October 29, 2010 § 1 Comment
There were exactly two of us in the cinema during The Joshua Tapes. This says a lot about the acceptance of Malaysian films in English among the cinema-going Malaysian public. It says that we would rather watch the tripe that is Eat Pray Love instead of shelling out for a locally-produced movie that may or may not be good. Eat Pray Love may or may not be good, as well, but we go in expecting the Hollywoodised spectacle we’ve seen so often before. And let us not forget Julia Roberts’ face. A locally-produced indie offers no guarantee – it may not be bad, or worse still, it may actually be good and not trite, predictable, or safe. It’s hard these days to summon the energy needed to engage with art that percolates with anything more than the smug knowledge of its own profitability. The fabric of modern Malaysian society is a little thin, there are rips all over the place, and any art that is produced from within it is likely to jar one’s own Malaysian sensibility in ways that might be uncomfortable.
Or at least, this might be the reason.
The Joshua Tapes is directed by Arvind Abraham (his first film was S’kali; I’ve yet to watch it) and written by Lim Benji and Priya Kulasagaran. The central premise of The Joshua Tapes hinges upon a road trip among three old friends, all male, as they head from KL to the East Coast. One friend, the titular Joshua, is not with them. The viewer initially understands this to be because Joshua is abroad for his university studies, but by the end of the movie you’ll know the real reason. *pregnant pause* In terms of immediate initial impressions of The Joshua Tapes, what was very welcome and ultimately quite invigorating was the very effortless way the dialogue replicated the conversational style of most young urban Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur. The spoken English is both fluent and idiomatic, alternating between flawless sentences and Manglish slang. Something about hearing that kind of speech closely replicated on the big screen can still elicit a feeling of tremendous warmth and joyful recognition.
The story of The Joshua Tapes, however, goes deeper than a mere road trip, and to reveal more about it will be to ruin the delicate narrative framework that the writers have set up. Suffice it to say that a road trip is never really about going from one place to another – and in the case of these 3 friends, Reza, Ryan, and Ajeet, it’s a journey back in time to recover the selves that they used to be, especially in relation to one another. It’s a feeling that is instantly recognisable to people who battle both the extreme frustration and cleaving pain of trying to make old friendships – friendships so fundamental to the formation of who you are – fit into the new formations of who you have become when it can no longer comfortably do so.
On a superficial level, I felt a certain sense of triumph in watching these men relate to each other. If I had one ringgit for every time a Malaysian man has told me and/or proclaimed to the world variations on the “women are so difficult”, “women are drama queens”, and “men are so simple, women make things complicated” theme, I would be kicking Ananda Krishnan in the dust. Barring one Sam who is a romantic interest for both Joshua and Ryan and catalyst for the minor tension that spreads among this gang of four, we are entirely in He-Land. Within the economy of the human relations played out in The Joshua Tapes, Sam is the calmest and most rational person we encounter. Up to a point, that is, because her character is largely supplementary. The interactions between these male friends are as emotionally-charged as the supposed “dramatic” relations between women. There’s a lot of whining. There are sullen silences punctuated by side-eyed stares and much, much glaring. Guess what? Men, when they don’t want to be funny, can also be pretty emotional. Apparently, everything is not a laugh-a-minute! Men are also masters of the cold shoulder. They too have a strong urge to talk about their thoughts and feelings, even if they may not have the vocabulary for it as women have been taught to have. For all that we’re told that men are the funnier and funner sex, more willing to laugh at themselves and “let it go”, any woman knows that this is the falsest truism around – and this is! a Malaysian movie! that is willing to show that.
Granted, there are significant reasons underlying this entire road trip that contributes to the charged atmosphere between the three friends. Feelings have been hurt, toyed with, and crushed. People have been lost (and some regained). The exigencies of the real world prove too numbing to contemplate, affecting not only how one relates to oneself but to one’s closest friends. The men of The Joshua Tapes are not the men of Judd Apatow films. If we complain about how unfairly women are portrayed in commercial films coming out of Hollywood, we must also admit that the men are portrayed to be equally stupid, even while they’re screwing about, inventing things, fighting evil, saving the world, whatever. In The Joshua Tapes, when Joshua and Reza have a conversation about Reza’s very lame pick-up line directed towards his object of affection who is a “feminist”, Joshua tells Reza that what he said is a very stupid thing to say to a feminist. But then he waits a beat, and then continues on to say that it’s basically a very stupid thing to say to a woman, period.
