August 16, 2016 § Leave a comment
(A shorter version of this review is up on The Star.)
Malaysia’s Original People: Past, Present and Future of the Orang Asli is a dense, far-reaching compendium of essays edited by Kirk Endicott, a professor with the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College in the US. His bio states that Endicott has carried out fieldwork with the Batek and various other Orang Asli groups since the 1970s; hence, this anthology naturally features other academics and researchers who have spent many years with the Orang Asli in various capacities. The essays run the gamut from pieces on Orang Asli religion, language, and culture to the legal battles and political situation that renders them displaced and marginalised within the nationalist framework.
Published by the National University of Singapore, the book is systematically divided into several sections under the categories mentioned above. However, as the writers are mostly academics and researchers, each essay is packed with information from several angles; so an essay on Orang Asli animism and cosmology, for instance, is also rife with facts about the history of oppression they’ve faced on the Malay Peninsula, starting from Malay and Indonesian slave raiders of the 18th and 19th centuries. There is no beating around the bush here in an attempt to neutralise or even erase colonial British and Malaysian government complicity in the systematic displacement and marginalisation of the Orang Asli. In fact, this displacement occurs under the guise of “modernisation”; but as Duncan Haladay shows in his essay, “Notes on the Politics and Philosophy in Orang Asli Studies”, around the 1980s, within the rubric of development, the Orang Asli “were subjected to resettlement and pressures toward acculturation, and their sanctuaries were subjected to appropriation and extensive deforestation”. It cites a case study from 1997 that “government policies … appear to be transforming Orang Asli into a demoralized rural lumpenproletariat”. Not the words you’ll see in local media reports on Orang Asli, which, as multiple essays in this book point out, often quote government officials tied to the Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (JAKOA), which is in itself is part of the problem.
Not quoting these words in a review of this book will be intellectually dishonest; from start to finish, these essays excavate the devastating impact of capitalism via the oil plantation and logging industries, for example, and the bureaucratic nature of the capitalist democracies like Malaysia whose state interests are, with greater intensity and frequency, tied to the profits of corporations. As such, states that claim to protect minorities often make decisions in favour of profit and surplus value to the detriment of its people. This is standard anti-capitalist critique; for many Malaysians, however, the ideas might seem new, even ludicrous. We are often encouraged to think of “development” as an abstract idea that is for the greater good, but the Orang Asli were aware of the rampant consumption of resources required for development as a potential ecological and natural disaster from decades ago.
Because it’s written by academics, some essays tend to read as though they were written for other academics and the non-specialist reader might find certain words and terms going over her head. While the essays on Orang Asli religion are fascinating, they are complex and verbose; whole pages were sometimes indecipherable to me because it merely regurgitated a string of words in Orang Asli languages, couched between linguistic concepts, terms, and phrases. Despite these occasional hurdles, these essays demonstrate that Orang Asli beliefs about animism and interconnectedness between humans and non-humans are the key to how they manage the land and resources. It’s not that Orang Asli abstain from eating meat, or clearing land; it’s that they do it within a belief system that says they shouldn’t take more than they should, and that for what is taken, something should be done on the part of humans to restore the balance. As such, blaming indigenous practices of slash-and-burn on the yearly haze, for example, is outright falsification by logging and oil palm companies and stakeholders in order to maintain their image.
Orang Asli practices are managed for the greater good of the community that abhors greed; a key tenet is that one group or family should never have more than the other. They see their biological and spiritual wellbeing as tied to the land and the trees, the rivers, and the wildlife. An interesting concept among most Orang Asli groups is the taboo about mocking or insulting nonhuman life. This is an idea that is almost alien to the money-obsessed, work-driven middle-class urban professionals. To me it demonstrates something beautiful; the value of words and ideas, and the effect it has on one’s own wellbeing and one’s community and family. This interconnectedness makes it hard to close one eye and sanction widespread ecological destruction through various excuses, such as “We need to modernise” or “The technology helps us in the end”. The oil palm industry, on the other hand, is built on profit and works within a system that rewards people who gain more at the expense of others. Whose practices do you think is destructive to the environment?
Another key point is the practice of nonviolence among the Orang Asli; researchers who have lived with them for years explore how it is possible that they never abused their children, or their wives, even when they disagreed. To me, this is astonishing: no child abuse, no rape. These disagreements are always sorted out verbally through intense discussions; and it’s never individualised, as all parties involved must participate. Some speculate that their adherence to non-violence grew out of a reaction to the brutalities faced by the Orang Asli when slave-raiders regularly tore threw the forest to abduct them. Interestingly, a concomitant fact about their practice of non-violence is the communal nature of their societies. Private property doesn’t exist; in the instances where some Orang Asli groups tried to absorb capitalist values and enter into market-based living, earning more at the expense of others, their attitudes changed, and they became selfish. They hoarded what was theirs, which was alien to most Orang Asli. The connection between private property and violence is interesting, here, but as these are anthropologists and not Marxists, it’s not explored in detail.
Malaysia’s Original People is required reading for all Malaysians, but it’s heft and price may be a detriment to some. It’s too bad that such information is not widely available to local readers by local publishers at affordable prices; reading about these issues will engender a seismic shift in most Malaysians’ thinking and our ready acceptance of capitalist values as the best values for competition, innovation, and development. Seen from the point of view of the Orang Asli, however, it looks different. They foresaw the dystopian future most of us are now aware of with regards to climate change from more than a mile away. However, they continue to struggle against oppression against a nationalist framework that valorises them as “the original people” in theory, but in practice, ensures that they remain irrelevant and on the margins, displaced in resettlement villages, and left out of educational opportunities that lead to better-paying jobs. Forced out of the forest by an intricate legal framework that gazettes their ancestral land for “wildlife reserves” (oh, the irony) and development, and forced to assimilate into Malayness (an official “secret” until the 1990s, as Diana Riboli’s essay makes clear), some of the Orang Asli have survived by retreating further back into the forest and refusing the state’s demands to assimilate, convert into another religion, and erase themselves. More Malaysians should learn not to accept what’s being done to them in the name of a so-called developed Malaysia. We, like the Orang Asli, should learn how to say no.
June 24, 2014 § 53 Comments
Rodger believed his proximity to whiteness (and wealth) ought to have guaranteed him elevated status and whatever objects of his desire (in this case, white women).
Rodger’s words feel viscerally familiar to me; I, and many other women, have known men like Rodger. I’ll go further and say that as a southeast Asian woman of color growing up in the Bay Area, I’ve known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of color, like Rodger. Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness. Men who routinely degraded the poorer or darker-skinned Asian women and other women of color in their communities.
Reading Elaine Castillo on race, economies of desire, proximity to whiteness / aspirations to whiteness, and recognising some of these effects in Malaysia. I wish I had the words. I don’t have it, I think, I’m stumbling and fumbling and unsure, but I want to put this down and lay it out. Although Elaine is specifically talking about growing up Filipino in the States, living in Malaysia and having met and known Asian men in Canada I too have known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of colour like Rodger. “Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness.” On the flipside, I have also known women who openly worshipped white men and women, openly desired to be white women. I don’t say this to make some flat equivalence and to erase the work of gender. I say this because whiteness is always there in post-colonial Malaysia, even when it’s not there.
To see the world refracted through American conceptions of race would be a reductive, flawed thing—but I’m also not sure what is to be done, or how to think through, the invisible whiteness that structures economies of desire in “post”-colonial Southeast Asian nations. The way in which aspiring to a life of American whiteness, where apparently everything is better, where even democracy is “cleaner”, structures the political and social investments of the middle and upper classes in Malaysia; the people who have the say, the people whose fucking votes matter. That it’s so banal, so normal, this Americanisation of the world—even in parts of the world that just saw the British leave.
Out goes the white man and in comes another; where would [we / the world] be without them.
