen and her young niece Virginia, seeing the sights, eating pie, flirting. The interest comes from the variations in the scene which keeps being repeated and extended, as the seemingly spontaneous is revealed to be merely automatic. ‘A Junket in the City of Light’ is about Willa Sax, star of the wildly popular Cassandra Rampart film franchise, and the Paris leg of the press tour to promote the latest instalment, told from the point of view of her much-less-famous co-star Rory Thorpe. A news story breaks about her husband being caught high and with some hookers, and the whole circus stops dead, cancelled. Rory shrugs, does some sight seeing instead. It’s hyper-real and un-real all at once, as though in increasing the possibilities, wealth diminishes the outcomes. The only attachment worth the name in these rich folk stories is in ‘Stay with Us’, when Ms Mercury, personal assistant to a ludicrous property magnate, falls for a mechanic and quits to marry him.

Most of the stories’ settings fall into one socio-economic category or another, but there is a group of three stories which aims for more of a melting pot. In ‘Three Exhausting Weeks’ (which opens the collection), ‘Alan Bean Plus Four’ (which is the funniest thing in it) and ‘Steve Wong is Perfect’ (which closes it, and is the bleakest), four friends hang out, go on holiday, chat, say ‘atta baby’ a lot. Two are rich enough to contemplate a holiday to Antarctica without particularly considering the cost. Two work at a hardware store. One of the latter, MDash, becomes a US citizen in the first story, and has a naturalisation ceremony. The other, Steve Wong, has ‘grandparents [who] were naturalized in the forties’ (p. 3). ‘Steve Wong is Perfect’ reminded me of nothing so much as ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’. In it, the four friends go bowling to celebrate a year since MDash’s naturalisation. Steve Wong scores all strikes. They go back a few more times over subsequent weeks, and it keeps happening: every time he scores a perfect 300. This gets noticed, and he is offered a $100,000 prize if he can repeat the feat on TV. As the story progresses, Steve takes less and less interest in his performance, and he refuses to engage in the hyperbole of television: ‘Like I said. I bowl for fun’ (p. 396). In fact, the TV appearance stresses him out, and he throws up in the parking lot before going on. I think what is going on is the emptiness at the heart of the American dream. In the land of the free, what if you do take every opportunity? What if your numbers do keep going forever upwards? So what?

Friday, March 22, 2019

Elena Ferrante – ‘My Brilliant Friend’

