June 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
I reviewed Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage for PopMatters. Here is an excerpt from the review:
It seems wrong, somehow, that some reviewers on Goodreads and elsewhere have pointed out that this novel is too thoughtful and does not teach the readers about the war in Sri Lanka or give detailed descriptions of what one expects to be the correct image of a refugee in a war camp. Writers of fiction are not obliged to teach the reader anything; novels are an act of imagination that ideally should spur the reader to learn more about the social and political contexts in which it’s set on their own. To say that a thoughtful and introspective, reflective tone is an inaccurate description of a person in the midst of war also reveals a limited and perhaps even condescending worldview; one that assumes that people in dire straits somehow continually exist in a state of animal-like barbarity that precludes thinking and feeling in ways that the reader might recognise. There is a need, on the part of the well-adjusted reader reading about the horrors of life from a position of relative comfort, for a certain degree of suffering that they can pass judgment on and deem sufficient; it enables them to give themselves, as readers of harrowing things, a pat on the back.
Arudpragasam has bypassed the usual conventions of writing about war. This book is small in scope, distilled into the course of one day featuring a single and singular point-of-view. This is a novel of integrity, in the sense that Virginia Woolf refers to in A Room of One’s Own: “What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth. Yes, one feels, I should never have thought that this could be so; I have never known people behaving like that. But you have convinced me that so it is, so it happens.” This book affords its characters, especially the central character through whom we see this slice of war-ravaged world, dignity.
The full review is available here.
May 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo is a glacial collection of stories that are admirable in their intelligence, coolness, and reserve. These are minimalist, tidy, self-contained stories, and while they are worth reading for the writing and the style, they were not capacious or generous. I felt like I had to be really careful, as if I were in someone’s all-white living room without a single smudge of dirt and if I so much as moved I would leave a stain on the white.
After watching Get Out I’ve been thinking a lot about how this works. The interior space and the reproduction of white supremacy, especially in the benevolent form of white liberalism. The interiority of white narrators can sometimes be like a cold, cavernous white room that has no space for the excess and muck of other colours, like brown. (Ha.) If I’m going deep into the consciousness of a narrator, I prefer to see the mess and the ugliness. The grotesque. Maybe that’s just me.
And so while I admired this book, I did not love it. But I’m beginning to understand why white women who write like this are critically adored and praised. It’s a version of feminine cool that leaves the hysteria and the excessive feeling at the door. To be excessive is to demonstrate one’s lack of power. The anger and the rage that so many brown people, in particular, are accused of exhibiting are absent or subsumed into a more pleasing form, one that whispers elegantly: this is Literature for the intelligent. This is an aesthetically-pleasing form, much like the Instagram feeds of financially-secure people in the first world.
I think about Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, a book that really gave me vertigo, and I say that as a compliment. Throughout the title story, set in the 1960s, which Collins tells us with a sharp dose of irony, is “the year of the human being”, she differentiates her characters with the pointed use of descriptors in quotation marks: “white”, “negro”. This is the main character (“negro”) in the story:
I insisted loudly that she shoes were in bad taste and the lipstick was too gaudy because I didn’t wear shoes like that just because I was colored and couldn’t he tell I didn’t give off any odor of any kind just because I was colored and that I always held my breath every time I went into his store because I was colored and didn’t want to give off any odor of any kind so I tightened my stomach muscles and stopped breathing and that way I knew nothing unpleasant would escape — not a thought nor an odor nor an ungrammatical sentence nor bad posture nor halitosis nor pimples because I was sucking in my stomach and holding it while I tried on his shoes and couldn’t he see that I was one of those colored people who had taste.
This is how it feels to sometimes inhabit the space of white writing, the kind of white writing critically-praised by Serious White People Who Love Literature, like I’m holding my breath and trying to not give off any odor while I try to show the Serious White People Who Love Literature that I have taste, so I hem and haw about why I did not love the pristine white book that they love.
December 16, 2016 § Leave a comment
I found Interchange to be a mess as some people have said, but a beautiful and intriguing mess. Certain fantasy/memory sequences are so arresting and I can’t stop thinking about it.
(I don’t think there are “spoilers” here, but it’s a film that unspools slowly and requires that you get on board with fragments of information, so I don’t know if reading some of this will spoil the experience if you haven’t watched it. It might.)
