“Everything that begins as a comedy ends as a horror movie”

September 30, 2010 § 3 Comments

Writing about The Savage Detectives will not be easy, I thought, as I ploughed through its 570 or so odd pages, and now that I’ve started, writing about it is not easy. This is more of a record-keeping; an attempt to make a note on my blog that I’ve read it and spent about two weeks in the company of a large rotating cast of characters whom I’ve not met before but with whom I’ve consented to go on a road trip. The book itself is centred upon a road trip – a road trip that is actually a calculated getaway – that starts on page 124, and then not mentioned again until page 527. The time in-between is the time you spend in a dodgy rest-stop with people who come up to you and tell you their fractured stories; stories that have absolutely nothing to do with what you started out doing but which draw you in anyway.

Beginning with the journal entries of one seventeen-year-old Juan Garcia Madero, who is invited to join a literary movement of Mexican poets, the visceral realists, where he meets the enigmatic poets and men of letters Ulises Lima and his Chilean literary comrade Arturo Belano, the book segues into 400 pages of first-person narrations of various people who have met Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano in various places and in various guises, before returning us into the journalling hands of Madero again for the final 70 pages. This story is not a story, and The Savage Detectives is not really a novel. And the plot that is not a plot focuses on Belano and Lima’s quest for a Mexican poet, Cesarea Tinajero, whose work and person is spoken of in tones of reverence, but without any of this work or person present.

What is astonishing about The Savage Detectives to 21st-century sensibilities finely-attuned to short blocks of texts, sentences in under 140 characters, and BULLET! POINTS! is the incredible depth and breadth of its prose. It soars, it swoops, it lingers on windowsills, it sticks its beak into fountains, it spreads its wings, and it flies, thanks in large part to Natasha Wimmer’s translation, which seems to have been a stupendous labour of love. The Savage Detectives is, in essence, formless as far as novels proper go, but it creates its own form in the polyphony of voices that take up the role of one or several key traditional narrators. Bolano’s early training in poetry is apparent in the supple grace of his prose, where regular sentences thrum with an intrinsic rhythm and an ever-present stamina that allows them to go on for what seem like miles and miles of page before coming to a breathless but triumphant stop. If T.S. Eliot measured out his life in coffee spoons, then Bolano’s characters seem to measure their lives in gulps – as much as they can drink, consume, breathe, and take in where people, reading, writing, sex, experiences, and ideas are concerned.

The heart of the story ostensibly concerns Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano’s hunt for Cesarea Tinajero, a heart which then shrivels into a primary obsession of knowing about Lima and Belano, before blooming outward into an orchestra of voices determined to go about the business of knowing themselves. There is no single story that takes us through Lima and Belano’s path; instead, the heteroglossia of Bolano’s prose sends the reader hurtling through time and space with disparate memories stemming from disparate subjects as the sole existing map. The increasing thinness of Lima and Belano’s characters are little pinpricks to the consciousness and they disappear, then reappear – don’t forget, Bolano seems to say, it’s them we really want to know – while the chorus of narratives keep getting louder and louder, taking us away from what we really set out to learn at the start of the book.

In The Savage Detectives, Bolano has made a case for all knowledge being primarily selfish – in that, we crave knowledge of others, ideas, and events in order to better know ourselves. In Bolano’s hands, this isn’t a hearkening back to Enlightenment values of the liberal individual so much as it is a reaffirmation of Bakthin’s concept of the Rabelaisan carnival in which the collective body (or is it the bodies of collectivity?) influence one another and circulate amongst each other precisely to subvert the status quo. Humour is an essential component of Bolano’s sensibility, with a finely-attuned ear for both the absurd and the sweet, where women tell sexually-insecure burgeoning poets things like, “You are who you are and you have a cock that’s worth its weight in gold.” Madero masturbates to poetry; there are intense discussions among the visceral realists about the difference between “queer and faggot poets” that is futile and doomed to its own feeble circulatory logic from the start. Bolano has the ability to invite the reader to laugh – fondly – with and at his characters.

Bolano, as depicted by The New Yorker

While the ribald humour is often undercut by sadness and isolation, the plurality of consciousness is the truth; there is no truth that is unified and knowable by one subject. Each of the characters the reader meets in the book are pieces of the puzzle, but because they’re animate beings instead of bits of little cardboard, you can never really expect them to come together in a perfect finish and provide the single solution to all your questions. One gets the sense that each of the narrators is rebelling against a preconditioned sense of self as determined by society – particularly in the character of Joaquin Font, the town lunatic with the mental resources to pierce into the profound but more often banal unvarnished reality.