For obscure reasons [Signor Peluso] attributed his ruin to Don Achille. He charged him with having taken by stealth, as if his shadowy body were a magnet, all the tools for his carpentry work, which made the shop useless. He accused him of having taken the shop itself, and transformed it into a grocery store. For years I imagined the pliers, the saw, the tongs, the hammer, the vise, and thousands and thousands of nails sucked up like a swarm of metal into the matter that made Don Achille. For years I saw his body – a coarse body, heavy with a mixture of materials – emitting in a swarm salami, provolone, mortadella, lard, and prosciutto. (p. 36)
This, the most visually arresting moment early on in My Brilliant Friend, made me wonder if it would go in a magical realist direction, but no, it is very specifically tied to the imagination of a young girl who has been told a cautionary tale and taken it too literally. Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo live a rich imaginative life together, through their dolls, which they play with in the courtyard of the block of flats where they live, together with most of the other characters in the novel. This is ‘the neighbourhood,’ somewhere is suburban Naples in the late 1950s. Lila pushes Elena’s doll through a ground-level window, Elena follows suit, and they make their way to the basement to retrieve them, convinced that the monster Don Achille lies in wait. He doesn’t get the chance to become a real monster, making an early exit, but it’s clear that his reputation comes from his power, which comes from organised crime, so people are afraid of him. When he’s gone, the Solaras are the most powerful family in the neighbourhood: they own the local bar, and the two adult sons drive around in a Fiat 1100, picking on people younger than they are, and in at least one instance indulging in sexual abuse. There is a high degree of acceptance of this behaviour, for instance from Elena’s parents:
They hated Don Achille and were afraid of the Solaras. But they overlooked it and went to spend money both at Don Achille’s son’s, and at the Solaras’, and sent us, too. And they voted for the Fascists, for the monarchists, as the Solaras wanted them to. And they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too. (p. 163)
All this deference to grocers and barmen? Well, the neighbourhood is a small, tightly bound world. The Solaras and the Carraccis (Don Achille’s family) control the supply of food and drink, and the (commercial) public spaces. To begin with, it seems that Elena and Lila, both prodigies at primary school, are going to escape by intellectual means, but while Elena goes to middle and then high school, Lila is kept at home, and gradually abandons her early studiousness (more intense and alive than Elena’s), learning to live in the world instead of through books. She is pursued obsessively by Marcello Solara, who invites himself to dinner at her house several times a week, insinuating himself by his undisputed social power, his bullying entitlement: even after she has rejected him one-on-one, he persists, as he knows her parents won’t want to risk trouble, and in fact would welcome into their family someone wealthy, and able to help their business, which is a small shoe shop. Lila outflanks him by starting a relationship with someone of nearly equal power, Stefano Carracci. She accepts the logic of the neighbourhood, and learns to use it to her advantage. The cost of investing herself fully into her situation is her intellectual self, which she feels deeply, but is determined to leave behind, as Elena discovers when she approaches her for help with an anti-religious article she has written:
        [Lila] circled a sentence and moved it with a wavy line to the top of the page.
        ‘Can I recopy it for you on to another page?’
        ‘I’ll do it.’
        ‘No, let me do it.’
        It took a while to recopy. When she gave me back the notebook, she said, ‘You’re very clever, of course they always give you ten.’
        I felt that there was no irony, it was a real compliment. Then she added with sudden harshness:
        ‘I don’t want to read anything else that you write.’
        ‘Why?’
        She thought about it.
        ‘Because it hurts me,’ and she struck her forehead with her hand and burst out laughing. (pp. 300-1)
Lila is the more headstrong, the more curious, the more self-possessed of the two friends, but by the end of the book she is about to settle down into domesticity, and it is Elena who is full of possibilities and uncertainties.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Robert Forster – ‘Grant & I: Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens’

It feels terrible to admit this, but I never got on with Grant’s contribution to the final Go-Betweens album, Oceans Apart. My first impression, which stuck, was that his songs were empty, prettified confections (which was maddening, as Robert’s were all brilliant). His ego, kept in check on the other two post-comeback LPs by the modest, as-live sound, inflated like a soft balloon in the vacuum of Mark Wallis’ ornate production, which failed to come close to his work on 16 Lovers Lane. This impression built on an idea of Grant as humourless and conceited, thinking of himself as a rock star, as opposed to Robert, who always had his tongue in his cheek. Then he died. What bad timing: the man who wrote incredible songs like ‘Bye Bye Pride’ and ‘Apology Accepted’, left the world with this nonsense? And why was the consensus all the other way: that he died when his life and his art were at a high point? I didn’t understand. This book is a good counter to that way of thinking. I’m unlikely to change my mind about the Oceans Apart songs, but the story Robert tells about Grant shows how fragile he was, and gives reasons for the bluster that you’d have to have a heart of stone not to forgive.

Here’s an early description of Grant at university, where the pair first met:
Outside, the world was whirring, people were doing things, conducting business. His contribution: reclining in bed in the early afternoon […] reading the latest edition of Film Comment. […] He seemed remarkably unattached from the start; his connection to the world, I was to discover, was through the things he loved, even as they disconnected him further from the world around him. (p. 29)
Nothing too tragic there, you’d have thought, and Forster says something similar of himself, imagining returning from tour with a suitcase full of books and records: ‘Well-stocked seclusion – my favourite position in life’ (p. 236). But where he settles down in later life, marries and starts a family, McLennan almost always lives in shared accommodation, a perpetual student without the discipline of study. His first serious relationship came quite late, with bandmate Amanda Brown, and the big trauma of his life was her leaving him on being sacked from the band, a consequence he had not foreseen. He spent years trying to get her back. He didn’t have the worldliness to think through the consequences, or to deal with the fallout. (Forster: ‘I wanted to say, You’re the innocent one. You’re the one left in the house crying’ (p. 219)). So he drank, and he acted the rock star. It seems likely that what could come across as arrogance was a defence mechanism, because he didn’t know how to deal with the world. And then, too, there is Forster’s bleak assessment of the underlying reason for Grant’s heart attack, and the careless living which led to it: ‘the sour condition of Grant’s soul’ (p. 330). How on earth can that be squared with his ecstatic reaction to hearing ‘Finding You’ for the first time?

