Sunday, 10 December 2017

Runaways

Spoilers for episodes 1 to 5

There are so many points at which to depart on this journey. From those first five episodes of a show that has been years in the making, based on a beloved comic that started in 2001 (!) and had been on an indefinite hiatus until earlier this year – the best thing is seeing these actors inhabit their characters so perfectly, bringing them to life. I hadn’t read many comic books before Runaways, so the concept of different artists bringing their own interpretation of characters to the table throughout the run was new to me – and in that regard, the television show is just another facet of Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s original story. 

This is loosely based on what happens in the first series of books. How closely it will follow will soon be revealed, but it will be hard to write about some characters without keeping in mind where they go in the comics. There are some distinctive differences here, too, some of which are owed to the amount of years that have passed since the first book, some to the requirements of a television show vs. a comic book, some perhaps because the creators wanted to tell their own story. A few of the characters have a very different background, and therefore, motivation – Nico gets a very traumatic backstory with the death of her sister Amy, Karolina’s arc starts in a sect that looks a lot like Scientology except all that wacky ideology will ironically be based in fact here (not that we technically now this yet, but from what we’ve seen, it isn’t exactly a spoiler to say that the Deans are Not From Earth). The most tangible difference in terms of storytelling is the focus on the parents as well as the children – we are given much more of an insight into their activities, if not necessarily, or yet, the motivations behind their actions. This isn’t a surprise, considering how both Savage and Schwartz approached storytelling their previous shows about teenagers. 

I’m torn whether this is a particularly good idea, as one of the most moving and immediately captivating things about the books is the way in which these six teenagers are thrown into flight without too many orientation points. They see their parents do something terrible, they realise that everything about their world was a lie, and they leave – it’s quick and breathtaking, disorienting, but at the same time, a lot more eloquent than the slow realisation that the television show allows the characters, along with the difference in perspective, since we see what happens behind the scenes as well. The entire second episode is dedicated to showing the same events of the first from the perspective of the parents, and I’m not sure if that really contributes much to Runaways apart from giving some of the high-profile actors hired to play the parents more to work with. On the other hand, it means that the unlikely opponents – the kids’ parents – are more fleshed out, which sets the stakes much higher. 

It is too early to judge, so why not focus on what absolutely works here, which is how the show establishes its main characters and their relationship to each other. There are deeply affecting and memorable moments for all of them in this first half of the season – they are each developed individually – but at the same time, the show brings them all closer as a group as well, a process that feels completely organic in spite of the conflicts that the show doesn’t glaze over. They are all heavily burdened by history even before any of this starts, even before discovering the dark secret of their parents. The glue that used to hold them together wasn’t as much their parents’ connection (one that nobody in their right mind would describe as friendship), but Nico’s sister Amy, whose death tore them apart. They couldn’t find each other anymore after that, and grew apart to the extent that they barely acknowledge each other in the school they still go to together. The process of falling apart has placed them in very distinctive social groups at school. They line up fairly well with the Mean Girls cafeteria scheme of things, but obviously, many of the preconceptions will turn out wrong. 

There’s Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner), whose mother is leading a cult called “Church of Gibborim” and forcing her daughter into being the face of her church, an identity that seats increasingly uncomfortable with her and makes her the ridicule of all the other kids at school. When Destiny, one of the runaways her mother has picked up to join the church (and to become the unwilling human sacrifice for the Pride, her power-hungry group of wealthy supervillains), talks to her, she asks her about what it is like to rebel, voicing so clearly how desperately she wants to discover the world beyond the confines of her mother’s church. Even before anything else happens, before any of the other shocks rock her world, something is set in motion. One night she breaks out and attends a party, and sees two girls kissing each other – a moment that opens up something inside of her figuratively, and literally once she takes off a bracelet that she has worn her entire life. She transgresses against her mother’s limitations, she is suddenly able to put the pieces of her identity together, or at least start to, and the result is glorious – she turns into an actual, beautiful, glittering rainbow. Considering that this is a show about teenagers, but also one about superpowers of all sorts, this is the perfect translation of the idea that being a teenager is glorious, overwhelming, as the world changes with every new revelation about the self – here, it’s not just Karolina realising that she might like girls, but also, Karolina seeing her true form for the first time (a form that isn’t human). So even before we find out about her mother’s identity, about how the Pride consolidates its power with human sacrifices, there is a sense that she has kept a tight grip on how much of herself Karolina has been able to explore, and now that she has taken the first step, the floodgates open. 

It’s also important to remember that this happens before Karolina, Nico, Chase, Gert, Alex and Molly reconnect as friends. They’ve been estranged for years, and it will only be later that night when their shared discovery of their parents’ activities will bond them again. It’s Alex’ doing – Alex who seems most concerned about the importance of their togetherness, who was perhaps second-closest to Nico’s sister Alex, who insists and insists that they must become friends again and go back to who they were before they broke up. He denies the validity of the argument that they were only friends because their parents were, but I think what happens here is all the more powerful because when they reconnect, they are different people, who meet each other after starting to realise all these new things about themselves. 