Bolano’s female narrators are particularly arresting, their voices imbued with a percolating sense of energy that propels the story forward in new and exciting ways. This is interesting, as some of his male narrators reveal themselves to be absurdly stupid in sexist ways – not least Arturo Belano himself, modelled after Bolano (if the name wasn’t a hint), and prone to occasionally slapping women both for sexual excitement and out of anger – but his female narrators, particularly Xochitl Garcia, Maria Font, Angelica Font, and Auxilio Lacouture, always seem to exist on the periphery of what’s acceptable, negotiating and renegotiating their space in society. Auxilio, in particular, comes fully-formed with a distinctive voice and a bizarre, captivating story centred on her hide-out in the bathroom of the National Autonomous University of Mexico as the army invades the campus before the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. It’s no surprise that Amulet, a novel that Bolano wrote after The Savage Detectives, is hers alone. Auxilio’s voice is a voice that deserves its own novel.

The book ends with a question written in Garcia Madero’s journal, reaffirming what one of the narrators earlier said: “Everything that begins as comedy inevitably ends as mystery.” But it’s also a strange and lonely ending; the laugher and freedom and potential of the start both of the book and their journey are marred by inexhaustible problems brought upon by mercurial temperaments and uncontrollable destinies. This, then, brings to mind the words of another narrator: “Everything that begins as comedy ends as a comic monologue, but we aren’t laughing anymore.” The end is a comic monologue by Garcia Madero, but somehow along the way the punch-line was forgotten. The end, however, is a stark reminder of the nature of things in life – you set out asking questions and are rewarded for your brazen curiosity with more questions capable of scrambling your mind beyond recognition to yourself or others.

In terms of its prose, The Savage Detectives is as egalitarian as one could hope, shading Mexico in a rainbow of colours and hues, with narrators coming from diverse layers of society, presenting all the good with all the bad in a way in a way that isn’t good or bad but just is, in a way that only a non-native probably can. (Bolano is Chilean, but lived in Mexico during formative years.) There is a yearning in this reader from the “East”, this third-world location of brown folks, to claim Roberto Bolano as our writer as much as he is yours and the “West’s”. Though The Savage Detectives is deeply rooted in geographic space and location (it feels like Mexico’s dust comes floating out of the pages with every turn, along with its sights, the smells, the sounds), the book itself can compel the average reader to read in Bolano some vestige of a particularly rootless “we are the world” strain of thinking. Therefore it does come as a bit of a disappointing surprise to learn that Bolano had once said in an interview, “Basically, I’m interested in Western literature, and I’m fairly familiar with all of it.”

Say what? Just “Western literature”?

But we all need to have standards and for some of us that means splitting the world in two. Bolano would probably not have cared what some blogger from the non-West would have thought about his book, but now that I’ve read it The Savage Detectives is mine – and yours – as much as it is his. Perhaps that’s the best revenge a non-Western reader can have on Works of Western Literature, but I suppose, really, who’s keeping tabs? Once in awhile a book like The Savage Detectives comes along, rendering borders moot even the creative force behind it sought to keep those borders in place.

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September 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

So I went to the cinema today, bravely, to watch the Mandarin movie Wheat. GSC’s International Screens’ offerings have never pulled in a massive audience. There will not be lines circling the perimeters of the cinema for a movie showing on the International Screen. Typically, there’s simply a bunch of nerdy-types, outlaws and discards – gathered in communal yet estranged appreciation of movies rendered in another language and refusing to make eye-contact with one another lest this horrible infection becomes a permanent disease – standing around waiting to enter the theatre before being spotted by Someone One Knows for daring to watch a movie alone. A movie in another language, mind you.

Some KL-ites can be very mean in a very Mean Girls way towards people who like different things. I mean, especially once they’re out of high school.

Or that’s how it felt, anyway, on this rainy afternoon.

As for Wheat, well, who can remember? I willed myself to sleep through it, because the cinema was freezing and my thin cardigan just wasn’t enough. Also, much focus was on my bladder – the result of a grande vanilla latte prior to the movie. (Note to self: never again; always after, never before.) It’s a testament to the International Screen movies and its popularity among KL folks that it will never be full enough in the theatre that the warmth of many bodies can take your mind of the specially-calibrated Arctic chill.

