‘Reason’s gentle tyranny’: Life of Galileo review

Play: Life of Galileo
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht
Venue: Young Vic Theatre
Director: Joe Wright

 

A director best known for loyal screen adaptations of classic literature, Joe Wright now switches two sides at once: loading an Adrenalin shot into the theatrical canon. His reworking of Brecht’s Life of Galileo is brash, loud, funny and makes a maverick of Galileo. The imperious Catholic Church is hiked up as the high horse, happy to play ‘the man’ keeping him down.

You might expect Brechtian casts to be alienating; an avengers group that Spiderman-scale that 4th wall. And we get some of that, in audience micro-interactions when the actors navigate the stage’s middle section, the theatre’s best seats laid out in lounge cushions around their feet. It’s also in the self-conscious scene intros which go to pot in Galileo’s absence.  Wright never makes these reflexive moments uppity, or arts-clique congratulatory. Instead, they are funny and self-deprecating. High theatre concepts are made to serve an engaging and important narrative, even if the revised content verges into science lesson/PSA territory. Success is gleaned in equal parts from a hugely talented cast, a bass-pumping soundtrack, and an innovative 360 degree staging.

The set is more bared down than a deliberately-unfinished Hipster hangout. There’s a thin ring that forms a walking platform. A few boxed-off vignettes around the edges. Some scaffolding in one corner, doubling as a Venetian tower. That’s about it. Among exposed steel and mortar, it’s the orchestration that stands out.

Life of Galileo at the Young Vic. Photo by Leon Puplett Projections by 59 Productions.

Set plan of Life of Galileo at Young Vic Theatre. Main stage is the ring around the centre, some scenes take place on upper rung. Projections shot onto on concave dome overhead

Orbit is closely held around Brendan Cowell’s Galileo. He’s like a leaner, Australian Mark Addy, and his enthusiasm for theorems and reason is infectious. In the first act, his star is in unchecked ascendancy – which has a counter-effect of Galileo not seeming like a real person. We’re taken in, like his followers, by the myth of his genius. But the second act challenges his unstoppable force with the immovable object of the Church. Then he becomes more human.

Until Act 2, we’re satisfied with a stellar supporting cast. There’s Galileo’s young protégé, played by Billy Howle, who ages boisterously as the play progresses. Howle has more than a little Malcolm McDowell about him. His loud and impetuous speeches are a few steps away from goading the Pope to ‘come and get one in the yarbles!’ He’s electric; physical comedy rolling off him through cross dressing and childish fervour at his master’s ideals. Paul Hunter, as head of the grand inquisition, is a more established pair of hands. He’s worked with Wright before, on last year’s Pan, and reminds me a lot of Toby Jones (a good thing on all counts).

In the mouths of these players, Brecht’s script gains new relevancy. Particularly in Galileo’s breakdown, as he loses faith in the general public’s essential rationality. Recent election results (before GE17 of course) might prompt us to despair in similar ways. The great helio-displacer here agonises over misdirected effort: how scientific progress for the sake of it just leads to more complex machines of corruption, used to further segment society. He argues science should operate with a conscience.

But his own moral compass fails him. He admits his confession was motivated by avoiding torturous pain. The grand inquisitor’s threats led him to label his own, proven theories as heretical. This reason dethrones one of pragmatic survival, an explanation hopefully theorised by his followers as a masterstroke, letting Galileo covertly publish the Dialogues in the long term. Instead he maintains it was simple self-preservation. Galileo returns to his faith in ‘the gentle tyranny of reason’ – of the mundane triumphs of everyday science, where the public cannot fail to accept theories accompanied by irrefutable proof.

Like the big G’s Copernican research though, there’s some key things that de-centralise the magic of the production. The Planetarium-style projections are cool in themselves, but jar with the bared down visuals of the surrounding action. Their segments swirl through space, through galactic dust-clouds and Jupiter satellites. While it’s visually impressive and hints at Galileo’s vast theoretical reach, they feel like science museum promos. Albeit with a banging synth and bass soundtrack, courtesy of The Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands. The soundtrack and sound design work wonders for the minimalist 360 set, usefully indicating a larger world; but its part in the astral projections is amplified too much, further exposing their anomaly.

These effects recall Wright’s lesser works, like the uneven film adaptation of Anna Karenina. Overall though, Life of Galileo infuses a newfound energy and relevance into a previously inaccessible script, not to mention a controversial period of history where religion and science were much more evenly matched. Its exploration of the moral responsibility of reason is by turns enthusing, troubling, and necessary.