The greatest surprise for me was how quickly Gregg Sulkin manages to capture how very torn Chase Stein is. On the surface, he is a jock, someone who runs with a crowd of bullies who ridicule all of Chase’s former friends. Beneath the surface, his greatest battle is with his over-bearing , violent father Victor Stein, who keeps his wife and son in line with aggression and corporal punishment, who instils so much fear in Chase that he flinches whenever he makes even the slightest mistake. This is a visceral, horrifying portrayal of a kid who has suffered abuse, and is still desperately trying to make his dad proud with his inventions, who is still trying to see the good side to a man who is absolutely abhorrent. In spite of portraying Victor as someone struggling with immense responsibility and sickness, Runaways doesn’t leave any doubt that this man is as despicable abuser. All of these characters are influenced by who their parents are, and the question the show asks is what happens when those people who have shaped them turn out to be evil – but Chase (and Nico) are the ones that have most shaped themselves in opposition to their respective dominant parent. Chase steps in and protects Karolina when she is in danger. He is like a big brother to Molly. When  he fails – like in how he treats Gert, he mostly realises soon after. He can’t rely on a superpower, so the ways in which he protects his friends and makes himself strong are through hard work (he is the inventor, in the shadow of his father, but his inventions protect). 

If Chase becomes, especially through his relationship with Molly, a sort of father, Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer, perfectly cast) is a more or less unwilling mother. She is an outspoken feminist, trapped in a high school world where most people seem apathetic about politics. Her parents, compared to the other kids’, are not too far off from normal middle-class – the Yorkes aren’t outlandishly rich, and instead came into the Pride as, it appears, upstarts who are grudgingly tolerated especially by the regal and arrogant Tina Minoru. They also appear to be much closer and genuinely caring than the other parents, and have fully adopted Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta) into their family after the tragic death of her parents (which is another unexplained foundational trauma here). More than the other parents, the Yorkes’ decision to keep secrets from their two children seems like a genuine attempt to protect them rather than to retain power over them. 
Consequently, one of the most beautiful moments in the series so far is Gert singing to Molly to try and calm her after they witness the human sacrifice. Gert, who is struggling with her own demons (like, being in love with Chase, having a lot of misplaced jealousy of Chase’s connection with Karolina, who already rubs her wrong because of how her religion clashes with Gert’s feminism), has to be strong for her adopted sister. Later, she will become even stronger when she realises that her parents have raised a genetically modified dinosaur to protect their daughter, one that listens to every command she gives. 
I think there is a parallel between Chase’s arc and Gert’s, one that fits beautifully in with the fact that they are the star-crossed, central romance in the comics (beautifully revived in Rainbow Rowell’s new arc after the hiatus). Chase tries hard to become a better person because he is desperate to be kinder than his father. Gert has to realise at some point that her own actions conflict with her feminism whenever she allows her jealousy to come into her friendship with Karolina, who needs her support. I’m a bit hesitant to judge the shows’ decision to dangle Karolina and Chase like a red herring for now (like, it makes sense from a storytelling perspective that Karolina would cling to some kind of normality to protect herself from all these mind-blowing revelations about herself?)

Speaking of Molly, the strongest among them, which fits in with the fact that she is the youngest, and most frustrated by the fact that nobody ever listens to her. Molly is doomed to constantly have a better grasp of what is going on than everyone else, yet failing to get anyone to listen to her. It fits that her superpower is so dramatic – it’s incredible strength, but one that comes with the high cost of requiring a nap right after using them. It’s a perfect example of how Runaways refuses the usual trappings of superhero shows. All of these kids are exhilarated and completely in awe when they find out about their individual powers/dinosaurs/being able to make those bionic gloves work. They are playful with their powers, experiment with them, the way any person would. This is such a stark contrast to how superpowers either doom or seem to lead to melancholic and lonely existences in other Marvel stories, or how they just tie in with some kind of global conspiracy or military operation in others. These are kids with superpowers, but foremost, they are still teenagers. Molly is giddy with her new power, especially in light of never being taken seriously (and it’s a lovely little moment when Molly is the one who comes up with the idea of covering up her very great change with one that would be more expected of a 14-year old). All these kids react like normal teenagers would when they find out that their parents aren’t infallible (and many of them have always known this anyway, like Chase and Nico, while others, like Karolina and Alex, come to the realisation very reluctantly). 