So… back to the movie. I’m not sure why He Ping decided to make it. You’ll have to ask him.

I think, somewhere along the way – and this is me just randomly attributing intentions to He Ping – he wanted to convey in Wheat the pain of being uprooted from one’s life either literally, by having to go off and fight a war, or symbolically, by having to stay behind in a world emptied of the people who have gone off to fight a war. In 3rd century BC China, this means, of course, men – gone, women – left behind. But somewhere along the way He Ping couldn’t decide if Wheat should be a drama on the condition of human pain and nihilism or a satire on social and economic politics, or just something he lost interest in doing along the way, and the result is a potently snooze-worthy mix of bad dialogue, stilted acting, and over-the-top, cringeworthy performances by the resident “clown” named Zhe, played by Du Jua Yi.

But hey, outside of this movie, they are hot. (But the green belt... um?)

The historical context was played down in favour of individual character development – which would have worked had the characters been strong enough to merit focus. The cinematography worked wonders in rendering a particular slice of 3rd BC China as its own character, much more than any of the human characters, to be sure; the visuals of sumptuously-coloured fields and the women’s plain white linen costumes create effects that are certainly beautiful, but which ultimately lack resonance because the movie on the whole is neither here nor there. The slapstick humour was basically a ham-handed way of exploring the absurdity of war and the spread of information in wartime, and that’s just too bad, because you know, it sort of had to be funny to work.

There are lots of shots of manly buttocks wiggling like jelly in the men’s G-string type contraptions that involved long swathes of fabric in a skirt-pants type thing that covered their calves and part of their thighs but not the buttocks. Lord knows what these things are called; but only lord really knows if peasant men dressed that way back then. In any case, even if they did, He Ping’s choice to focus on the cavorting Zhe and his bare buttocks was just odd; as a spectator our gaze is directed there, but it’s unclear why. Something about the framing of Zhe’s buttocks felt as hackneyed and absurd as the character itself, and it seemed to be shown merely to titillate the viewer, but all it did was alienate the viewer (or perhaps just me) in the most disconcerting way. And I say this as a fan of men’s bums. Generally-speaking.

But the thing I found most annoying was how, in the women-occupied village to which these two military deserters found themselves, the potential for erotic play and desire gone haywire was just RIPE for the taking but completely ignored by He Ping except as a catalyst for one or two badly-written and badly-conceived bawdy jokes. I mean, these women constituted a veritable army of desire; when the other non-clown, actual manly-man male character was passed out drunk, some of the women rubbed their faces against his bare torso and squealed, “Ah, how I love the smell of alcohol on his skin!” or something to that effect. PURE POTENTIAL. Unfortunately, all that happened after that is everyone stumbled about artificially-drunk and the village shaman started having fits, and the whole party had to come to a stop.

Bla bla bla, some tears; shots of wheat fields; close-ups of Fan Bingbing’s luminous face; close-ups of Fan Bingbing missing her husband and replaying an erotic scene in her head after which she rolls around in a piece of red cloth; close-ups of dewy, quivering leaves; lots of high-pitched women yelling, squealing, shouting; the two men and their wiggling buttocks; very, very bad slapstick that was basically a waste of movie-watching time; and then, and then! The movie ends.

(This is not really a review. But you knew that.)

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the blues

September 15, 2010 § 2 Comments

“The blues” is such a nice way to say I’m feeling fucking sad for no reason and I’ve no fucking idea why. You can roll your tongue over the word “blue” and feel that you’ve just made something beautiful; sadness put to some useful aesthetic use. Partly this stems from having just finished Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which is very blue indeed. It is ripe with loss on every page; it was too much for me to read all at once. I read bits before bed and had blue dreams and woke up feeling blue. To those of you reading it for the first time I’d suggest not reading it in winter, or before bed, or during, you know, the dark night of the soul. Read it when the soul is sunny.

I also just finished Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives and think that it’s a book that absolutely refuses to be talked about or analysed. I can’t seem to think about it. It seems, more than any other book I’ve read in awhile, to be 577 pages of sentences to be read, experienced, and then put aside. A part of me feels that the act of rumination or analysis will be pointless. But we’ll see what I can make of it. The point of this blog was to train my mind to make sense of absolutely anything. It’s proving harder than I thought; my lazy mind is prone to languishing in feeling and very resistant to thought.