The fact that a woman was a co-writer of the screenplay may have had something to do with this, but I’d like to be optimistic for once and consider this already a good sign – men and women co-writing a screenplay about a men-only friendship/bonding/road trip movie? GO MALAYSIA! Next up can only be the women-only friendship/bonding/road trip movie that is NOT lifted out of a commercial for tampons (women jumping around in white short shorts at the beach, doing cartwheels, smiling, laughing, smiling, smiling, maybe crying, then smiling).
The Joshua Tapes has its flaws, chiefly in terms of the occasional disconnect between the writing and the acting. Certain lines were genuinely hilarious. What would have improved the occasional overwrought tone of the movie would have been a few minutes of blessed unencumbered humour. But someone would say something funny, and someone else would react defensively or emotionally, and that thread of humour would drop. This seemed less due to the unstable relations between the men than it did to a screenplay that occasionally veered off into the humorous and then reminded itself to Be Serious. For this reason, even the actors seemed unsure at times if they were meant to allow their character a chance to laugh or to remain resolutely sombre.
Baki Zainal, who plays Reza, was the most disappointing in this respect. In one scene in a motel room where Reza confronts Ajeet about some troubling aspects of his past, Baki seemed unsure if he should play Reza as an obnoxious, cynical twat who wanted to offend his friend, or a concerned, emotionally-invested friend who did not. The result was that Reza came off as an obnoxious, cynical twat who wanted to offend his friend and yet was a concerned, emotionally-invested friend who did not. This makes Reza sound like an immensely complicated and intriguing character – in theory – but on screen, due to either the acting or the writing or a combination of both, it just came off bizarre. There are factors underlying this road trip that would make this emotional seesawing understandable, but it wasn’t carried through effectively by the occasional abrupt dialogue and overly self-conscious performances.
Despite that, the film does a fine job in subtly portraying how young Malaysians grapple with that big elephant uncouthly lumbering into our domestic and public lives… you know, that elephant called race. It’s not there, and yet it’s there, and the movie is quite delicate and brilliant in how it handles this. Random throwaway comments, such as Reza calling Ryan his “taiko” and telling Ajeet why “China men are better”, or Ryan calling Reza a “bloody Melayu” are all done in jest, yet reflect the way most young Malaysians try to make sense of race and absorb it into their lives without avoiding it altogether. These bad jokes about race, often weird and uncomfortable, is a kind of liminal discursive space created by the younger generation of Malaysians to acknowledge the race factor while trying to neutralise its meaning with jokes and teasing. You can hardly fill out a form in Malaysia without identifying oneself with a particular race or learning that your race isn’t included in a pre-formulated list and be forced to tick the box next to “lain-lain” (others). In an environment where you’re bombarded with racial discourse and yet expected to “look beyond it”, making jokes becomes a perhaps flawed but only readily-available coping method. When Reza throws a wrench in Ajeet’s plans to have a meal at a local restaurant serving good Chinese food by asking if it is a halal restaurant, Ajeet is able to show his irritation. But the boys swiftly and very flexibly alter their plans and decide to grab some roti kaya from the local sundry shop for lunch. This moment – comprised of equal parts minor frustration and willing compromise – was unexpectedly touching. The scene didn’t try to be either politically-correct or preachy, and the idea of difference and otherness in a friendship is presented as yet curved path to navigate, nothing more. No one had to get over it or come to terms with it. It just is.
Public spaces, more often than not, provided the backdrop for reconciliation – such as the mamak stall where the boys gather to eat and forgive after a major argument, or the phone booth from where Ajeet calls his father. Finally, there is the sea located in the “East coast” – where exactly it is we’re not told, but it provides the closure for the closing scene.
Of all the actors, Baki Zainal and Matthew Ho (Ajeet) had the tendency to over-do the emotional scenes and trivialise its poignancy with abrupt fits of melodrama. Phoon Chi Ho as Ryan is consistently adorable, and Alfred Loh pulls off his tiny yet significant role of Joshua with some class. Grace Ng as Sam seemed the most comfortable and natural – nothing about her performance was self-conscious, unlike the other male leads who occasionally seemed to be aware that they were, in fact, acting. This would have helped had the film’s makers decided to go all pomo on us and have the actors address the viewer directly, but otherwise the movie’s fleeting moments of amateurishness were all the more pronounced.
These quibbles, however, while minor, are essentially a part of the experience of watching this film, and these are certainly reasons not to watch the movie. On the contrary, it’s even more engaging as a sort of work-in-progress, like any nation’s society essentially is at any given time. Unfortunately I’ve dallied for quite some time with writing this review and the movie is no longer playing in local cinemas, but hopefully it’s available on DVD very, very soon.
