Half Measures: ‘Better Call Saul’ Season 3, ½

Episodes:

‘Mabel’ [3×01]
‘Witness’ [3×02]
‘Sunk Costs’ [3×03]
‘Sabrosito’ [3×04]
‘Chicanery’ [3×05]

Is there a slower show on television? Or a more thoughtful one?

You could drive a truck through the silences on Better Call Saul. And with recent episodes detailing the distribution methods of ‘Los Pollos Hermanos’, trucks often do just that.

Yes, this spin-off’s gruesome twosome, Saul and Mike, become a fearsome threesome this season, with Gus re-entering the ring. Showrunner Vince Gilligan is in typically slow-burn mode for his reveal, which only comes after Mike’s meticulous efforts to unmask whoever has him under surveillance (Guess who!).

We’re teased with time-lapse in overdrive, where season opener ‘Mabel’ sees Mike disembowelling his vehicle to locate a phantom tracking device. Parts spew out of his car in double-time; the New Mexico light quickly fades. This is rare, frantic Mike. His subsequent manoeuvres, where he seeks to turn the tables on his trackers, are done almost completely without dialogue.

Breaking Bad’s visual compositions were always stellar, among the most intricate and elegant in all of TV history. Better Call Saul carries on this rich tradition, albeit with an occasionally more light and comedic tone. We’ve still got plenty of wide-angled, wondrous shots to drool over though. One in particular – repeated in variations when Mike’s tracking reaches boiling point – is one of the best shots in the show’s shared universe (fig.1). It’s hard to single out a few when shots here are consistently interesting, novel and narratively pregnant at the same time.

2017-05-21_21h02_01

Fig. 1 Long shot from ‘Witness’

But take this one, where Ernesto, knocking on Chuck’s door, is encircled by the spoiler of his car (fig2.). The way the spoiler entraps him is already visually loaded; the car itself is of course, loaned by Chuck (his boss), and it driver is therefore indebted (/encircled). But the placement, which shows the spoiler’s upper boundary matching the alcove of Chuck’s house, showcases a hidden harmony in Chuck’s plan that Ernesto and us, the audience, are not yet privy to. Chuck is a super-intelligent spider, and his house is the middle of his web. The world fits around it. It’s gorgeous.

2017-05-21_21h00_13

Fig. 2 Encircling Ernesto, from ‘Mabel’

When you’re seeking to tell the story visually, you need a resolutely physical performer And Jonathan Banks is stoic as a rock. He has those crocodile eyes, which identify prey in sardonic saccades. The rest of him is stoic to a fault. Maybe a sigh here and there, but that’s generally it. It’s when we follow Mike that Better Call Saul is at its most meditative. It almost has that Steinbeckian quality of bared down symbolism: meaning extracted from core character components, a machine/prop to butt up against, an unrelenting desert landscape, and not a lot else.

The series’ speed kicks up a notch (but no more) when we switch to Jimmy and his brother we love-to-hate, Chuck. The latter’s electricity-allergy is milked for all its worth again this season, and while the tension still ratchets up when darkness descends before his imminent entry, his aura doesn’t pack quite the same punch as season 2.

But ‘Witness’ is an episode up there with the heady cream of the best Breaking Bad instalments. There’s two key plot points here, one already mentioned, in the long-teased reveal of Gus Fring. The second intertwines with a beautifully novelistic structural parallel – the act of bearing witness, of the dynamic between the watched and the watcher. Chuck and Jimmy are constantly shifting these paranoid/scheming roles, and increasingly circle one other like braying stags, pre-rut.

Chuck’s devilish scheme entraps Jimmy, capturing him on tape, admitting to a falsifying-documents felony. It’s the zenith of a plot-swing trebuchet, which began its arc at the climax of last season. After the breathless, taut runtime of ‘Witness’, it’s a little strange to see Chuck’s bombshell seemingly sewn up by mid-season. But knowing this Chekhov’s-Gun-style, there’s sure to be some follow-through from Jimmy’s past to trip him up once more.

The real kick is still to come, and you should relish every drawn out second.

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Shiterature vol.2 – ‘The Light We Lost’ by Jill Santopolo

Pre-Drinks

Howdy. Have a palette de-cleanser: prep for a head-first plunge into some truly excruciating excrement.

Brief plot background: Lucy is a wildly successful TV producer for children’s television. The love of her life is a wildly successful photo-journalist reporting from the Middle East. But his work took him away, so she’s married to a wildly successful investment banker instead. Here she is, holidaying on a luxury beach with a glass of Chardonnay in hand:

Exhibit A. ‘The man across from me was holding a copy of the New York Times. The article facing me said: More bodies pulled from hotel rubble in Pakistan. My mind went straight to you.’

Exhibit B.  (later, when Lucy visits war-torn Israel) ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before. The women, the children. I just keep thinking about you.’ 