A part of this circling around what I’m most ashamed to say: that I grew up thinking white men were better, that I believed somehow that the misogyny I saw around me in Malaysia did not inhabit the pure white bodies of American men I assumed, in my dreams, to be better. Pop culture and society taught me how to desire, but I also took matters into my own hands and thought that if I tried to be white—
Against this, my father, properly bourgeois but with a small kernel of rebelliousness in him, I think, that knew of no other way of manifesting itself except through excess drinking, used to always say to me and my sisters: 1) “America is the worst”; and, 2) “Don’t trust white men”. Not in those words, exactly, but those were the words he meant to convey. The folly of youth is convincing yourself that everything your parents teach you must be unlearned.
Not everything, as it turns out.
I was reading the first book in the KL Noir series, KL Noir: Red, and one of the stories is by Marc de Faoite; his brief author bio says he was born in Ireland but has lived in other countries and now resides in Langkawi. His story is written from a first-person point-of-view of an Indian migrant worker, which—I mean, okay. He has also authored a collection of short stories titled “Tropical Madness” (coz the tropics be MAD, yougaiz). And the blurb for that book says he “sensitively deals with some of the realities of modern Malaysia” and that he “gives voice to a mix of marginalized and overlooked sectors of Malaysia’s population, including immigrants, transsexuals, fishermen, ethnic minorities and sex slaves”. So like this white guy inhabits all marginalised identities in his fiction and gives voice to their something. I am fucking astounded, give him all the awards.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. (And also being unfair, not having read his collection of stories yet.) Back to his story in KL Noir: his character surveys the people at the restaurant he works at and this is what he sees #IndianMigrantWorkerGazeviaWhiteMaleGaze:
In light of everything recently, thinking about that piece by Elaine, about proximity to whiteness and economies of desire in Southeast Asia, and I can’t seem to “let go” of those “giant-sized, short-haired Tamil women”. Can you imagine them? They are not big or large; they are “giant-sized”, practically inhuman. In contrast, a very safe description of Muslim women (because anything more and you’re in trouble?), and alongside these giant-sized Tamil women, young Chinese women with their “skinny bare white legs”.
I’m trying to let go but I can’t quite.
Further on in the story, another worker is talking about having seen two Malay guys check out a pair of Chinese girls in shorts—to which another guy asks, “So they weren’t Indian?” Because hafuckingha. There’s so much going on here, and talking to any Malaysian-Indian women will reveal this: Malaysian-Indian men desire Chinese women because they’re [thin / sexy / less hairy / and most important, fair-skinned]. Growing up, this was the “joke” I knew that structured beliefs about desire. (In college, a Chinese guy put his arm next to mine merely to observe, “Wow you’re so much darker and hairier than me”. But every Indian girl I know has this story to tell in some version.) I grew up realising that Tamil women were not sexy, not desiring or desirable, that in the hierarchies of desire wanting a Tamil woman comes pretty low on the list, unless you have a freakish fetish for dark women or hairy women; that Tamil women who want to get the man must perform the labour that is required to look like the other women who are closer to the ideal version of a woman. Chinese women are a step closer to exquisite white womanhood, perhaps. One upper-caste Malayalee guy I know is still waiting for his dream blonde with “Aryan features”; in the meantime, Chinese girls and “fair-skinned Malay girls” who don’t wear the tudung are nice to look at and why would he even look in the direction of a hirsute dark-skinned giant like hello he has latte-coloured skin and a well-defined nose and he is entitled to so much more than that I mean??? How dare you suggest he settle for less?
We haven’t yet entered into the economies of desire within Indians themselves (Malaysians of Tamil, Malayalee, Telugu backgrounds collectively refer to themselves as “Indians” in Malaysia, so it’s not a term designating nationality but ethnicity, and I think this is confusing to ourselves and everyone else), but caste and class play a huge role in this. How do I sort out this mess? Hannah Black writes that, “Love at present is always about gender, just as beauty at present is always about white supremacy” and I agree, obviously, but I don’t agree, less obviously, because I know white supremacy but how to begin to sketch out its effects in places like Southeast Asia? Or maybe the question is wrong, and belatedly, I’m coming to realise that the question that has to be kept in mind, alongside how white do Asians want to be, is how we don’t want to be black. And keeping in mind that much of Tamil bourgeois mores are caste and colour based, wherein the untouchable castes perform the labour that no “civilised” person would do:
There is one other story in KL Noir where an Indian female person makes an appearance and she’s a little girl in Brian Gomez’s “Mud”. The girl is described as “looking ugly as ever” (i.e. like all other Indian girls) by the self-hating, Chinese-women-in-sexy-clothes-desiring Indian rich guy. The guy is an ass; in fact, he’s a criminal in the grotesque sense that only the rich can be. We’re not meant to identify with him because he’s not sympathetic. However, here it is: in a collection of stories about KL life, Indian women and girls are neither desiring nor desired, they are “giant-sized”, in passing, and “ugly as ever”, in passing. It’s no surprise that he is visiting a Tamil community that’s impoverished; the colour of the girl’s skin, to this man, is the ugliness of the laboring classes and their symbolic proximity to blackness.
What Amalia Clarice Mora says here is a fairly common observation throughout Malaysia, so common as to be banal. Our beauty queens and our “brand ambassadors”, our faces that sell and our very favourite people, are as close to “Eurasian” looking as possible, “Pan Asian” or what have you, Asian because exotic but not too Asian, not excessively Asian, because that would not be “universally” desirable: “The mixed people are so beautiful sentiment, which often really means white-ish looking people with an ethnic twist are so beautiful or ethnic people with white features are so beautiful.” If you talk about white supremacy in Malaysia people will, on the whole, look at you funny because What does that have to do with us? but still they want you to be lighter, lighter, lighter, and beautiful in a way that you can never be, further from a kind of blackness that is always hypervisible, and closer to a kind of whiteness that no one thinks they want.
June 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
This is my review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for Pop Matters. I’m still steadily trying to post reviews up here and so this one is also several months old. Yes, we’re still in 2013. Today in my Twitter feed, Sridala linked to an article about the atrocious racial politics in the book, and I was so glad to read it, and so glad that this piece exists. Joy Castro, who wrote the article, makes some pertinent points. This was something that I picked up on while reading it — it’s hard not to — but was familiar enough with Tartt’s previous two books to know that she only cared about moneyed, slightly disgraced WASPs. That’s her Thing. By the time I got around to writing the review for The Goldfinch I was so tired. So tired of noticing and caring too much about how white people write about, and thus write off, people of colour in their highly-praised bestsellers. But Castro makes an important point about the depiction of racialised others in the book that fits in with the theme of the book at large: that of Art and Beauty and Great Literature. No room for anyone less-than-white (and rich, rich rich rich!) in that world. Castro emphasises how the working class non-white others in this book are willing to put themselves in service of these Great White People Living Their Fascinating Lives; willing to put their own (mediocre and unimportant, presumably) lives on hold so that whiteness can flourish. The labour of black and brown bodies for white ones is a story that must be told that way, as one of great willingness and good cheer. This view of the world is of a piece with the rest of the book. If great art must circulate (and this book does nothing in terms of deconstructing what great art is, how it’s made, or what it does), it must always return to white “culture”. For my part, by the time I got to the phrase “dead-eyed ethnic families”, I was ready to stab Tartt in the face with an expensive, beautiful, authentic fountain pen.
I read Donna Tartt’s impressive first novel, The Secret History, at an impressionable age and in a stage of my life I will politely refer to as Colonised Mind v. 1.0. Having grown up middle-class and Tamil in Malaysia—title of my forthcoming memoir, hahaha!—and fed Austen, Dickens, Christie (Agatha) and Blyton (Enid) throughout a very protected childhood, I was very susceptible to romantic Life of the Mind-type ideas and proclivities.
