Wednesday, September 20, 2017

That Gum You Like: Scattered Thoughts on Twin Peaks: The Return

I missed Twin Peaks the first time around.  Which is to say that I was aware of it--aware, even at the time, that it was considered a major event, and a shattering of the norms of what television could and should do.  But I was a little too young to watch it.  If my mother had watched the show I might have joined her, as I did with St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law, but as far as I know she wasn't interested, and when I got old enough to start forming my own TV tastes, it was on shows that were influenced by Twin Peaks--The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer--but not the thing itself.

My second time around with Twin Peaks, I was around twenty, and a local channel started airing the show late at night.  I wasn't a habitual viewer--I caught some of the first season, and a few episodes from the end of the show, including the infamous "how's Annie?" ending.  The internet being a thing by that point, I went online to catch up on the parts of the show I'd missed, and took in the general consensus that Twin Peaks was a glorious mess that never really paid off its setup, and that the prequel movie Fire Walk With Me was a self-indulgent disappointment.  Being, at that point, rather burned out on works that promised major revelation without having a real idea of what it was (a condition often referred to as "being an X-Files fan") my impulse with Twin Peaks was to hold it at arm's length.  It didn't seem worth it to get invested in a work that had no proper meaning or conclusion, and so, even as I got repeatedly burned by Alias and Lost and Battlestar Galactica, I held off on any real engagement with the ur-text of so many of them.

My third try with Twin Peaks was just a few months ago, when, in preparation for the upcoming revival series, I mainlined the entire 30 episodes of the show, plus Fire Walk With Me, over a long weekend.  It was strange experiencing the show this way, simultaneously a newcomer and someone who knew quite a bit about it, including the major turns of plot.  What was even stranger was how much the existence of The Return changed the meaning and significance of the original Twin Peaks, even before a single frame of it had aired.  From a failed experiment, it became merely a chapter in a story, whose later installments might yet redeem it.  Watching Twin Peaks was suddenly no longer an exercise in nostalgia and self-flagellation, but that venerable Peak TV practice of binge-watching the previous seasons before the new episodes start.  I ended up enjoying this rewatch much more than I was expecting (Fire Walk With Me, in particular, turns out to be a great deal more rewarding than I'd been led to believe), but I wonder if I would have felt the same if I didn't know that another chapter in the saga was just around the corner.

It also made me think of how much Twin Peaks straddles, defines, and is now a product of the changes that TV has undergone in the last thirty years.  One of the things that struck me once I finally let myself experience the show properly this spring is how nimble and multifaceted its storytelling is.  The conversation surrounding Twin Peaks tends to concentrate on its mythology, but there's so much more to the show than that, and it is precisely that polyphonic quality that makes it so special.  Twin Peaks is a murder mystery, a soap opera, a melodrama, a comedy, a portrait of abuse, and a genre story about a cosmic battle between good and evil.  The different styles penetrate and influence each other in a way that shouldn't work but absolutely does, but which also proves incredibly difficult to imitate.  Just look at the precipitous drop in quality in the show's second season, after the mystery of Laura Palmer's murder was solved and David Lynch left in a huff because of network interference.  The same ingredients are there, but the stew they make quickly turns rancid.

Twin Peaks redefined what television was and what it could do, but to recreate its affect was nearly impossible (even ignoring the fact that the show was only sporadically successful at that affect itself).  It is simultaneously sui generis, and monumentally influential.  It has never been repeated (despite a few attempts here and there), and yet there is scarcely a show on TV right now that it doesn't have tendrils in, if only because it did so many things that, no matter what kind of story you ended up telling, Twin Peaks could offer you a template or an inspiration.  Shows as disparate as The X-Files, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Carnivalé, Riverdale, and Gravity Falls wear its influence on their sleeves.

At the same time, it has also been superseded.  Lost took that sense of portent that Twin Peaks specialized in, the conviction that just around the corner there is a missing piece that will make every bit of weirdness that has come before fall into place, and figured out how to commodify and mass-produce it.  In so doing, it also degraded it.  Looking forward to The Return, I worried that nothing it could do would seem very special in a TV landscape where mystery, overarching storylines, and complex mythologies are par for the course.  To a certain, minor extent, I was right (while being wrong in a much bigger way, as we'll discuss shortly).  Twin Peaks: The Return is both a product of the era of Peak TV, and a victim of it.  It would never have existed if we didn't live in a world in which dozens of channels are producing hundreds of hours of scripted television, each vying for attention and desperately searching for something to set them apart.  It is the product of a fashion for nostalgia (and a streaming TV model looking to hook new viewers) that has brought us new seasons of The X-Files, 24, Prison Break, Full House, and Gilmore Girls.  If in 1991 Lynch could be browbeaten into revealing Laura Palmer's murderer and then chased off his own show, in 2016 he could put his foot down and demand exactly the amount of money, and the number of episodes, he wanted.  Literally the only thing standing in Lynch's path to making The Return exactly as he wanted was the availability of the actors (and even then, at least three members of The Return's cast--Catherine E. Coulson, Miguel Ferrer, and Warren Frost--shot their scenes as they were struggling with their final illness).

None of this could have happened at any point before the last few years, but the same fragmented market that made The Return possible has also made it a niche product.  From a water-cooler show, Twin Peaks has become prestige TV, the kind of show that gets lauded by critics and wins Emmys, but which hardly anyone watches.  That's a profound shame, because The Return is easily the most exhilarating, exciting TV series I've watched in some time, and it deserves a wider audience.  But at the same time, its weirdness, its determination to be exactly what it wants to be, necessarily limit its appeal.  I'm thrilled beyond words to have gotten this version of Twin Peaks, which so thoroughly changes what came before it as to make it into a different (and to my mind even better) show.  But I can't help but notice that in order to achieve this, Twin Peaks also had to destroy itself, that edifice of what the show came to mean in the popular consciousness.  I suspect that's not lost on Lynch either--might, in fact, be part of the appeal.

***

Twin Peaks: The Return picks up 25 years after the end of the original Twin Peaks, which closed on a brutal cliffhanger in which the stalwart FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is possessed by the evil spirit known as BOB.  In the years since, the possessed Cooper, now known as "Mr. C", has amassed a vast criminal empire whose actual purpose is to enable him to understand and control the forces of the White and Black Lodges, where the good and evil supernatural beings who are behind most of the show's events dwell, and from which they exert their influence on our world.  Realizing that he is about to be pulled back into the Black Lodge and replaced by Cooper, Mr. C tricks Cooper and his allies by constructing a duplicate of himself, a boozehound insurance agent named Dougie Jones.  When Cooper emerges from the Lodge, it is Dougie that he replaces, while Mr. C continues in his quest to find the Lodge.  Meanwhile, Cooper's former colleagues at the FBI, Gordon Cole (Lynch) and Albert Rosenfield (Ferrer), aided by new agent Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell) and Cooper's former assistant Diane Evans (Laura Dern), alerted to Mr. C's actions, begin pursuing him, believing him to be Cooper.  Back in Twin Peaks, Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster, playing the brother of original player Michael Ontkean's character) and his deputies Tommy "Hawk" Hill (Michael Horse) and Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) come across new information in the Laura Palmer case, including messages from Bobby's long-deceased father informing them that a cataclysmic event connected to the Lodge is due to occur.

To be clear, this description bears about as much resemblance to the reality of Twin Peaks: The Return as a crudely drawn map does to the actual territory.  I mean that literally: it is missing depth, breadth, height, color, and sound.  Twin Peaks has always been about more than its story, but this is doubly and triply true of The Return, which assembles, above the bare scaffolding of this tale of Manichean struggle, an edifice that is funny, strange, tedious, perplexing, horrifying, enlightening, and completely shapeless.  

One need only look at the fact that nearly every one of the season's 18 episodes ends with a minutes-long, usually dialogue-free musical performance at a Twin Peaks hangout called The Road House (a small-town bar that somehow manages to book acts like Nine Inch Nails and Eddie Vedder) to understand just how little Lynch and his co-writer Mark Frost care about the conventions of storytelling and the audience's comfort.  The Return is full of cul-de-sacs and tangents.  Long, absurdist scenes seem to exist for no reason except that Lynch and Frost thought it might be neat to, for example, have Andy Brennan and Lucy Moran's son Wally (Michael Cera) be a Marlon Brando impersonator who zooms into town on his motorcycle for a long, pause-heavy monologue in which he waxes about following in the footsteps of "Lewis, and his friend Clark".  In conversation, characters frequently drop names we've never heard before nor will again, randomly pausing to discuss the relationships and hardships of people who mean nothing to us (sometimes the people speaking are themselves also strangers, who never recur after their single scene).  A large part of the show is taken up with Cooper's struggles as Dougie Jones, which are exacerbated by the fact that something about the botched transference has rendered him addled and uncomprehending.  He wanders through Dougie's life like a holy fool, guided by some supernatural intuition to fix Dougie's marriage to the exasperated Janey-E (Naomi Watts) and uncover corruption at his place of work.  It's a plotline that is an exercise in finely-honed frustration, first because no one in Dougie's vicinity seems to notice that he is clearly brain-damaged, and second because this domestic farce is not what any of us tuned in for--we want Cooper, who doesn't turn up until very near the show's end.