Here is The Light We Lost in microcosm, ladies and gents. A novel unafraid and unabashed in its use of real-life massacre, disaster and terrorist attacks in vain search for emotional weight. Its two main characters care little for the innocent dead or suffering of those left alive: as long as their own conscience is satiated. The book is a head-in-the-clouds romance, relayed in unstintingly simple sentences, that uses national tragedies from across the globe as window dressing for one of the most stereotypical love stories committed to print this year.

The Meat

The main conceit is fairly sickening – deep breath. Lucy and her star-cross’d lover meet in New York, on 9/11. As their classmates rush to help those in the towers (giving blood, aiding firemen), they sneak off to a rooftop for a better view of the atrocious skyline-spectacle. And I Shit You Not – proceed to make-out in front of it. This is supposed to be romantic, and not a sign of pathological non-empathy.

A few pages later, and Santopolo treads dangerously close to terrorist attack erotica, when the couple recap their emotional rollercoaster of a day. They conclude that their kissing ‘felt completely right and absolutely wrong at the same time’ – a stone’s throw away from the taboo touchstone ‘it felt so wrong, but so right.’ Pretty shameless.

From now on, the image of 9/11 is wheeled out like a putrid pantomime horse –Santopolo expecting us to wipe away a tear each time and say ‘yes, how sad’ – whenever the plot demands it. Or even when it doesn’t. But it is paramount we remember 9/11, because of its importance to this couple’s relationship. See, they wouldn’t have forged such an instant connection without the steamy aura of collective trauma!

 ‘Thank you for making this day about something more.’
— Lucy on 9/11

Isn’t that just hunky-dory, ho!-what-a-wonderful-world spectacular.

Now, her bae is deeply affected by this harrowing experience. He goes by the name of Gabriel Samson, by the way, a name so Biblical it unites the Old and New Testaments. His flowing gold locks and photographer’s eye-for-Beauty are sure to hit the Bible Belt right in the ovaries with a Hemsworth-ian Thor Hammer.

Gabe proceeds to dive into mainstream-news’ most covered conflicts, in helpfully non-descript and mysterious fashion. This saves us having Santopolo ever explain, or begin to acknowledge, why these atrocities and conflicts are happening. Also, conveniently, we never have to hear the story specifics of the thousands dead, the millions effected, or the multitudes still at risk.

Instead, thankfully, we get to hear about Lucy. About her agonising over which outfits to wear. You’d think we were her personal fashion consultant given the amount of detail she provides. It’s important we know, for example, that accompanying her main Halloween outfit, she sports ‘silver ballet flats’ – oh, and she also ‘match[es] the lipstick to the fabric marker, so it was bright red.’ Thank God we have these humanising details to make her feel like a real person.

Because we don’t get them from her superlative stereotyping of all close relationships. Her eventual husband proposes to her in Paris, in front of the Eiffel Tower no less. There’s a scene where she tries on shit-tons of dresses in Bloomingdales while Gabe watches on, embodying the Hollywood montage reaction-man like he was born to do. You can just picture him now, incessantly twanging his curled bangs away from his eyes like porcine-paralleled corkscrew cocks.

In ignoring the heart of its namechecked conflicts, The Light We Lost opts instead to explore the personal tragedies of the privileged. A lot of these centre around ‘dreams’ and their perpetual non-fulfilment. So what follows is a struggle of two people finding it hard to be requisitely selfish and still make a relationship work. They console each other, that it’s alright to be self-obsessed: ‘You work harder than anyone,’ Lucy reassures Gabe. Though perhaps not harder than the firefighters you supposedly mourn, or the soldiers who you photograph for platitudinal, developed-world, exhibitory reasons.

The central question here becomes – can you have everything? Can we get a bigger house? Can I carry out an affair and still reap the financial rewards of my husband, the least testosterone-fuelled investment banker on the face of the planet? Can I visit every cool Manhattan haunt with my high-flying friends? Can I namecheck Laura Ashley, Bloomingdales and Manolo Blahniks for doubtlessly lucrative endorsements (maybe a novelist’s prerogative sneaking in there)? Can I expunge my creeping sense of guilt with surface-deep observations on global tragedies? Can I pass on these toxic foibles to another generation of sheltered, white, privileged pseudo-philanthropists? Most importantly – can I leech more happiness from luxury? More happiness? Please? Oh, please, just let me get happier!

Revolting.

What You Should Be Reading

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

For an actual investigation into collective trauma, and its coagulation around that most photographed of international incidents, try DeLillo’s short and comparably sweet novella. It’s not his best work, but does a good job of haunting the immediate period post-plane crash with the authorial sensitivity of Dickens’ ghost. Here is what heartfelt retrospective should look like: shaped around human characters, drawn from real experience and extensive research.