Besides, I had a tattered copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology that followed me everywhere. I—like about a zillion other young kids who came to learn about Greek mythology by way of Anglo-European classicists—loved Greek myth. Who doesn’t? Myths are great. Why would you not like stories? Stories are great.
So when I found a tattered copy of The Secret History in a used bookstore, an Ivy Books trade paperback with a lurid cover image comprising a mishmash of an imposing New England colonial building, a Doric column and a single stem rose, with various phrases like “Greek scholars, worldly, self-assured,” “a terrifying secret that bound them to one another”, “an incident in the woods in the dead of the night”, “an ancient rite that was brought to brutal life”, and “gruesome death” strewn across the back cover copy, it worked like a charm. I bought it, devoured it, and read it over and over again, before I even knew that Tartt was “a sensation” in that faraway place called the literary world.
This makes The Secret History sound almost flimsy, even silly, but it’s not. Despite its premise, Tartt is a writer who plays with excesses and extremes in the most delicate way. You don’t read Tartt for pared-down elegance, although there are moments when she does this, too. You read Tartt like you would watch Pretty Little Liars: for the unalloyed pleasure of surrendering to a familiar story that is, at turns, also new and menacing.
Tartt’s third and most recent novel, The Goldfinch, was hugely anticipated among industry types and fans because she’s only written three so far; ten years separated the publication of her second novel, The Little Friend, from her debut, and 11 years separates The Goldfinch from her second. I still pull The Secret History from the shelves every so often, skipping the parts that bore me, and going over the passages where the Greek scholars who so fascinated the novel’s protagonist, Richard Papen, are at their most knowing and obnoxious.
Now older, wiser and bitter, I’m tempted to throw copies of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena at their heads, then set off on a long lecture about the appropriation of Greek knowledge and thought by Eurocentric thinkers and writers. Still, the story remains tantalising. And, as reductive as this might probably sound, this is what Tartt does very well. She tells a good story.
The Goldfinch can be said to be an anti-bildungsroman, in that it traces the life of one Theo Decker from about 13years of age, where he survives a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that kills his mother, until his late 20s, where he reflects on this life while telling his story. It’s an anti-bildungsroman because Theo, much like Richard in The Secret History and Harriet Dufresnes in The Little Friend, has his head firmly turned back to the past, to that point in time where a singular event changed his life.
This isn’t a straightforward novel of growth and progression as it is a novel of regret, and for much of the book, Theo exists in a state of anguished perpetual adolescence. He’s always that 13-year-old boy on that fateful day at the Met.
The premise of the novel hinges on Theo’s possession of Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch” following the museum bombing. When Theo and his mother first arrive at the Met, Theo is drawn to a young girl with red hair and her elderly male companion, and after the blast, Theo finds himself in the same space with the dying old man, and in a distinctly hazy, dream-like encounter, this man gives Theo a ring and encourages him to leave the museum with the painting.
Later, after learning about his mother’s death from a pair of social workers—his father having long since disappeared from their lives—and after having narrowly escaped a life in care by moving in with his friend Andy Barbour’s family, the ring will lead Theo to the old man’s business and home, an antique shop in the West End, and into the orbit of the lives of the man’s business partner and Theo’s future mentor and guardian and father-figure of sorts, Hobie, and the man’s young niece, Pippa, the redhead of the museum encounter. The painting stays with Theo until, of course, it doesn’t, which is a sort of plot progression the reader would have seen coming from the start.
Throughout the book we meet a cast of characters that includes the family members of the Barbour household, as well as Hobie, Pippa, and Theo’s estranged alcoholic father and his new girlfriend, Xandra. Theo moves from the Barbour’s upper-class posh lifestyle in New York to Las Vegas with his father and Xandra and makes a life-changing new friend named Boris, and then moves back to New York again, with a fevered, nightmarish pit-stop in Amsterdam before the novel’s end.
Boris, as it turns out, is the novel’s most entertaining character probably because he’s Polish-Ukrainian and is made out to have both socialist and criminal tendencies, a perfect foil to the generally law-abiding and liberal Theo. Tartt’s liberal American imagination allows Boris to be the wild and fun and yet corrupting influence in Theo’s life—yes, he’s a good friend, in his own way, but in some ways Boris just an amalgam of how Americans view foreigners who have lived in countries with different political systems. Those insane Eastern Europeans and their dangerous political ideas and lax ways with the law! Crazy Boris even tried out being Muslim for awhile, which teenage Theo finds positively incomprehensible.
While The Goldfinch is set in a politically-charged landscape—the bombing at the museum is vaguely attributed to “terrorism”—Tartt is a writer of bourgeois psychological novels, and the large cast of characters in this book only serve to contextualise Theo’s interior life. This isn’t to say they aren’t well realised, even larger than life, as in Boris’ case—but this isn’t a novel that’s grappling with social and political issues surrounding the bombing in 21st-century New York. It’s about a boy and his painting, and how it both circumscribes and expands his relation to other people, and serves as a talisman that links him to his mother and to a gentrified world of art and beauty and stability—Hobie’s world—that he wants to be a part of, even while he realises he stands outside of it.
Tartt’s fascination with rich WASPs continues in this book, as seen in Theo’s perpetual amazement of the Barbours and their lifestyle, but equally unappealing for me is the casual othering of people of colour. Boris is larger than life because he’s a central character, but otherwise while criminal white Germans might each have a name, criminal Indonesians only appear inscrutable and are compared to anacondas, while criminal Chinese are inscrutable and wily and are in possession of a name that all the white people can’t be bothered to remember, or have “difficulty” remembering, because it sounds so strange. (Theo can’t even tell at one point, if this person is a man or a woman or a boy or a girl, and somehow this problem seems related to this person’s Asianness.)
When Theo arrives in Amsterdam and looks around at the airport and sees “dead-eyed ethnic families”, it’s hard not to flinch, though I was also curious about where one could obtain this all-purpose “ethnic family”—at the gift shop, presumably? Does the ethnic family come in all sizes and colours? Theo even exoticises his own mother’s appearance because she was part-Irish, part Cherokee, telling us that “in the slant of her cheekbones there was such an eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight”—the what and the what?, was my question—and that sometimes the exotic character of her facial features were too stark when her hair was pulled back, making her look “like some nobleman in The Tale of Genji”. Okay.
There’s a Dickensian aura running through The Goldfinch, most notably Great Expectations, and there are certain similarities between Pip and Theo as they navigate their orphan hood (Theo’s father is far from a father) and find parental figures in the unlikeliest of places, not to mention their inability to love anyone but the one woman they can’t have, though Theo’s spiritual twin appears to be The Secret History’s Richard. In all her novels, Tartt is particularly adept at conveying the banal hazards of estrangement and evoking sensations relating to place and space. Both Richard and Theo, for example, wish they were anyone but themselves, and are particularly gifted in losing themselves in copious quantities of alcohol and pills. “A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help,” as Theo puts it. And while The Secret History will always be reminiscent of frost and snow and ice and the chill of the unknown, this book is notable for the hot, barren, drug-infused Las Vegas suburban desertscape and its air-conditioned ennui.
In this novel, as with her previous two, Tartt seems to be circling around the same concerns about a person’s fatal flaw. “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs”, Richard begins in The Secret History—and the same is true for Theo. His longing for beauty, and his inability to let go or exist separately of “The Goldfinch”, once he’s set eyes on it, is his constant downfall. For one thing, it connects him to his mother, who loved Fabritius’s work before Theo even began to pay attention. But more alarming, for Theo, is how hard he fell for the painting, and the lengths he with which he destroyed little aspects of his life in order to keep it:
What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one wilfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?
This is a thread that runs through all of Tartt’s novels, with protagonists floating in a sea of banal everyday life routines, desperately wishing for wings to fly out and touch the sun. Even in The Little Friend, Harriet was convinced of her difference—her fatal flaw being the morbid longing to find out the truth, at all costs. (And the price is steep, as she learns by the end.)