I found the “why” of it illogical. That illogic is what enables the film to perpetuate orientalist cliches of Borneo people and what the film deems to be tribal rituals. This is the part that is most incoherent, and leaves me conflicted. The premise is that colonial anthropology and its invasive and harmful mode of study, which required photography as a technology to document, was harmful to the native populations it attempted to “decipher” for the urban, mostly white intellectual class. (Actually, this might not be the premise and this might be me reading too much into the “clues”.) But in the movie, they dropped the ball. If the film went deeper into exploring the effects of colonialism and capitalist modernity, it would have to sacrifice the exotifying gaze that drives the mystery. And this film is like a fantasy, a dream. It’s like Dain Said threw a bunch of stuff in the blender: animism, indigenous spirituality, ecocide, colonialism, magic, enchantment, noir, police procedural, photography, murder mystery, and hoped for a really good sambal to come out of it. It was tasty; I might even go for seconds. But it leaves you with a stomach ache. And then you’re left trying to figure out exactly what went wrong with the sambal.
It’s a visually-stunning film and in its flaws there are things that lodge themselves in the mind. The mingling of the accents, for example. (Several actors are Indonesian and their accent reflects this in the parts where Malay is spoken). I liked that, in the sense of alluding to a greater Malay archipelago, the shifting and dissolving of borders.
My favourite part was the jungle/sanctuary amidst concrete urban jungle scene. I loved it; it’s beautiful and haunting. The first time we see it the mysterious Belian just sort of runs from the city into this dark place, filled with trees and then sort of climbs into a tree and disappears. Then we see it from the inside. It made me yearn for the kind of place I’ve only ever dreamed of, maybe visited and never inhabited. It made me yearn for a kind of green I’ve probably never seen in my lifetime, both a real and mythical green place as an idea of home. There is peace there. But this is at odds with what Belian and the other native people have to do to return to that peace. It also reeks uncomfortably of the “noble savage” idea.
The noble savage trope also connects with Said’s inability to do anything with women that is not a cliche. It was there in Bunohan and it’s here, as well. Iva (Prisia Nasution) keeps appearing in several scenes as the alluring, mysterious woman who makes eyes at Iedil Putra’s Adam and sucks on ice cubes while being coy. Later we know her true role but it also traffics in the cliches of the native woman, and has a distinctly West Malaysian idea of how women from the East are like. Sucking on ice cubes and being coy, apparently. It’s for a certain gaze. The gaze is male, as seen from Adam’s voyeuristic practice of photography, and as seen in law enforcement: the people tasked with “figuring things out” are men.
The film of course doesn’t try to dictate who should be blamed for the condition of the people that leads to the murders. But we know history and we know that blame can be assigned to the ones that came with their cameras and their notebooks. So in a film that leaves this possibility “open”, one only feels the same old disappointment about how Malaysians — urban middle-class West Malaysians in particular — choose to ignore and devalue certain parts of our history. I would love to read critiques of the film that approach these problems head-on. I’ve read some reviews where it’s purely about a psychological analysis, with a dash of auteur theory (linking Interchange to Bunohan) which is fine but limited. Because ultimately this film is about ritual murder framed as a mystery, and it leaves the burden of the killings on the native people for whatever flawed reason the movie thinks is sufficient. And that’s quite unpleasant, to me.
(Nicholas Saputra played Belian and his ordinarily recognisable beautiful form shifts and transforms into something else; it’s not just visual, it’s also in his manner, how he inhabits his body, and his body language. It was unnerving and very good, I thought, and took me by surprise for someone I’ve just sort of vaguely known as a pretty face in Indonesia. Having watched this though, I’ll take him in any form. *heart-eyes*)
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.
May 7, 2014 § 5 Comments
Some of the first words you hear in Transcendence are “an unavoidable collision between mankind and technology”. And this, too, before the person telling you the story goes on to narrate a tale about a particular form of technology produced by “mankind”.
So, “unavoidable collision between mankind and technology”—
If we follow the “logic” of the film, and believe me: it’s hard to follow anything in this film, Will Caster, as the all-seeing, all-healing form of consciousness played by Johnny Depp becomes a one-man NSA in this NSA-less America. The future is here, and it’s a white American man who knows and sees everything. Fittingly, he is also the all-seeing, ever-present husband who never goes away. More important—he knows his wife, truly understands her, because he has the data on her hormone levels, etc. The wife is quantified, the husband is knowledgeable. At some point, the wife Evelyn (played by Rebecca Hall), is angry about this, the way her husband has been surveying her like she’s a mouse in a lab—truly angry, because although she is his partner and his wife, she is also a mouse in his lab—but this anger is quickly forgotten as the plot hurtles towards its end. Why? Because love. Because the marriage institution. (And so it is that the one person who could, and would, literally reproduce Caster by uploading him to the internet is his wife, who does so at great personal risk—which is strangely downplayed in the movie as oh, look, Rebecca Hall gets to have a stressful, creepy adventure because love.)