Blueness is further exacerbated by having also just finished Skim, one of the saddest and loveliest graphic novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. The illustrations by Jillian Tamaki are heartrending all on their own; if there were ever a person meant to draw loneliness, isolation, and confusion with tender attention to detail, it’s probably Jillian Tamaki. Just the curve of Kim’s jaw, or the small line of her smile, allows the reader full access into the gamut of emotions that riddles her character from one panel to the next. This is not to say that Mariko Tamaki didn’t do a thoughtful and sensitive job with the words; but I can’t imagine this book being as good as it is if it was illustrated by someone else without Jillian Tamaki’s artistic sensibilities.

But it’s also an essentially sad book. And all this sad reading, combined with the thick blanket of clouds that have been a daily staple of the KL skies over the last week – reminding me of Winnipeg fall days, makes me feel adrift and restless, and just a touch blue.

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The piecemeal body of subjectivity

September 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

The most arresting symbol of capitalist realism or what I like to call postmodern madness and its infliction upon the individual person is probably that of the mutilated body. The stabbed, sawn-off, hacked-off body parts represent the end of The Body, alarmingly parallel to the end of a whole, linear narrative. The butchered body is a solemn testament to the butchered societal and cultural psyche.

Are we not all in agreement here?

I’m referring to, particularly, the mutilated, hacked-apart bodies that litter the cinematic landscape of Repo Men, directed by Miguel Sapochnik. All the things that you want to buy and can’t afford, like cars, homes, and hell, boats, are ever-so-kindly put on credit so that you can consume and enjoy it immediately and suffer for it later. It’s just the way of the world. In Repo Men, this idea is extended to individual body parts and organs that malfunction. With the help of an uber-evil corporate behemoth called The Union, sick people who don’t have the money to afford a new heart or a new liver or kneecaps (and in the case of hyper-capitalism operating at its illogical best, this includes most people) can technically “buy now and pay later” through a series of payments in installment. The catch is that once you’ve ignored your late payment notifications a few times, repossession men (yes, they’re all men) come in, cut you apart, remove your organ/body part, and leave you unattended without medical care to die.

Does the idea of this truly shock? I think most people can, on some level, accept this is a very possible scenario in the near future. We’re one with our gadgets and things; the objects that we own become an extension of us. It seems only inevitable that our body is similarly broken down into parts; parts removed and inserted at will. The final element – the fear of death – seems to be about the only truly human instinct that still operates at both a conscious and unconscious level.

Several things interest me about Repo Men, namely, the way in which the mechanical body parts and organs are removed from human bodies. There is beauty and precision to the way in which the repossession men, played by Jude Law and Forest Whitaker, perform the various “surgeries”. It is Cutting -Up a Body as Performance, done with flourish, care, and attention to the aesthetics of the butchery. That the human body is left to then drown in its own pool of blood is irrelevant. The fetishized mechanical body part/organ has been retrieved, and placed with love into its proper home – because it’s real home is never really the human body. No one can afford to pay for these things; no one has these things in their body for more than a few months before the bodies are cut up again and the things removed. These things continue to circulate within a steady rotation of ugly, failing human bodies, but its real place is only within itself. Bodies belong to it, but it doesn’t belong to anyone.

The thing about Repo Men is that the narrative falters and flails at moments in a way that does great disservice to what seems to be an intelligent story. Similarly, the dialogue also ebbs and flows along a haphazard line; sometimes sharp, nuanced, and piercing in its observations (Jude Law’s character, Jake, gets these lines) while sometimes falling into hackneyed, cheesy, Hollywood predictability (Forest Whitaker’s two-dimensional character, Remy, gets all these lines). For that reason I think Jude Law gives one of the more intriguing performances I’ve seen him give in a long time. Maybe ever. And for that same reason, Forest Whitaker’s performance is trite and unconvincing, as though he’s trying to convince himself with effort throughout to believe in the trite and unconvincing things his character is supposed to believe in. But the entire movie operates on this level – the story is never allowed to really explore the ramifications or possibilities of its own ideas, and when all else fails, the creators of the movie seemed to have said, “Oh well, let’s not get too thoughtful. Give them predictable Hollywood-style action and dumb platitudes! Because we’re fucking tired and lets’ get this movie done already.”