While the ending for The Secret History was rather exquisite, evoking the tragic in a way that was both sad and tender, The Goldfinch ends with what feels like a sermon from Theo, desperately trying to attribute meaning to everything that had happened thus far while still assuring us that the knows that “life is catastrophe”. It feels tacked-on and forced, and one wonders if Tartt felt compelled to drag the novel on for as long as close to 800 pages in order to give us A Lesson to make up for the dissatisfaction many felt with The Little Friend, which ended on a totally bizarre note, with no resolution of any sort for anyone—and which, I thought, was perfectly in keeping with the slow drip of menace that increased with every page.
While talking about how a novel is about one thing is a sure way to kill the experience of reading, the ending of The Goldfinch seems to want to reduce it to a meaning: about the magic that exists in that unfathomable place between illusion and reality, that lives on between people and things—in particular, things that are passed on from one hand to another. After some 700 pages of one catastrophic event after another, after repeated attempts at self-erasure, these words don’t seem true delivered in Theo’s voice, and the conclusion seems too tidy, too hopeful, too trite.
Tartt’s novels aren’t novels of ideas—there’s a reason why I compared reading a Tartt novel to watching a TV show, and it’s because it’s propelled by a forward-moving momentum; it’s about action and places and people. These are novels concerned with the psychology of its characters. The Goldfinch seems ripe for meditations on art commodities, and ideas and politics that are transmitted through works of art, as well as deep explorations about what cultural anthropologists like Arjun Appadurai have called the social life of things, but any asides or discussions on books or paintings and the exchange of and desire for commodities are tangential to the main story of Theo’s life. It’s only at the very end that Theo attempts to weave the history of this masterwork he’s kept, hoarded, and lost into the trajectory of his own life, but by then it’s all delivered in one big rush of a moral lesson, and the effect is one of vague disorientation at this newly-wise Theo.
The Secret History was a compelling modern tragedy because its effects were rooted in mimesis, in replicating the elements of the Greek plays in the catastrophes of Richard’s, and his friends’, modern American lives. The Goldfinch merely uses the central artwork as a prop for the plot, for the service of the protagonist’s inner life, even while Theo tries to convince us otherwise through occasional meandering and repetitive musings on art that are, unfortunately, superficial and uninteresting. Tartt’s novel is eminently readable and entertaining, even moving at times, but while I kept turning the pages I never wanted to linger over it like how Theo does when he looks at the painting and meets the eyes of Fabritius’s all-seeing goldfinch.
April 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
Here I am, posting up a review of a book that I did months ago–in August of 2013, in fact, so … not only months ago, but last year. And this goes against the very ethos of blogging which demands the new! and the now! and I know that people are hissing as I write, thinking, HOW DARE YOU, A BLOG IS NOT A REPOSITORY OF SHIT YOU WROTE MONTHS AGO–
I will not only do this, but continue to do this for the next few posts, I think–gotta catch up on those book reviews of 2013! And hoping that, somehow, inflicting you with stale reviews will somehow get my juices going for proper writing. Writing worthy of a blog! I don’t know.
But enough about me, Marie NDiaye’s writing is fierce and magical. I wait, with bated breath, for forthcoming works of hers available in English. This is the review of her collection of stories, <i>All My Friends</i>, in full (it features the unashamed use of that dreaded phrase, Kafkaesque):
The stories in Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends are delicate and multifarious. You can never be sure-footed in a Marie NDiaye story. Realities twist—very slightly—and narrators seem just short of being unreliable. Once you have entered a particular character’s point-of-view, you’re quite certain that things are not what they seem and yet you persist, filled with a sense of foreboding that the story is unlikely to end well. And it rarely does, in NDiaye’s world; if a “happy” ending is to be had, it usually comes at the expense of an enormous sacrifice or loss.
All My Friends was originally published in French as Tous Mes Amis in 2004; this English edition, translated by Jordan Stump, comes hot on the trails of the success of NDiaye’s 2009 Trois Femmes Puissantes, which won the Prix Goncourt in France. The English translation by John Fletcher, Three Strong Women, was published in 2012, and was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize 2013. Although NDiaye’s output is prolific, besides these two works only one other book, Rosie Carpe, has been translated into English. Judging from the critical reception of Three Strong Women and All My Friends, however, one can hope that more of her writing will be made available to English readers.
The characters in All My Friends seem to be on the brink—of what, we’re not quite sure. The characters themselves might feel close to some sort of revelation, epiphany, or breakthrough, and maybe they are, but it’s interesting to note how similar the signs are to imminent chaos, collapse, or breakdown. A recurrent theme is the idea of reckoning with what one has not become. The past colludes strangely, jarringly, with the present. Characters in NDiaye’s stories attempt to project a self that they imagine to be smooth, whole, and well-adjusted, yet somehow realise that these attempts are less-than-successful, possibly even tragic, ridiculous, and flawed.
In the titular story, the narrator, a former schoolteacher and now an aging man shunned by his wife and children for reasons that are never made clear, employs a former student named Séverine as his housekeeper. His desire for her is clouded by his former hate; or perhaps all desire is informed by hate: “How troubling it is to remember the loathing I felt for my student Séverine, and to think of the affection I feel for my maid Séverine. Are they even the same girl? I sometimes wonder”.
It’s particularly strange that the narrator employs his ex-student, whom he lusts after, and spends most of his time with another ex-student, Werner, who also lusts after Séverine. Séverine is married to yet another ex-student, whom the narrator contemptuously refers to as “the Arab” because he can’t remember his name. In this sense, sexual jealousy and longing is neatly woven into the narrator’s seemingly latent racism. The narrator is so ill at ease with the world that no space is safe or comfortable, especially not his own home. “My house doesn’t like me”, the narrator tells us. The memories of his former family are in every room: “My wife and children made an ally of my house, where they once lived, where they no longer live”. The narrator seeks out Werner and enjoys spending time in Werner’s immaculate, expensive house—but is disgusted with his own duplicity, he once cursed Werner for having come from money, for having lived in the “town center’s finest neighborhood”.
Similarly, in “The Death of Claude Francois”, the past crashes in on the seemingly-calm present through the appearance of an old friend, an incident that sends the narrator, Zaka, reeling through the memories of a shared childhood in a poor neighbourhood, where average-looking Zaka and her beautiful friend Marlène Vador had lived and loved a famous pop star. Zaka, now a doctor who has, one might say, “made it”, takes her young daughter Paula back to the neighbourhood of her childhood, only to be shocked by the suburbs of outer Paris and their “blighted gray concrete buildings”.
It’s important, for Zaka, to be able to show off Paula, to have her former friend realise that her daughter is as beautiful as she is, even if Zaka never was, that “they were both, mother and daughter alike, true bourgeoisies, refined and invisible”. But when she goes up to meet Marlène, ready to forgive her “tinge of vulgarity” and her “overeagerness to display her body” (“traits, Zaka reflected, that she might have shared had she stayed on and lived there”, in that neighbourhood), she finds Marlène to be beautiful in a way that might even intimidate a true bourgeoisie like Zaka, who is of course not at all a true bourgeoisie at all, having renounced her working-class roots. “Today she’s middle-class and magnificient,” Zaka thinks of Marlène when she sees her. And so the reader learns that the Zaka of the beginning of the story may not have been wholly truthful, or alternately, we learn more of Zaka by the end that renders the start of the story doubtful.
When she sees her ex-husband at the start of the story, she’s contemptuous of him and embarrassed because he reminds her “of what she’d had to do to conceive her little girl” and the reader is made to imagine an unattractive, desperate and lovelorn former spouse. But by the end of the story we learn that it’s her ex-husband, a “fine and upstanding man”, who stopped loving her, who “had lost all regard for her”. The power relations shift and it’s Zaka who appears to us as the lovelorn former spouse, cast aside. “What did she have to do,” Zaka wonders, “to turn regret and nostalgia into indifference?” Even attempting to remember the past differently offers no respite for Zaka in her present situation.