I want to be clear that I can easily understand people for whom any or all of these choices were complete turn-offs that made them write off the show--I enjoyed The Return immensely, but even so there are stretches of it that I find tedious or self-indulgent.  What kept me engaged even through those stretches, and made them seem ultimately worthwhile, was the sense that everything that happens in The Return is deliberate, a choice on Lynch and Frost's part.  I don't mean by this that everything in the show has some secret meaning--there's obviously a lot of fun to be had in that sort of approach, and there are already some minutely thought-out and entertaining fan theories out there about The Return's ultimate meaning, but I've never enjoyed watching TV that way, as if it were a code to be deciphered.  What I mean, rather, is that there is no part of The Return that feels conventional, no aspect of its storytelling that has happened because that's the shorthand for conveying this particular turn of plot.  Lynch seems to be rebuilding the toolbox of TV storytelling from the ground up, and what he comes up with is remarkably coherent.  You never quite get used to The Return's rhythms--to the way that scenes seem to last just that little bit longer than they should, or how pauses in conversations stretch to the point of discomfort--but it also never feels like anything less than completely itself, and to me that's incredibly exciting to witness.

It's interesting, too, how little showboating there is in The Return.  That seems almost impossible to credit when you consider that the show includes long stretches of surrealist storytelling--including an entire episode that is almost completely dialogue-free and made up of sequences of fantastical, sometimes almost abstract images.  When I compare The Return to other recent "experimental" shows like Legion or American Gods (and even more than the latter, to Gods creator Bryan Fuller's previous show, Hannibal), it's remarkable how completely Lynch seems to avoid the impulse to nudge the audience, to ask, "can you believe we did that?  Well, can ya'?"  

Some of this has to do with how low-rent The Return's imagery is.  In the original show, Lynch famously created an entire shadow world with some red curtains and a few armchairs, but even with a bigger, cable budget, there's something decidedly chintzy about the effects he chooses for his fantasy world and creatures (though he's also capable of delivering eye-popping CGI when the occasion calls for it).  When we finally get a glimpse into the White Lodge, it has the shabby-genteel look of an old horror movie, and its strangeness is conveyed by placing giant electrical components throughout its space (electricity is one of the series's most important motifs, and how the beings in the Lodge travel).  It's left to Lynch's assured direction, as well as his expert work with sound, to convey the feeling of otherworldliness, or of horror, that other creators might have hung on their special effects.

Equally bracing is the way Lynch depicts the real world, never shying away from the barrenness of the half-built subdivision where Dougie meets with his mistress, or the sameness of the houses on his street, the aspirationally-named Lancelot Court, or the shabbiness of a Twin Peaks trailer park.  Modern TV is so allergic to honest depictions of these sorts of spaces (American Gods, for example, erases them entirely, choosing to prettify the American landscape in a way that completely neuters the show's alleged mission) that there's something almost fantastical about Lynch's willingness to incorporate them into his world.  But again, the fact that The Return is willing to be ordinary means that its extraordinariness, however deliberate, never reads as showing off.

Another reason is that, underneath its weirdness, The Return is an incredibly earnest show.  Twin Peaks is sometimes discomforting in its willingness to look directly at ugly, outsized emotion.  Fire Walk With Me, for example, is among other things a character study of a young woman crumbling under the psychological weight of years of sexual abuse and the denial that she hides behind.  It completely rejects the convention that such serious topics should be depicted with restraint and understatement, and instead allows star Sheryl Lee to rant, scream, weep, and have hysterics (there are a lot of reasons one can imagine for Fire Walk With Me's incredibly unfair reception and reputation as a failure, but it's hard not to assume that it was an unwillingness to see Lee's performance as the fearless tour de force that it is that is the culprit).  The belief that melodrama is as serious and fruitful a source for meaningful emotion as a more naturalistic style underpins Twin Peaks, and--especially when buttressed by sensitive writing and searing performances like Lee's--it makes it impossible to develop a protective skin of irony.  No matter how silly the events of Twin Peaks get, the pain that lies beneath them is too real to ignore.

The Return doesn't reach the same heights of melodrama as its predecessors, but it shares with them the belief that trauma can express itself in ways that are weird or even funny.  A recurring theme in the show is the idea that damaged people are all around us, whether it's the hard-of-hearing Gordon Cole, who shouts at the top of his lungs and frequently mishears what people say to him; or the original Dougie Jones, who was apparently prone to disappearing on days-long benders; or Sheriff Truman's wife Doris, who hectors him relentlessly over completely trivial matters, only for a deputy to reveal that she suffers from crippling anxiety since the death of her son by suicide.  Amazingly for a show that traffics in such gruesome subject matter as incest and murder, Twin Peaks insists on the possibility of kindness and accommodation for such people.  Sheriff Truman is endlessly patient with his wife; Dougie's colleagues are bemused but tolerant of his occasional disappearances.  As Dougie, Cooper tangles with the underworld figures the Mitchum Brothers (Jim Belushi and Robert Knepper) who are always accompanied by a trio of beautiful blonde women in pink satin dresses.  It's a ridiculous image, but when one of the girls, Candie (Amy Shiels), starts exhibiting obvious signs of emotional problems, the brothers, though exasperated, take her behavior in stride, because "[if] we fire her, she's got no place to go".

If there's a mission statement for The Return, it's expressed by Janey-E Jones, when she arrives to pay off some loan sharks who have been hounding her for Dougie's unpaid gambling debts.  After browbeating the men into accepting a much smaller interest payment than they wanted, Janey-E breaks into a rant that is simultaneously deeply principled and deeply deluded (and really, not enough can be said for Watts's ability to imbue this scene with just the right amount of both self-importance and incandescent rage):
What kind of world are we living in where people can behave like this, treat other people this way, without any compassion, or feeling for their suffering!  We are living in a dark, dark age and you are part of the problem.  Now I suggest you take a good long look at yourselves because I never want to see either of you again!
It's a ridiculous, almost comical scene, and Janey-E is a deliberately comical character (as evidenced by her very name).  But the sentiment is played entirely straight--the idea that there is something wrong with a world where people take such total advantage of one another.  It's such a desperately uncool thing to believe, much less say, much less say in a story that also includes a cosmic battle between good and evil that somehow also encompasses a young girl being raped and murdered by her father.  But of course, Twin Peaks does not, for one minute, care about being cool.  Even at the heights of its weirdness, it is a fundamentally kind, caring story, one that genuinely believes that the outrage of an irate housewife matters just as much as a Manichean struggle between forces older and grander than we can comprehend.  That belief shines through every moment of the show, and it is that, I think, that saves it from coming off as weirdness for weirdness's sake.

***

Or at least, it does until you get to the end.  We talk a lot about endings in the Golden Age of Television, expecting them to imbue meaning into stories that have relied for their effect on ambiguity.  Just a few years ago we were furiously debating what the "right" ending for Breaking Bad would be, but that's nothing compared to the veritable ending wars that engulfed and consumed shows like Lost or Battlestar Galactica.  Weirdness and surrealism are fine on TV so long as you're in the middle of your story, but when you get to the end, you're expected to have a solution that can be deemed "satisfying", or it'll be assumed that you were just making it up as you went along, had no idea what you were on about, and were in general conning the audience.

Twin Peaks: The Return does not have a "satisfying" ending.  Its ending is so unsatisfying, in fact, that it can only be taken as deliberate--if not quite a "fuck you" to the audience, then a refusal to be pinned down or understood.  But before we talk about that, let's cycle back to the famous--perhaps infamous--episode 8, the climax of the show's weirdness that is also, paradoxically, exactly what some people are looking for when they talk about "satisfying" endings.  As previously noted, episode 8 is the high-octane version of The Return's frequent forays into surrealism.  There are only a few lines of dialogue in the entire hour, and only two of the show's main characters appear.  The action moves in time and between our realm and the Lodge, and includes long stretches that are nothing but pure imagery, supplemented by an insistent, disorienting soundtrack.