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The War, On Drugs: a review of ‘Blitzed’ by Norman Ohler

Truth might well be stranger than fiction. But as Ohler’s study of the Nazis shows us, humans need fiction to bear reality: in forging our own version, and then enduring it. Hitler’s ideological fiction, built on ideals of Aryan purity and Antisemitism, was insidious enough to enrapture a fractured nation. Donning a pharmaceutical lens, history now reveals the Fuhrer’s need for psycho-active substances (drugs, for short) to hold his interior fictions in place. Ohler also dramatically documents how widespread drug use in Nazi Germany facilitated some of the nation’s greatest victories, while also contributing to the population’s collective euphoria.

Ohler’s Blitzed frequently beggars belief. How historians have made do without such a central jigsaw piece of Hitler’s psyche is equally baffling. The list of revelations is shocking but also cathartic – they help de-mythologise the hyperbolically evil Nazis.

To understand the preponderance of drugs in Nazi Germany, Ohler traces a huge influx of synthetic research post World War I. In a landscape ravaged of natural resources by reparations, German scientists turned to synthetic substances that could be manufactured chemically. Through necessity then, German pharmaceutical companies created a smorgasbord of substances: from methamphetamine to cocaine, from aspirin to heroine (this last pair within one week of each other). From this fruitful study, drugs began making their way into military testing, medical prescriptions, and eventually, Hitler’s personal bunker.

‘High Hitler’ 

From the early 1940s until the end of the war, Hitler was routinely injected with an eclectic cocktail of hard drugs. These included methamphetamine (Crystal Meth), Eukodal (Heroin’s more potent cousin), cocaine, and various animal stimulants (including bull prostate and porcine adrenal glands). This array was steadily built up by his personal physician Theo Morell, a figure largely overlooked by World War II history. Morell’s remedies started out as treatments for Hitler’s physical ailments. But as the war dragged on, and the Nazi dream of victory retreated, Hitler’s psyche demanded more and more attention. The Fuhrer needed the same level of conviction of his early speeches, perhaps even more so, to mobilise his flagging army and troubled government around his ultimate aim.

So we get the disturbing situations that Ohler outlines in the war’s climax. Hitler, spending months in his damp underground bunker, barely seeing daylight, yet coaxed into euphoria by Morell’s magic needle. It helps explain Hitler’s unaccountable switches of mood, which fellow Nazis assumed was down to a secret weapon he had discovered. There was nothing up his sleeve but track-marked veins.

Hitler’s war train literally stopped for injections: Morrel rolling up the Fuhrer’s sleeve beside steaming carriages, unable to administer the dose on a moving vehicle. Hitler badly needed his pick-me-up before meeting Mussolini, near the end of the war, when the morning of the meeting saw him doubled over with gastric pain and dizziness. A quick shot of Morell’s euphoric cocktail, and Hitler talked Mussolini out of the room, not halting his verbal tirade for four straight hours. This inner conviction held off the Axis collapse, and Mussolini returned to Italy with renewed vigour.

Ohler frames Hitler’s battle as an inner one. If he could convince himself all is well, then his psychology could spread like a virus-blanket across army and government. There is a Shakespearean quality to this, where a head of state rages against inner demons, turning to addiction and abuse, in a fatal and tragic quest for power. Hitler is revealed not as the anti-christ, but a fatally flawed man whose poisoned, vengeful mind was propped up by artificial stimulants.

He was willing to live with the stark cognitive dissonance, for instance, of upholding ‘purity’ but routinely injecting his body with drugs. Of espousing the virtues of vegetarianism, freshly after being injected with countless animal hormones. Then, more concretely, insisting that increasingly outlandish tactics would grant the Germans imminent victory.

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Head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, in the throes of Morphine addiction

The War, on Drugs

Hitler’s reliance on ideology and conviction alone was not without reason. Earlier in the war, surprise attacks and unorthodox manoeuvres had helped conquer almost all of Europe. These too, Ohler reveals, were augmented by drug use. The Blitzkrieg conquest of the Ardennes mountains, which Churchill described as the ‘sickle cut’, was impossible without soldiers staying up for four days straight. Healthy doses of methamphetamine allowed tank commanders to do just this: indeed, they stayed awake for 17 days. Such superhuman feats – which ape Hannibal’s mythic, elephantine crossing of the Alps – were previously put down to sheer tyranny of ideological will. Hard drugs, it seems, bring impossible tasks within reach.