You can read a section here.

Named and Shamed

Praise from today’s so-called ‘critics’

‘A heart-wrenching love story… impossible for the reader to put the damned book down!’ Irish Independent

‘An epic love story.’ Prima Magazine

‘Your new tearjerker has arrived: Fans of Me Before You and One Day will love/weep over this elegant novel.’ New York Post

‘Let’s kill this thing’ – Alien: Covenant review

Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: John Logan and Dante Harper
Released: May 2017

i. Pros

All aboard the toned-down hype train. Prometheus may be remembered (/lamented) for many things, but its legacy is a current buzzkill for Alien: Covenant. Gone is the thrill of Ridley Scott returning for another Alien, gone is the adolescent nerd-gasm of replaying 80s youth. The irony is, Covenant is far better than Prometheus. If it came first, it may have proved to be a Force Awakens instead of the Phantom Menace Alien fanboys were served in 2012.

It’s a little bizarre to climb aboard an 80s spaceship in the sleek-shine days of Interstellar and The Martian. But what Guardians of the Galaxy does for nostalgia through its soundtrack, Covenant does through set design. The ship’s interface looks like NightRider meets Tron on neon-steroids. The block-iness of the ship’s corridors remind us of a simpler time. And the delightfully uncool trapper hats the crew wear on-planet lend the film a lo-fi charm.

Which is a weird coupling, as there is some decidedly hi-fidelity SFX on show too. We get to see at least three different incarnations of the least-zen xenomorph in the galaxy. From long-grass velociraptor version, to chest-burster’s long-lost cousin – aka spine exploder.  It’s a creative feat that this much Alien is allowed on screen and it still be this scary – perhaps achieved by doing the exact opposite of everything in Alien3.

What’s impressive about Alien: Covenant is its physicality. For locations based in the 22nd century, there’s a down-to-earth quality here that’s missing from much modern sci-fi. The incessant rain on Planet Alien helps this no end. Computers and high-tech gadgets are water-spattered, cloaked in permanent shower, which minimises their potentially ethereal body-lessness. The excellent quality of sound design is due big thanks too: every Alien screech, lander explosion and deep-ship mossy drip populates a dynamic and earthy soundscape.

covenant2

David (Fassbender): ‘Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair’

ii. Cons

While it blows recent Alien incarnations out of the water, Covenant is far from perfect. Perhaps the film’s biggest strength and weakness is the same thing: it looks the part.

While the charm of Scott’s vision holds sway for the first half, it starts to drag as we realise we’re supposed to care about the characters being picked off. The fact is, most of them are completely disposable. The only way we know they’re part of the same crew from the start is because there’s only one group of humans in the entire film. Katherine Waterston (as Daniels) does a great job at looking like the next independent-female-Ripley-re-tread, but is given precious little to build on in terms of actual character. Most of her emotional expression comes from crying – it’s not five minutes in that we see her partner die, and it seems like she doesn’t get to leave this grieving, shattered state of consciousness all movie. We aren’t even given enough time to get annoyed by Kevin McBride, which says something about how well we know these characters.

An exception might be made for synthetic tag-along Walter, played by Michael Fassbender. He pulls double time here, as we reunite with Prometheus’ sole-interesting crew member, android David. Seeing Fassbender compete with himself – first using a gruff, unrelenting American brogue, before switching to the Lawrence of Arabia aping, clipped-syllable candour of the late great Peter O’Toole – is sure to set ovaries alight across the universe.

It’s in these Fassbender-doppelgänger sequences that Covenant touches on its most interesting themes. The well-trodden Frankenstein model (man vs creator) checks in, but so does a discussion of Artificial Intelligence’s relation to creativity (not to mention the morals of species expansion). There’s points when one wonders if the AI argument might’ve made better subject matter for a Blade Runner sequel: strangely, the upcoming Blade Runner: 2049 instead sees Scott take a producer’s backseat.

All in all, it’s a satisfying outing. There’s glorious gore in the xenomorph’s ritual-picking-off of this turn’s motley crew. And Scott revels in reigniting his sci-fi roots in Walter/David’s internal battle. It’s just a shame the humans don’t get the same depth of treatment. It might not be a surprise to hear criticism levelled at Scott in the future, in the mould of misanthropic-master Stanley Kubrik, claiming that his direction neglects a story’s Human factor. Once again, it’s aliens and robots that stand out here.