At some point in this movie, through the workings of this miraculous nanotechnology life-rejuvenating cell-healing thingamajig that is Will Caster’s consciousness, Will Caster’s consciousness, everywhere and nowhere all at once, must reproduce itself further in order to become … you guessed it … more powerful. It takes on a little bit of a Heal-The-World type goal. Once Caster convinces his wife to move to a tiny, decaying small town in order to work on their “project” (i.e. to work on Will Caster), he needs the bodies of the poor people in town (all of whom appear to be white) in order to become stronger. The film can’t seem to decide what Caster is doing with the bodies of poor people, whether he’s merely using them or “fixing” them. It does not matter! In the end, it all amounts to the same thing. The intentions of the white male genius are all that matters.
So Will Caster becomes a little bit of every person he heals (fixes) and every person who is connected to him through the process becomes a little bit Will Caster. Supposedly. His consciousness is meant to fuse with that of others and transform into some sort of a “collective mind”, which is what Caster says at one point. This is immediately interpreted to mean “army” by the FBI agent played by Cillian Murphy, and this collective mind, as such, is very quickly seen as a threat to the US government and, by extension of imperialist logic, all that is true and good about this planet, etc. The movie doesn’t understand what to do with this collective mind, or even take a minute to ponder the alternatives. All that the FBI and assorted government agents know is that any notion of collectivity without state or corporate supervision can only lead to bad things. [The point Evan Calder Williams makes in Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: “Why do the vast majority of apocalyptic fantasies assume that things going bad with lead to human relations going far, far worse?”]
There is this ambiguous positioning of Will Caster as neither hero nor anti-hero and if the narrative had reflected this, it might have made this mess of a movie a touch more interesting. Except the film is very much in the vein of good guy vs. bad guy; it just isn’t sure who the good guys and the bad guys are. In this sense it mirrors the liberal-moralist handwringing over technology: Technology ruins humans! Technology saves humans! Perhaps it’s important to note that the film’s “neo-Luddites” are never given the opportunity to be good; from the very start, they are “terrorists”. Predictably, they have a very shallow idea of what it means to be sceptical of technology or to be resistant to technopositivism and resort to tossing around reactionary ideas about “human nature”. But the film must fulfil its reductive narrative, and so this collective mind must come to an end. And for that to happen, the entire world must go off the grid in order to get Will Caster off the grid—no power, no internet, no nothing. For the world, apparently. What does this dystopia look like? Oh, I guess like an ordinary day if you consider the American city Paul Bettany’s character is in; people are lining up for coffee at a café, it’s generally okay except things are messier than usual. This is a worldwide catastrophe as seen through the eyes of the few white people (and one token wise black man—introducing Morgan Freeman) in the global North. What’s that you say? Business as usual? Oh yeah, that’s right.
But lest you think the movie was trying to go somewhere with its idea of the “collective mind”, it really wasn’t. The collective mind, as it turns out, is just one (white) (male) mind—because it was Will Caster’s consciousness that was uploaded, Will Caster calls the shots. The capitalist mode of technology that built this collective mind has no capability of making it truly collective; the entire population of the world probably can’t upload their consciousness, and so, predictably, only the few with access can. This collective mind means every one becomes a little bit Caster, but Caster only seems to become more Caster. According to this logic, then, there seems to be no way out—either you become a “collective” ruled by one man, or you go back to how things used to be (just without Gmail and electricity). “Collectivity” is always presented as a bunch of deindividualised, slack-jawed, blank-eyed shells of people who are vulnerable to the (potentially) tyrannical machinations of one man. But while the people are characterless fools, in need of a leader, Will Caster, the one-man NSA, is both genius and tragic romantic hero (wait for the ending, if you want to have a good laugh). It’s hard not to think that the “army” the FBI was so afraid of is only dangerous and unstable because it was corrupted by the presence of so many poor people, by so many not-Will Casters.
The white American male genius, meanwhile? We are meant to mourn him, but don’t be sad! The while American male genius will never die.
[It shouldn’t surprise me that this film was directed by Wally Pfister of the Nolan school. I watched it because I think Cillian Murphy is beautiful, okay? Also, Paul Bettany? And Rebecca Hall? CM in his dumbest role ever, possibly, which is not necessarily an insult to his acting, I think? Because he plays an FBI agent whose job is to show up every so often looking puzzled, informing people that they’ve missed “the real threat” (what is it, though?) and, as an officer of the law, to shut things down–so I thought playing his Agent-Whatever (can’t remember his name) as a particularly disinterested and apathetic character was a sneaky way of embodying official rah-rah American authority. But perhaps it wasn’t intentional, and perhaps Murphy just fucking didn’t know what to do with this role once he realised he was committed to a terrible film? Hard to tell.]