For some of them, their traumas of the past inform how they operate in the present. There’s Chase’s constant fear of his father’s judgement, and Nico Minoru’s (Lyrica Okano) existence in a household where her sister’s death looms large. She has lost the ability to connect with her parents, her mother is cold, distant, incomprehensible, her father is weak. She deeply believes that she is a witch, and tries again and again to awaken her powers – until, ironically, she realises that she is an actual witch, but her powers come from her mother’s staff. As much as she wants to generate them from herself, in the end, she has to take them from the mother she hates so much (and from what we’ve seen so far, Tina is en-par evil with Victor Stein, even though I’d argue that Karolina’s mum is secretly worse than any of them). I wonder why the creators decided to take a different route here (in the comics, the staff of one appears out of Nico’s body, when she is injured, and has very strict rules about how it can be used).
Nico has lived the past years of her life navigating her grief for a sister she loved, navigating what was very likely a lie that was told to her (that her sister killed herself), navigating finding her own identity in all of that. She does so by putting on a costume and calling out everyone around her that she perceives as inauthentic. Her gaze falls first on Karolina, who is hiding so much behind a symbolic costume, and a religion she doesn’t entirely believe in anymore. These two dance around each other, call each other out – but, in a central moment in the fifth episode, their relationship shifts even further when Nico adds another piece to the puzzle of Karolina’s identity. It’s a two-step process, realising she likes girls, then realising she likes her best friend, and a two-punch pain, thinking she cannot share this with anyone and seeing Nico kiss Alex. As much as Gert’s and Chase’s romance drives the plot in the comics, Nico and Karolina’s dance around each other, always narrowly missing each other, is already established as a driving force here, and we’ll see where it goes. 

Which leaves Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Felix), who starts everything. He brings all his former friends to his house. He causes the event that helps them find out the identity of their parents. He insists that they must uncover this secret together. He knows exactly which buttons to push for all of them to come to the house again – but in the end, it isn’t nostalgia that connects them, or the shared trauma of losing Amy, or even their shared realisation about their parents. I think their connection goes deeper than that, it is a genuine love for each other that only develops more and more throughout the season. There are the individual connections – Alex and Nico’s evolving romance, Gert’s feelings for Chase which might or might not be reciprocated, Molly and Gert, Molly and Chase, Nico and Karolina, Karolina and Chase – but they truly come together when they go looking for Alex after he is kidnapped, and use their powers together the first time. They trust each other to protect each other. As outlandish as it seems that that staff should grant Nico powers, they never doubt that it will save their lives. Alex himself, for now, doesn’t have powers beyond being very good with computers. As much as he serves as a leader of sorts, he remains unknowable – if anything, his conflict with his father is the most outspoken especially because his connection to him is so deep, because his father is s open about his love for Alex. We will obviously see where the show goes with this – for one, I wish it hadn’t given Geoffrey Wilder that particular backstory, that it would have reconsidered falling into all these clich├ęs about how a black family might have achieved power and wealth. But I think we’re stuck now with needing to find out what Alex will realise about himself in the course of this. 

2017-, created by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage based on the comics created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, starring Lyrica Okano, Ariela Barer, Virginia Gardner, Rhenzy Feliz, Gregg Sulkin, Allegra Acosta.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Links 9/12/17

Politics: 

So many things, so horrifyingly hard to keep up with things. 

But first of, here's Sean Kelly on Marriage Equality becoming law in Australia: 
But while it is easy to become distracted by disillusionment, we shouldn’t always succumb. All of the above is about disenchantment with politics as it is practised in Canberra – and as we head into summer and away from this brutal parliamentary year, we should, briefly at least, try to give our focus in its entirety to the great change that occurred this week in Australia. It is a wonderful change, one that has already brought – and will continue to bring – joy to millions, and the various political frustrations of this week are, in comparison, nothing at all. 
The Monthly: Remember This Moment, December 8, 2017
It's a victory that should remain untarnished by the way it was won: the wrongness of the idea that a majority should get to vote on the civil rights of a minority, a campaign of hatred by the no side, protagonists claiming the victory for themselves and patting their own shoulders when all they did was try and appease the homophobic elements in their own party. Malcolm Turnbull doesn't get to claim this as his own - it's all of ours, and not because, but in spite of the current Australian government (and it is not the final hurdle, and anyone who thinks so only reveals their deliberately limited and privileged conception of what this community is). 

And none of this should distract from what is happening on Manus. After the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court found the detention centres to be unconstitutional, instead of finding a solution for the people trapped there, Australia left them to their own devices in an increasingly hostile climate. 
It’s important to understand that willful negligence has always been a central philosophy in Australia’s offshore detention regime. The nation has outsourced its responsibilities and pitted one marginalised group against another. It is a former coloniser of Papua New Guinea, has weaponised much needed aid, has pressured the PNG government with directions straight from Australian immigration and border force personnel, and failed to deliver many logistical upgrades that they promised Manusians. After over four years of indefinite detention, it’s obvious that the regime’s underlying ideology is an act of neocolonialism.
From the beginning, Australia has stoked the fires between both the local Manusian people and the men unlawfully detained on the island. The refugees have become a symbol of outside meddling, intrusion and danger. And while some locals have tried to assist the men, there have been numerous incidences of violence and tension between the two groups. 
Meanjin: Human Rights and Political Wrongs, November 23, 2017
Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist, has documented the situation on Manus for the Guardian. 

Yemen's former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by former Houthi allies that he only recently broke with in the now three-year old civil war which is a proxy of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led alliance has been fighting Houthi rebels in the country but has failed to make a military breakthrough.