And yet, episode 8 is also the most coherent, easy to parse hour in The Return's entire season.  I think that's even part of the reason why it was lauded as such an outrageous departure, and a high point of the season.  Lynch had taken an extremely common building block of the modern genre story--the villain origin flashback episode--and told it in a completely idiosyncratic way that was nevertheless fairly easy to understand, once you got into the swing of things and stopped expecting a conventional TV episode to reemerge.  Without taking away anything from episode 8's artistry, this is a lower difficulty setting than what most of The Return delivers, and therefore probably makes for a more straightforwardly satisfying viewing experience.  You can be blown away by the imagery while still following along with the story, and also complimenting yourself for being able to do so.

This might also be the reason why episode 8, despite looming so significantly over The Return's reception, isn't nearly as crucial to its story as some reviewers have made it out to be.  There are three important things that we learn in episode 8: that BOB, though dangerous, is only a secondary villain to a much more powerful malevolent force (unnamed in the episode itself, but identified as "The Experiment" in the credits, and as "Judy" later in the season); that Laura was sent to Earth by the beings of the White Lodge to fight this force; and that in 1956, a young girl was possessed by a creature protected by the beings of the Black Lodge.  (Fans have speculated that this girl is Sarah Palmer, Laura's mother, and that the creature is Judy, and there's a lot of evidence in the season to suggest that this is true.)  None of this ends up being crucial to the rest of the season, which continues to focus on Cooper's restoration and on the battle between him and Mr. C.  It's perhaps for this reason that the episodes immediately following episode 8 feel a little flat and schematic, as the story we'd come to expect fails to materialize.  It's as if Lynch were taunting us, suggesting a key that could tie his story's entire mythology together into an easily understood (if artfully presented) genre template, and then regressing right back to the aimless weirdness where Twin Peaks really lives.

A similar feeling of being taunted accompanies the end of the season, which comes in two episodes that seem to function as mirror images to one another.  In the first, Cooper, who has finally been restored to full awareness, defeats Mr. C, through a Rube Goldberg-esque combination of coincidences and right-place-right-time happenstance that have been carefully arranged by a representative of the White Lodge known as The Fireman (Carel Struycken, who also appeared in the original Twin Peaks as "The Man From Another Place").  There's a neatness to this resolution that feels completely out of place in Twin Peaks, and Lynch even pokes fun at it--and at shows, like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, that rely on this kind of mechanistic resolution to their surrealist storytelling--by making the linchpin of the plan to defeat Mr. C a character whom we barely even know.  This character, Freddie (Jake Wardle), is an Englishman (almost the only foreigner in this show's entire mythology, which is deeply rooted in Americanness) who was ordered by the Fireman in a vision to track down a particular gardening glove which, once donned, would make his hand superhumanly strong, and thus able to punch BOB out of existence.

The presence of Cooper, finally restored to his old self, his determination to destroy BOB, his joy at being reunited with his friends, and the sheer force of his personality, mean that this episode isn't nearly as ridiculous as the above might make it seem.  There's genuine tension when Mr. C, who has been murdering his way across the American landscape, arrives at the Twin Peaks Sheriff's station and is greeted as a friend by the unsuspecting deputies; and genuine triumph when the person who finally gets the drop on him is the department's spacey receptionist Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson).  But at the same time, Lynch is making it clear that this is not the point, nor the purpose, of his story.  No sooner has he defeated BOB than Cooper sets his sights on far more ambitious targets.  Returning to the Lodge, and now seemingly able to control it, he travels back in time to remove Laura from Twin Peaks just moments before she meets with her murderers.  He then travels with Diane to an alternate universe where a middle-aged Laura exists, but calls herself Carrie Page and doesn't remember her old life.  Convinced that restoring Laura's memory is the key to defeating Judy, Cooper takes Carrie back to Twin Peaks, but once there the confrontation he'd envisioned failed to materialize.  The series's final images are of Carrie's face as she stares at the Palmer house, first in incomprehension, then in horror.  She screams, terrifyingly, and the lights in the house spark and go out as the screen smashes to black.

The first thing I did after I watched this ending was to get up and walk around the house a few times, trying to work off a bit of nervous energy.  The second thing I did was to start bargaining.  This was clearly not an ending but a cliffhanger, a set up for yet another season--what the Lost writers used to call "leveling up", with one villain, BOB, having been defeated, and Cooper and Laura only at the beginning of a fight against the more important villain, Judy.  The third thing I did was to go online and read some other people's reactions to the finale, in the hopes that they'd help me make sense of what I just watched.  It was only at this point that I started to come to terms with The Return's ending.  I'm still not entirely reconciled to it--and I suspect that I'm not supposed to be--but I think I see what Lynch's argument with it is.  I think he's saying that the kind of ending fans envisioned when they heard that Twin Peaks was going to be revived, the resolution they'd been craving during the 26 years since "how's Annie?", would have turned the show into something that is not Twin Peaks anymore.  That to reach an ending to the show's central struggle, to allow our heroes to win, or even lose, would change it irreparably.

It's for this reason that I no longer think there's going to be another season, even though Lynch has teased the possibility.  We already know what the trick is, and we'll be expecting it next time, which would rob it of most of its power.  I could be wrong, of course--there could be another season, whose existence will alter the meaning of The Return and its ending as definitively as The Return did for the original show and "how's Annie?"  But for the time being, the ending we have feels, not satisfying, but right.

***

A lot of critics, when discussing The Return and its ending, have focused on the theme of abuse and the way it--and particularly the abuse experienced by Laura--underpins the entire series.  By trying to save Laura, these critics argue, Cooper oversteps himself, applying his white knight impulses to an evil so much more complicated and insidious than the Black Lodge.  The fact that the world he finds himself in after making this heroic gesture seems to leave no space for his heroism (and that Cooper himself seems subdued and diminished in this world), is a sort of cosmic rebuke, a reminder that it isn't possible for anyone to fix what has been done to Laura, that the trauma and damage of abuse linger and can't simply be erased.  The Return's refusal to offer us a triumphant resolution is reminder that its "real" story is one that can't be resolved.

My reaction to this reading is that if it's correct, then Lynch is, not for the first time, wagging his finger at a problem that he has created, and which he relentlessly and repeatedly exacerbates.  The thing that makes Twin Peaks remarkable is also the thing that makes it problematic, and perhaps the reason that it is ultimately so unresolvable.  Twin Peaks is a story about a teenage girl who is raped and murdered by her father.  Twin Peaks is also a story about a small town beset by cosmic horrors, one of whom possesses a local man and compels him to rape and murder his teenage daughter.  Try as Lynch and Frost might, it's not actually possible to reconcile these two different kinds of horror, the fantastical and the mundane.  As Cooper, Sheriff Truman, and the other deputies muse once they've exposed Laura's father as her murderer and exorcised the being possessing him:
Harry Truman: He was completely insane.
Albert: You think so?  People saw BOB.  People saw him in visions.  Laura, Maddie, Sarah Palmer.
Major Briggs: Gentlemen, there's more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy.
Cooper: Amen.
Harry: I've lived in these old woods most of my life.  Seen some strange things, but this is way off the map.  I'm having a hard time believing.
Cooper: Harry, is it easier to believe a man would rape and murder his own daughter?  Any more comforting?
Harry: No.
Briggs: An evil that great in this beautiful world.  Finally, does it matter what the cause?
Cooper: Yes, because it's our job to stop it.
But of course--and I can only assume that Lynch realizes this--it is easier to believe that a man would rape and murder his own daughter, because that sort of thing happens with terrifying regularity, whereas aliens and evil spirits don't actually exist.  In its early episodes, at least, Twin Peaks seemed cognizant of this, even if its approach to the topic left much to be desired.  Nearly all the women on the show were subject to abuse of one form or another, and hardly any of them could blame supernatural causes for it.  That's not something the show handled very well--it often felt as if the purpose of its female characters was to suffer beautifully, and to react with frustrating passivity and even a sort of wry detachment to the violence they met at the hands of husbands, fathers, and lovers.  Fire Walk With Me does a better job on one level, by prioritizing the psychological toll that abuse takes on its heroine, and placing her, rather than her abuser, at the center of its story.  But it also reinforces the argument of the original series, that there was something unusual and supernatural about Laura's experiences, that the evil she was subjected to was cosmic, not commonplace (it also, implicitly, absolves Laura's father of guilt for abusing her, and in his later appearances in the Lodge he is a tragic, perhaps even positive, figure).

The Return takes this even further when it reveals that Laura was sent to Earth by the Fireman in order to defeat Judy.  From a young woman who had the misfortune to be born to a man possessed by evil, this revelation turns Laura into a warrior in the battle against that evil, whose suffering might be necessary and even foreordained.  If Janey-E Jones gets to express the outrage of ordinary people caught up in an unfeeling, predatory world, Laura is denied any access to that outrage.  Even her scream of horror at the series's end is a stepping stone in the battle against evil.  When you think about it, an integral component of Cooper's plan to defeat Judy is retraumatizing Laura.  Having shed her memory of her abuse and murder, Cooper convinces Laura to come back to Twin Peaks with him, with the express purpose of reminding her of it--without which memory, it is implied, she can't help him fight Judy.