 

Other films mentioned:


Lawrence of Arabia / 1962 / Lean
Tron /
1982 / Lisberger

Blade Runner / 1982 / Scott
Alien3 / 1992 / Fincher
The Lost World: Jurassic Park II / 1997 / Spielberg
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace / 1999 / Lucas
Prometheus /
2012 / Scott

Guardians of the Galaxy / 2014 / Gunn
Interstellar / 2014 / Nolan
Star Wars: The Force Awakens / 2015 / Abrams
The Martian /
2015 / Scott
Blade Runner: 2049 /
2017 / Villeneuve

 

Shiterature vol.1 – ‘Sometimes I Lie’ by Alice Feeney

Tricky thing, unreliable narrators. In the right hands, they can keep readers guessing in Dick-Dastardly clever fashion, making us feel like the sole source left to decipher the plot’s meaning. When abused though, they can feel like a cheat. An excuse for authorial inconsistencies (it was my unreliable narrator, don’t blame me!), and a major risk of making large story sections feel pointless at the end. Which is what Sometimes I Lie achieves effortlessly.

Now, the last third of the book is the best bit. Those years Alice Feeney spent at Faber Academy clearly taught her the clockwork mechanics of a plot that fits together in snappy, tautly tessellated fashion. But it makes the first two thirds a waste of time. Especially when they weren’t that good to begin with.

After a poor-man’s-Proustian opening where our narrator, Amber, opines on the state between sleep and waking reality, we dive into a world of maudlin melodrama and cardboard characters.

People who say things like:

‘Life is more terrifying than death in my experience’.  
(tell me more about your experience of being dead)

‘Her mouth contorts so it looks like she’s unwrapping toffees with her arse’
(for when your nonsensical scenario needs a clunky phrase)

‘We’re all made of flesh and stars, but we all become dust in the end. Best to shine while you can.’
(coming to a fridge magnet near you)

 

Amber’s life is really hard, you see. She’s in a coma for a start. Which means we’re firmly inside her head for the duration. Oh joys. How did she get there? Well, no spoilers here (no sir), but it’s safe to say events spiral erratically out of control when she picks a fight with her radio producer Madeline. Her job in Bridget Jones-level make-believe-media-world was in jeopardy at the time, so it’s thinly excusable.

And Madeline is a real bitch. She does things like ask for her favourite mug, then when informed it’s in the dishwasher, whips round to spit in moustache-twirling spite: ‘Then wash it. By hand.’ She is a monster.

How do we know Amber leads a tragic life? Maybe it’s because the motley-crew-cast of her life seem intent on entering and exiting any room she’s in at breakneck pace. Her sister will come round for a chat one minute, receive a slightly awkward glance from Amber, then shoot off again. Same thing with her husband. Their hobby is going in and out of rooms, which is a shame, because Amber isn’t a fan. She’ll lament their coming and going, then lament her tragic life.

We can’t forget she leads a tragic life because she moans about it. All the fucking time. She’ll constantly set up what she wants to do, then tack on ‘but I can’t’ / ‘but it won’t / ‘so I don’t’. She has bouts of OCD that flare up at pivotal plot moments[1]. I lost track of the amount of times she tells us ‘I hate myself’ in one form or another…

Exhibit A. ‘A lot of people would think I have a dream job, but nightmares are dreams too.’

Exhibit B. ‘I hate this body almost as much as I hate myself…it didn’t give him what he wanted’

Amber’s version of tragedy is not being able to tell her husband about her pregnancy because, oh horror of horrors, he’s whisking her away on his worldwide book tour! But you can bet she’ll agonise over it for a good few pages, and we’ll be there to lend a fraying ear.

See, when you reach too much for melodrama, milking the blackest bits of human experience, it desensitises us to them. Amber will find herself in a tough spot, then say ‘but then it got so much worse’ or ‘I don’t deserve anyone’s pity, not even my own’. Feeney maxes out our tragedy-meter early on. These maudlin characters have supposedly shit lives, we get it.

The twisty-turny last third, which critics have creamed themselves over, is the best bit no doubt. But it’s marred by what feels like betrayal. Summed up by Amber’s wandering mind here:

‘I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation, but the voices in my head are less optimistic.’

Now that’s an above-average line. But it isolates us as readers. There are other voices in your head? I thought we were the only voice in your head? How long have you been hearing other voices? It feels like we’ve been neglected, kept in the dark so that her final flourish will have the required out-of-nowhere punch.

I won’t say too much about the ending, other than that it leaves us without many ‘normal’ characters. The majority are self-hating-psychos-cum-malevolent-addicts. Not the people you really want to spend 400 pages with, I’m afraid.

 

What You Should Be Reading

Marcel Proust. Remembrance of Things Past

Proust’s masterwork starts with a similarly Feeney-ian thought about the ‘freefall between sleep and wakefulness’. And that’s about as far as the comparison goes. Follow Proust’s staggeringly superior opening with an epic essay on memory, love, home, time, and childhood. Don’t be put off by the size: it’s split into separate books so treat them as such. Swann’s Way comes first. Read it to find beauty in everything from the minutia of social interaction, to thoughts snatched from throes of deepest childhood, to long and ambling walks in French woods. Not much happens plot wise but it’s choc-full of lines perfectly preserved from mindful inner monologue to bodily page (with a hint of Proustian razzle-dazzle of course).