Meanwhile, in the never-ending horror show that is United States politics - I think this year has felt so incomprehensible because as much as all these revelations come together in an emerging story about corruption and incompetence, none of it seems to go anywhere. Every single new revelation on its own feels like it would have ended any previous presidency, and yet, all of these scandals disappear into a black void. It's "party before country", but on a much more massive scale: an entire political party well-aware of how much of its political future is now linked to a ticking time bomb of an administration. 

In Alabama, Republicans are backing Roy Moore, who is facing sexual assault allegations against minors. 

In Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential elections, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to "telling four lies to the FBI" - and the fact that these are relatively minor charges was widely interpreted as a sign that Flynn had started to cooperate with the investigation. Statements by Donald Trump regarding Flynn's contact with the Russian ambassador are contradicted by Flynn's admission. One of the prosecutors working for Mueller stated that a "a very senior member of the transition team" directed Flynn to make contact with the Russian ambassador. Another revelation is the fact that the transition team seems to have actively undermined US foreign policy. 

Pop Culture: 

TIME magazine decided to make the #MeToo movement the Person of the Year, and Donald Trump, who recently boasted he was invited for a photo shoot, is named in the accompanying article as an example of the misogyny that this movement is exposing with every new revelation of sexual misconduct and abuse. The conversation isn't just about the men who have profited from industries that are built on skewed power differentials and male privilege, but also about the very culture that has collaborated and been complicit in allowing these men to thrive regardless of the countless allegations that were, more or less, public knowledge years before 2017 (how long have the rumours about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer been around?). How come this misplaced reverence for cultural figures like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski still outweighs any consideration for the damage they have done

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Godless


There aren’t too many illusions still intact about the romance of the frontier in 2017. It has been made abundantly clear that there is a stark difference between the idealistic language of the Constitution and the fiery speeches about setting an example for the world, and the actual bloody and violent way in which the United States carved themselves into existence. Before Godless, the much missed Deadwood, which has been in talks to return and perhaps couldn’t find a better time than now to do so, has portrayed how much of the founding myth was actually a tool of violence against women and minorities, what the outcome is when a land is founded on lawlessness, guns and capitalism. 

Godless isn’t a feminist western in the way that its promotion would have suggested. The town of La Belle in New Mexico has lost almost all of its adult men in a mining accident, only leaving a sheriff behind who is losing his sight and a surviving miner who has lost his mind, but the consequence of this event – women running the town themselves, and doing fairly well at it, particularly Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), widow of the previous mayor – is only in the background of the story. Instead, Godless is feminist insofar as it applies feminist theories to its deconstruction of masculinity, investigating the damage that the frontier ideal of manliness does to the actual men of this rugged land. Godless isn’t a story about women, but one about what happens when the men are absent or physically and mentally damaged. 

That absence takes the form of the mining disaster, which wiped out a whole town and left it without an economic base, struggling to find its footing – in this post-men world, a former sex worker is suddenly the wealthiest person in town, and is running a school out of her former workplace. The mayor’s widow now wears his clothes and his responsibilities, both of them proudly. While her brother Bill (Scoot McNairy, once again impossible not to like after his swansong on Halt and Catch Fire), the sheriff, is ridiculed for his cowardice, she is well-respected, and even gets away with transgressing other taboos. This potential freedom is soon threatened when Mary Agnes’ attempt to ensure the continued independence of the town – by reopening the mines with money provided by a bank – is swiftly turned into a backlash in which the women lose all of their independence, or give it away willingly because nothing in their lives has prepared them for the idea of running their own lives. She frustrated looks on while her fellow townswomen give away their autonomy willingly, in exchange for the (soon to be revealed – fake) security of men. It’s a profoundly personal betrayal, because she knows that the only way for her to exist the way she has now found she enjoys existing is to be in a town where all those powers that would force her back into a corset are absent. 

Her mirror image, yet rival, is Michelle Dockery’s Alice, who came to the town as a stranger, taking a Native American as a second husband but soon losing him to racist violence (another absent man), who is now raising her son along with her late husband’s mother on a remote farm. With little contact to La Belle, she seems unwilling to connect to anyone, and wishes herself back to the city, where she can’t go anymore because she lacks the resources. She is trapped in a life she does not want as well, but soon her decision to take in a stray (after shooting him) connects her inseparably to the town she so despises. Her act of kindness to a stranger who at first cannot speak, and later reveals that he cannot read, dooms the town, as Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) escaped a roving band of gangsters, and more specifically, Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), an odd and violent figure with a hard-to-read yet strict code of honour. Frank considers Roy a son, and his decision to run away after shooting his father figure and costing him an arm – another physically damaged man, who carries his lost arm with him like a relic constitutes a betrayal that can only be repaid in blood. So he hunts his wayward son, threatening to kill anyone who harbours or helps him, which now includes Alice, and La Belle itself. 