In “The Boys”, the best story in the collection, poverty, hierarchies of beauty, commodification, and sex work are some of the themes that NDiaye stirs up and troubles through the perspective of one young boy named René. René watches a business transaction in his neighbour’s house as the beautiful teenage boy Anthony is sold off to a wealthy woman by his parents (here it’s never quite clear if the mother is in the instigator and the father the reluctant tag-along) while Anthony’s “uglier” older brother is ignored. René is aware of what’s going on:
Anthony had been chosen because he’d turned out well, while the other was an inferior product, deeply and irreparably disgraced. Devoid of commercial value, he seemed of no use, and relegated to lowly and inessential tasks: bringing his brother to the woman, remembering the bag, keeping an eye on his brother. And all this with the insincere simpering of one who strives to anticipate authority’s needs, who seeks only to please that authority, and who knows that it never even sees him.
In this story NDiaye deftly highlights the inequalities of a system where everyone is exploited but not all are exploited equally. In this case, René is aware that he has youth on his side—he too can be bought and sold—but he won’t be first choice in the hierarchy of attributes. For René, “his youth was purely theoretical” because of his scrawny and feeble body, his nondescript appearance. Even Anthony’s discarded older brother, despite his plainness, “radiated irrefutable youth from his hard, brutal body”. But René did not even have a body that was able to radiate youth. And so “The Boys” progresses on this trajectory, exploring how poverty and lack shapes desire and ambition and subsequently how, in a capitalist “free market”, self worth is intricately bound up with material worth.
Anthony makes enough money to send home to his family, which allows his mother to acquire a computer and an internet connection, enabling everyone to see endless images of Anthony—even nude pictures of him together with the woman to whom he was sold. The mother can’t stop looking at pictures of her son and showing these pictures to others. René looks at pictures of Anthony and is troubled—Anthony is “more glorious in each image, more assured—still himself, to be sure, but by the end so remade that René scarcely recognized him”. Anthony’s mouth, chin and nose seem to have been slightly reshaped, his teeth “whiter and more regular than René remembered”. The seemingly content and now materially-comfortable Anthony appears to be an improved Anthony.
Even beautiful Anthony can be improved upon! So René starts to dream of this life—to be beautiful enough to be bought seemed a better existence than to toil away in hardship. He imagines that Anthony’s existence could one day be his own, his own physique “duly amended”. “Let me be bought, bought, bought”, he prays. To be an improved image of himself is what René wants; the life to aspire to is one where you can set the terms of your own exploitation. It all amounts to the same in the end, perhaps, but in the meantime this world is a better place for the rich and the beautiful and René, too, like the rest of us, wants to be both.
The fourth story in this collection, “Brulard’s Day” captures the kind of claustrophobic, almost schizophrenic form of internal monologue that takes place in the mind of a person under intense pressure, the kind that NDiaye excels at. The story deftly blurs the line between “organic” internal criticism, stemming from the person itself, and the kind that is reinforced by what others say and do, so much so that it becomes hard to tell whether you’re thinking bad thoughts about yourself that others have made you think about yourself, or that thinking bad thoughts about yourself somehow translates into making others think badly of you.
In Eve Brulard’s case, a minor actress who has run away from her husband and daughter to a hotel in what appears to be a holiday ski town, in love with a mysterious other man who seems to be her source of income (for her and her husband), it involves seeing a past version of herself in every corner, a past version of herself who taunts and mocks her, and who, as the story progresses, begins to look more and more like Brulard’s young daughter, Lulu. It also involves a pair of brown tassel loafers, loafers that doesn’t seem to fit Brulard’s idea of herself: “That she’d been reduced to wearing such shoes tormented and astonished her at the same time”. It also does not please the ghost of young Brulard—“whose eagle eye had not missed those tasseled shoes”—and who, because of these shoes, may or may not be regarding older Brulard with pity, or “reproach, tinged by compassion and alarm”.
Later, it turns out that the loafers have not escaped the notice of her husband, Jimmy, either, who says, “No one who looks at you would ever say you’re wearing loafers, because they couldn’t imagine you wearing such shoes, and yet that’s how it is, and you’re wearing loafers”. Brulard, a woman who should not be wearing loafers, is wearing loafers. The loafers seem to reveal another kind of truth about Brulard. They defeat the picture she has of herself, just like one of the hotel clerks she tries so hard to avoid: “From the start, she’d sense that he thought her neither radiant nor carefree, despite all her efforts to seem just that”.
Is Brulard close to a breakdown? Are there moments in the story where she’s close to one, or having a panic attack? I don’t know if the answer to that is important, because for NDiaye’s characters, mere existence is already an unravelling of the self. Any given life appears to be quietly imploding at any given moment from the various tragedies and abuses its been dealt. When Jimmy tells everyone they meet that Brulard is an actress, and no one recognises her, doubts start entering Brulard’s mind: “What proof did she had that she wasn’t an impostor?”
In the final story, “Revelation”, a sort of exercise in Kafkaesque perfection that comes in at just five pages, a mother who is planning to abandon her son precisely because she loves him, is undone by the reaction her son’s beautiful face elicits in others because it’s a face that doesn’t reveal the whole truth of him, a face that is almost deceitful because of what inspires in others, something that is at odds with the son’s fundamental being:
This woman thought that she couldn’t bear the beauty of that son’s face one moment longer—and that, in the old days, when he was still right, his face was never as handsome. No one would have turned to look at the son back when there was no need to keep from him where he was being taken. His face then had no reason to be as beautiful as it was now, since it expressed only ordinary thoughts.
If you’ve ever asked yourself, What proof do I have that I’m not an impostor? then NDiaye’s stories are a reminder that not all writing offers itself up as a remedy. There’s no comfort in being oneself; there’s only ever-present anxiety. NDiaye’s stories rattle at the door of complacency; they disturb everything. In her world of maladjusted stragglers and outcasts, seemingly normal on the outside, perhaps, but running riot on the inside, one comes to recognise that no amount of planning for life is any sort of match for life itself. More certainly, you may never become who you thought you would become. You may find yourself wearing those dreaded brown loafers, or willing yourself to be bought, and upon wearing those shoes and being bought, discovering—as many others have before you and no doubt will after you—that you might have wanted your life to go in a different direction, after all.
September 30, 2013 § 5 Comments
I reviewed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah for Pop Matters awhile back, and would like to say more but writing the review exhausted me because there was so much to say and I didn’t even articulate a tenth of what I wanted to say and what’s the point of words, even. I mean, in the hands of people like Adichie, you get the point of words, but what’s the point of a reviewer’s words?
But the wonderful Sridala reminded me of this Junot Diaz interview, where he talks about decolonial love and though Americanah is about many things, the romance between Ifemelu and her white boyfriend is one of the more complex aspects of the book that really got to me. It’s not that Curt is an Evil American White Man; it’s just that he’s an American white man. Although Ifemelu’s African American experience is very different from the African-American experience, the central question that Junot asks—“Is it possible to love one’s broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power self in another broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power person?”—is I think one of the central questions of Americanah, even if it’s not consciously articulated.
So is decolonial love a kind of radical love? And is it possible? Not just in romance, but in friendship? Or in romantic friendships? (I want to have hope, or have the ability to imagine a time when YES is possible, but all I can think right now is, No.)
The review in full:
I came to the end of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent novel, Americanah at the same time the verdict to acquit Trayvon Martin’s killer was passed. While immersed in this vast, sprawling book about uncomfortable, unpleasant, and often unmentioned truths about racism in 21st-century America, the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer seemed a kind of judgment about America itself, the America that not-white Americans and immigrants have been telling us about America for years, decades, centuries.