 

Named and Shamed

Mislaid praise from ‘critics’ today

‘Sometimes I Lie is a rare book, combing helter skelter twists with razor sharp sentences’
– Dan Dalton, Buzzfeed

‘Satisfyingly serpentine, and with a terrific double twist in the tale, it leaves you longing for more.’
– Geoffrey Wansell, Daily Mail

‘Intriguing, original and addictive, I can’t wait to see what the author does after this blinding debut.’
– [unknown, presumably Claire Frost], The Sun

 

 

[1] And precious few other times… gotta hate that narratively-timed OCD

A Quest through ‘Infinite Jest’, Pt. 1

Main book:
Infinite Jest / 1996/ David Foster Wallace
[Pages 1 – 300.
Endnotes 1 – 102.]

Others referenced:
Underworld / 1997 / Don DeLillo
Catcher in the Rye / 1951/ J.D. Salinger
1984 / 1948 / George Orwell
Bleak House / 1853 / Charles Dickens

i. Why Read It?

There are some books that beg to be read. Cultural touchstones that single-handedly reinvigorate their contemporary public’s imagination, and publishing industry to boot. By this measure, 50 Shades of Grey should hold great appeal, and I suppose it does, in a perverse guilty-pleasure type way.

In the Venn Diagram of touchstone-books though, it’s that middle section where things get interesting. Where segments of ‘cultural effect’ and ‘enduring quality’ overlap. It’s a lonely cornerstone where precious few authors get to sit, especially as we narrow our focus to the last century or so.

Who qualifies? J.D. Salinger for Catcher in the Rye? George Orwell for 1984? Don DeLillo for Underworld?

It’s a tough debate. But it would be hard to argue against including David Foster Wallace’s epic and ironic tome Infinite Jest. Its sheer size is remarkable enough – 1000 odd pages, plus a couple hundred more tacked on in ‘Footnotes and Errata’. What’s particularly striking about Infinite Jest however is the size of its cultural impact.

As of 2016, it has sold more than 1,000,000 copies. It is a bestselling literary fiction novel – how many books can claim that? TIME included it on their 100 Best Novels since 1923[1]. Foster Wallace is credited with, among other things: typifying an overwhelmed public’s generational angst; influencing a generation of new writers; and meaningfully building on the work of his fellow American literary greats, DeLillo and Pynchon.

Reviews both at the time and since herald it as a seminal book. They are liberal in their use of the adjective ‘momentous[2]’ and it’s easy to see why. In terms of resonance, it was (and is) an undisputed ‘book-of-the-moment’, while its writer-ly construction and reader-ly effort to digest is monumental.

So. Let’s dive in.

ii. The First 100 Pages

All books, long books especially, take time to bed in. I look at it like a batsman’s innings in cricket. You need time to get used to the pace of the ball, the lie of the pitch.

In literature’s case, it’s the author’s delivery and outlook: their way of seeing the world and how they relay that experience, that takes a while to grasp.  And boy, is Foster Wallace a tricky bowler.

He serves up multi-syllabled words that will have you delving through the dictionary (a medical one at that). Acronyms abound (‘O.N.A.N.C.A.A.’; ‘N.A.A.U.P.’) for sub-divisions of fictional organisations. A litany of chemical substances is referenced, each one accompanied by a footnote detailing its composition, effects, and street-aliases. Wallace spoke of writing about ‘communities’ not specific characters, and we get that right from the off. There are more than a dozen personas whose lives are loosely linked by Boston, and tangential occurrences therein.

If you commit to the aforementioned footnotes, which you should for the full experience, you might need a magnifying glass. They are often lengthy, dense, and served up in eye-straining-ly small font.

Not to put you off, mind. Just be prepared for a bit of an early slog. I read Bleak House not too long ago, and Dickens’ grim 19th century patter was a stroll in the park compared to Wallace’s obsessive eye for detail.

Here’s the saving grace: the rewards are as vast as the intricacy of the task. The minute detail of the delivery makes for crystal-clear visual compositions (often very filmic). There are laugh-out-loud moments, from slapstick to black comedy, hidden in the dense paragraphing. Most of all, there’s an overwhelming sense of irony and tragedy, where characters are shown as bundles of teeming consciousness, raging against an isolating world which makes no sense. It’s a feeling which really kicked in, for me at least, around the 120-page mark.

iii. Pages 100 – 300

Familiarity with the ‘main’ characters sets in around this point. Boston spanning settings have boiled down to two key locations: the Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House (a drug rehabilitation centre). The rhizomatic plot seems to regulate its orbit around a few narrative bodies. One being the mythical release of ‘Infinite Jest’, a movie so entertaining it paralyses viewers with pleasure. Another one, a more general line, following the Tennis training of the director’s son Hal Incandenza, intellectual and sporting prodigy.