A small picture to break the monotony of text

What fascinates me most is the vitriol with which movie critics and reviewers have received the movie. Massive amounts of squishy, mildewed tomatoes have been thrown at it. The reviews don’t seem to be content with saying, “This movie is bad because I hated it!” but seem to take it personally, are almost affronted and offended by the entire experience. This intrigues and puzzles me, because the movie is not that much worse than any other junk that Hollywood routinely churns out – in fact, in certain aspects, I consider it to be intellectually-superior to some truly asinine shoot ‘em up movies.

Which leads me to think that perhaps these reviewers object to the lack of distance between us, the audience, and the spectacle on-screen. Repo Men puts quite a bit of effort into making blood, mutilation and butchery appear aesthetically-pleasing. (The entire movie presents a near dystopian future that is visually-pleasing, even when it takes us into the slums of the slums where the poorest of the poor live – very Cronenberg, the visual spectacle of gritty biology.) There is also a strong element of the eroticisation of not so much of violence, but bodily-mutilation – self and mutual. There is a sex/cutting up scene that, for me, was as equally sexy as it was repulsive. I wasn’t quite sure what to feel; even more, I was deeply anxious if what I felt was normal. Susan Sontag, in her ‘Imagination of Disaster’ essay, talked about how horror and science-fiction films sometimes strive to supply “extreme moral simplification” that presents a “morally acceptable fantasy where one can give outlet to cruel or at least amoral feelings.” It’s easy to revel in the killing and the mutilation if one can also be morally-distanced and superior all at once, i.e. “We’re saving the world”, “It’s those evil/horrible/ugly inhuman aliens/monsters we’re killing”, or “The monster was going to get me.”

Sontag was talking specifically in the context of sci-fi and horror films, of course, but in the case of typical thrillers and action movies the monster/alien is analogous to the evil person/terrorist/criminal person, and while still human, these are humans possessed of bad, mad, morally-suspect qualities. So it’s okay to enjoy the killing and violence of these bad humans or other nonhuman beings. The good guy triumphs, and all that. But Repo Men shows the spectacle of killing among “innocents” by “innocents”, to be sure, because it’s shallow to assume that Jake and Remy are evil people when they’re merely pawns in a all-encompassing system. Or maybe the reverse applies, and we’re all equally criminal. “A job’s a job,” says Remy, which is what you and I tell ourselves to get through a life. But the line between the morally-superior audience and the degenerate bad guys on the screen is fuzzy. The blood, the mutilation, the beauty, the sex – it all invites the audience to identify with the dead and the killers.

I’m sure this discomfort of not knowing whether to enjoy, be turned, be repulsed, or be all at once is draining on an attention span that is already trying to make sense of the at-times incoherent narrative. What modern attention spans want is the comfort of logic. There are people questioning the speed and alacrity with which Jake falls in love with Beth (played by Alice Braga); it seems to make no sense, they say. But Beth is broken on the inside – made up solely of various body parts and organs. Jake feels broken on the inside. Her literal insides mirror his metaphorical insides. I would be surprised if they didn’t fall in love. But also, most important in a movie that finally accedes to age-old Hollywood tradition: two mutually-hot people in any movie must eventually find each other.

But then again, maybe people loathed the movie so much because the ending was a lazy cop-out. Nolan’s Inception ending was a well-done, intelligently-filmed and stylish lazy cop-out, too, in a way, but at least it had the confidence to allow its audience to enjoy the imaginary pleasure of participating in a Thinking Person’s Movie. But Sapochnik’s ending is a little too eager to sacrifice a story in service of coming out with a potential blockbuster hit, and it shows. Moreover, it probably indicates a need on movie-going audiences everywhere for an Aristotelian moment of catharsis that makes every horrible moment worthwhile in the end, if it’s for the greater good of society – or someone. Repo Men hits too close to home with a stupid ending without a purpose; it’s much like life as most people know it, but after the carnage of blood and mutilation we’ve been subjected to onscreen, it becomes a bit harder to have any sort of energy to buy into the movie’s version of what’s real.

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Because it is a heel, because it is very high

September 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

I suppose I’ve reached my saturation point on a certain sort of feminist art; nope, I do not find miniskirts and bikinis and makeup liberating. You can feel oppressed by seeing a woman in hijab; I can feel oppressed by hotsy-totsy dustjacket photos of women writers. It’s where we come from, I guess.