Then there's Cooper's heroic announcement that "it's our job to stop it".  Despite the ambiguity of the preceding conversation, it's clear that the "it" in question is not the horrifying prevalence of incest and domestic violence, but the more heroic challenge of defeating BOB and the Black Lodge.  If there's one place where I feel The Return add something new to Twin Peaks's handling of abuse, it is in subtly castigating these priorities.  The idea that it is incumbent upon men--and particularly men in positions of authority--to combat the more mundane evil of abuse is present in The Return precisely in its absence, in the failure of even the good, heroic men on the show to live up to it.

You see this in particular in the two "redeemed" men of The Return, Bobby Briggs and Ben Horne (Richard Beymer).  Both played villainous turns in the original Twin Peaks, and underwent a moral awakening which finds them, 25 years later, acting as pillars of the community.  But both are also incapable of paying that enlightenment forward, of teaching other men to grow as they did.  Bobby, who was guided away from his selfishness and violent temper by his father, Major Briggs, has no sons of his own, and the young deputies at the Sheriff's department are too corrupt or disinterested to learn from him.  He's unable to prevent either his ex-wife or his daughter from taking up with the same kind of abusive man he used to be, and in his most important scene in The Return, is confronted with the knowledge that that violence is propagating, when he witnesses an abusive man being imitated by his young son.  Ben, who spent most of Twin Peaks indulging in his worst impulses (including, but not limited to, sleeping with underage prostitutes, one of whom was Laura), has been punished by being forced to play the role of the responsible adult in a family that isn't willing to follow his moral example.  In particular, his grandson Richard (Eamon Farren) is a vicious, violent man, the embodiment of toxic masculinity.  When he learns that Richard killed a young boy in a hit and run, Ben laments that "Richard never had a father", but never explains why he couldn't step in as Richard's father, teaching him to be a better person.

And then there's Cooper himself.  In the original Twin Peaks, Cooper embodied a kind of new masculine ideal, half the stalwart self-assurance of his namesake Gary Cooper, half New Age sensitivity.  He was staunch in the pursuit of justice and righteous in the application of violence, but also kind, and possessed of a childlike curiosity and openness.  He was a sensualist--all that orgasmic cooing over coffee and cherry pie--but not a hedonist.  And when he loved people--both romantically and platonically--he loved completely and joyfully.  There has never been another male hero like Dale Cooper on TV, and it is perhaps for this reason that in The Return, Lynch felt it necessary to destroy him.

You see this most obviously in the fact that The Return spends so much time with a character who is a corruption of everything Cooper represented, Mr. C.  "I don't need things, I want them", Mr. C explains to a henchman in one of his earliest appearances, in a statement that defines both the character's evil--that gaping maw of desire that can never be satisfied and is incapable of considering the humanity of others--and the way that he corrupts Cooper's virtues.  But as The Return subtly but insistently reminds us, Mr. C is not a duplicate of Cooper.  He is Cooper, who allowed himself to be taken over by BOB in exchange for the life of his lover, Annie Blackburn.  In so doing, Cooper allowed himself to become the very thing he stood against (it's never stated outright, but by surrendering to BOB, Cooper, who came to Twin Peaks to pursue justice for Laura, essentially became her rapist and murderer).  Mr. C's evil is expressed most blatantly in his violence against women.  In one of his earliest appearances, he murders his lover, who was planning to betray him, in a scene that is horrible precisely because of his indifference to her struggles and cries for mercy.  It's eventually revealed that he raped both Diane and Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), two women for whom the original Cooper had romantic feelings.

Of course, The Return gives us an out from the full horror of acknowledging what Cooper has become, in the form of another, "good" Cooper (it's actually lucky that Mr. C tricks Cooper into taking over Dougie's body, because it means he never has to come in contact with the corrupted thing that his original body has become).  But it's probably not a coincidence that we end up spending so little time with Cooper in his canonical form, as a confident leader who knows exactly how to save the world.  Or that the final form that Cooper takes, in the alternate world to which he pursues Laura, is a midpoint between his two extremes, still dedicated to good, but nowhere near as joyful or as confident as the man Cooper once was.  This is a version of Cooper who has seen inside himself, seen how insufficient he is to battle the actual evil that women like Laura have to live with.  A lot of fans wanted The Return to be about Cooper's triumphant return, which would involve defeating BOB and possibly riding off into the sunset with Audrey.  Instead, the closest he can come up with is to unmake the entire series, to prevent Laura's death--and thus his own coming to Twin Peaks, and Mr. C's creation.  The most heroic thing Dale Cooper can do to combat the evil of abuse, it seems, is not just to rescue Laura, but to take himself out of her story.

***

There's so much more to say, really.  I haven't touched on the series's (extremely iffy) approach to race, or its repositioning of Sarah Palmer as a villain, or the strange and terrible fate it gives Audrey, or the alternately interesting and frustrating turns of the FBI storyline, or what I think the Road House actually is, or the absence of queerness, or or or.  We'll probably be talking about The Return for years to come, for the simple reason that it's one of the richest and most expertly made works of television for years, if not ever.  And one of the things we'll have to talk about is how, in an age of revivals and reboots and appeals to nostalgia, David Lynch created one of the remarkable works in the medium by refusing all those impulses, by unmaking his most famous creation and making something completely new out of it.  It's hard to imagine that the new Twin Peaks will have the kind of influence that the original series did, if only because Lynch has upped his game so much that it will take an entirely new generation of TV creators to follow in his footsteps.  But for the time being, we have The Return--messy, meandering, frustrating, problematic, but so completely its own thing that one can only be grateful for its existence.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Third Queen: Thoughts on the Seventh Season of Game of Thrones

Well, this season of Game of Thrones was pretty shit, wasn't it?  That comes as a bit of a surprise, to be honest.  For years, I've taken an attitude of fond indulgence towards the show.  What's wrong, after all, with watching a bunch of generally quite fine actors enact a complicated plot with stratospheric production values and the occasional fantastic action scene?  Sure, the show wasn't actually about anything, and its writers had blind spots on issues of race and gender that were often glaring.  But if you're able to put that aside, what's left is a genuinely enjoyable, well-made soap opera whose main appeal is the desire to know what happens next.  It hadn't occurred to me that this was a formula that could be screwed up, but at the end of the shortened (and yet seemingly endless) seventh season, there's really no escaping the conclusion: Game of Thrones may not be a good show, but there is a palpable difference between good Game of Thrones and bad Game of Thrones, and we've just been served a heaping helping of the latter.

What makes the whole thing particularly disappointing is that at the beginning of the season, I actually thought it had tremendous potential.  The season premiere, "Dragonstone", was to my mind the strongest such episode the show had ever fielded.  Unlike previous premieres, dutiful affairs carefully going about the business of establishing who is where before the proper business of the story can start, "Dragonstone" felt like a thesis statement for Game of Thrones's final chapter.  After six seasons in which the show seemed defined by its impulse to withhold--to deny us the character reunion, the shared, crucial bit of information, and most of all the opportunity for characters to act rather than being forced to react--this hour felt as if there was a fresh breeze running through it, with characters finally moving forward.  It's an episode hard at work to remind us how many different stories are happening on this show at the same time, full of conversations in which characters express their conflicting, and yet accurate, worldviews.  On the battlements of Winterfell, Sansa and Jon discuss the war to come.  She looks to the south, and the Lannister army, while he worries about the army of the dead.  They're both right.  At King's Landing, Cersei Lannister reminds her brother Jaime that their only hope of survival is to grasp power as brutally and completely as they can.  He counters that they have no dynasty to fight for, and that the country in dispute is about to be consumed by the business of surviving winter.  They're both right.  At the citadel in Old Town, Sam Tarly tries to convince the archmaester that a world-ending catastrophe is coming, only to be informed that there's always some catastrophe around the corner, and that civilization survives by continuing to attend to the minutiae of existence through them.  They're both right.  At the end of the hour, Game of Thrones feels like something very different from what it previously was, a story in which people make decisions and take actions, but in which no actor has possession of a complete picture of the world.

This is, obviously, not the show that we got.  There are hints of that story still in the season's second episode, "Stormborn", when Daenerys, after six seasons of existing outside the narrative constraints that have directed the lives of all the other characters, suddenly finds herself inextricably tied to her name and family history, and the horrific associations that everyone in Westeros has with them.  When the mere whisper of the name "Targaryen" can make Cersei--fresh off the destruction of the Sept of Baelor and with it much of King's Landing's civic and religious leadership--look like the safe, reasonable option, the rules have well and truly changed.  And yet they don't.  Far from being forced to finally reckon with her family's history and function as a player equal to all the others, Daenerys simply slips out of the narrative's grasp, just as she's always done.  And, just as it always has, this tendency paradoxically makes her storyline feel the most airless and least engaging on the show.