Forster doesn’t let the tragedy of the end dominate the book. It’s a detailed and fair assessment of The Go-Betweens’ career, filled with period detail and wry comment. Like this thumbnail sketch when Grant moved flat:
The landlord was known as the Man with the Movable Wig, who upon discovering you were a musician would insist on playing you Switched-on Bach. (p. 82)
Or this summary of 20 years in the political wilderness for his home state of Queensland:
Like most politicians who preach God, Joh [Bjelke-Petersen] had tolerated shonky business deals, had no regard for the environment, and naturally no interest in the arts. (pp. 243-4)
On the music, he judges Before Hollywood, Liberty Belle, 16 Lovers Lane, The Friends of Rachel Worth and Oceans Apart as good records, the other albums wanting. The account of the session for Tallulah’s singles is particularly dispiriting:
With costs high and deposit paid, the best we could do was slink off to a backroom and rehearse the B sides, to be called out one by one over the next four days, like witnesses at a murder trial, and feed our parts into an unremarkable churn that were to be our singles. (p. 174)
The tug between pop potential and the actual sound of the band is one that led to some awful recording decisions, starting with 1984’s Spring Hill Fair, where the drumming which held together Before Hollywood was substituted for drum machines, and the piecemeal approach Forster describes above (I love drum machines, but they aren’t Lindy Morrison). The to-ing and fro-ing between record labels, for which the band could have been named, had they known in advance, was part of the reason for this, as was the era in which they lived, which was in thrall to recording technology (the multi-track, the sequencer) in a way which ours, curiously, isn’t. Although the catalogue is uneven for this reason, it’s interesting, too: there is always jeopardy, the possibility of being dropped by the label giving a hunger to proceedings. When this happened to Forster after his solo LP Warm Nights in 1996, he relocated to Germany with his wife, and he reflects:
As I strode the medieval alleyways in the cold, pull-the-collar-up weather, a new persona was born. Self-preserving, forgotten, withered, proud, discarded – glorious emotions, for how you imagine yourself to be is as important as talent when writing songs. (p. 276)

Sunday, December 02, 2018

‘The Frankenstein Phantasmagoria’, Dundee Congregational Church & The Howff, 24th November

From Wikipedia’s entry on the Phantasmagoria:
a form of horror theatre that (among other techniques) used one or more magic lanterns to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons and ghosts onto walls, smoke or semi-transparent screens, typically using rear projection to keep the lantern out of sight. […] Some shows added all kinds of sensory stimulation, including smells and electric shocks.
Shocks and smells aside, that is a fair description of the second half of this magic lantern show by Jeremy Brooker, assisted by his wife Carolyn: they used mirrors against the lantern’s lenses to project spooks around the church walls and roof, and the previously flat screen was drawn back to reveal several more layers, including a semi-transparent gauze, a rainbow-shimmering, swaying surface which turned out to be bubble-wrap kept moving by a fan, and at the back the contours of a body topped by a skull in the centre of the screen-space. The effect of the projections on this was quite dazzling, much of it softened by the layers so that it became purely a visual pleasure (shoegaze for the eyes, cathedrals of light), but scenes came and went too, making the body and skull more or less obvious. Alongside this, Timothy Didymus played an instrument made from twelve glass turntables and wine glasses, a kind of reverse-engineered glass armonica, but softer-sounding, as (he explained afterwards) he had leather pads pressed against the sides of the glasses, producing the sound. It was a beautiful, immersive experience: memento mori ameliorated.