Alongside Hitler’s inner demons, and the Blitzkrieg’s mythic conquest, Rommel and Ranke’s ‘war on fatigue’ sounds straight from Greek mythology. They sought to vanquish age old enemies, sleep and tiredness, to gain vital strategic advantages in battle. And like some deific reckoning, the Nazi’s disregard for human fixities, their frolic on the shores of the river Styx, came with a hefty and damned price. Such drug use could only work in the short term. Users soon built a tolerance, and needed higher dosages to perform at the same levels. Side effects like heart attacks, muscle weakness and uncontrollable shakes abounded. Mental fatigue, if not physical, became rife. Turns out you can’t unfetteredly jack up on neurotransmitters and get away with it.  The German public suffered too. From housewives that ate methamphetamine in chocolates, to workers using it to stay awake, drug use was widespread, indoctrinating and harmful.

Blitzed confirms what filmmakers Powell, Pressburger and Renoir tried to tell their viewing public at the time: the Nazis do not play by ‘the rules of the game’. Hitler was prepared to sully his own body, and those of his fighting populace, to extend his destructive ideological path. Neurological enhancements, still nowhere near understood today, were put into reckless use by the Nazi war machine. It was deranged, irresponsible, and veered from extremely effective to psychologically shattering. When I asked Ohler if he thought other periods of history would benefit from a pharmaceutical analysis, he didn’t seem to see the relevance. But surely psycho-active substances might have been used by other societies for progress and advantage? The Delphic oracles, for instance, were said to inhale natural gas from rocky gas plumes, then make prophecies from their hallucinations. JFK is often rumoured to have taken a litany of drugs to neutralise his body’s many ailments. It seems like a fruitful and largely untapped undercurrent of history.

Ohler has laid the groundwork, whether he sees it as such or not, for further psycho-active historical study. This seminal book helps us understand one of the most feared human societies.  The Nazis manufactured their superhuman will, euphoric mindsets in dire circumstances, and disregard for fatigue. Their monster is now explainable – without recourse for mystified and depth-less malice. Evil understood is evil halved.

You can buy Blitzed here.

A Quest Through ‘Infinite Jest’, Pt. 2

Main book:
Infinite Jest / 1996 / David Foster Wallace
[Pages 300 – 640
Endnotes 102 – 240]

Others referenced:
Blood Meridian / 1985 / Cormac McCarthy
Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption / 1982 / Stephen King
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest / 1962 / Ken Kesey
To Kill a Mockingbird / 1960 / Harper Lee

 

 

i.  And with a Howling Fantod…

…you’re back in the room. Like taking a dive in David Lynch’s blue box, or being transfixed by Kubrik’s obelisks, Infinite Jest has a way of consuming your attention completely. Not unlike the mythical videotape that draws a through-line in its labyrinthine plot. Characters who watch it cannot turn themselves away, their lives shrinking, catatonically, down to the sole desire to watch it once more.

It’s a symbol whose power resonates today: in Father John Misty tracks and imminent Arcade Fire albums, in promises of ‘limitless’ internet & data bundles, in the recent surge of Virtual Reality goggles, in IMAX screens with the same peripheral-spanning[1] scope. I’m not crazy about everything in Wallace’s magnum opus – and sometimes it feels like he has put everything in here – but his discussion of entertainment addiction is dead on.

So, to the second instalment. This meaty section was more of a slog than the first, and that’s saying something. At no times was it more slog-y than at the novel’s one third waypoint.

ii. Pages 300 – 400

Some reviewers have been kind enough to call parts of this book ‘intentionally frustrating’. But in traversing what I would call Infinite Jest’s deepest trough (so far), I came out thinking: was Wallace’s editor on sabbatical?

There’s so much that doesn’t need to be here.

First, the novella-length chronicle of an Eschaton game. Eschaton is Enfield Tennis Academy’s (ETA) own creation, where different parts of the court stand for countries of the world. The students are then assigned global powers, and make nuclear strikes at each other by lobbing tennis balls toward other territories.

Eschaton has doubtless potential, with international disputes being played out in pubescent microcosm. But Wallace’s incessant level of detail strangles it. The ending fracas and a few engaging images notwithstanding, it’s a gleaming example of unedited prose. We don’t need to know the complex algorithms that determine this game. Or the recent histories of its bit part players. Or the details of Eschaton’s creation. It’s over-facing, and maybe that’s the point, but reading is a dredge here.