Only now it's the entire show that feels airless.  The entire show where actions have no consequences except the ones the writers need them to have, and where characters make decisions not because it's what a person in their situation would do, but because their token needs to be on a particular spot on the board for the next bit of story.  Why does Jon set off on a foolhardy, Rube Goldberg-esque quest to retrieve a wight from beyond the Wall?  Because that's how the writers are going to give the White Walkers the ability to destroy the Wall, which they otherwise would apparently not have been able to do, despite Jon's repeated warnings that their attack was imminent.  Why does he knock on Daenerys's bedroom door when doing so is politically unwise, contrary to the norms of his society, and seemingly uninvited?  Because the writers want a bit of dramatic irony when they make their revelation that Jon and Daenerys are not only nephew and aunt, but in direct competition for the Iron Throne.  Why has Bran concealed the truth about Jon's parentage all season?  Because the writers wanted him to reveal it to the one person who has information that proves Jon's legitimacy--information that Bran, despite being all-knowing, doesn't have until Sam prods him to look for it.

What one finally has to admit is that Benioff, Weiss, and their writers seem to have no idea how to finish this story.  They did a good job embroidering around the structure that George R.R. Martin provided them, and even embellishing from it when the time came to push the middle game forward.  But going into the endgame, they appear to have no real plan.  The result, as Aaron Bady writes, feels like a Game of Thrones cover band, throwing out fan favorites and acknowledging beloved memes--Gendry is still rowing!  R+L = J!  Tormund and Brienne!--without ever really having a sense of a story to tie them all together.  We all know where it's supposed to end up, but how we get there feels increasingly schematic.  (Since I've mentioned him, if you're not reading Aaron's, and Sarah Mesle's, reviews of Game of Thrones over at LARB, you're missing out on what is hands-down the best commentary on the show.)

But then, the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that this is Benioff and Weiss's fault.  Without downplaying the failings of this season--the weirdly rushed pacing, the flights of irrationality and stupidity, the ravens that function like text messages--is it possible that there is no way to satisfactorily end this story?  That the traits we've identified as flaws, unintended consequences of a source material with no ending in sight--the withholding of resolution and forward momentum, the diffusion of the story into tangents and cul-de-sacs--are in fact the traits that define this story?  To go back to Aaron Bady, this is something he suggested a few years ago, when he argued that the series had reached not just its climax, but its natural ending point, with the Red Wedding, that quintessential denial of heroic tropes and storytelling conventions.  It's something I seem to have recognized in my dissatisfied review of the first book, when I pointed out that the story's heroic narratives, involving Daenerys and Jon, seemed to be in direct conflict of tone and intent with the more political, anti-heroic slant of the other characters' stories.  Is it possible that by trying to force a resolution to its story, Game of Thrones's writers are being untrue to what the show actually is?

Think of the fundamental questions that most fans will have gone into this season asking.  Who will Jon end up with, and does it matter that Daenerys is his aunt?  Will Jaime kill Cersei, or will Arya do it?  Will Brienne ride off into the sunset with Tormund or with Jaime (or neither)?  Who will end up on the Iron Throne?  They look like storytelling questions, but a closer look reveals that they're actually logistical ones.  That's a problem in a season that has thrown all basic logic and plausibility out the window, but it would still be a problem even if this season had been impeccably plotted, because the crucial difference between these two kinds of questions is that in the second type, you don't actually care what the answer is.  It's about how you get there, and that is what Game of Thrones has always been about--getting there, and the weird layovers, false starts, and distractions you encounter along the way.  Trying to tie it all up makes about as much sense as trying to put an end point on any soap opera, except that now we have the threat of ice zombies imposing an artificial end-point on the story.  Is it any wonder the result has been unsatisfying?

All of this has been a roundabout way of getting to talk about the only thing in Game of Thrones I actually care about: Sansa.  Sansa has been my favorite character since the second season, but it's only in the last few weeks that I've realized why that is: because unlike everyone else on the show, Sansa doesn't know what she wants.  More importantly, what she wants changes dramatically according to her circumstances and level of understanding.  In the first season, Sansa wanted a fantasy, to marry a prince, become a queen, and rule beside him (this, to be clear, was a perfectly reasonable fantasy for someone of Sansa's class and background, and if the Baratheons weren't who they were it would probably have been a good life for her).  In the next four seasons, and in the wake of that fantasy turning into a horrific nightmare, Sansa's desires turned to survival and escape, and in the last season, they became about securing her safety and retaking her home.  Now ensconced as Lady of Winterfell, possessed of a reasonable amount of security, authority, and power, Sansa is faced with a dilemma that hardly anyone else on the show has had to struggle with: what comes next?  She can keep her head down and try to address immediate problems of changing weather and dwindling supplies, but then she might end up a minor player in world-changing events, or worse, swept away by any or all of the forces converging on her home.  She can aspire to total control and domination, but then she'd find herself in direct opposition not only to her family, but with characters whom the narrative has imbued with exactly the kind of reality-avoidant powers that she lacks.  Or she can dedicate herself single-mindedly to a particular, extraordinary goal, like Arya or Jon, but that would require skills that she has never developed.

The truth is, Sansa has no idea what she wants and what comes next for her, which makes her the quintessential Game of Thrones character--her story is all forward motion, with no end in sight--and the most exciting figure in the seventh season.  Nearly alone among the cast, she has no predefined role.  Her story in this season revolves around clearing the board of a leftover villain who should have been shuffled off three seasons ago, and while this is done with amazingly bad writing (I've tweeted about my issues with how this story weaponizes misogynistic complaints about Sansa and makes both her and us wade through them, but there's so much else to criticize there) it also leaves Sansa feeling more free, and more self-directed, than almost anyone else in the cast.  She could go anywhere and do anything.

To be clear, I don't expect Game of Thrones to realize this.  One need only look at the way Sansa and Arya's conflict in the latter half of this season--so understandable in principle, and so poorly executed in practice--is slanted towards a big heroic moment in which Sansa fools Littlefinger into presenting himself at his own trial and execution.  That moment is, quite frankly, ridiculous--it requires us not to think too hard about any of Sansa's decisions (why is she bringing up the murder of Lysa Arryn, when surely the fact that she vouched for Littlefinger immediately after it happened is a greater impediment to her than to him, certainly more so than the letter he left for Arya to find?), or Westerosi legal custom (how are Bran's visions admissible as evidence?  If they aren't, and Sansa's accusations are enough, why didn't she have Littlefinger tried ages ago?), or Littlefinger's own resources (remember when Brienne suggested that he might have soldiers loyal to him in the castle?  What happened with that?).  More importantly, just where the show should be delving into the psyche of one of the few people on it who still has the freedom to be a person, it pulls away, and leaves us wondering how Sansa and Arya could still have a relationship, much less each other's back, only days after Arya threatened to cut off Sansa's face.

But, just as she's always done, Sansa emerges from under the weight of crap the show throws at her a fully-realized, fully-human character.  And while I do not expect the show's final episodes to give her anywhere near the role she deserves, I do expect her to be interesting to watch, no matter what they do with her.  Sansa is our reminder that the real story of Game of Thrones is one that has no end, simply a long litany of births and deaths, marriages and divorces, wars and truces.  Occasionally, the show tries to pretend that it is aware of the tragedy this represents for anyone who is not a member of the nobility, and through Daenerys, gesture at the possibility of a better world.  But since Daenerys's plan for "breaking the wheel" involves burning people alive, I decline to treat her, or the rest of the show's stabs at political relevance, with any seriousness.  Game of Thrones will never be a show about breaking the wheel of injustice and inequality.  It probably isn't going to be a show about the forces of life defeating the forces of death (and the forces of nihilism, as represented by Cersei).  But there is a third queen on this board, one who has no idea what her story is but is determined to keep living it.  She's the one I'm still watching for.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Recent Reading Roundup 44

Summer is usually a dead reading time for me, the heat and dust making it difficult to concentrate on anything but the least challenging fare.  But this summer--which has anyway featured some interesting developments--has turned out to be very exciting on the reading front as well.  I didn't love all of these books--in fact one of them is easily my least favorite read in quite some time--but all of them broadened my horizons and took me places I wasn't expecting.  Here's to many more summers (and seasons) like this one.