This was written in the Arabic Literature (in English) blog in response to a profile on Joumana Haddad; something about those words made me want to stand up and applaud, except that I was sitting alone in front of my laptop and I already get enough strange looks from my dog when I talk to myself.

These words are not new or revolutionary, but it sort of triggered something new in me. Let me call it the Treatise on the Objection to the Wearing of High Heels, Particularly When It Applies to Myself. I have made my peace with make-up; by which I mean that I have learned that using it whenever you want to use it is basically fun, and by which I also mean that sometimes like me, you, and everyone I know, I succumb to societal pressure and wear it when I have to Face The World in important ways – job interviews, weddings, stalking hot men. Sometimes, railing against societal constructs is just exhausting, especially since I belong to and participate in society. It’s the bloody crisis of humankind, isn’t it? To rail against, then succumb.

There may be hypocrisy to why I object to high heels more than make-up, I freely admit. I have not yet learned how to make sense of and reconcile these hypocrisies. This is why I have a blog.

It’s wearying, having to defend my decision to not want to wear high heels to certain women, in particular, who identify as “feminist” (understandably a loaded and undeniably tainted word, in my respects) and who, for example, will vociferously defend the right of, say, a Muslim woman to wear or not wear the hijab or niqab. However, these same women will try to exhort you, quite forcefully in fact, to wear high heels. And if you tell them how you’ve worn them in the past and you could care less whether they made your calves look slimmer and your butt perkier, how it hurt and felt uncomfortable and that you hate how unfriendly they feel on your feet after a few hours, they tsk-tsk and shake their heads and say, “Subashini, you simply need to practice wearing them. They’re sexy! They make every woman look thinner! It looks professional!” and so on. And on, and on, and on. But more important, there is that exhortation to practice wearing them.

Well, if I really, really, really wanted to wear high heels, I probably would practice wearing them, like practicing ballet or piano or dribbling a football or, you know, other types of skilled activities that can give one immense contentment. But if I really, really, really find them uncomfortable and dislike the pain that follows after a few hours of wearing them, and if I admit to this discomfort and dislike, it somehow implies a distinct laziness on my part. For not practising wearing high heels enough and refusing to make the effort.

What do you want from me?

Well, I shake my fist at you, damn you, and tell you that I feel oppressed by high heels. I feel browbeaten by the tyranny of high heels. Take that, feminine feminist. Take that, fashionable person. Take that, Victoria Beckham. I’m not telling you that you should feel oppressed by high heels. I’m saying that I am, which does not mean that I’ll always and forever NOT wear them, but I’ll probably very rarely wear them. But if you want to wear them, and run in them, and do whatever you want in them, please go right ahead. But do stop telling me that I have to wear them.

(So much for being objective. This is an extended personal rant to all the people of my past who tried to force me to wear high heels. You know who you are. May you, for one week, dream nightly of sharp stilettos poking into your ribs.)

Which brings me back to the initial quote about Joumana Haddad. I know very little about Joumana Haddad, and the first I heard of her was via this profile in The Guardian. While I find some of her pronouncements quite troubling, I won’t say very much about it because other folks with a strong sense of the Arab context have already done so.

What troubled me more was the journalist’s approach, which certainly became uncritically breathless when it arrived at the subject of Joumana’s physical presence. Beautiful or no, flamboyant or no, it seems that people who want to make a point about feminists! who are beautiful and feminine, too! are just further contributing to the ridiculous notion that beautiful, feminine women who are committed to women’s issues are somehow more special or worthy of note. Like, you know, it’s so predictable that ugly women will be feminists, but a hot! flamboyant! one! How rare a specimen! *breathless* Which is all the more ironic when you read the article, because it seems like Joumana herself seems to be exactly the kind of person who would object to such reductive representations.

Being comfortable with one’s body doesn’t necessarily correlate with being able to wear “sexy” clothes. Being comfortable with one’s body doesn’t necessarily correlate to being comfortable with one’s thoughts. Displaying one’s body explicitly at all-times in skin-revealing clothes doesn’t necessarily translate to being comfortable with one’s body any more than being a pedantic, patronising loudmouth makes one patently comfortable with one’s thoughts.