Director of the film ‘Infinite Jest’, James O. Incandenza, is an absent centre-piece to the jigsaw.  He committed brutal suicide by sticking his head in a microwave – a fact we learn through a traumatic discussion between Hal and his brother, Orin.

It’s a troubling revelation, typical of Wallace’s mercilessly bleak (yet funny) take on existence in modern consumerist society. The oft-hyphenated, double-barrelled nature of his descriptions soon reveal themselves to be a sales-patter pastiche of constant, never-ending marketing campaigns. The incessant selling of products reaches an absurd pinnacle in the novel’s internal calendar: its years revealed to have corporate sponsorship (i.e. Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, Year of the Big Whopper). The narrative voice speaks like consumerism and surface-deep culture has taken over its brain. The buy/sell dynamic has become the filter by which all stimuli is experienced.

I’ll confess it took this long for me to realise the book takes place in the near future. A discovery made harder, I hope, by the time-period Wallace uses being now rendered a 90s retro-futurist one to modern readers.  He gets some calls eerily right. Such as the selfie-obsessed narcissism of video-calling, where people spend half the time looking at themselves instead of the other person. Although in Infinite Jest, people’s self-image worries are taken to next-level extremes, hiring celebrity look-a-like avatars to play themselves in video correspondence.

One of Wallace’s prevailing themes is addiction. It seems you have to be addicted to something. Most characters use some Substance or other, while some use the cradle of regiment and ritual. Linked to this, you have to worship something. As he relates in interviews with Charlie Rose[3] and ZDF[4], Wallace maintains that society can kid itself it’s gotten rid of God, but impulses of devotion, subjugation and ritual are still there, embedded deep within our primate-aping psychological origins.

Addiction and Worship are similarly self-consuming, and beautifully dove-tail in Wallace’s descriptions of Tennis[5]. He makes Hal hitting the ball thousands of times a simultaneously superstitious, meditative and metaphysical experience. The tennis court becomes a mecca for clear-minded thought and organised chaos. As Norm MacDonald’s recent tweets attest, sport remains ‘the last untainted zone’ – a medium bereft of politics or scaremongering, where rules are plainly set, where human excellence can be distilled. I’ve come to savour the tennis sections the most – they are Wallace at his most breath-taking and effortless.

‘[kinetic beauty]…is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body’
      – DFW on tennis, in ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’, PLAY Magazine

iv. Errata (Erratic Thoughts)

A few more things. Each character has an intelligence factor that is off the charts. They universally have vocabularies wider than Stephen Fry channelling Oscar Wilde. This community, disparately connected, is plot-able on a MENSA-level IQ-line of subjects. Perhaps there are a few anomalies. In what I’ve learned is the infamous ‘Wardine’ section, where Wallace inhabits the colloquialisms of a black, ghetto-raised woman, the language is notably toned down. Or again in the furtive prose which embodies a heroin addict in the throes of addiction. But even in these cases, the insights alone are far beyond normal human capacity.

So it’s hard to believe these aren’t just embodied versions of Wallace’s best ideas. Some have labelled him a show-off as a result. But I don’t mind it that much. It gives me more time with him. And it is getting easier to inhabit the world more fully as I read on, without having to pause and reflect on a complex idea (you get served so many you get used to them) or trying in vain to remember who a character is.

Join me next time, where I’m predicting the process will have become even smoother. At present, I’m hooked. I’m lugging this masterwork-cum-brick around with me like a flagellating monk mid-penance. But I guess you’ve got to be addicted to something, right?

 

N.B. There are a number of excellent David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest fan sites, including http://www.thehowlingfantods.com/dfw/ , a Wiki of sorts, and http://infinitesummer.org/, which includes along-the-way essays from a group who tried to read it over one (hopefully long) summer. Worth a look.

 

 

[1]http://entertainment.time.com/2005/10/16/all-time-100-novels/slide/infinite-jest-1996-by-david-foster-wallace/

[2]http://www.badgerinternet.com/~bobkat/jest1a.html ; https://nplusonemag.com/issue-1/reviews/david-foster-wallace/  to name a few

[3]

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkxUY0kxH80&t=2422s

[5] Wallace writes about sport like no-one else. Here he is on the beauty of Roger Federer: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html

 

The End of America: near-distance dystopia in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘The Mandibles’

Books referenced:
The Handmaid’s Tale / 1985 / Margaret Atwood
The Mandibles: A Family
/ 2016 / Lionel Shriver

Ideology, man. What a trip. Sounds like the study of lightbulb moments; actually, a way of umbrella-ing stories we collectively tell ourselves to make the world work. Stories of Religion, Money, Nationalism, and as Yuval Noah Harari unnervingly points out, Human Rights.