*The posting of this review was precipitated by a sighting of Matthew Ho at The Gardens today. I NEVER see anyone famous, semi-famous, or even anyone who’s been on TV for 15 seconds. This was exciting. I was so excited I continued eating my sushi, smiling secretly to myself.
October 26, 2010 § 1 Comment
I recently had the momentous experience of watching two Agnes Varda films; two of the most popular, it seems, of her earlier films: Cleo de 5 a 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7) and Le bonheur (Happiness). Not being well versed in film techniques or film criticism, I can’t really talk intelligently about what I liked so much in Cleo. I can say that what I found so visually-sumptuous was the way in which people and places were framed in the film; it made me feel like I was watching an extension of a moving photograph. I’ve now learned that Varda did indeed start out as a photographer. It’s probably that photographic sensibility that suffuses her films with outstanding, memorable images, such as one particular scene that shows Cleo on an empty cobblestone street save for one tiny toddler in the corner playing with a toy piano. Weeks later it still comes vividly to mind when I think of the film.
Similarly, Le bonheur begins with a strong image – a shot of sunflowers, to be precise. The colours are lucid and bright and quite painful in its piercing intensity. It’s a photographic shot that is somewhat of an assault to the visual sense, the exuberance of colour somehow prefiguring the excess of “happiness” to come. I avoided reading any particular reviews of the film before I saw it, but within the brutal excess of those colours one can already feel a sense of foreboding about the movie’s end. The scene that open the film depicts idyllic family togetherness against a background of nature at its most passive, all well-manicured parks and trimmed shrubs. This scene is an early indication of carefully-constructed artifice – the myth of happiness in action through ridiculously cheery, bucolic images.
I apologise if this post is a little… weird. Le bonheur is sneaky and sly in how it creeps up on you with its understated destruction. Watching it leaves one feeling fragmented. I had no idea that the title was ironic (but what else could it have been but ironic, really?), even if I was nervous about watching it precisely because of the title – the concept of happiness makes me anxious and slightly terrified. Having watched it, what appears to make me a devout Varda fan from this moment on was the way the movie itself seems to dance around the issue of Happiness in movements both delicate and assured. Le bonheur seems to me to be about three things: the tyranny of happiness, the tyranny of marriage, and the biggest Terror of all, the tyranny of a “happy marriage”. I say tyranny, of course, because people are generally compelled to have to want one of those three things, or better yet, all three.
As exemplified in the male lead, Francois, happiness is a self-blinding form of selfishness when pursued as an end in and of itself. We don’t really discover much about Francois’ ambitions or thoughts and hopes for himself – but we do know he wants to be happy, and that a little bit of happiness is never enough. One always wants more. “Happiness works by addition,” he tells his mistress Emilie. This seeming addiction to the feelings aroused by happiness is an ideal master for someone as unself-reflective as Francois. The contradictions of happiness are imbued within it, as we’re aware; the moment someone starts to think about his or her own happiness and begins to deconstruct it, of course, the experience of happiness is over.
The idea of the “tyranny” of marriage is perhaps simply a reflection of my own neuroses. People certainly seem to want to get married and stay married. But I think Le bonheur manages to show, precisely because it focuses on the “good times”, the idea of marriage is fundamentally an idea laden with terror. Banal terror, yes, behind shared moments in the bathroom and the supposed joy of child-raising, but still signifying the depths of unrecognisability that can slowly spread outward. How much do Francois and Therese really know of each other? It is a marriage that’s “happy” because their lives circulate upon the calm, cheery surface of normality. It’s when you start becoming curious about who your spouse really is that it all starts to crack around the edges. When Francois tells Therese of his affair, she realises that she was she has simply taken to be his heightened sense of joy has a more insidious layer to it, encased within well-meaning yet damning deception. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but the viewer sort of knows better. In marriage you have two fundamentally different people unknowable to themselves, much less to their spouse, coming together for what should technically be an eternity. There cannot be a charade from the start, or if there is one, it must then be maintained at all costs.