I mean, if being liberated in one’s thoughts and spirit, and being comfortable with oneself and one’s body can be easily achieved by wearing lipstick, or a miniskirt, or a tube top, or high heels, or letting your hair down, then we would all of us be free. Free, at last!

I will celebrate this moment with another pair of flats soon. Very soon.

(The title of this blog post owes its existence, somewhat, to Joyce Carol Oates.)

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i don’t think you’re ready for this hairy

September 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Eyebrows. I’m thinking of eyebrows as I continue to read Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Other Essays. It’s a book to savour, because I really like going over her prose – it’s so clean, precise and economical. It’s so confident. Even when she goes off on another tirade about what art is and what art is not and you want to go, “Oh, Susan, hush!”, you can’t stop reading. How can you not enjoy reading a writer who thinks her way through everything? Even if, had we ever met, she would have most likely seen me as a little human cockroach.

But the reason for the eyebrows is that every so often, I’ll read a few sentences, and then stop. Inevitably, I’ll hold the page with my finger and turn to stare at the cover. I was mesmerised by those formidable eyebrows. How many women these days allow themselves to maintain their bold, strong eyebrows? I look around at the women in Kuala Lumpur and I see sameness even when the faces are far from similar – and I suspect this has to do with the Tyranny of the Characterless Eyebrow. On (mostly) every female face, twin wisps of whatever masquerading as eyebrows. Slim lines of uniformity. Interesting faces with those endlessly-tweezed, threaded, and plucked fine lines of eyebrows make me a little depressed; there are so many ways we’re made to alter our appearance to suit what’s in or what’s currently being perpetuated as the ideal standards of beauty – eyebrows seemed like the last bastion of individuality which we were all too ready to give up.

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with naturally-thin eyebrows. Pardon me if I sound a little like the Eyebrow Nazi; that’s the furthest thing I want to be. I just object to those wispy-lines that pass off as eyebrows; those little bolts of hair that have been forced to adhere to bizarre and mutable beauty ideals. No more, I say. Today, we stop this madness. Today,we embrace our eyebrows as they are. We Take Back the Eyebrows.

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The small matter of paganism

September 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

This book was meant to be included in a Tam Lin-themed review/essay that I had happily planned a few months ago; however, I have a hard time shutting up and keeping quiet (on the page, that is). The essay ballooned to unreadable proportions, and also, I lost track of my Tam Lin reading and was easily diverted by other books. Hence, I’ll just review the books as individual ones.


Set in 16th-century Tudor England, The Perilous Gard weaves the basic premise of the Tam Lin ballad with ancient Celtic mythology and pagan beliefs. Our heroine has attributes typical of most YA fiction – neither pretty nor charming, Kate Sutton stands out for having brains, gumption, and a propensity for risky endeavours. Elizabeth Marie Pope is likewise (thankfully) an intelligent writer, and take risks with her character that allows Kate to be both typical and untypical. Kate strikes just the right chord between disbelief and the need to belief, and it is this quality that makes her rather endearing for most o f the first three-quarters of the book; furthermore, she’s awkward and not quite shy, but not quite articulate either (which doesn’t stop her from speaking her mind). A rather prickly but formidable blend of contradictory qualities makes Kate a pleasure to be with on the whole.

For the most part of the book Kate is largely alone, making sense of the world and the bizarre occurrences and people around her with minimal meaningful interaction with others, exiled as she is to a remote castle in the north country due to some freak misunderstanding involving herself, her sister, and the manic Queen Mary of Tudor. Relinquished from her post as lady-in-waiting to the Queen’s sister, Lady Katherine, Kate must now simply… go and live under the care of Sir Geoffrey, a friend of the Queen’s, in this relic from the ancient past, this old stone castle also known as the Perilous Gard for reasons that will soon become clear.

The plot devices are all in place: a mysterious castle, an impenetrable ancestry, strange locals who are strangely suspicious of the strange staff of the castle, a missing young girl, an eccentric but attractive young man (Sir Geoffrey’s younger brother, Christopher Heron), plenty of spare time for the lead character with nothing to do. Pope deftly weaves this all into a subtly creepy and immensely fascinating story. Long, descriptive passages on scenery and location can be tedious in the hands of a writer who uses descriptive writing as filler, but Pope’s prose is like latticework; intricate and tight and delightful in its precision and discipline. The geographic location, as it turns out, is essential to understanding the mechanisms of life for a certain group of “fairy folk”, and while the Tam Lin theme is recognisable to everyone who’s heard about or read the ballad, Pope is a scholar of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England who has set out to tell a different tale – that of the coming of Christianity and the exile of pagan belief.

