Book Jam: The Party

“Call me Ishmael,” I said to the girl.  “So”, said Estella, “I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but together the two make sense.”

I understood her pain – I have always felt that you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.  My friend Jame Gumb also understood.  He said “It puts the lotion on is skin or else it gets the hose again.”

I left Jame and Estella to it.  They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Watching them leave the party I recalled how I first entered this society, months ago. Like more than one Englishman in New York, I looked upon Americans as hopeless children whom Providence had perversely provided with this great swollen fat fowl of a continent. Any way one chose to relieve them of their riches, short of violence, was sporting, if not morally justifiable, since they would only squander it in some tasteless and useless fashion, in any event.  I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited–they went there. 

Walking back, I chanced upon a conversation between two of the guests, though I did not know their names.  He said, “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”  She said “It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands,’ he answered, “Kiss me again; and don’t let me see your eyes! I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer—but yours! How can I?” 

I did not know what to say to this…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.

All these thoughts made social discourse impossible. Lacking a response I simply nodded noncommittally.  But he carried on “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

I was bored now when Emma Bovary suddenly began to sob on my breast; and my heart, like the people who can only stand a certain amount of music, became drowsy through indifference to the vibrations of a love whose subtleties I could no longer distinguish.

We walked off together.  “A plague on both your houses”, shouted Mercutio.  He loved Big Brother.

__

 …Answers on a postcard…

Reaching For The Cloud Atlas

Double dip recession, industrial strike action, prominent feminist publishes a book about vaginas…Yes sirree bob, these 1970s sure are bleak.

Different times, similar experiences – the human condition is essentially universal, which is why Shakespeare is still relevant today and why the Wachowski’s Speed Racer will never be relevant.

This essential universality of the human condition, and humanity’s will to power as a constant facet of said condition, represents the general thrust of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  Cloud Atlas is a sprawling novel, more a series of novellas, that was short-listed for the Man Booker prize.  My copy makes a big noise about Mr Mitchell’s dazzling linguistic proficiency and the headache-inducing list of genres his book crashes, mashes and splashes across each scented page.  

Suffice it to say I bought the damn thing because I saw ‘David Mitchell’ and got confused.  Peep Show it ain’t.  In fact it’s precisely the sort of book I detest –  ‘dazzling’, funny (it’s not), awards-baiting, temporally disaligned narrative structure that’s just so ‘in’ right now, by which I mean from shortly before it was published to now, because more standard narrative structures can’t reveal the underlying TRUTH in everything as though such a thing existed.  It doesn’t.  The word zeitgeist doesn’t actually appear, but you can bet that it was a sore temptation.  I assumed, incorrectly as it happens, that like most such hi-falutin’ novels with such a prosaic theme, Cloud Atlas would be a novel with delusions of depth.

I agree that ‘disaligned’ probably isn’t a word.

Books that are listed for awards tend to preen about how challenging they are on the basis that elitism for its own sake is somehow something to boast about.  And to be fair, Cloud Atlas is challenging, for two reasons.  First there’s the structure, which means that by the time you get into each story’s style and characters, it ends.  This can be jarring.  Secondly, the plots are mainly, objectively speaking, atrocious. 

Let’s deal with the second point first.  Cloud Atlas is a book about many things, which we can succinctly categorise under the umbrella term ‘showboating’.  That’s not a criticism, in fact it’s the novel’s greatest asset, utilising motifs, different forms of writing and syntax, genre-splicing and time hopping to decent effect.  It’s completely over the top, which is presumably why so many people insist, erroneously, that it’s funny.  This should mean that it’s doughy and turgid, but in fact it’s a veritable soufflé of light fluffiness.  Or a cloud. 

Sorry.

What it’s not about, blessedly, is realism.  Realism in novels with pretensions to literature fell out of fashion a long time ago, Grandpa.  This is why it doesn’t matter that the sleazy 1970s portion of the novel reads like a bad Jeffrey Archer ‘thriller’ and this is why it’s ok that the Carry On At The Retirement Hell farce wasn’t edited out entirely.  It also explains why there aren’t any real characters, simply skinbag ciphers that aim to reflect archetypes of reality and fiction from their various eras.  

You could, of course, read it as a straightforward novel.

In other words, it’s multi-layered.  Like an onion.  Only you read it.

As to the first point about the novel’s structure, it is at first an enormously irritating but hardly new-fangled conceit, after all, William Faulkner was pissing people off with the educationally–subnormal-first-person-protagonist-with-no-concept-of-linear-time in the first tranche of The Sound And The Fury.  Cloud Atlas pulls off another trick, in that the structure (and the title) is reflected by one of the characters, which should be pretentious, but somehow works.

Basically, I can’t recommend it enough.

So obviously, when it comes time to adapt such an ambitious tome, it needs a deftness of touch, the surest of hands; the word you’re looking for is ‘subtlety’.  But of course the world is in a parlous state and devoid of logic or justice, so the Wachowskis got the gig.  And that Tykwer fellow. 

Anyone who saw the second Matrix film or, worse, Speed Racer, knows that the Wachowskis have an instinct for visual excess that is distinctly, uh, excessive.  Perhaps they were victims of their own success with The Matrix and its bullet time technique, but the scene in The Matrix Reloaded where Keanu Reeves and his stick and the bazillion cameras fight 18,000 Hugo Weavings became immediately self-parodic.  And then there’s Speed Racer.  Incidentally they also produced the distinctly whiffy V for Vendetta and Ninja Assassin.  Didn’t see Ninja Assassin, did you?  Me neither.