We don’t really know much about Therese, Francois’ wife, except from what Francois describes of her to Emilie. He mentions attributes that the viewer has already come to see about Therese: she is relentlessly positive, cheerful, calm, and eternally present. When she hears of Francois’ affair, she is disturbed and hurt –evident from her facial expressions – but she is willing to “love him more”, as Francois asks of her because he is that much happier now that he also loves Emilie. Francois subsequently receives her acknowledgement to do just that with absolute trust. You want to shake Francois and remind him to watch out for the surprise that Therese will inevitably spring upon him, just like he has upon her. Just because she tells you she’s happy with this does not mean anything, Francois! The bonds of marriage, precisely because of its essentially contractual nature – you pledge unwavering devotion to the other in the eyes of the law and/or religious law – requires this kind of self-immolation in various degrees. Isn’t that the fundamental value of marriage – that unlike a relationship, you just cannot walk away? You could, of course, and people do, but the rupture of a divorce in cataclysmic, even in our current very cynical, “postmodern” lives. The spectre of forever will always hang over both individuals, gimlet-eyed and unwavering.
Which brings us to the tyranny of the “happy marriage.” I say tyranny because no one really has any idea what the hell constitutes a happy marriage. This is precisely why I only trust those who are in unhappy marriages (and unhappy relationships). Are relationships and marriages ever meant to be “happy”? Like heartbreakingly foolish, over-eager dogs, we seem to be barking up the wrong tree the moment we start to imagine relationships within the context of happiness. Can people, such as we are, ever be “happy” whilst in them? If you’re going to make that connection with someone and sweat it out for the rest of your life, it is not for reasons of happiness. Isn’t it evident that modern people do this – get married, have relationships – for the very basic fact of connection, which really does come at the expense of happiness. No matter how much you know someone, you’ll never know them, and this fundamental disconnect can only bring pain because the irrational impulses of love, after all, compels one to want what one can’t have, the complete knowledge of the other. If this doesn’t work, we carry on replacing the former loved one with another, and another, and another…
Which is what enables Francois to continue being happy. Without delving deep, he coasts on the surface of love, knowing full well that one person can easily take the place of another if one doesn’t think too hard about the other person, but focuses instead on oneself. In fact, this leads me to think that unabashedly self-protecting and selfish individuals will probably have happy marriages more than any other personality type. I don’t mean selfish in the sense we’ve come to typically use the word – someone necessarily kind to oneself and mean to others – but simply a person who strives for self-interest above all. In this case, as Le bonheur shows, Therese was doomed from the start. Emilie may fare better – if what she told Francois about how she has learned to serve her own interests first in the wake of a ruined relationship is essentially true. In which case, this also means that Francois has truly found his “other” half in Emilie. It is a match made in mutual self-preserved happiness. Perhaps in 1965, when the film was released, it was easier for a man to be a Francois in a marriage. Emilie, a potential Francois, is still single when we meet her. I’m unsure how her story will pan out once she’s caught up in the bonds of traditional domesticity and marriage. Does she inevitably become a Therese?
This is not to say that I’m trying to make a case, via a very fragmented reading of Le bonheur, for why being single is better than being married. I don’t think either state is the better one. One can also be unhappy alone and single, yet find ways to assuage the unhappiness in purely self-serving ways without having to consider the other person – the spouse – who is always and necessarily there. There is that saying with which single people comfort themselves, the one that says that it’s better to be lonely and alone than be lonely with someone else. Or some such thing. I tend to believe this, but then again I am single, so don’t trust a word I say. However, what about being unhappy? Is it better to be unhappy alone or unhappy with someone else? Perhaps there is incalculable value in the latter. Perhaps Francois robbed Therese the chance of this by compelling her to accept his happiness so soon. She really plays no part in this newfound multiplication of happiness except as the cause of his original happiness upon which this new happiness takes root. Francois could not see – or could not bear to acknowledge – Therese’s unhappiness. It’s all so new, and it encroaches upon the myth of the happy marriage.Furthermore, there is that self of his he needs to preserve.
But what do I know of marriage? Only everything that I’ve observed from the outside, which is essentially nothing. I’ve no doubt that plenty of people will disagree with what I’ve said, especially since I disagree with what I said. I like to believe in the happy marriage and the amoeba-like relationship that keeps self-replicating its own joy – these beliefs, erroneous or not, keep me going. It’s clearly what kept Therese going too, until she died either by chance or by will. But let’s not get too dramatic. What we need, to take the edge off of the feelings brought about by Le bonheur, is to rewatch Bridget Jones’ Diary. Then, to lull ourselves into a stupor, Love, Actually will do the trick.
*The French in the title of this post is entirely due to some creative Googling. I apologise if what it actually says is “eat shit and die”; this is not what I want to convey to you.
October 23, 2010 § Leave a comment
I’m not sure if I should say that Lacan was right, or Zizek was right, but I know much of Lacan through Zizek so I’ll say Zizek was right but perhaps it only means that Lacan was right – sooner or later the Real breaks through and it’s not pretty. I mean, there is no real way to deal with the Real, so one has no choice but to revert to fantasy.