  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - I'm having trouble explaining to myself why I picked up The Buried Giant.  After all, the only other Ishiguro novel I've read, Never Let Me Go, left me feeling disappointed, frustrated, and genuinely puzzled at the love and admiration that so many other readers (including genre readers) had for it.  The only justification I have for giving Ishiguro another look is that it had been ten years since Never Let Me Go put me off, and in that time the ongoing praise for it made me doubt my own recollections.  Was it possible that I was being too harsh?  Did I miss the point of the novel's tragedy, seeing nastiness in what was intended as a soulful meditation on the human condition?  Add to that the conversation that developed around The Buried Giant's genre, and the fact that its premise and setting sounded intriguing, and it seemed like a good opportunity to give Ishiguro a second try.  Turns out, I was right the first time.  Ishiguro is a nasty piece of work; The Buried Giant, like its predecessor, is a mean-spirited, taunting bit of misery-porn that seems to hold its readers in actual disdain, and pretends to profundity without having anything to say.  And what makes it all worse is that I have no one to blame but myself.

    The story of The Buried Giant revolves around an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who live in a small English village some time after the collapse of the Roman Empire.  The setting is deliberately hard to fix, not just because the couple have a very limited view of their world, but because folklore and fantasy seem to exist side by side with established history--this is a world where Arthur was a historical king whom some of the novel's older characters remember, and where dragons exist.  (On the question of the novel's genre, I fall in with those who class it as a fantasy; though as a fantasy, it isn't a very interesting or original one.)  One particular dragon is breathing noxious fumes into the air, affecting the entire region and causing memory loss, passivity, and irrational behavior.  Axl and Beatrice, who leave their village to go on a visit to their son, whom they only vaguely remember, become increasingly aware of these effects as they travel, and fall in with a group of people--including an elderly Sir Gawain--who have various plans for the dragon.  As they journey, more and more pieces of their forgotten history start falling into place, as does the vicious, bloody conflict between Saxons and Britons, now curiously abated but bubbling beneath the surface.

    The Buried Giant is slow and meandering, and Axl and Beatrice's thought- and speech-patterns are halting, almost childlike (it's hard to tell if this is meant to be the effect of the dragon, since in flashbacks to the past they seem just as literal-minded).  That's not what put me off the novel, though--for all its blandness, The Buried Giant is an easy read, and in its own way engaging, as we watch its characters go out of their way to be kind and accommodating to one another, and slowly puzzling out their world and history.  But the simplicity of that world and that history mean that the reader will work out relatively quickly what the characters take until the novel's last pages to figure out--that the dragon's fumes, even as they suppress memory and intelligence, are also the only thing preventing ethnic strife and bloodshed from breaking out again, and that several of the novel's characters want the dragon killed so that the cycle of vengeance can start again.  So The Buried Giant is a long, terribly polite, terribly gentle trudge towards war and ethnic cleansing.  As if that were not enough, Axl and Beatrice's relationship, the only thing they have left to cling to in a world going slowly mad, is nibbled away at piece by piece as they regain their memories.

    Here's where a partisan of the novel might jump up to say "but that's the point!"  But the more I think about it, the more misguided that seems.  I don't think Ishiguro has written a book about the inevitability of human conflict and how remembering history can doom us to repeat it.  I think he's written a smug, sneering work whose primary purpose it to point and laugh at its readers for hoping that things might turn out better than that.  Throughout the novel, Axl and Beatrice are eager to end the dragon's influence because they fear that if they lose their memories of loving each other, they won't be allowed to go to heaven together.  But not only does regaining their memory reveal all the cracks and flaws in their relationship, as the novel's final chapter reveals, there's no amount of love they could have for each other that would ever allow them to go to the afterlife together--any expression of anger or hate, even momentary, in a decades-long marriage is enough to disqualify them.  In the hands of another writer, this might arouse compassion, the recognition that there is no such thing as a perfect love, or a perfect peace.  But underneath The Buried Giant's polite surface, there is a genuinely misanthropic heart, that sees the flaws in its characters as a reason to hate and punish them, not pity them.  The point of the novel isn't that war and conflict are inevitable, or that no love is perfect, but rather that it is foolish to hope otherwise, and that people who do--both the characters and the readers--are to be derided.  The only good thing that has come from my choice to read this novel is that I no longer have to wonder if I was wrong about Ishiguro ten years ago, and hopefully I won't make the mistake of picking him up again.

  • Broken River by J. Robert Lennon - Lennon is turning out to be one of those authors who never write the same kind of book twice.  I've seen him do family dramedy (The Funnies), and metaphysical slipstream (Familiar), and now he returns with Broken River, a thriller with more than a dash of the existential.  The house in the woods outside Broken River, NY was once the site of a horrible double murder.  Twelve years later, it is purchased by a wealthy, bohemian family--sculptor Karl, novelist Eleanor, precocious tween Irina--who move to the country in a last-ditch effort to recover from Karl's serial infidelity.  All the ingredients for a fairly standard thriller plot seem to have been laid out, including a mysterious young woman who may or may not be the daughter of the murder victims, a local man whose knowledge about the murders has been eating away at him for years, and a sinister stranger who arrives in town not long after Eleanor and Irina begin investigating the history of their new home.  And yet Broken River repeatedly zigs when you expect it to zag.  It often feels more interested in Karl and Eleanor's crumbling marriage, and particularly the way that it has been both sustained, and ultimately destroyed, by his monumental self-absorption.  Long stretches of the novel are told from the point of view of an "observer", an entity who came into being shortly before the murders, and who spends the years afterwards watching the house and then following the people who move into it, slowly developing its theories about why humans behave as strangely and inconsistently as they do.  Most importantly, though Lennon takes a while to reveal what actually happened on the night of the murders (to the readers, anyway; most of the characters never work out all of the details), he makes it clear from the outset that there is no grand mystery here.  That what happened at the house all those years ago was nothing but the confluence of mundane greed, cruelty, and foolishness, with no greater meaning or purpose.

    The result is that Broken River often feels more interesting for its parts than its whole.  The chapters in which we follow Karl in his relentless quests to gratify his most immediate desires--for weed, for his mistress, for artistic recognition, for some fleeting sense that he is not failing as a husband and a father (he is)--are a sort of horrifying comedy, a constant seesaw between disgust at Karl's steadfast refusal to be an adult, and amusement at the sheer audacity of it.  Eleanor's slow realization that she needs to disentangle herself from his narcissism, and Irina's childish conviction that she knows everything she needs to know about being an adult, are similarly well-sketched.  But at its core, Broken River is a novel about the folly of imposing a narrative on life, whether it's the murder mystery, or the murderers' belief that their victims' daughter is coming back for revenge, or even Karl's fantasies about masculinity.  Which inevitably means that the book refuses its own impulses towards a coherent plot.  When the story erupts into violence, it's not because the forces that exploded in the house twelve years ago were so malevolent and all-knowing that they've been lying in wait all these years, but because the limited people making limited observations of the family's actions jump to irrational, unsubstantiated conclusions.  That's not as frustrating as it sounds--a lot of the pleasure of the book comes from our ability to piece together what the rest of the characters don't realize, and to marvel over their foolishness.  But it means that Broken River ends less with a crescendo and more with an unraveling, and the feeling that as enjoyable as the components of the ride were, we weren't actually headed towards a destination.

  • Human Acts by Han Kang - I didn't know quite what to make of Kang's The Vegetarian, winner of last year's Man Booker International prize and generally beloved of literary folks, when I read it earlier this year.  It was obviously successful at what it was trying to do--chart the way that mental illness and a misogynistic culture combine to drive the main character to self-destruction, to the complete incomprehension of those closest to her--but for the life of me I couldn't figure out the point of the exercise, or even admire Kang's skill at pulling it off.  Human Acts, Kang's third novel to be translated into English, has finally made me realize what everyone has been seeing in her.  It is a riveting, shattering work, at once personal, philosophical, and political, dealing with the after-effects of state violence in a way that no novel I've read has come close to.

    Kang's subject is the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, in which students and factory workers in a Korean city staged a takeover in protest of the country's military leadership.  The uprising lasted ten days, and was finally brutally suppressed, with hundreds of citizens left dead or missing.  To Koreans, this is a defining moment in the history of their nation, but I had never heard of it before reading this book.  It was therefore fascinating to see how Kang dealt with the details of history.  None of the characters in the book infodump, and it's left to us to piece together the events of the uprising and its aftermath from their asides and observations.  To a foreign reader in particular, this has a strangely wrongfooting effect.  The first chapter, which takes place in the middle of the uprising, with the city holding its breath in anticipation of the military's return and the massacre that will be sure to follow, felt, to me, almost like a chapter out of an SFnal dystopia.  It seemed impossible that, in the real world, ordinary people could have found themselves, from one day to another, living in a war zone.  And yet the further one gets in Human Acts, the more that sense of alienation and unreality comes to feel like the point.  As the years pass, the uprising is folded into Korea's history, and into the lives of the people who survived it, a rupture in the expected order of things that is also horrifyingly mundane.