The second two Matrix films and V for Vendetta also reveal an affinity for the sort of superficially ‘deep’ po-faced intellectual vanity that is unbecoming in a first year arts undergrad, let alone a one-time globally vaunted pair of visionary film makers.

Tykwer by comparison is largely blameless as a film maker but did jump off a cliff critically with his first big Hollywood feature The International.  He also submitted a film starring Natalie Portman to Paris Je T’aime.  On the other hand, he did give the world Run Lola Run and Perfume, which is better than you think it’s going to be even if it doesn’t quite work (hint: it’s actually not really about perfume at all).

So between the three of them, Tykwer and the Wachowskis offer something of a mixed bag.  From the above it’s easy to infer that Cloud Atlas will be sumptuous to look at but risks being over-saturated and saccharine, with its themes and morals crudely drawn in the cinematic equivalent of crayon.  So take sunglasses and painkillers with you to the cinema and drink plenty of water. 

But, I hear you shout (oh dear, am I hearing voices again?), The Matrix (the first one) and, say, Avatar, were also self-important, preachy and intellectually vacuous.  Additionally, they were visually a touch de trop, if you’ll pardon my English.  And they were massively successful, groundbreaking movies that earned far more adulation than opprobrium, even from the critics, even from the snootier broadsheet critics who only like esoteric monochrome arthouse movies from the Czech Republic.

The difference is that those films didn’t over-reach themselves, that is to say their ambition and self-regard didn’t outstrip their ability to deliver the goods.  And I’m speaking as someone who hated every minute of Avatar and didn’t understand why everyone thought The Matrix was the second coming of Star Wars, enjoyable though it was.

Over-reach then, I reckon, is the biggest risk Cloud Atlas will take.  Funnily enough, I don’t think that the book’s structure will have posed too much difficulty for the directors; after all, cinema has a long history of cutting and splicing between scenes and time periods.  Might be a bit confusing but it worked in 21 Grams.  But setting itself up as a coherent think-piece with pretensions of profundity while offering a new level of spectacle and being an enjoyable romp?  That’s the challenge.

Well that and betting $100m+ and marketing costs on a relatively little-known, heavily stylised and somewhat off-putting novel, the main quality of which (the prose) can’t easily be realised on screen, and the gist of which can’t easily be boiled down into a short trailer likely to attract the casual cinema goer.

On the plus side, at least we know that the film won’t culminate in Keanu Reeves literally turning into a Jesus Christ metaphor.

Punch Me In The Face

“Grey will see you now.”  I am ushered into Grey’s presence, still unsure as to the chain of events that led me here and now to this dingy inner sanctum.  The beads of sweat gathering in audience upon my brow betray my turmoil.

“My name is Fifty Shades, perhaps you’ve heard of me?” the voice is rasping and papery “You need to know that I am a sadist of the worst written kind, and eventually you will give in to my will.”

“What is your will?” I stammer the words, overcome by the strength of Grey’s certainty.  I know I cannot, I must not give in to Grey’s brutal font.  But I am but an innocent, too shy and meek to refuse outright.  I remain silent and lower my eyes demurely, trying to avoid the sleekly jacketed Grey.

Grey ignores my question, demonstrating even now the power imbalance between us – Grey wants me to give in, but also to know that in so doing I will gain nothing for myself.  I will only suffer through the experience.

“You may be shocked to learn how quickly you submit, how quickly we’ll form an understanding.  Maybe you’ll read me as an Ebook in a futile attempt to mask your disgrace, but whatever happens, soon I’ll be beating you with my inept but graphic depictions of kinky sex.”

But I refuse to accept that I will allow myself to be debased by Grey’s regrettable prose style.  I beg Grey not to be so cruel and try again to work out how we got to where we are today, but my thoughts are interrupted by Grey’s sneering “In time you will be a glutton for poorly written shag books rushed out by greedy publishing companies.  I am a cultural phenomenon, you can’t ignore me.”

I will do what I can to resist Grey, but I can’t fail to be impressed by the journey Grey took from humble beginnings as a piece of Twilight-derived fan fiction to world-beating pandemic of shoddy metaphors and viscous bodily fluids, porno Mills and Boon for the masturbation generation.  Apparently it’s outselling the Bible.

“I’m not going to force myself upon you without your consent, especially when we don’t have safe words in place, so I won’t force you now.  No, I’ll let you come to me, and when you do, you’ll beg to get underneath my covers.”  Grey turns, the susurration of loose pages almost too much to bear. “Now leave me.  Until next time.”

I turn to the door, but find myself pausing.  To my surprise I find the temptation is too great and I can’t turn the handle.  I realise that from now on every time I see someone blithely flipping through a ball-gag romance in a cafe or on the train the screws will tighten a little more.  I take a deep breath and face burning with shame I turn to Grey once again.

“M…my, my safe word.  ‘Dan Brown’.  When I say that, you’ll know you’ve gone too far.”

Grey contrives to smirk in smug fashion; I feel regret twisting in my guts already, but am shocked that I don’t feel more embarrassed.

“Excellent.  You’ll be surprised how little you regret this decision.  Now tell me, how do you feel about ass to mouth?”

Cultural phenomenon my puckered rosebud.