The internet, instead of helping, can only make things worse. Those ridiculous fragments of connections are, as T.S. Eliot said, fragments that I have shored against my ruins. After which I stab myself with those coffee spoons with which I have measured my life.
Well, no matter. Onward and forward, or some such bullshit.
(And yes, while I’m at it, I have just read Jason’s Werewolves of Montpellier. It is excellent, please read it. Laconic, everyday nihilism has never appeared more adorable. I have also watched Agnes Varda’s Le bonheur, and you should watch it, but only when you’re emotionally-sound and radiating contentment and joy from every pore. I will most likely post my depressing thoughts about it here soon.)
October 19, 2010 § 4 Comments
Without a doubt, what all the reviewers tell you are true. Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies is a superb book, a world unto itself set in Seabrook, a boys’ boarding-school in Dublin, Ireland. There are allusions to Robert Graves’ mythic White Goddess, Celtic myths, M-theory, the first World War, and what seems like every emotion and experience one imagines must be known to modern Irish teenagekind. Murray’s writing is funny and sharp, as when he describes Titch, Seabrook’s current it-boy with the ladies:
Titch, in short, is so remarkably unremarkable that he has become a kind of embodiment of his socioeconomic class; a friendship / sexual liaison with Titch has therefore come to be seen as a kind of self-endorsement, a badge of Normality, which at this point in life is a highly prized commodity.
Within a few sentences, Murray has described that boring everyboy in every Anglo-American school designated to be the Popular One – the unbearably tedious Finn Hudsons of the world who will put you to sleep but manage to get the most girls and have the most “friends”.
This is a book about boys and men and men being boys, and in Murray’s hands, these boys of Seabrook are at once fragile, heroic, obnoxious, and tender, especially in their relation to one another. In the case of Daniel “Skippy” Juster – the boy who dies in the first chapter – his is a life lived by a tentative walking on eggshells, a boy who is unable to break free from the dark and foreboding ties of family. He is a mess because his family is a mess – a more Freudian boy-child could not have existed. All of his family’s flaws and minor tragedies seep into him unfiltered. From the start you get the sense that this poor kid doesn’t have a chance. His one major shot at happiness comes in the form of Lori, one of the most beautiful young girls around for miles. She initially appears shrouded in mystery, a distant object of uniform desire for all the boys, but of special note to Skippy. She touches something deep inside him – gaining entry into a tiny little locked room in Skippy’s psyche to which no one, even Skippy himself, has the key. Skippy thinks that “the beauty of this girl is something bigger, something beyond, with infinitely more sides to it – it’s like a mountain with an impossible shape that he keeps trying to climb and falling off, finding himself lying on his back in the snow…” Lori ignites in Skippy something more, definitely, than mere throbbing loins.
The course of infatuation never does run smooth. The fear is that the act of knowing ruins the desire, but more likely it simply roots it in the realm of action and responsibility where flights of fancy often have to come to a crashing halt. Or as Lacan might perhaps say if his words were to be butchered by me: sexual relations, in order to function, will always have to be screened through some fantasy because the realness of it is too traumatic. Where we’re dealing specifically with sensitive, tormented young men in popular culture, though, this ultimate objet petit a has nothing to do with lust – even if she is the hottest chick around – but more to do with the young soul’s timorous and instinctive yearning for pure and unvarnished Beauty. As Murray writes it, every other boy around may be thinking of ways to sex up Lori, but Skippy is concerned with her As a Person, in so much as Her Person remains elusive, perfect, and untouchable. A mountain – whose beauty will mean more once he climbs it. Or will it, after he has climbed it, mean something less? Will it be cast aside as he moves on to other girls, something to be revisited only in memory?
This burgeoning love for Lori on Skippy’s part is cleverly layered with yet another story of obsession and desire, but of the adult variety. The boys’ History teacher, Howard Fallon (“Howard the Coward”) is newly-fixated with a substitute Geography teacher, Aurelie McIntyre. At their first meeting, when Aurelie learns that Howard is teaching his kids about the First World War, she suggests he reads them Robert Graves because “he was in the trenches” and because “he was also one of the greatest love poets.” The Goddess as Muse motif is laid out here as Howard observes Aurelie’s physical movements and notes: “She squeezes her hands sensually, a goddess forging words out of raw matter.” Howard is in his late twenties, but the effect of a flesh-made-Goddess, whole and real in front of him, is not something even his seasoned, grown-up impulses can withstand – of course he wants her, but this desire is complicated by the unfortunate matter of his existing girlfriend, Halley.