The ways in which all of these fates entwine unfolds elegantly on screen, and all of the actors are charismatic, and inhabit their characters perfectly. There is much to be said about the richness of the smaller characters here, in particular Alice’s son, played by Tantoo Cardinal – who was raised by women alone, and seems gently at odds with anything that the world may expect of him, and takes to Roy as a father figure of sorts. Roy himself is at odds as well, especially once Iyovi and Mary Agnes realise his talent in breaking horses – he is gentle, kind, more at home with the horses than with any human, and later he reveals how he ever came to run with Frank Griffin’s gang. There is a subtle point here about the proliferation of violence through men who seem so ill-suited to it, the inevitability of a place that breeds violence so readily corrupting everyone (it is all the more effective when Frank’s incredible violence is contrasted with his moments of humanity, when he helps people, or guides them). This isn’t the almost comical, over-the-top violence meant to shock viewers – it is one deeply connected to the place that is portrayed here, one that seems entirely interwoven in the fabric of the communities that inhabit this impossible and ungoverned land. 

The impotence of the law is personified in Mary Agnes’ brother, and in his tragic-comic path here. He is ridiculed by the town that considers him an incompetent coward, but the story later reveals that he is in fact going blind, and believes himself to be dying – until a travelling salesman offers him a pair of glasses, which solve his predicament. It still leaves his deep grief for the loss of his wife behind, that goes so deep that he can’t bring himself to be a proper father to his two children, especially his young daughter, whose birth he associates with the death of his beloved wife. He is an unusual figure for a Western, a man with all the emotional weight of Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock, but none of his ability. Instead he constantly finds himself upstaged by Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, with another outstanding performance), a gun-slinging teenager with a very soft heart. One of the hardest punches that Godless delivers is the amount of hope that the town puts into this kid, and the speediness with which that hope is destroyed before the inevitable showdown even happens. The little side-story of his deep love for Louise (the amazing Jessica Sula, who deserved so much better from Skins and will hopefully appear in many more things after this), who lives in the neighbouring all-black town which regards anything happening in La Belle with the deep suspicion of weathered Civil War veterans, shows how good Godless is at fleshing out even the most minor characters, showcasing Louise’s strength and resilience after an unbelievable loss. 

In conclusion – I think that Godless is more successful for its small moments rather than the greater arc that so inevitably bends towards the bloody showdown. It will remain memorable for its attention to detail, the way it creates so much emotional resonance with so little. There’s Roy, managing to bend a horse to his will not with violence but by comprehending its nature completely. There’s Iyovi’s deep grief and regret when one of the beautiful creatures breaks its legs due to his own recklessness, and the cost of having to bear the consequences. There’s the completely outstanding Merritt Wever, bringing everything in every single scene she is in, raging against the loneliness of wanting more than what the world is prepared to give her willingly. There is, deeply in the fabric of this show, an argument against the self-replicating violence at the heart of the United States.  

2017, created by Scott Frank, starring Jack O'Connell, Jeff Daniels, Merritt Wever, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Tantoo Cardinal, Samantha Soule, Kayli Carter, Audrey Moore, Tess Frazer, Jessica Sula.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Das Lied zum Sonntag

Smerz - Have Fun.



[via Dazed]

Calypso Rose feat. Manu Chao - Leave Me Alone (Yaeji Remix)



[via gorilla vs. bear]

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Reading List: November.

Fiction: 

Naomi Alderman: The Power. 
Naomi Alderman: The Lessons.
Carmen Maria Machado: Her Body and Other Parties. 
Jenny Zhang: Sour Heart. 
Emily Skrutskie: The Abyss Surrounds Us. 
Emily Skrutskie: The Edge of the Abyss.
Paolo Bacigalupi: The Windup Girl. 

Films: 

The Carmilla Movie (2017, Spencer Maybee).

Shows: 

American Vandal, Season One.
Stranger Things, Season Two.
Alias Grace, Season One.
Godless, Season One.
Ken Burns' The Vietnam War. 

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Alias Grace


Instead of a proper review of Sarah Polley's excellent adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel, something different here. I think the story of Alias Grace is haunting in any case, it leaves it entirely open whether the reader wishes to see it as a ghost story, a crime thriller or a rousing tract on the horrifying consequences of a society that allows women that little room to grow and develop, but what makes Alias Grace into a story that I could revisit again and again is the central friendship between Grace Marks and Mary Whitney. This is quite remarkable, as the actual friendship only takes up a few pages in the book and a bit more than one episode, including the flashbacks later on, in the television series. If anything, one of the most outstanding achievements of the already very accomplished adaptation is that Sarah Gadon as Grace and Rebecca Liddiard as Mary Whitney give so much live to the few chapters in the novel in which Mary appears in the flesh, rather than as a spectre. 
ONE need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place. 
Emily Dickinson
Consider the framing of this story: Dr. Jordan (Edward Holcroft, on screen), an early psychiatrist, attempts to prove his theories about the subconscious and memory by interrogating Grace Marks, a woman who, fifteen years ago, was convicted for killing her employer and his housekeeper. The past unfolds as Grace chooses to tell it, as any attempt by Dr. Jordan to prompt her with props fails. If anything, Grace's story is sheer assertion of her own individuality: she writes this story (to the extent that Dr. Jordan often wonders how much she edits, how much of it is told with an audience in mind), and she chooses to withhold information from him whenever she sees fit. This is remarkable considering her own life story: fleeing her father's debts and questionable past on a ship from Ireland to Canada, setting up a new life, escaping into service from a man on the verge of sexually abusing her. 