The whole event was immersive, actually. It began at the nearby Howff, a graveyard in the centre of Dundee with graves from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Guide Eddie Small met the audience there, in the dark and in the rain, wearing a black cloak and accompanied by two assistants dressed as friars, with lamps, who herded us this way and that, out of the way of the traffic. Small started by explaining something I didn’t quite catch about the Howff and Mary Shelley (she dug up bodies there and made a prototype monster, perhaps?), before going on to explain that James Bowman Lindsay, inventor of the incandescent light bulb, was not buried there, but in Dundee’s Western Cemetery. What the Howff did have, was an open-air mortuary (‘people were dying to get in’), and none the people buried there had a funeral, because, he said, there were none in Scotland for four hundred years prior to 1920. Is this really true? It doesn’t pass the quick Google test, but who knows? It certainly created a nice ghostly feeling, which was only intensified by walking down a dark side street to the church’s back entrance, past a large back-projection of the reanimation scene from Bride of Frankenstein in one of its windows. In the church hall before we were permitted access to ‘the other side’ (the church itself, where the performance was), organisers Keith Williams and Matthew Jarron wore white lab coats, and the darkened room boasted an impressive array of grisly medical equipment from the university’s collection, the better to consider the way of all flesh, bone and sinew prior to the main event.

The magic lantern show, as Brooker explained in a talk afterwards, was not a re-telling of Frankenstein. Rather, it explored themes relating to the novel, using a combination of genuine Victorian slides, copies, and entirely original slides. He told us that there are no Victorian magic lantern slides telling the story of Frankenstein, so he had to be inventive, adapting and recontextualising. He said he had made seventy slides for the show (one was of the entrance to the Howff), which is an extraordinary amount of work: I hope it survives in some form, either a recording or repeat performances (there were just two over the weekend). It would definitely bear repeat viewings.

Here are some of the slides which stood out: a woman in profile, full length, looking through a door at a body against a black background (more like a medical diagram than a ‘real’ body), I think a skeleton to begin with, then with layers of muscle. Similar but more horrific was a woman in medium shot, holding a black mask in front of the top half of her face, with just the eyes showing through. All set for a masquerade. She moved the mask down, so you could see her face. Then back up, and down again, and the top half of her face had become a skull, as though the flesh of her face were itself a mask. It made me think of Mark Fisher’s discussion of horror and pornography in his essay and blog post ‘Let me be your fantasy’, which I read recently in his gigantic posthumous collection k-punk:
‘Why stop with the genitalia?’ Baudrillard asks, ‘Who knows what profound pleasure is to be found in the visual dismemberment of mucous membranes and smooth muscles?’ Cronenberg’s early work – from Shivers and Rabid through to Videodrome – is an answer to that very question. Cronenberg famously posed his own question, ‘why aren’t there beauty contests for the inside of the body?’ (Mark Fisher, k-punk, p. 64, and online here.)
There was nothing explicitly sexual about the magic lantern show (though there was a slide featuring a suggestively growing nose), but perhaps the peeling back of flesh for entertainment necessarily entails a sexual element.

There was also the fascination of: how was that done? All sorts of trickery is possible, between the magic lantern’s three lenses (allowing superimposition) and the manipulation of individual slides. But at the same time, it is all done live and there is nowhere to hide: everything is visible, blown up to screen size. There was an arctic section, with a ship in silhouette moving like a ghost from slide to slide. There was a whaling scene in which the sea went red with blood. Brooker said that this was his modern sensibility: Victorian whaling scenes tend to be heroic rather than horrific. There was a section on acrobatics, which I think was there on Brooker’s previous visit to Dundee, when he put on a Christmas show at the university. That was magical, because, to an audience used to video and computer graphics (and no longer used to overhead projectors), magic lanterns represent an entirely different way of manipulating images. It has a nostalgic feeling to it, sure, and the Victoriana is part of the appeal, but it’s also alien to see movement on a screen without Frames Per Second. The whirling phantasmagoria of the finale to this show, with its textures, layers, and its sprites and brownies darting around the periphery of our vision was something else again. Near the end of this sequence, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Death is not the End’ was played, like a pilot announcing a landing, signalling that we had strayed well beyond a story about science and the reanimation of flesh, to the territory of the soul. The screen, the entire place, was haunted.