As a novelist, however, Adichie is not interested in passing judgment, which is what makes her a likeable writer. What makes Americanah powerful, however, and ultimately quite devastating in parts, is its refusal to refrain from pulling punches. Like her previous award-winning novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s main focus is on middle and upper class university-educated Nigerians; similarly in Americanah the protagonist, Ifemelu, comes from a respectable middle-class Lagos family.
Through various circumstances shaped by political and social factors, Ifemelu travels to the US for a university education and ends up staying. It’s a familiar situation for most post-colonial third worlders—inevitable, practically—this idea that some form of the good life must be found outside the borders of their corrupt and backward birth country: preferably in the West, in the lands of plenty, where years of imperialism and colonialism have enabled its subjects to enjoy Freedom™, drinkable tap water, and partake of a seemingly unlimited bounty of foodstuff in grocery stores and supermarkets.
Or so it would seem, seen from the outside.
As in her previous novels, commentary on political and social circumstances is folded delicately into layers of the personal. In Americanah, Race-in-America is as much a character as Ifemelu and her first love, Obinze. Made up of seven parts, Americanah begins and ends as a love story, but it’s a love story that travels and migrates and sees and learns, so that when Ifemelu and Obinze meet again, in the novel’s final pages, they’ve been so shaken and turned inside out by the forces outside of themselves that they’ve shed and accrued different layers. It’s a most believable kind of love story, and a kind of triumph, the kind that left me crying because it seems to be the kind of love that no one dares to believe in, anymore.
Weaved into the dominant love story are the narratives of racism, displacement, migration, border-crossing and borderlessness, liberalism, Nigerian middle class apathy, Nigerian ruling class exploitation, colourism and its cousin, hairism, and white American do-gooders. The novel begins with Ifemelu’s point of view, and maintains it save for a few sections that allows us a glimpse of Obinze’s thoughts, and from the start we know that Ifemelu is not one to be trifled with and not one to trifle with us.
When she notices a fat woman in a miniskirt, Ifemelu feels admiration, an admiration that would not be there had it been a body that fit normative beauty ideals because “It was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved”. When we meet Ifemelu she’s a successful blogger who has achieved some amount of fame blogging about racism in America, even earning herself a fellowship in Princeton. In fact, we meet her in Princeton, where on the very first page she tells us that in “… this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else”—but not really herself, the self that wears natural hair, since she’s on her way to Trenton to braid her hair because there are no braiding salons in Princeton.
If Americanah wrangles with perceptions of race in America, it’s because Ifemelu is unused to the concept, which is a very shrewd commentary on the hegemonic functions of American thought. So much of what passes as discourse on “racism” is a very specific view of racism that pertains to the American experience, exported globally like Coca-Cola and military weapons. This raises some troubling moments, not just between Ifemelu and unapologetically racist white Americans—or the more forbidding kind, unconsciously racist and well-meaning white Americans—but also between her and black Americans, particularly her boyfriend Blaine and his sister, Shan. In a conversation about how American white men and European white men view black women differently, Ifemelu tells Shan she gets “a lot more interest from white men than from African-American men”, and Shan tells her it’s probably because of Ifemelu’s “exotic credential, that whole Authentic African thing”, a statement that leaves Ifemelu angry, but not exactly in full disagreement.
It’s these prickly territories that Adichie covers so well, because Americanah is interested in laying bare all the hypocrisies of the liberal American elite.
When she starts dating a wealthy, attractive white man, Curt, she takes note of his mother’s disapproval and the looks directed her way from other white women, the look of people “confronting a great tribal loss”. As Ifemelu explains, it’s not just because Curt was white; it was “the kind of white he was, the untamed golden hair and handsome face, the athlete’s body, the sunny charm and the smell, around him, of money”, that seemed to be the problem: why would a white man like that date a woman like her? Ifemelu takes note of the easy kind of subjectivity well-off white Americans are allowed to slide into, “all easy limbs and white teeth… people whose lives were lived always in flattering light, whose messes were still aesthetically pleasing”.
And Curt, while he loves Ifemelu for who she is, who she is is also part of the allure. Cocooned in white male privilege and wealth, he, a free-spirited and do-gooder white American presumably well aware of his country’s history, asks Ifemelu “Why do you have to do this?” when she comes back after a hair-relaxation treatment with a singed scalp.
Ifemelu is that rare thing: a woman who doesn’t hide that she’s quite secure in her own sense of attractiveness and worth. She knows she’s beautiful, but Adichie deftly shows how racism works to undermine even Ifemelu’s sense of confidence with all the banalities of the everyday comments and stares about her hair and what people take to be her projection of Africanness. When Ifemelu writes on her blog, and announces at a dinner party, that “the simplest solution to the problem of race in America” is “romantic love”, not the “kind of safe shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable”, but “real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved”, Adichie brings the novel’s ruminations on race and desire to its fruition.
She leaves this radical notion of love open to interpretation and disagreement, and foregrounds it against Ifemelu’s awareness that while that some white American men might find her intelligent, funny, and beautiful, they don’t really see her, don’t allow themselves to see her, don’t desire her, because of how race has shaped and disciplined their sense of desire. Rather, race trains them to see only some as loveable, and it’s definitely not meant to be a woman who doesn’t look at all like a woman shaped by the ideals of white supremacy. As Blaine’s sister, Shan, remarked earlier—it’s a problem that not’s limited to white American men, and Adichie’s many readers around the world can probably bring their specific experiences with colourism to bear onto this notion of radical love across racial borders vs. sexual fetish and/or temporary this-will-do-for-now romance.
As it turns out, Obinze, the most America-obsessed among Ifemelu’s crew of high-school and college friends, is the one who doesn’t get to go to America when she does. It’s a twist of fate, “fate” otherwise known as politics and the ramifications of 9/11. In this, too, Adichie is superb in depicting the variables in migration narratives along gender lines: how monstrously fucked-up the situation can be for black and brown men travelling to the US or Europe, and where black and brown women (with some amount of money and connections, at least) may have a better go of it. Post 9/11, it’s never a good time to be a man of colour, and so Obinze ends up in London, trying desperately to avoid being deported, only to end up being deported.
Obinze is the only male character—the only one of Ifemelu’s lovers—whom the readers get to know. It’s easy to see why: he’s the only one who matters to her (and to us). But through Obinze, Adichie is able to show the post-9/11 situation of migration refracted through gender, and because Obinze is also in some ways less brash and more gentle than Ifemelu, not so much more thoughtful but more inward, some of the more effective commentaries on the politics of travel and border-crossing comes our way by way of Obinze. Working class white British men note how Obinze speaks “African posh”, and Obinze spells it out for himself and for us when he attends a dinner party filled with his Nigerian cousin’s white friends: he knew “they understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness”, why people like him end up in London in a deportation holding cell, people like him “who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look inwards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else.”
It is Obinze too, now back in Nigeria and newly-wealthy, who notes the contradictions of Nigerian life under capitalism and legacy of an artificially imposed time-lag of modernity that was the gift of colonialism: “Remember this is our newly middle-class world. We haven’t completed the first cycle of prosperity, before going back to the beginning again, to drink milk from the cow’s udder”, he tells Ifemelu, explaining to her why restaurants in Lagos preferred to serve “imported frozen fries” out of a bag instead of fries made out of freshly-cut and fried “real potatoes”.
Adichie is perhaps the kind of educated “well fed and watered” writer from the “postcolonial” third world who might make someone like Aijaz Ahmad grit his teeth, as when he talks about how imperial dominance shapes “even the way we think of ourselves”, and the valorisation of literature produced by the bourgeois class of the postcolonial third world country that becomes “more of a condition of the soul” unrelated to the material facts of life, as he writes in In Theory. But Adichie turns a gentle, satirical eye upon other liberals like herself, particularly when she (gently, gently) pillories the Nigerian returnees who like her spent many years abroad in the civilised West, only to return to Nigeria and find the roads full of potholes and the restaurants devoid of vegan dishes.