At its foundation, Alias Grace is the story of a society that gives very limited powers to young women, particularly young women who are poor, and the ways in which Grace Marks specifically navigates that terrain. It should seem horrifying that a fourteen year old girl becomes a servant to a wealthy Canadian family, and yet that situation, for a while, is more safe for her than her home life is (after her mother's death on the ship to the Colonies, after her father has started to use her as a replacement, after she struggles to make ends meet with a man who drinks everything away and takes little care of his own children). After a dreadful journey across the ocean to a new continent, the moment when Grace first meets Mary Whitney is a revelation. This is true for both the novel and the series: it's like Mary Whitney brings pure light and joy into Grace's life, changing a story that was about suffering and loss into one that includes discussing politics, not showing any misplaced respect for upper classes, and dreaming about an independent future. Mary Whitney is like an escape hatch in Alias Grace, and when she dies, any joy that was contained within the story dies with her. 

This is the pivotal moment in the narrative. Grace learned how to read from Mary, she learned Mary's political views on class and the situation of women (both, endlessly quotable) from her: so when she dies, tragically after an unsafe abortion, Grace is left alone in this world. It's a turning point specifically because Margaret Atwood leaves the interpretation of what happens later on to the reader. Dr. Jordan is asked to examine Grace so that she may earn a pardon, to prove that she has no recollection of the murders, and is therefore not guilty of them, and in the process of their interviews, of Grace telling her story, his version of her becomes skewed. He interprets her, and in the process, puts all of his expectations that he has of a woman that he is attracted to in her. Once he starts daydreaming about her - about a relationship with her - any scientific motivation that he may have int his process becomes questionable. And the perfect twist is that Grace is very conscious of that process: she knows that she is performing for him, creating a version of herself for him. 

Because Grace is the one who is telling the story, and telling it so vividly, with so much detail, only veering from this course once she gets to the murders, any interpretation of what happens becomes possible. Dr. Jordan may be judging whether or not she is a murderess, whether she killed Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear out of low motives, whether she was promising herself to James McDermott in exchange for him killing them for her - but in the background of all of this, like a red thread, runs the idea of a supernatural occurrence. It starts on the ship, with the traumatic death of her mother, when another passenger tells her that her mother's soul would be trapped on the ship unless she opens a window to allow it to escape. This runs to Mary Whitney's death - which occurs overnight, next to Grace - and heightens in a moment when Grace believes that Mary's soul asks her to "let her in". She thinks that she has misheard, that the soul is asking her to open a window so it can escape, but the moment is followed by hours of amnesia in which someone awakens in Grace's body, looking for her. It's the perfect set-up for later on, when former friend and peddler Jeremiah (Zachary Levi) reappears as a hypnotist, and to Dr. Jordan's horror undermines his entire undertaking when he demonstrates that Grace is in fact possessed by the vengeful ghost of Mary Whitney, who in death even more than in life strives to make the upper classes pay for making poor people's, and even more so, poor women's - lives unbearable. 

This is what it all comes down to, if the viewer believes that Grace Marks is possessed by the ghost of Mary Whitney because she failed to open the window in time, if Mary Whitney has returned, with all of her rhetoric turned into actual violence, to take revenge upon those she believes have wronged her. Grace knows - even though it is never made explicit - that one of the sons of hers and Mary's employers has impregnated her, and then refused to bear the responsibility. 

But what if it doesn't even matter if what occurs is supernatural, or psychological? What if it doesn't matter if the literal ghost of Mary Whitney has returned, like the Emily Dickinson poem that prefaces this whole story (in the series), to haunt this society like a superior spectre, like a whiter host? It could as well be that this is Grace, taking bloody revenge for the loss of her one true friend, a woman who is utterly irreplaceable both in her life and in this story, so much so that her absence is felt like a black hole throughout? Perhaps it does not matter so much if Anna Paquin's Nancy dies because Mary Whitney has peculiar ideas about class and feminism or because she wrongs Grace herself, because the only thing that does matter in all of this is their devotion to each other, and the utter destruction that Mary Whitney's death brings to Grace's life? I personally would love to read this is a revenge fantasy of Grace eloquently realising the politics that her best friend preached when she was still alive - class war - utilising perfectly everything that she ever taught her about men and their preconceptions about women. 