____________________

The Frankenstein Phantasmagoria was part of the Being Human Festival, and timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication.
Jeremy Brooker is chair of the Magic Lantern Society.
Timothy Didymus’ Kosmiche Glass LP (this is also the name of his wine-glass instrument) is available on Bandcamp.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Muriel Spark – ‘Memento Mori’

My second Muriel Spark novel, after The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and, as in that book, much of the story happens elsewhen. The peer group skewered here (‘friends’ would be wrong) are all in their seventies and eighties, and have started to receive anonymous telephone calls which tell them ‘remember you must die’. A history of infidelities going back half a century binds the group together: there is blackmail, and the frequent changing of wills as new facts emerge or are imagined. It’s all about the money. Mrs Pettigrew, the blackmailer, selects a convenient enough version of reality for herself: she has a facelift, and within a few years is convinced that she hasn’t had one. She also denies that she has received an anonymous phone call, and believes that too. The facelift is presumably what allows her to pass for a relative youngster, and in addition to seriously depleting the capital of her employer Godfrey Colston by threatening to tell his wife about his decades of infidelity, she makes a little ready money by allowing him an occasional titillating glimpse of suspender.

As the novel begins, Dame Lettie Colston, Godfrey’s sister and an overweight philanthropist, has been receiving the calls for about six weeks. She reports them to the police, and also to a retired policeman of her acquaintance, Henry Mortimer, whom she then begins to suspect of making the calls himself. Mortimer summons the targeted group to his house for afternoon tea and a denouement in which the evidence diverges in as many directions as there are witnesses: the caller is a middle-aged man, a young Teddy-boy; his voice is ‘cracked and rather shaky’, ‘strong and sinister’ (p. 146); he is foreign, or not; he has a lisp, or not; he is, in Mortimer’s case only, a she. After the guests have left, his wife reflects:
        ‘How I wish,’ said Emmeline, ‘you could have told them outright, “Death is the culprit.” And I should like to have seen their faces.’
        ‘It’s a personal opinion. One can’t make up one’s mind for others.’ (p. 151)
Mortimer is one of only three sympathetic characters in the novel, two of whom are relatively minor. The third is Godfrey’s wife, Charmian Piper, a famous novelist in her day, whose books are coming back into fashion and being reprinted, which arrests and to some extent reverses the dementia to which she is prey in the early part of the book. Amongst her confusion about who is who (she tends to think everyone is her estranged son, Eric), there is still a sharpness of perception. Talking to Godfrey:
        ‘Ah,’ said Charmian, ‘you are taking your revenge, Eric.’
        ‘I am not Eric,’ he said.
        ‘But you are taking your revenge.’ (p. 73)
He is, indeed. After many years of resentment about not being the breadwinner in the marriage, he finally seems to be gaining the upper hand with Charmian’s worsening memory: ‘he could never feel really well unless she were ill’ (p. 153). Initially, he wants to send her to a nursing home, then loses so much money through blackmail that he thinks they can’t afford it. Given a new lease of life (and money) by her re-printed novels, Charmian eventually leaves on her own terms. Her recovery is heartening, given that she is the moral core of the book, but it is kept below the level of miraculous. In one scene, when Godfrey and Mrs Pettigrew are both out (she following, wanting to control him), she prepares her own afternoon tea in an agonising scene which makes it clear how dangerous this is, at the limit of her physical capacity. Carrying the tray is beyond her, so she makes many trips between kitchen and living room, taking the items one by one.

Charmian’s former maid, Jean Taylor, is the third sympathetic character (it is interesting that two of them are working class, in a story mostly about the rich), and her bed in an NHS geriatric ward contrasts with the private room her former employer has at the nursing home. She is visited by Lettie, and by Alec Warner, a tragi-comic presence, a Casaubon, who is collecting behavioural evidence for the long-term study of the elderly which he intends to be his life’s work and legacy: several times he sends letters to characters making shocking, gossipy revelations and asking them to take their pulse and report back. Miss Taylor sees exactly how ridiculous he is:
She had discerned, after many years, that his whole approach to the female mind, his only way of coping with it, was to seem to derive amusement from it. When Miss Taylor had made this discovery she was glad they had never been married. He was too much masked, behind his mocking, paternal attitude – now become a habit – for any proper relationship with a grown woman. (p. 62)
It’s possible that his research could reveal scientific truths about ageing, but in observing, he has quit the field of human interaction (she might advise him, ‘remember you must live’). Charmian is quitting it slowly, as her memory goes. Godfrey was never much interested in it, he just wants sex and power. Mrs Pettigrew just wants money. Miss Taylor finds herself in posh isolation, a servant with a fine critical mind after years of sharing her employer’s intellectual life. No one is comfortable, no one has reached contentment by virtue of having lived a long time: the squabbles of a lifetime continue to the end.

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