Ifemelu doesn’t hold back when it comes to the skewering of liberal notions of race; one only wishes that she would have done the same for class relations. Similarly, when Obama wins the election and she and her boyfriend and their circle of friends celebrate, she touches upon a truth that resounded with many people across the globe in the significance of seeing a black man as the President of the United States. As her cousin American cousin Dike puts it, “My president is black like me.” And while only black Americans could own that moment and all its various nuances, to really know and feel just what it meant, for people as far away as Malaysia or Indonesia or India, believing in Obama and hoping that this time things will be different was in some ways a way of showing solidarity with black Americans, to acknowledge the historical value of that moment, a way for those outside of the US to say to black Americans, We see who he is and what it means to you, or what Eduardo Galeano, in this interview with Gary Younge, aptly refers to as the “symbolic resonance” in a country “with a fresh tradition of racism”.
Adichie underscores the value of that moment, but the material realities of Obama’s presidency, the imperial and military might of the American empire under his helm—the wars, the torture prisons, the surveillance and spying and arrests without detention, the drones dropped on Arabs, Pakistanis, Yemenis, the continued economic exploitation and advancement of capitalism through war and “free-trade” agreements, the laws that set killers of young black men free, the prisons that imprison young black men, (the list goes on and on and on)—is untouched. Perhaps that’s too much to expect from Americanah, which is already a massive achievement on its commentary on American race relations and late-capitalist Nigerian life. Perhaps these concerns might irritate Adichie, who doesn’t and probably wouldn’t, ever, one presumes, set out to write an explicitly political book.
But I could be wrong—if Obinze says accurately of Ifemelu that she is hard to predict, as a reader that’s what interests me most about Adichie. In an interview with Aaron Bady for the Boston Review, Adichie talks about Half of a Yellow Sun and its reception as a political and historical novel in Nigeria, versus its reception outside of Nigeria, where she says it was seen as “just a novel”. Maybe we might meet Ifemelu and her criticisms of the Obama presidency and American imperial and military policies in a future story.
For right now, however, we have Americanah to grapple with. And what a frustrating, challenging, and rewarding gift it is. A momentary but necessary salve for the soul, like the protests that broke out across the America in memory of Trayvon Martin, suggesting that a different life can be imagined and made possible.
January 15, 2013 § 8 Comments
One of my friends texted us in a group chat about the Golden Globes awards show and its unbearable celebration of whiteness. As this Tumblr post puts it: “The Brave White Artists of the USA”. The white culture industry congratulating its white industrially cultural self. Most of us love to watch it and talk about it because we’re saturated in it and even though I hate it so much I enjoy watching people watch it: a meta-spectacle. I mean, Debord wrote about this. Debord said it all. Everything shit will come to pass, said Debord.
I just had the best time looking at this twitter feed throughout the thing:
I watched Les Miserables because a friend wanted to see it. I’m no fan of musicals. Or opera. At all. I had some familiarity with Les Miserables the musical because we put on bits of it for a concert when I was in the English Literary and Debating Society in secondary school. Yes, that’s really what it was called. The English Literary and Debating Society. I have stage fright, so I was never on stage but always in the background running around doing important things for the people on stage, but this has nothing to do with anything, really. Or does it?
Where Les Miserables the musical is concerned, I never understood why poverty had to be romanticised, aestheticised, into a feel-good musical. You might ask the same question of the novel itself, which I haven’t read, but then I’m biased—I majored in literary studies. Maybe I think the novel can do important things. So kill me now. I don’t know, this novel thing is a big question. I read Pierre Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production and still understand nothing. That is, whole chunks of Macherey’s text were incomprehensible to me.
(The all-pervasive fear, a daily check in: How stupid am I? Is my stupidity increasing?)
Can the musical do important things? Perhaps it can—if so, I’ve yet to see a musical that felt like there was something there, but this makes no sense because as a general rule I avoid musicals, so I wouldn’t know a good musical if it came and warbled in my ear.
It’s hard to take anything seriously when people are singing about it to you, although certain scenes had its power. The “End of the Day” sequence with the faces of the workers, the poor, the underclass. The opening scene with the song “Look Down”, again primarily because the camera honed in on individual faces of prisoners. Because Hugh Jackman didn’t look like Hugh Jackman the celebrity. But then he “reforms” and becomes an honest man by becoming a capitalist—a factory owner, to be precise. He also became a philanthropist. A good-hearted capitalist with morals and God. So an honest man is a man who stops stealing and starts openly exploiting workers—the women in his factory. As soon as he becomes an honest man, i.e. a capitalist, i.e. a man with money, Jean Valjean looks like Hugh Jackman and he even has Hugh Jackman’s teeth.
I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel, but I wonder if this ideal of white womanhood is a problem in the book, too. This ideal of the virtuous, pure, good-hearted, moralistic, and dreary woman played by the likes of Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried. Particularly in the case of Seyfried’s Cosette, the heir to her mother’s beauty and goodness: Good skin, good hair, good teeth, sparkling eyes, good health, good disposition, perfect for breeding. The way in which Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne (the reason I finally gave in and watched the damn movie) falls in love with Cosette is so tiresome. So tiresome I don’t even have the energy to be angry anymore—most heterosexual love stories just put me to sleep these days.
Then there is Eponine—finally, an intriguing female character!—who pines for Marius, becomes a boy for a day, then dies. Imagine if instead of continuing to pursue Cosette, Marius starts to look anew at Eponine! Imagine a story where Marius nurtures his revolutionary, radical spirit and finds his soul mate in the woman who fought beside him! Imagine a story where Marius doesn’t put his own beliefs aside, temporarily, to follow the dictates of his penis, running after a normative, ideal vision of womanly perfection to “settle down” to a life of “happiness”. Jean Valjean, now an honest capitalist and honest patriarch, has a role to play here in ensuring his ward’s happiness. She must have the man! And how fitting that Marius, too, comes from money. The rich man will have the beautiful woman! And how fitting that Cosette’s mother was so virtuous that she is now a dead angel. 100% pure extract of Good Woman, is Cosette, and a good man will have her.
This Les Miserables is such a reactionary film. After the fighting and the death, things go back to normal. The barricades are now manned by the dead figures of revolutionary past. The future is with these two youths who are now married to each other. Their individual blonde European beauty is reflected in the other. Beyond that—who cares.
I have no idea why Anne Hathaway was nominated for a Golden Globe for this role, by which I mean I guess I know why Anne Hathaway was nominated for a Golden Globe for this role: This role is award bait. The culture industry loves a good woman in trouble, especially if she’s beautiful and has the good sense to weep for her child, sing sad songs, and die prettily. (They should have given her a nomination for the Batman film, instead, where between her and two seconds of Cillian Murphy they made the excruciating thing watchable.)
So Hathaway shaved off her hair for Les Miserables, but did you know that Cillian Murphy shaved off an eyebrow for Peacock? Where is Cillian Murphy’s award? Where is Cillian Murphy?
In Red Lights, as it turns out, which is not award bait. Red Lights is about the ever-rational, all-seeing, white bourgeois gaze and how it tries to impose itself upon the world. It fails, to some extent, and the result is that blood splatters all over Cillian Murphy and he looks really good—Cillian as Carrie/Jesus hybrid, basically—but I digress. I think maybe the movie is itself conflicted about this gaze. I say “think” because this movie is a bit of a mess, or a lot of a mess. Not the kind of mess that I like, because I generally am quite fond of a really good mistake, but because it’s a smug, self-approving kind of mess.
I watched Red Lights in the cinema, alone, because I do like to watch movies alone for the most part but also because I have A Thing for Cillian Murphy, and I’d heard that Red Lights SUCKED SO BAD, so it was a matter of embarrassment and self-preservation. I can’t watch Cillian on-screen without feeling as though my face was melting into itself and my face can’t melt while people I know are with me. More so if the film is supposed to be bad.