This overripe section is chained to another: Mario Incandenza’s puppet-show re-tread of his late father’s political satire flick. Prose breaks into a screenplay transcript, which is mired in near-future history, unfriendly acronyms and discussions that dance along the edge of the ‘Great Concavity’; by inference, we eventually guess that this is a new mega-landfill on the US/Canadian border. Wallace here makes it hard to appreciate his niche commentary by not saying what it is he’s satirising. Several series of mental gymnastics too far, I’m afraid.

At least this section is redeemed by its cutaways. These follow the academy enrolees’ visit to Lyle, a cross-legged shaman who advises the boys on their psychiatric troubles. Scenes here are deliciously odd, and funny, a breath of fresh air from the political commentary in the room down the hall.

It’s about the only light relief in this section. Page 400 rolls up through laboriously recounted AA meetings, replete with horrific stories of stillbirths and sexual abuse. They contain some of the darkest prose I’ve ingested since McCarthy’s relentless Blood Meridian. They reaffirmed my avoidance of hard drugs, but I won’t thank them for some of the images still seared to my retinas.

So, not much fun. Good job the next part ramps up.

iii. Pages 400 – 500

Infinite Jest is at its best when it sticks to one solid idea. Then Wallace is free to flog it to death with enrapturing sentences and dry, gallows humour. This combination abounds in both the ETA drill sessions and in Don Gately’s nightly plight as Ennet House’s drug enforcement officer.

Both settings are contained environments, with subjects that seem worthy of obsessive study. Their daily site rituals and long term confinement make a sturdy backdrop, the variables being inmate/enrolee friendships and personality quirks. Maybe it’s a personal preference, but I can relate more to a group of characters when they’re contextualised against an oppressive institution. Like the prison in The Shawshank Redemption, the courtroom and legal system in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the psychiatric hospital, which Ennet House reminds me of, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Institutions also provide a vehicle for Wallace’s misanthropic humour, which expertly picks out maddening ironies latent in most oppressive regimes.

ETA is overseen by Nazi-ish drillmaster Schtitt, who works the boys to within an inch of their muscular breaking point. For Gately, the authority figure forms more in drugs themselves, referred to as The Substance, although he does have a Greek boss in his side job, who literally makes him scrub shit. There’s more room for comedy here, resolute low-key wit in the face of hardship. Maybe it’s especially appealing for Brits.

In less harrowing fashion than the AA horror-stories, centre stage is taken by those who suffer with deformities, biological conditions, and the deleterious effects of substance abuse. Wallace seems obsessed with whatever is abnormal, and how the ‘normal’ majority treat it. Perhaps it’s his duty as a novelist, to take us closer to things we naturally, and unjustly, avert our eyes from. It doesn’t stop some knee-jerk repulsion when Wallace writes about these subjects, but his empathy and compassion for each tragic human case he deals with is heartening. Even if, in finding black humour and irony in their situations, he strays into some controversial areas. It feels risky, daring and worthwhile, though it must have been punishing to stare so many of life’s duff hands dead in the face.

 

iv. Pages 500 – 640

By introducing a new main character at 500-plus pages, Wallace is either ballsy or delusions-of-grandeur-level gormless. Luckily, recovering drug addict Randy Lenz is disturbing enough that I’d give it to ‘ballsy’.

Lenz copes with going Cold Turkey by stalking Boston’s back-alleys, then killing whatever small fauna he finds there. He is dark and twisted but elucidated by Wallace’s intimate understanding of addiction. Wallace takes us down the cyclic levels of rush, tolerance and dependence like spiralling steps into hell. Lenz’ descent is maddening and addictive in itself, and is one of the intermittent sections that make the book feel conversely short, pages turning freely, momentum propelling it forth.

Lenz later graduates to dogs, which gets him in trouble with some Québécois. It’s a game of ultra-violent dominoes that comes crashing down on Don Gately, sacrificial guard dog of Ennet House, who is shot defending in-patients from Lenz’ pursuers. In a novel beset with dense prose and Academic level arguments, such an emotional moment is tremendously refreshing. I’ve yet to read on and see if Gately makes it to the conclusion, but his jeopardy confirms I cared for him, which is a bit of a rarity in this over-analytic tome.

Who else do we care for? Probably the three Incandenza brothers, Pemulis, Joelle, and perhaps Lenz. The others, forming one multitudinous mass of side characters, seem peripheral. Occasionally sympathetic and always tragic, but kept at a distance.

I’m excited to tie off Infinite Jest, if just to clear its mammoth cache from my mind’s-eye bookshelves. But I’ll need a break before I let Wallace put me under again.

[1] In Wallace terms, ‘map eliminating’

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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