Howard is a former Seabrook boy returned to teach in the school. The hermetic space of a boys’ boarding-school, the old-boys network, the world it creates in and of itself is a major indication that Howard is never really willing to leave this world behind and enter the realm of adulthood. Howard used to work in investment banking for a time, but finally chose to return to his alma mater for a teaching stint even as he seems repelled by Seabrook and its legacy. Howard’s very character shows readers how the realm of adulthood is a purely imaginary act, sustained by collective imaginings of shoulds and oughts of which no one really has a bloody clue. It’s precarious and sustained by its ultimately insecure sense of flexibility – the man-child ever-ready to play and have fun sometimes, ready to take on responsibilities and “man up” at other points. The reason why some boys don’t want to “grow up” and become men is because they are uncertain of what the cultural and societal construct of manhood requires of them.
Howard seems more of a boy than the boys of Seabrook. His infatuation with Aurelie is grounded in the emotions engendered by her physical presence. This is complicated, because the initial moment of “falling in love”, whatever one may take it to mean, encompasses desire and the yearning to be near the other’s physical presence. In Skippy Dies, however, the female characters worthy of male attention are uniformly described as being beautiful – nay, STUNNING, and also uniformly coveted by and agreed upon by ALL men as stunning. If their beauty is not worthy of note, they’re distinguished by their yearning for men who don’t want them, as in the case of Halley, Howard’s girlfriend, and Janine, Lori’s friend. This, really, is nothing new in art or in popular culture. It’s familiar and predictable. The women worth paying attention to from a man’s perspective are the beautiful ones. It is, however, banal and depressing. This very typical manner of framing gender and sexual relations feels even more disappointing in a book as dazzlingly imaginative as this one.
The society in Skippy Dies is the kind that fucks-up every one of its children. Janine, for instance, wants bad-boy Carl, who is, even as far as fucked-upness goes, beyond the pale. Carl, also the product of a hideous family situation, is a drug-pushing, drug-addicted self-destroyer who, among other things, lusts after Lori. Strangely enough, his obsession with her – peppered as it with repulsive imaginings of violent sexual acts he’d like to inflict upon her, imaginings straight out of internet porn – is quite unbearably sad, because it seems like Carl mentally debases her simply because he needs, but can’t have, the solace she seems to offer. Sure, he’s drawn to her lollipop-sucking shiny lips with a mad amount of lust from the start, but Carl seems to know that she exists as a person precisely in the world from which he wants to run. His conflicted, tormented thoughts are deftly written by Murray to show how Carl seems to be playing out expected forms of being for a teenage male who wants to be seen as strong, ferocious, and studly. Carl registers the signposts of manhood on how to perform and re-enacts these performances even as his thoughts reveal a private self that knows no rhyme or reason about its very existence.
Janine, nowhere close to being as hot as Lori, gives Carl blowjobs in the hopes that Carl forgets about Lori and begins to want her. Why she does this is devastating and puzzling, because any girl in her right mind would run screaming from Carl. But in the hierarchical, heavily-stratified world of adolescence, social capital carries more cachet than any possible form of self-aggrandizement one can dream up. Lori is pretty and the most wanted and desired, and having what Lori has / had is probably the closest Janine can get to being able to enjoy a small slice of Lori’s appeal; appeal that is steadfastly denied to her because she lacks the right looks and the right framework to perform those looks. It doesn’t even matter if it means debasing herself around a boy who is clearly only using her to get closer to Lori, because the other option of invisibility is not only self-debasement, it’s self-erasure.
These boys are sexist, and predictably so, because in adolescence one feels that one must either quickly learn how to make a public display of acceding to the status quo, or make a public display of doing the exact opposite and rebelling. In that same way, the type of teenage girls portrayed in Skippy Dies don’t seem to be invested in rebelling against sexism either – because the alternative pretty much renders them either insignificant or negatively visible. The male characters who don’t refer to other girls as bitches or whores and evaluate them on the size of their boobs or the symmetry of their facial features are the ones who have the hardest time of it in the social sphere – Skippy, and to some extent, his best friend and roommate Ruprecht (although Ruprecht’s singular devotion is only towards the abstraction of science and quantum physics).