    What occupies most of the characters in Human Acts is the death of one specific Gwangju victim, fifteen-year-old Dong-ho.  We meet him in the book's first chapter, helping to tend to bodies that have been brought to a local gym, looking for the friend he was separated from in the protest that sparked the uprising.  Though it takes a while to learn exactly how Dong-ho died, that isn't the story's focus--it is, after all, fairly easy to guess, and the actual identity of the murderer doesn't matter with so many guilty parties to go around.  What is important, to Dong-ho's friends, his family, and the other rebels who managed to escape with their lives, is the violation that his death represents, and the greater violation that it comes to stand for.  Following these characters over the years and decades after the uprising, Kang finds them struggling with trauma, PTSD, survivor's guilt, and most of all with the knowledge that people are capable of doing such things to one another.  The violence that the state is capable of is ever-present in this book, from the uprising itself, to the torture of prisoners that followed it, to routine mistreatment at the hands of the police.  For all the novel's characters, the illusion that they are living in a civil society, that they can trust their government and fellow citizens not to hurt them, has been irrevocably shattered.  The question they keep coming back to, as they try to rebuild their lives, is: how do you participate in a society that has abused you?  How do you go on with your life in the knowledge that all of the things you've witnessed, the cruelty and the suffering, are a fundamental part of being human?  Throughout the novel, Kang's focus is on the corporeal--on dead bodies and how we care for them (or not); on abused bodies and how they heal (or not)--and through this most mundane of topics, she repeatedly drives home the point that what she is describing is ordinary, even, in some ways, normal.  It is that normalcy that gives Human Acts its horrifying force, and makes it one of the most powerful novels I've read.

  • The Girl With the Golden Parasol by Uday Prakash - I first heard about this novel, which caused quite a stir when it was originally published in Hindi in 2001, from Aishwarya Subramanian.  According to the introduction by translator Jason Grunebaum, one of the things that made it controversial in India was its discussion of caste and the effects that it still has on modern Indians, and to a foreigner that's one of the aspects of Indian society that feels most opaque--the subtle cues of language, name, and geographical origin that clearly identify caste to an Indian are invisible to most of us, and certainly to me.  One might think that this would make The Girl With the Golden Parasol incomprehensible to a foreign leader, but instead my reaction to Prakash's portrait was to think that he'd managed to capture currents and trends that are universal, present in any country and society, even as he depicts the unique ways in which they express themselves in his home.

    Both a campus novel and a romantic comedy, The Girl With the Golden Parasol follows Rahul, a young student at a prestigious university, who falls in love with Anjali, a girl from the highest, Brahmin caste.  In order to be close to his crush, Rahul transfers into the Hindi department, which is simultaneously looked down on by the wider university community, as a hidebound discipline with little utility in the new, capitalistic Indian society, and ruled internally by a cabal that sees their mission as more cultural than academic, building a bulwark against the erosion of Brahmin superiority and control.  Being exposed to the internal politics and prejudices of the department gives Rahul (and Prakash--when the novel gets into its speech-making mode, it can get a little difficult to distinguish between the two) an opportunity to exposit on the currents affecting Indian society.  On the one hand, the influence of the West, which encourages capitalism, consumerism, and inequality.  And on the other hand, the form of Indian nationalism espoused by the Brahmins, which seeks to erase the cultural impact of less-privileged ethnic groups (Rahul is, for example, startled to discover that his syllabus in Hindi literature is composed almost entirely of Brahmin authors) and erect a philosophical model that treats Indian-ness and Brahmin superiority as interchangeable.  Despite the local details--and without downplaying Prakash's skill at conveying them, even to a foreigner like myself--these forces feel so familiar, especially right now with nationalistic movements all over the world identifying themselves with idea of cultural supremacy and the rule of the elite, that it seems impossible to believe that this novel was written almost two decades ago, in a very different world.  (One amusing and presumably unintentional touch is that the peak of the novel's action happens in the middle of September 2001, and yet 9/11 is never mentioned.)

    Prakash isn't shy about using Rahul as a mouthpiece, and a lot of the novel is made up of his speeches--to his friends, to his teachers, to Anjali.  But what should make the novel a bit of a slog ends up being delightful, not just because Rahul's perspective was new to me, but because of the way his imagery swoops from the mundane to the fantastical, from being rooted in the novel's narrative to a high-flying view of India as a whole, from completely naturalistic to combining elements of mythology, religion, and history to illustrate Rahul's take on India's core flaws and failings.  (If I have any problem with Rahul and his worldview, it is that, like so many campus leftists before and after him, he tends to view women as a means to an end, rather than actors and thinkers in their own right, and this also expresses itself in some of his politics.)  Even more impressive is the fact that, in such a short volume, Prakash manages to combine Rahul's philosophical and political musings with a fairly crackerjack plot, involving not only the blooming love story between Rahul and Anjali, but a student rebellion against the corrupt campus leadership, which is cahoots with local criminals.  The result is a novel that feels vibrant both for its politics and its story, and extremely funny and touching besides.  Near the end, Prakash demonstrates an obvious awareness of his genre by asking whether he can justify ending his story like any Bollywood romance between a rich girl and a poor boy, and it's a testament to the strength of his worldbuilding that he manages to find an ending that is satisfying on both the political and storytelling level.

  • Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi - Saadawi's 2013 novel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and I'm getting it slightly before English readers (who will be able to enjoy it in 2018) because the Hebrew translation was a little bit faster.  Set in 2005, at the height of the chaos following the American invasion and the fall of the Ba'athist regime, its events are punctuated by a constant litany of gang wars, reprisals for long-held grudges, financial collapses, and suicide bombings.  In the midst of all this upheaval, an old junk dealer, shellshocked by the death of his friend in a bombing and by the sight of the dismembered bodies left after it, begins a macabre project of constructing a single corpse from orphaned bits of victims.  For reasons the book never elaborates, but which are clearly linked to the psychic charge of trauma and pain that lingers over the city, the patchwork creature comes to life.  He begins taking vengeance on the people who caused his body parts' original death--criminal gangs, militias, terrorist groups.  But as his quest for vengeance proceeds--and as tales of the mysterious, inhuman avenger spread through the city--the creature's body begins to fail, and he finds himself having to take the lives of innocents in order to extend his life.

    It's a fairly obvious metaphor, and Saadawi is almost certainly not the first to employ it (Victor LaValle is currently telling a very similar story in his comic Destroyer, to name but one example).  What makes Frankenstein in Baghdad original is its portrait of Baghdad itself, and the way the creature's story intersects with those of so many ordinary people whose lives have been rocked, not just by the current crisis, but by a legacy of dictatorship and ethnic strife.  Saadawi sets his story in a single neighborhood, whose residents have long-simmering currents of friendship and resentment shaped by Iraq's tumultuous history--one of the novel's protagonists, an old woman, holds a grudge against the former party member who hounded her son into enlisting in the army in the 80s, leading to the boy's death in the war against Iran.  Religion and ethnicity are also discussed--on a personal note, I was intrigued by the frequent references to Baghdad's departed Jewish community, whose echoes continue to linger in the houses and artifacts they left behind.  Perhaps most importantly, there is the tension between traditional ways of life, the order imposed by the fallen regime, and the new, more strongly capitalist society emerging after the invasion, which cause tremendous upheavals in the fortunes of many of the novel's characters.  (In light of all this, it's interesting to note how little Saadawi has to say about the American occupation force.  It exists as a grey eminence, a threat that backs the power of some of the novel's more connected characters.  But hardly any American characters appear, and the Iraqi characters are more concerned with the neighbors and enemies they can see in front of them.)

    If there's a weakness to Frankenstein in Baghdad, it is that it can't bring this tapestry of characters and stories to a definite conclusion.  Rather, the novel ends with one final act of destruction, after which many of the characters end up surrendering their grip on a city they no longer recognize, and moving on from it, leaving it to the creature's stewardship.  This, however, may very well be Saadawi's point; that in such chaos, with the ghosts of so many past victims emerging to claim their vengeance, Baghdad becomes unfit for the life of the community, and must be abandoned to those--human and inhuman--who are dedicated solely to violence.

  • Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Tuula Karjalainen - A visit to Finland felt like the perfect opportunity to read this biography of Jansson, and my reading was certainly enhanced by taking place within short distance of so many of the book's most important settings: the Ateneum, where Jansson studied art and displayed many of her works; the chief branch of the furniture and design store Artek, whose fine art competitions she entered; the famed department store Stockmann's, where one of many Moomin promotions was held.  But even divorced from these concrete reminders of Jansson's life, Work and Love paints a vivid portrait of its subject.  A lot of the details of Jansson's life were already known to me--I knew that she was the daughter of artists, that she had been a left-wing political cartoonist in the 30s and 40s, that she had a decades-long relationship with another female artist, Tuuliki Pietilä, with whom she lived part of the year on a remote island, and that she had written novels and stories for adults as well as the Moomin books.  Karjalainen expands on these bare facts, charting the development of Jansson's career along the many paths she took over the course of her life, as a painter, graphic artist, cartoonist, and author.  She discusses the dominant influences in Jansson's life, including her parents, friends, and early lovers.  And she identifies echoes of Jansson's life in her writing, from her fraught relationship with her father, to her open-secret sexuality, to the specific inspirations for various Moomin characters.  Her text is interspersed with many photographs and reproductions of Jansson's art, making the book a work of art as well as a fascinating biography.

    But the chief pleasure of Work and Love is the portrait it paints of Jansson, as a person who was first and foremost hardworking, curious about the world, and eager for new experiences.  You get a glimpse of Jansson's personality in many of her books, including Fair Play, The Summer Book, and The True Deceiver.  But Karjalainen offers a more rounded portrait, discussing Jansson's limitations (her political naivete, her resistance to modernist movements in the art world) as well as her strengths.  And, though the book touches on this fact only lightly (and mostly in discussing the more limited prospects of Jansson's mother Signe, whose career ended up taking a backseat to that of her husband), Work and Love is a profoundly feminist work.  Its depiction of Jansson as an artist rejects so many of the terms we're used to using when discussing male artists, whose careers often seem dedicated as much to curating their public image, and to taking up as much space as possible, as to their work.  Jansson was hardly shy and retiring, but she valued her privacy and didn't like to make herself, rather than her work, the focus of attention.  Her life was dedicated to working hard, supporting her friends, and making a comfortable existence for herself and the people she cared about.  This describes so many women I know--women who hold up the world with their care and attention, but who are also passionate, exacting, and extremely proud of their accomplishments--that it's not at all a surprise to learn that Jansson was one of them.  It's a model for life--not just of the artist--that I'd like to see lauded, certainly over that of the genius creator who must be coddled and protected from the mundane details of existence.

  • My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Book One by Emil Ferris - Ferris's monumental, breathtaking graphic novel presents itself as the sketchbook/diary of ten-year-old Karen Reyes, who lives with her mother and older brother Deeze in a basement apartment in Chicago, 1968.  When the family's upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, dies under mysterious circumstances, Karen is moved to investigate, discovering tapes Anka made in which she narrates her life in pre-WWII Berlin, and her experiences in a concentration camp after the war breaks out.  This impulse towards investigation also branches out into Karen's own family and her other neighbors, as she becomes aware of the weight of history and secrets that so many of the adults in her life carry.

    My Favorite Thing is Monsters is probably weakest in its plot--it's easy to guess, for example, what dark secret Deeze is hiding about his past, and the book's use of the Holocaust in Anka's reminiscences verges on the sensationalistic, as when we learn that Anka, a former child prostitute, conceived a plan to rescue children from the gas chambers by recruiting them for her own brothel, and that her death may have been linked to this.  But Ferris's art elevates the material into something completely its own, moving effortlessly between past and present, fantasy and reality.  Karen's inspiration comes in equal parts from the schlock horror films and magazines she enjoys with her family, and the paintings she studies at her visits with Deeze to the Art Institute of Chicago.  Long segments of the book involve Karen recreating, analyzing, and in some cases entering the paintings that capture her mood or resonate with her impressions of the people she meets, but often in combination with elements from monster movies--including Karen herself, who is almost always drawn as a creature halfway into transforming from a human to a werewolf.  Alongside these fantastical elements, there is also a moving and carefully observed portrait of Karen's seedy neighborhood, populated by marginalized people, some of whom are still clinging to respectability, while others have been forced to let go of it, or have gleefully surrendered it.  Ferris's ability to combine this stark social realism with a sensibility that is part high-art, part cartoon--and do it all in the medium of cross-hatched pen-strokes and shaded pencil sketches--adds up to a stunning artistic achievement, all while maintaining the conceit that the book is a child's sketchpad.

    None of this, however, would work if it weren't for Karen herself, who is bold but naive, good-hearted but so determined to learn the truth about the various mysteries in her life that she ends up trampling over the feelings of people who are often already damaged and broken.  Matter-of-factly reporting on the hardships of her life--a sick mother, a troubled brother, a school where she is considered a "freak" and subjected to abuse by both the students and teachers, a growing awareness of being gay and of the social costs that will entail as she gets older--Karen's defense mechanism is the belief that she is on the verge of escaping this reality to become a full-fledged monster.  The recognition that she, as well as all of the people around her, are just humans (albeit ones who will always be marked as different and, in some ways, monstrous) is the painful cost of growing up, a process that, alongside the book's various mysteries, is only half-complete at the end of this volume.  As I've said, those mysteries are probably the least engaging aspect of Ferris's project, but between her winning characters, and her luminous, versatile artwork, there's a great deal here to marvel at, and a great deal to look forward to in the story's conclusion.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: Well, That Happened

I am thrilled, overjoyed, and genuinely shocked to report that at the Hugo award ceremony held last night in Helsinki, I won the award for Best Fan Writer.

This came as a complete surprise to me.  I was certain that Chuck Tingle would carry the award away (and if you look at the voting breakdowns, it was a near thing).  At the same time, I knew that I had a chance, so the days before the award were spent in a state of anxiety.  I'm rather pleased with myself that after all that I managed to make it to the stage and deliver my speech in a semi-coherent manner.  For those of you who weren't there (and who weren't able to watch the live feed, which as I understand it failed early in the ceremony), here is the text of my speech:
Thank you very much.  I want to thank the administrators and voters, as well as my fellow nominees.

I was first nominated for a Hugo in 2014, as part of a ballot that was celebrated for its diversity.  In the intervening years, the Hugos were marred by interference from people seeking to advance their own careers and their bigoted worldview.

I am so, so proud to win this award in a year that has seen the Hugos return to the hands of the people they belong to.  I am proud that my fellow nominees once again represent so much of what our field is capable of.

Writing--whether fiction or non-fiction--is a solitary pursuit.  You put thousands of words into the world and hope they resonate with someone.  As a critic and essayist, I am enriched by a community of writers whose ideas I am in constant conversation with.

These include, but are by no means limited to: Nina Allan, Erin Hórakóva, Adam Roberts, Aishwarya Subramanian, Samira Nadkarni, Vajra Chandrasekera, Niall Harrison, and so, so many others.  My greatest thanks and appreciation go to them, for their inspiring, enlightening words.  Long may they continue.
Since I have you here, I'll also take the occasion to thank all of you, for reading, commenting, linking, and generally making this solitary pursuit feel worthwhile even in its loneliest moments.

I'll probably have some more coherent comments about the rest of the awards at a later date (I freely admit that I had trouble concentrating on the remainder of the ceremony after my category was called).  I will, however, say that the evening as a whole was delightful even in my extremely stressed state, with the chance to meet and squee over so many talented people, some of whom I've known online for years but had never had the chance to meet.  (Far from least among the people I was excited to meet was Hamilton star Daveed Diggs, whose band Clppng was nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form, and who turns out to be just as charming and approachable as you could possibly hope.  Reader, I fangirled.)  Following the ceremony, there was the Hugo Losers Party, where, having had the nerve to show my face, I was both mocked and plied with drink.  It was, in short, a totally satisfying evening.

On a final note, I'd like to thank and marvel at the skill of Hugo base designer Eeva Jokinen, who made this year's trophy a thing of beauty (if also incredibly heavy).  There doesn't seem to be an official picture yet, but File 770 has a snapshot.  I've lusted over previous year's trophies, and I'm so thrilled that the one I get to take home is such a lovely piece of art, as well as an award.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

New Scientist Column: Yoon Ha Lee, Karin Tidbeck, and Nina Allan

Greetings from Helsinki!  I am briefly emerging from the chaos of Worldcon to link to my latest column in The New Scientist, in which I discuss Yoon Ha Lee's Raven Stratagem, Karin Tidbeck's Amatka, and Nina Allan's The Rift.  It was interesting to see how three novels that seemed so superficially dissimilar ended up being about very similar things, chiefly the way that humans construct their own reality even when it seems rock-solid. 

I was particularly struck by how similar the approach that Lee and Tidbeck took to their stories was, in both cases taking a well-defined genre with extremely familiar tropes--space opera/military SF in Lee's case, highly conformist future dystopia in Tidbeck's--and use the idea of humans' ability to shape their world through agreed-upon concepts to subtly distort their stories' conventions.  In both cases, I think, the authors end up boxed in by their genres, perhaps more than they intended.  But both books (and the Allan) are nevertheless extremely interesting exercises, and fun reads to boot.

And now, back to the convention!  If you're see me around, do come by and say hi.