I'll go further than that and argue that Alias Grace is a love story, and rather than being about how Grace will eventually reunite with Jamie, and negotiate his betrayal of her, enjoying a simple life of independence, it's the love story of Grace taking bloody revenge for the violence that costs Mary Whitney's life. She revenges her in killing a woman who is seeking to destroy the essence of her, and a man who takes the same liberties, with the same lack of consequences, that the man who betrayed Mary Whitney did. She wins, in the end, because she has learned how to play the game: how to become exactly the woman that Dr. Jordan wishes her to be, as innocent as a dove, in spite of Jeremiah's revelation about her depths. In the end, she stitches her own quilts, and lives her own, quiet life, the same life that Mary Whitney always wanted. In fact, she dedicates her entire life to Mary Whitney's dream, even naming her pets after what Mary Whitney would have named hers, had she lived. Her life is a glorious, bloody tribute to her best friend. 

2017, written by Margaret Atwood and Sarah Polley, directed by Mary Harron, starring Sarah Gadon, Rebecca Liddiard, Edward Holcroft, Zachary Levi, Kerr Logan, David Cronenberg, Paul Gross, Anna Paquin, Stephen Joffe.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Reading Notes: Naomi Alderman's The Power

It took a few days after finishing this novel to come to grasps with how I felt about it, in particular because there was a point, maybe 150 pages in, where I felt like I would end up enjoying this a lot more than I eventually did. Which isn't a reflection on the novel per se, just that Alderman chose a completely different path than I expected. Specifically, there is a moment where Roxy first meets Allie (who is on her way to consolidate her power as Mother Eve, with her community growing and just to demonstrate its true potential to the small town nearby - but they have not become the transformative movement that they will be later on). Roxy has just escaped the UK after killing a crime boss to revenge her mother. They meet by the water, at night, Roxy demonstrating her power with an act that is both amazing and horrifying (awesome, in the classical sense of the world rather than the popcultural). The ever-present voice in Eve's mind (a voice that -  we do not know who it is, we know that it speaks in biblical terms but uses very non-biblical language, we know that it wants, that it might as well be an expression of Allie's inherent ambition rather than something truly god-like, but the fact is that the distinction increasingly becomes irrelevant, considering the kind of methods and tools that Allie has at her command) tells her to use Roxy as a soldier, but not to become friends with her. But Allie can't help but connect with Roxy over their shared histories, their lost families, their shared experience of killing abusive men, their shared drive for a world that belongs to them. 

I think, deep down at this point I expected the novel to go somewhere entirely different, and I expected that connection between the two to go to a different place as well. They remain deeply and profoundly connected until the end, when Roxy is wounded and has lost all her power, while Eve is on the verge of transforming hers into something truly awesome, in the apocalyptic sense. But the novel is less interested in their intimate feelings, the way that their individual traumas play out to determine their paths, and how that may connect them - instead its starts to transform into something entirely different, something with geopolitical ambitions, a worldwide perspective. Which works in the novel - because obviously, Alderman is interested in the religious, political and cultural implications (and how all of this is mediated, through the outside perspective of Tunde, so hungry for story and context) of the very interesting biological twist of fate that begins everything. But maybe I would have felt more strongly about the individual tragic fates of the protagonists if the focus hadn't blown so wide open into a story about the entire world, changing, tumbling towards an apocalypse. (and this is an odd thought - but even though these two novels on the surface have barely anything in common, apart from The Power having a bit of storyline about London crime, and both being about a cast of characters connecting and disconnecting, the first part of the book reminded me of Kate Tempest' The Bricks That Built the Houses, and I missed that in the second part).

At points throughout I felt like this novel could have something else, and probably, at an earlier stage, was (apparently Alderman had 200,000 words at some point, but maybe even a whole other book here from which this one spun off). 

One approach maybe doesn't go anywhere, and that is to investigate whether her assumption about how the entire world would change if women were physically stronger than men is correct. It's the presumption of the novel and it falls apart if we don't buy it, so there isn't much point to debating it. Here, it takes ten years between teenage girls showing first symptoms of the skein - a genetic mutation that allows them to use energy to defend themselves and attack - to a part of Moldova spinning off into a women-led dystopia that intends to kill most men and subjects them to severe human rights abuses (the twist of which, at any point throughout the book, is that all of these things have happened and are still happening to women all over the world, and the shocking newness only exists because Alderman switches the genders of victims and oppressors). It only takes ten years for Allie, a foster child who escapes a physically and sexually abusive foster family (killing the man before she leaves with her newfound powers) to transform into Mother Eve, the figurehead of a new version of Christianity that only edits ancient texts a little bit, only gently twists the perspective, to build an entirely new female-centric religion on the base of the old ones (one of the great thoughts here, that all of these stories already exist, but have been read in a deliberately patriarchal way - for a very specific reason - this whole time).  

Alderman shows us how a democracy like the United States would grapple with the change, first following the old instinct of trying to preserve the old order, trying to find a cure to reinstate the status quo, trying to protect boys from girls by separating them, before realising that the biological advance is permanent, cannot be healed or reversed, and will require a profound change within the society. That change happens quickly, once women realise that their physical strength now puts them in the position to argue against all the ancient gender stereotypes that have held them back. News anchors who used to be only ancillaries to their straight white men co-hosts suddenly become the serious stars of the show. The mayor of a major metropolitan area, Margot, makes a swift career progression once she realises that her powers are an advantage, not a dirty secret, that she can use them to demonstrate her strength in difficult times. Inadvertently, she also becomes a tool for Mother Eve, as the voice in her head puts all the pawns into place. 