The premise of The Perilous Gard hinges on this question: what if pagan religious beliefs and rituals were never really stamped out, but simply gone underground and into hiding? Pope has used a lot of material from Celtic and Welsh myths, as well as borrowed themes from the Mabinogion (a collection of folktales drawn from pre-Christian Celtic mythology) and bits of mediaeval history. Without giving away too much of the plot, Pope manages to weave in descriptions of the pagan folk (known as Fairy Folk in the book) and their rituals in delicious detail. Neither sentimental nor rigid, the initial descriptions of the Fairy Folk and their practices are explored in a spare, haunting tone that sets the mood for both interest and a vague sense of prickly discomfort.

My own interest in pre-Christian pagan rituals and/or mythology derives out of a fascination with similar themes in Hinduism, particularly the concept of atman (which is interestingly similar to the explanation given by the Lady of the Fairy Folk quoted below). In the Tam Lin myth, as well, the girl is required to hold on to the boy even as he changes shape and form to various creatures before returning to his own natural form – an idea that seems conceptually related to reincarnation.

No story with a motif borrowed from Tam Lin is complete with a boy, and the boy in question here is the aforementioned Christopher Heron. His interactions with Kate are quite a joy, and their relationship is built upon mutual trust – but more importantly, mutual ribbing. I enjoyed reading the bits where the two engage in conversation – their snarky and occasionally mean jibes were underlined with a sense of hope that went a long way in uplifting the atmosphere of a book that was otherwise sombre, heavy, and dark – a little like how it must feel to wear a Druid’s cloak. Which is perhaps apt in this context.

My main issue with the book is that there isn’t much opportunity to know the Fairy Folk on their own terms, which is a shame, as the short passages where Kate interacts with the Lady (or the “Queen”) and one of the younger adolescent girls, Gwenhyfara, are some of the more arresting bits of the whole book. The Fairy Folk are elegant and utterly devoid of desire or hunger, for the most part, and while they seem remote and aloof, they also seem imbued with a deep, heavy sense of sadness that is never really fully explored. There are allusions to magic that are not quite explored as deeply as I would have preferred as well, and a particular “creature” remains unknown  probably to create a sense of mystery, but which largely contributes to a sense of incompleteness and occasional incoherence.

Towards the end of the book, it becomes clear that Pope has both feet planted safely behind the fence that’s cheering over Christianity’s “win”. Yes, human sacrifices are rather awful, especially so when someone you love is the sacrifice, but there isn’t a sense of palpable sympathy in the book directed towards the pagan believers who were all driven out by at times violent means as a result of the encroachment of a new religion. It is disappointing that Pope, an otherwise thoughtful and intelligent writer, decides to resort to binaries to explain the “us vs. them” scenario – us being the gentle, non-murderous Christians vs. the impenetrable, regal, but clearly heartless pagans. Kate, who while being in difficult situations brought upon by the Fairy Folk had for the most part refused to judge or criticise them for their way of life, suddenly undergoes a change of heart and goes with the explanation one of the village folk gave her earlier on: “They cannot be moved by pity because they have no hearts in their bodies.”

It seems like too quick and simple a resolution for an issue that brought up much questioning and uncertainty earlier on.

This just seems unfair, as the Lady of the Fairy Folk says:

All power comes from life, and when that life is low in the land of the people, they must take it from one who has it, adding his strength to their own, or perish. That is the law which the gods have laid on us; and they themselves cannot alter it. Do not even those of your own faith believe that in the beginning your strength came to you out of a death?

A great question laid down by Pope, but sadly not explored further. It’s unclear if Pope somehow felt she had to resolve or safely elide the more perplexing moral questions by the end of the book because this book is aimed and marketed towards teenagers. But it was quite easily done by weaving the human rituals with the Tam Lin mythology, and as in the case of Tam Lin where the man needs to be saved by the woman before being taken away by “evil” forces, so it is resolved here as “good” having triumphed over evil practices.

That’s just a little too convenient for my taste, certainly, but the book is still finely-written and absorbing, and if it raises more questions than it answers in a way that weakens the narrative towards the end, it still raises interesting ones.

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