There is a depressing sense that this crude adolescent sexism simply morphs into pseudo-sophisticated adult sexism by way of better learning and mastery of language. There is a scene, when Carl and his other fucked-up friends are talking about which living women they’d like to have sex with, where one boy suggests Beyonce and is shot down by another who laughs and reminds him that she’s “black”. Similarly, Howard has a discussion with his colleague, Jim Slattery, who tells him about Graves’ The White Goddess:
… it delves into various pre-Christian societies – Europe, Africa, Asia – and keeps finding this same figure, this White Goddess, with long fair hair, blue eyes, and a blood red mouth. Right back to the Babylonians, it goes. His theory is that poetry as we know it grew out of this goddess worship.
“Blue eyes, a blood red mouth,” Howard thinks, his own personal Goddess made flesh in Aurelie. (What hope is there for female poets, though? Both Muse and Creator in one – perhaps the only option is to stick one’s head into a gas-oven and die.) But more to the point, yes, the mythic idea of this blonde, white, blue-eyed Goddess who, according to Graves, is to be found everywhere in the world, is accepted wholeheartedly by Howard because that is exactly how it plays out in his own life.
However much it looks back to the past through Howard’s history classes and modern-day superstitions built upon tantalising myths, and however much it looks to the future via Ruprecht’s heartbreaking and hilarious botched physics experiments, Skippy Dies is resoundingly realistic. Realism means that in this particular wedge of Dublin society, sexism is rampant whether or not it is acknowledged, and race is nonexistent, presumably because Irish boys’ boarding schools of prestige and stature rarely allow in boys of a different hue. Worse still, crimes are committed by figures of authority, and religion and traditionalism hang like dank spectres over the general psyche seduced by the usual suspects of modern life. There are abusive priests, negligent parents, and profit-and-glory-chasing teachers and headmasters. If anything, Skippy Dies is proof of how the stratified social hierarchies inherent within late modernist society is its own straitjacket – stifling not only the people it hopes to manage, organise, and categorise – but the very ideals of society it wants to promote.
Towards the end, the life lessons inflicted upon Lori have managed to infuse her character with a depth that wasn’t there at the start. But this is also because the objet petit a no longer exists after Skippy dies. Free of Skippy’s adoring gaze, the reader is left to deal with Lori as a real person, all wasted-away flesh and eating disorders and haunted dreams. While Murray’s depiction of Lori sometimes seems a little too familiar – pretty girl with the troubled life and the hidden torment – he nevertheless gently attempts to portray the exigencies faced by a young beautiful girl in a society that demands too much of her in some aspects, and barely nothing in others.
We see things for a little while from Halley’s perspective – hers is a crisp, dry voice that grows on you, but unfortunately she only gets a very small section of the book. In true mythic Goddess form, we only ever see Aurelie through the eyes of others, chiefly Howard’s. Adhering to the predictable modern-day fairytale-gone-wrong trope, the Goddess turns out to be kind of a heartless bitch, after all. Aurelie’s that kind of beautiful woman who leaves the unsuspecting young man confused and a little bereft, , his life turned inside out – touched by Beauty for so short a time.
If all this makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book, this would be untrue. I couldn’t stop reading it because Murray’s skills of writing and storytelling are immense. Skippy Dies is an intensely imaginative experience and a labour of tender love towards its (male) characters. Murray’s writing has the enviable ability to get at the heart of the matter with precision, as when the school principal, also known among the others as the Automator, tells Howard, “Dreaming’s not something we encourage here either, Howard. Reality, that’s what we’re all about. Reality: objective, empirical truths.”
Reality is what Skippy Dies is fundamentally about, as well, precisely because the dreaming proves to be painful and regrettably more real than reality itself.
P/S (Oct 21): For the longest time I was trying to remember what Skippy Dies vaguely reminded me of, and it just hit me today: Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club. Posh boys’ school, beautiful girl as object of attention, male friendships. But somehow, Coe’s book somehow did it better, if I remember correctly. It’s been years since I read it. It’s due for a reread.
October 12, 2010 § Leave a comment
A couple of new posts up at We Are the Cocoa to Your Puffs! Go read! (Please.)
October 9, 2010 § Leave a comment
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was initially meant to be my bedtime reading, a sort of break from the cacophony of voices that litter Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives when it clearly became much too noisy to handle before my nocturnal wind-down. Bluets is another one of those genre-fucking books like Bolano’s, and written with such clear-headed evaluation for both personal pain and philosophical observation that it did nothing to help me sleep – by the end of it, I was sobbing into my pillow.
So… restful read? Not so much.