 ‘if you take a human being and look inside…you don’t find any rights.[1]
– Yuval Noah Harari, EconTalk podcast

Harari argues that shared myths are the only thing that enables large scale human cooperation. Capitalism, for example, is based on the enticing fiction that money has inherent value. While physical, concrete exchanges take place (of green pieces of paper for limitless types of goods), it is a system based on an arbitrary[2] series of human beliefs.

Changing the stories that society believes in is the basis for social change, moral progress, and in the most dramatic case, revolution.

In novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale and The Mandibles, society’s internalised story is wrenched out from the communal unconscious and forcibly retold. Atwood creates Gilead, a military dictatorship which (re)installs morals and social practises from Christian fundamentalism. Here, women are reduced to breeding-facilitators. They are denied basic human rights. They are not allowed to read. Principles of liberty and equality are revealed as contingent on the ruling class’ taking part in ‘retelling’ their doctrines.

In Shriver, narrative change is forced by a failing economy. The US national debt reaches astronomic levels. An alternative world currency is created. The ‘Bancor’ becomes more secure than the dollar, and soars above it in conversion rates. Blind faith in currency begins to erode. As hyperinflation hits, citizens hoard physical objects to trade: medical supplies, food, tools. Newly printed Dollars feel plastic-y, inauthentic, crudely clad in garish-green (a little like post-Brexit bank notes, whose remodelled, small, rubbery nature seems intertwined with Britain’s ‘exit’ from exalted nation status). Promises of pensions, potential wealth stored in government bonds, and even agreements to pay employees for past work are revealed as contingent parts of the modern Capitalist system. People’s promise to repay debt only holds if faith in the currency remains. Without the fictional medium, the narrative falls apart.

Both Atwood and Shriver’s dystopias extend from the worst caprices of contemporary society. Atwood critiques Puritan-influenced conservativism, where appeals to ‘return’ to old morals are used to justify elitism, austerity measures and gross inequality. Shriver focuses on ballooning national debt, hand-wringing attitudes to international issues, and the cognitively-dissonant contortions of late stage Capitalism.

Handmaid’s is prescient enough to warrant a modern-day Hulu adaptation, which surrounding press has sought to label the first ‘post-Trump TV show.[3]’ It is Trump’s America that Atwood herself describes as most in danger of embodying Gilead[4]. The Mandibles takes the celebrity-takeover of politics to blackly comic new levels: Judge Judy on the supreme court, Schwarzenegger taking a run at the Presidency, Strictly Come Dancing stooge Ed Balls installed in Britain’s Prime Ministerial position. Crucially, it’s the Nationalist narrative which takes the biggest hit in both novels.

“We lived in the gaps between the stories”
– Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale

In Handmaid’s, America has become synonymous with an overbearing male aggressor[5]. It is a brutally efficient patriarchy suppressing its citizens through subjugated classes. And, through a postscript from future scholar Professor Pieixoto, we learn Gilead is the ‘North Korea’ of its contemporary world: bottom of the pecking order, keeping its citizens in near-poverty to compete on the international stage. It conducts business in terms of veiled masculine rivalry with other nations: who has the best morals? The biggest guns? Internally, its authoritarian regime betrays an insecurity on the world stage: brutality and dominance overcompensating for a sliding national status. Remind you of another administration? Whose leader ran on isolationist grounds, but continues to throw weight around in willie-waving, war-mongering fashion[6]? One who just took away $880billion in healthcare funding for its nation’s poorest citizens[7]? Make Gilead great again, right?

margaret-atwood-039s-the-handmaid-039s-tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, art by Anna and Elena Balbusso

Shriver sequesters America from the rest of the world too. References to flourishing countries overseas, where the Dollar-alternative ‘Bancor’ currency has taken affluent hold, include China inheriting superpower status. Chinese tourists swamp New York streets, taking advantage of favourable exchange rates. Mega-Hooverville settlements spill over from Central Park. All personal Gold reserves are called in by the government. The devaluing of the dollar effects not just the country’s material wealth, but the characters’ sense of self-worth. Their soft power is melting. They are being dressed down, de-masculinised.

Atwood and Shriver are arguing that Nationalist narratives foster division, short-sightedness, and corruption. In an unholy hybrid with masculinity and Capitalism, Nationalism is a mega-ideology which spells bad news for peace-loving humans.

New states in Handmaid’s and Mandibles form a vacuum where ultra-nationalist experiments are given free reign, whose test subjects are drawn kicking-and-screaming from ‘the land of the free’. These novels do not discuss the end-of-the-world as much as the end-of-America. Their dystopias deal with the crumbling USA empire; oft prophesised in fiction, but whose morals, Constitution and cultural standing in the real world seem more at risk than ever. We await the arrival of America’s future with Atwood and Shriver’s conceptions in mind. Neither are optimistic regarding the Republic for which it stands: one nation overwrought, incapacitated: sans Liberty, injustice for all[8].