So alone I went.
The thing about the gaze is interesting here, because Robert De Niro’s character is supposed to be blind, but because he apparently has psychic powers, he can still see. Isn’t that how colonial/imperial white supremacy tries to convince itself and others? That even though it can’t see and it can’t be everywhere, it can still see and know more than you would ever know. He is blind but fortunately he is a rich white man who can claim visuality, what Nicholas Mirzoeff in “The Right to Look” calls “the authority to tell us to move on and that exclusive claim to be able to look.” When he first meets Cillian Murphy’s character and runs his fingers over his face it feels authoritative and assertive, almost like a violation.
But Red Lights didn’t need De Niro. Maybe it would have been less of a smug mess without him. He plays the character of Simon Silver, a charismatic superstar psychic, with absolutely zero charisma. One imagines that De Niro might have possessed some charisma at some point—so many people seem to love him—but that charisma is gone and you’re left with De Niro and his superstar-psychic soliloquies. With De Niro now you get a superstar playing an actor playing a superstar psychic. Something was lost along the way, and I think the something is Feelings. What happens to male actors who are great (or considered great?) They ossify and become spectres of themselves. This is what awards shows like the Golden Globes “honour” year after year. Ghosts. While real people like black women and women of colour try to find roles that don’t demean them too much.
De Niro is not there, he’s never there; to compensate he tries to be there too much. His performance is embarrassing yet his face is right in the middle of the Red Lights poster, signalling some kind of great cosmic, Hollywood-star significance. Right away you know this film stars a great white man playing a great white man, and who cares if either one of these great white men is ultimately revealed to be a hack? He still commands crowds, makes money, gets to make his way in the world and be attended to by a coterie of power-hungry next-in-line soulsuckers. Which is the culture industry in a nutshell.
Sigourney Weaver is the key authoritative figure of the film, and this is nice until she dies because then there you realise that the first authoritative figure to die is a woman. What a coincidence! Sigourney’s character is one who knows things, the one who is wise and yet not afraid to admit that she’s afraid of doubt; the one who’s conventionally successful and yet not a walking shell of herself as so many successful women are often required to be, emptied out of all feeling.
She and Cillian have intriguing chemistry. When I think about the movie now I think about the scenes where they’re together, particularly the one conversation where she tells him that she’s afraid of Simon Silver because he was the first person to make her doubt. Cillian just listens and looks at her, and that look was something—a combination of love and respect. The right to look devoid of the need to claim authority over the object of one’s gaze. And I just thought about how that’s rare in most contemporary movies, especially if it’s between straight male and female characters who are not invested and/or interested in each other sexually, especially if it’s between an older woman and a younger man.
There was real energy between them, energy that I think would have pushed the film into new/different/interesting places than where it finally ended up. De Niro now seems like such an uncharitable actor in this film. He never plays off the energy of the other actors and in the denouement, he’s like a parasite sucking all intelligence and heart out of the movie with his belligerent ranting. And there’s poor Cillian, beaten to a pulp, bloody, without his Sigourney, having to be both Carrie and Jesus at once to De Niro’s entitled superstar. (In some of behind the scenes footage I found on Tumblr, De Niro is shown calling Cillian “Sillian” which to me is astonishing—the authority to mispronounce your relatively less-famous co-star’s name just because you’re De Niro and you can. You’re working with this person and you could care less that you don’t have his name right.)
But the thing about Sigourney’s character is that she makes an unkind remark about housewives that Cillian’s character picks up on. “I like housewives”, is what his character says, if I remember correctly, because he was just caught watching a reality show about housewives. Cillian says this line as if he’s unsure if it’s meant to be delivered straight or in jest. Which I suppose is the feminist conundrum of our times. Are successful women supposed to hate housewives? Are men supposed to be feminist or post-feminist or just sexist as usual in their opinion of housewives? Discuss. Write a series of articles about for The Atlantic. Write a book. And so on.
As for Cillian? Someday JR is going to write “The Meaning of Cillian Murphy” but until then I will stumble about trying to figure out why his performances, even when he’s cast in some truly atrocious movie, consistently unsettle me. This was the case in Red Lights, too, until the ending—an ending that really did make me laugh because it was filled will all kinds of shit lines, shit lines that were recited in Cillian’s wondrous, melodious voice, sure, but still—SHIT LINES. “We are who we are” or “We have to know ourselves” or whatever, I mean, please. I think Cillian did a superb job of shading his character in various tones of ambiguity but then perhaps I’m biased, or maybe that’s why I’m a “fan”—he’s always got a quality of excess, or disquiet, about him, like he’s about to jump out of his skin or melt into his bones or float off the face of the earth. I don’t feel safe watching him. I get the sense that acting is, for him, a means of working out or through anxiety about something (many things) (everything). I’m never bored when I watch him and this is important to me. So many actors are the walking dead. I mean, here’s Cillian Murphy next to Robert De Niro and without making any sort of qualitative judgment—which boils down to taste, which is a long story—there’s just a clear difference between the living and the dead.
Red Lights almost becomes yet another crisis of masculinity film and no doubt Leonardo DiCaprio could have sleepwalked through it like he did in Inception but Cillian never does (or can’t do?) conventional masculinity by the book and this redeems this movie. Somewhat.
But the film itself undermines Cillian’s character, because there are so many things it could have explored but stayed away from in the interest of giving us “a thriller”. Because ultimately it’s a film that questions or has its doubts about absolute rationality but opts out of the complexity by trotting out soothing, pop-selfhelp speak: “Know yourself” and all will be well. The film spends a good amount of time trying to prove all libidinal energy as anti-logic that finally it has to contradict itself, and Cillian’s character comes to embody the kind of emotional excess he has tried to disavow/reject/ mock. I’m wondering if hysteria is always feminised, that I’ve internalised this sexism that even when I see a male actor perform it I’m thinking about how his role is feminised, made precisely unstable because of its lack of conventional masculinity (which must always be rational). I’m not sure. Red Lights could have gone another way, but it needed to soothe is audience with optimism, progress, and realism. In the end, Cillian’s character must make meaning out of his madness. Thus, the movie ends with a truly atrocious voiceover where Cillian is made to mansplain his hysteria to himself and the audience.
There are a few non-white characters who pop up for a few seconds, as seen through the rationalising white gaze, hovering at the edges of the film as figures of dread or alarm. There is the requisite Tall Black Man who gives wee Cillian a scare. He looms up as a figure of terror until Cillian and the audience realises that he’s just part of Simon Silver’s mini security apparatus. There is one black lady dressed in tattered clothes who gives Cillian the evil eye and spits in his face after he almost (accidentally) runs her down. In that one scene she’s shown to be Really Scary and Possibly “Crazy”. The film doesn’t do well with these people living on the fringes of respectable bourgeois life—they’re shown here to be desperate and unsound of mind, often both—and the one instance with a black family who was convinced their son was manifesting special powers through his drawing was just awkward and strange, with Cillian and Sigourney as the two sensible white interlocutors observing and later, passing judgment on them while giggling in the car on the drive back.
Perhaps Red Lights would have been award bait if it was better made, smoother, slicker. Maybe it needed an American director or the backing of major studios. There have been a zillion reviews panning the movie. The critics went to town. I wonder if these are the same critics who later included Zero Dark Thirty and Argo in their year-end best-of lists. Almost as if it’s a requirement to be an Empire apologist if you’re going to be a film critic. But what’s more stunning, or vomit-inducing, is the general critical consensus. How they know which films to collectively mock, and which ones to collectively swoon over? Does it involve actual thought? I mean, Peter Bradshaw was practically having an orgasm over Django Unchained in The Guardian. And right on cue these films go on to be nominated for awards.