It seemed interesting to me, or sort of serendipitous not in a romantic-comedy way but in a sad literary way that the two books I picked to read concurrently were not written in easily-identifiable forms. The publisher of Bluets, Wave Books, categorises the book under “Essay/Literature”, although I’m unsure if 240 propositions constitute an essay. Maggie Nelson is known for having written both poetry and intriguing works of nonfiction in the past, and for me it seems like Bluets is poetry done as philosophy.
“Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition,” is something that Wittgenstein said, and it comes as no surprise that in interviews Nelson has alluded to Wittgenstein’s influence on Bluets. Having never read her other work, it’s useless for me to say that Nelson seems to make a home in, and out of, poetry. However, her approach to theorising colour, by way of personal experience and singularly, by way of emotional pain, seems to have been tailor-made for prose that is expressly poetic. And by “poetic”, I mean language that is highly-attuned to itself, not merely to narrate or describe or explain, but by its very act of creation, language that allows itself simply to be and permits fluid, changing modes of expression – from confessional to abstract.
Philosophy is an inquiry into the nature of things – forgive me if there’s something more abstract to it than that. And Nelson’s inquiry into the nature of colour – the colour blue, that is – is delicately layered between two over-arching themes; that of love or obsession or coupled with desire (who can tell the difference, sometimes?) and loss. Nelson’s exploration of loss is intrinsically aware of its relation to yearning; that you can only lose what you had and all yearning is the consistent pining for something or someone you had for awhile and is now gone. In Bluets, this is explored through the speaker’s deep loss over a terminated love affair as well as through Nelson’s shared anguish with a good friend’s loss of her physically-mobile, able-bodied self after a serious accident.
With references to Goethe’s Theory of Colours, Mallarme, Leonard Cohen, Catherine Millet, Cezanne, Gertrude Stein, and various miscellaneous real-life and fictional people of religion, literature, science, and philosophy, Bluets is a solid testament of the work of art in the Information Age. The reading experience of Bluets is so smooth yet if you flip through the pages it appears to be nothing more than a cobbling together of information, facts, tidbits and interesting “nuggets” in 240 paragraphs of varying length. But the propositions are schematic, layered, and ordered – each inquiry into a quote, or a piece of information, is the backdrop for further exploration of an idea, such as:
69. When I see photographs of these blue bowers, I feel so much desire that I feel I might have been born into the wrong species.
70. Am I trying, with these “propositions,” to build some kind of bower? – But surely this would be a mistake. For starters, words do not look like the things they designate (Maurice Merleau-Ponty).
71. I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.
72. It’s easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or at least keep me company within it? – No, not exactly. It cannot love me that way; it has no arms. But sometimes I do feel its presence as a sort of wink – Here you are again, it says, and so am I.
Bluets can look like an easy Facebook note patched-together with random factoids, but the proliferation of ideas from these bits and pieces of carefully-reconstructed information is stunning. Nelson deftly weaves acutely-felt emotions into her intellectual musings. Can desire be satisfied with not-having its wants fulfilled? Yearning thrives on unfulfilment; desire too is properly set aflame only from a distance. “Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning.” Much of Nelson’s explorations on love acknowledges its Janusian other face, obsession. If love sets you free, supposedly, obsession is right there to tie you down. How is loving a colour different from loving a person? “Are you sure – one would like to ask – that it cannot love you back?”
What of the female gaze? “There are those, however, who like to look. And we have not yet heard enough, if anything, about the female gaze. About the scorch of it, with the eyes staying in the head.” There are numerous references to “fucking” – an interesting choice of word when used in relation to the intensity of her obsession with the man in question. No “making love” here; straightforward lust is juxtaposed with endless longing for the other person who cannot be had. It’s a deeply-unsettling effect, as when she writes: “Fucking leaves everything as it is” (italics hers) only to say this, pages later: “For better or for worse, I do not think that writing changes things very much, if at all. For the most part, I think it leaves everything as it is.” From writing to fucking to creating – everything leaves things as it is yet seems to profoundly alter the subject behind those acts.
One gets the impression that Nelson wrote Bluets mainly as a form of record-keeping, in the manner in which writers can sometimes take comfort and pleasure in how words on a page can give shape to memory and stand testament to a lived experience. The intellectual inquiries into the nature of things and ideas and people form the architecture of this house of words; but it’s the emotions germinated by those cerebral explorations that inhabit every room and fill the space of every corner.
Fittingly, the final page contains this proposition:
238. I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would have rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.
Bluets is a thin, unassuming book that runs riot in ideas and feelings, the kind that makes your head and heart ache with newly-blooming thoughts and feelings just like the best poetry and philosophy should do – regardless of what you want to call it.