Read more…

Margaret Atwood: http://margaretatwood.ca/

Lionel Shriver: https://www.harpercollins.com/cr-103190/lionel-shriver

Sam Harris, ‘Waking Up’ Podcast feat. Yuval Noah Harari:  https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/reality-and-the-imagination

[1] http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2015/10/yuval_harari_on.html

[2] In the sense of ‘it could have been otherwise’, not ‘randomly assigned’

[3] http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/features/the-handmaids-tale-tvs-most-chilling-trump-era-series-w478718

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/books/review/margaret-atwood-handmaids-tale-age-of-trump.html?_r=0

[5] ‘The Missionary Position’: Feminism and Nationalism in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Sandra Tomc: https://canlit.ca/full-issue/?issue=138-139

[6] See American interventions in Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea.

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/yes-house-republicans-the-heartless-health-care-vote-will-define-you/2017/05/05/86994c02-31cc-11e7-9534-00e4656c22aa_story.html?utm_term=.ba36dc2b6886

[8] https://www.sos.wa.gov/flag/pledge.aspx

“What a Dump”, a review of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’?

Venue: The Harold Pinter Theatre
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by James MacDonald

Being sat up in the Gods has its benefits. Especially in the case of Edward Albee’s 20th century classic, where a sole set sits stoically for the three-hour, behemoth duration. A God’s-Eye view of James MacDonald’s version of ‘…Virginia Woolf?’ also seems especially fitting. George (Conleth Hill) and Martha’s (Imelda Staunton) living room is squared off by chequered tiles, leaving a sunken shag-pile carpet section in the centre. As the sadomasochistic couple drive needles into each other’s soft spots like pin-cushions, their marital parlour games appear like orchestrated manoeuvres: as in Chess, or ‘total war’ as George puts it. The people/pieces reveal their moves from above. Here, battle-lines are drawn in lino and the shagpile-square-cum-sparring-pit.

The 60s living room with doll-house figures striding about it calls to mind David Lynch’s Rabbits. And there’s a Lynchian quality to seeing Albee’s masterpiece with a live audience, whose laughter becomes more unsteady as the piece plunges deeper into cruelty and trauma. It begins to sound like a laugh-track gone wrong; ill-timed, individual members singled out. MacDonald’s version is a particularly funny one, making the break from drinks-party to deathly lament in Act Three even more jolting.

‘[George] made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving me, and must be punished for it.’
Martha, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Another curiosity of sitting in the highest circle: you’re afforded a privileged view of some characters’ most exposed moments. E.g. Laments to a Godless sky, profiles of relaxing reclines on the sofa, floored drunken splay-outs like crime scene murder outlines. Despite there being only four characters, the number of caricatures, wall-to-wall dialogue and sheer decibel-ic intensity ensures the room always feels full.

Of the two married pairs, it’s the elder who steal the show. Staunton bestows an animalistic desperation to Martha’s ‘braying’. Despite having Bouffant hair à la Liz Taylor, she foregoes glamour. She truly ‘busts a gut’, ‘howls it out’; George’s remarks on her claws and brute strength barely seem like exaggerations. Staunton peacock-struts about the stage like an ADHD meth-addict gone cold turkey. Her voice must be ravaged by the end (how does she do this every night?): she drags it through high pitches of peril, mockery and fury. There’s a mirthless edge hidden deep within her laughter. Her almost schizophrenic switches in character give Staunton full-reign in range-deployment. One minute she’s croak-cooing in childish baby-talk, the next minute banshee-screaming, before morphing into chaise-longue seductress. Oh, and her soliloquy at the beginning of Act Three is an absolute knock-out (cueing up pin-drop silence from the previously riotous crowd).

‘we take our tears, and we put ‘em in the icebox […] and then we put them in our drinks.
– Martha, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

How to compete with that? Conleth Hill as George does a pretty good fucking job. His voice is like a cross between Alfred Molina and Bradley Whitford in The West Wing. At times, his hunched gait and crumpled suit – coupled with some ill-informed pontificating – conjures a more depressing version of Ed Balls, or a pouting Trump in a world where he had no inheritance with which to bleach himself upon public life. Hill brings a slapstick comedy to George that I’ve not seen before. His dramatic handball swings, elaborate arm crosses and mime-like posturing give George a clownish physicality, embodying his wife’s insult-moniker.

George’s clowning soon loses its lightness of course, his faux-playful snapdragons aimed at Martha standing in for poison-darts. Their home in New Carthage burns down just like the old colony. This is a slow-mo car crash, where the audience’s rubbernecks are held by a ceaseless brace. It is exhausting enough to watch – performing it must come with a real risk of ‘busting a gut’.