Tunde, the Nigerian journalist, watches all of this, realises the unique opportunity to become the media voice of the change, someone who does not hesitate to go into dangerous situations for the good stories, someone who aspires to write the definite book that provides context for this historic change in human society. He documents women rising up against their oppressors, political systems changing, but he also realises, very soon, that the gender switch does not lead to a more peaceful and gentle society - instead, the same extremes of violence start to appear. Fuelled by anger, ambition and a drug that Roxy brings into the world, women in war zones start to commit war crimes. The very close-to-home (as in - 2017, here) men's right activists that gather in internet forums and eventually use bombs to express how frustrated they are by the new world justify severe responses. Old patriarchal structures try to reassert themselves, as those who have always been in power refuse to accept the new reality. 

These are the in-between sections of the novel, after Mother Eve sets herself up and then allows her belief to find fertile ground in the still-religious world out there (the interesting question here is how much of Mother Eve is really in Allie, who asks if the voice in her head is God, but seems to consider scripture a very useful tool rather than something that she genuinely believes in - in the beginning, there is only the wish to make the world hers, to carve out a place for herself). The matriarchal new country that split from Moldova, led by the former wife of the authoritarian ruler, becomes an expression of her own insecurities and vanity (some of the most shocking scenes of the book happen in close succession here - the great leader punishes a waiter for speaking over her and makes him lick up alcohol and glass shards from the ground, while groups of women soldiers in the outskirts of the country prepare for war by raping and pillaging the citizens), becomes the festering wound that soon makes it clear to Mother Eve that her attempts at a tabula rasa have failed utterly. 

It's interesting that Margaret Atwood mentored this book, considering that there are so many parallels here to The Handmaid's Tale: In both, a biological event triggers a severe societal change, in both cases, religion plays a central role to cement a new regime. Alderman merely switches the genders (and again, the novel only really works if you believe that the timeline she marks out for all of this is realistic, so there's not much point in debating if this would be enough to undo thousands of years of the patriarchy). Also, in both, the story is framed in a very subversive way. In The Handmaid's Tale, the epilogue is the meeting of an anthropological congress, debating Gilead as it is seen through the tale of the (in the novel, unnamed) handmaid. The framing device here is that this whole story was written by a male writer (whose name is an anagram of Naomi Alderman), sending his novel to a woman (Naomi Alderman) for review - in a world, as we found out in the end, that is finally the complete utopia, the new place, that Mother Eve imagined. It is the culmination of everything that the novel works towards, the attempts at building a new society, the realisation that this will be impossible for as long as there is even a root of patriarchy, even the faintest memory of it, and the eventual shocking decision that the only way to move forward is a complete nuclear apocalypse that will wipe out any record of humanity. Like in Gilead, the only way to truly begin a new society is to destroy any record, or memory, of the old one, except here, in Alderman's world, that annihilation is complete, as is the rewriting of history. This is a very interesting idea (one that I would still trade, very much, for a story about Roxy and Allie).  It makes fun of every single biologically essentialist argument about the differences between men and women, it creates a historic record of artefacts that document a society in which women having this power has always been a reality, it maps out an alternative history of the world with only one minor detail altered. The world that results is very likely not better than our current world - individuals are still limited by cliched  gender models and the lies of a constructed history that justifies subjugation -  which is the point here, considering that this is titled The Power. Why does it happen? There isn't an attempt at an answer here, really, as multiple personal dramas and deeply wounded characters stumble forward, instinctually attempting to create a safe space for themselves, to reassert themselves, to find a shape and form for their ambition. 

Random thoughts: 
  • When Alderman did give Margot's daughter Jos space - a girl with a broken skein, attracted to the few boys who have them, but don't quite know what to do with them - it felt like a sad lost opportunity to maybe address how this whole dichotomy between having and not having this power would play out in a world where trans people exist. Another criticism - there is still a very clear sense here that the US and the UK are the known world and most of the places that Tunde goes to are the strange other that are perceived through the eyes of characters thoroughly rooted in the West. 
  • Just to reiterate here that I really, really wanted this story to be about Roxy and Allie's complicated feelings for each other and for a second I thought that's what I would get, so everything after made me a bit sad. 
  • One thing that I will give this novel though is that it succeeds through its different perspectives, the way that the whole situation escalates through the views of these diverse voices (some privileged, some slowly realising they are very much no longer privileged, as happens to Tunde once he reads his own obituaries and the stories that his ex-girlfriend stole from him). After all, the best episode of The Handmaid's Tale is one that could have never happened in the book, as June isn't even in it. 
  • I also want to reiterate that the book gets the most horror out of the thought of "what if this happened... TO MEN", not unlike The Handmaid's Tale (mostly, but not exclusively) does "what if this happened.... TO STRAIGHT WHITE AMERICAN WOMEN".