“Because every story is a ghost story, even mine.”
October is upon us, my dear readers. There are three little pumpkins sitting on my cookbook shelf and I’ve a few shivery reads on tap to get me in the mood: Mr. Splitfoot, The Wonder, and The Doll-Master. As fate would have it, I read the first first and now I am faced with a challenge: what could possibly excel such a novel? Because Mr. Splitfoot is quite quite wonderful.
The novel is about Ruth and Nat, two foster children who are raised in a cult-like atmosphere for most of their lives. They knit themselves together, skin to skin and soul to soul. Rarely are two characters so close and so believably so. They have slept in the same bed since they were five, two inverted commas. When Nat starts to speak to the dead, Ruth joins him and they begin to sell their services as mediums, acquiring the enigmatic Mr. Bell as a manager along the way and attempting to escape the atmosphere in which they were raised. This story is intertwined with another one, each chapter alternating between the story of a teenage Ruth and the story of her journey fourteen years later with her pregnant niece Cora. There are so many questions, so many moments of suspense where information is slowly dripped from the metaphorical faucet. The suspense is so well-managed that I happily sat back and let the story unfold deliciously.
Samantha Hurt is a wonderful and surprising writer. Perhaps I have read too many mediocre new pubs recently (looking at you The Hopefuls) but I audibly gasped multiple times throughout the book at the sharp writing. She has a taste for description that I have a hard time describing myself without just quoting the book over and over again. There’s a moment where she writes something like “the walls were the color of brains.” That was a gasp moment.
Also, this is a love story. On so many levels, it is a love story. Mothers and daughters, men and women, sisters, brothers, friends… rarely do you find a gothic novel that does its love stories so well. They tend to become plot devices, stereotypes of the pale beauty and the Byronic hero. In this novel they worm their way inside of you; I found myself weeping rather freely at the end, blurring the twisting beauty of the last page so I could barely read it.
This is the first of my October book recommendations, and as soon as I finish the other two I will let you know my thoughts, probably right as I have them. Please read this novel.
Full of scorpions is my mind. Or so it seemed, walking out of Suicide Squad. I felt not a little like Lady Macbeth who could not wash her mind of what she had experienced. The mythology of the comic book universes, both DC and Marvel, has the potential to be a lasting commentary on such weighty matters as the battle between good and evil, the desire for power, the consequences of crime, and the inevitability (or not) of fate. Instead, we are treated to dreck like Suicide Squad.
Even now, as we are making movies like this, in which such matters are wildly mishandled and messily slapped up on the screen, we are also still making and remaking the same great stories. And thus I turned to Macbeth.
The most recent adaptation of The Scottish Play stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as Macbeth and his Lady. They are both glorious actors in their own right, having proven themselves again and again capable of handling the dark and weighty matters upon which this play must meditate. Their relationship builds their separate characters into murderers and madmen. It makes them strong at first, but their deeds and the power that descends on them are crushing weights. In Macbeth we see the consequences of using the strength a relationship should give as a bolster for wickedness. Their separate and collective madness eats away at them, which is why the audience can feel sympathy for them. In Sucide Squad, the Joker and Harley Quinn are a pale imitation of this insane duo. They too, are the self-styled King and Queen of their universe, roles they took by force and which they do not deserve. But though we want to feel sympathy for the poor tortured Dr. Harleen Quinzel, and even admire the strength of the murderous Harley Quinn, there are no consequences for their actions. We are instead asked to admire the panache and the tattoos and the very madness they revel in. We cannot care when they take lives, but we should.Pretenders to the throne do not fair well in Shakespeare. Madness lies that way, for to kill a king is to stain oneself eternally. Fassbender’s Macbeth wastes little time descending into his own private hell. As soon as the crown rests on his head he becomes tenfold more the merciless brute, burning women and children at the stake to feed his paranoia and thirst for revenge. His madness is not funny. It is not bright or garish or stylish. It is the madness of repentance when repentance is impossible and he can see no course but to heap more bodies on the pyre. It’s not easy being king, that’s for sure. This Macbeth makes that pointedly clear. There isn’t a moment when it is even fun. Fun, however, is the Joker’s raison d’etre. And love, perhaps. As the Joker flits in and out of this sad excuse for a story we see that everything he touches is touched carelessly. He maddens his psychiatrist and almost leaves her for dead, he rescues her when she is taken from him but then lets her fall out of the back of a plane, or nearly drown in a submerged car. From what we know of him so far she is a doll he enjoys playing with until he carelessly puts her down or pops off her head. But what of her? Madness does not give Lady Macbeth her strength. That is not what screws her courage to the sticking place. Her own ambitious humanity does that. It is not madness that compels her or her husband to act, it is the judgment they exercise. How much more powerful then, to have madness follow her as she confronts the consequences of her actions. The alternative mythology offered to us in a movie like Suicide Squad is that madness gives you strength, that it makes you fearless in battle. Perhaps the greatest sin of the movie is to give us the notion that any squad is not a suicide squad. As Macbeth prepares young boys for battle at the beginning of his movie, he knows, they know, and we know that they will all die that day.But I will end with Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. That, though full of problems in its own right, was the saving grace of this movie. She manages to eke out of the script something I am not sure was ever written in it: fragility. Her madness and the choices that came out of it do have some consequences for her and her toughness hides a dream of normality. “Are you God?” she asks in this shot. The fear and wonder in her eyes mirrors our poor mad Lady’s.
LinkedIn is a startling creature, one that I have been politely nudged into taming. Essentially, one translates one’s resume into digestible pieces and then looks hopefully to more successful people for connection. Or so I feel after five episodes of Mr. Robot have turned me cynical and happy to be so. To psych myself up for updating my LinkedIn I decided to first update all my hovering social media presences. What I found in doing so was one simple thing: Ai Wei Wei makes me happy.
Ai Wei Wei is also cynical, and while my cynicism has currently only fueled me to create a better Tumblr (largely featuring his past and present work) his has fueled the lift of a triumphant middle finger to the things he finds unacceptable. So it is in the spirit of Ai Wei Wei that I start writing this blog again. I don’t want to lift a middle finger to you, dear reader, although I will happily share his.
Now if that doesn’t make you feel something again after the slog of this election (so close and yet so very far), I don’t know what will. I discovered him wandering around the Princeton grounds, where his zodiac series was resting for a while, but it wasn’t until I rediscovered them by chance just a few minutes from my office that I gave in fully. If I could have a chance encounter with such an arresting artist on a frozen November Wednesday in a place I never had any expectation of finding myself, then run into the same exact work again five minutes from where I spend every day of my workweek… you get the point.
And then, there were the bicycles. The Third Policeman introduced me to the wonder and menace of the bicycle (read it, embrace the oddity) and Ai Wei Wei turned that wonder and menace into art and protest and optical giddiness for miles.And as I searched for a background for my LinkedIn (the most important part, correct?) I came across the wallpaper he had designed to protest Twitter censorship. Naturally, I needed to update my Twitter aesthetics a bit. I filled Tumblr with his joyful self-portraits in the nude, plastered my Pinterest art board with his rainbow dragon creatures and the giant snakes he coils on ceilings. The background of my work computer I illuminated with his chandelier series.Images saturate my world because I am 25 and I use the internet for everything. It is easy to overload and difficult to find what is worthwhile. Ai Wei Wei doesn’t make art so that I can have something pretty to put up as my GooglePlus background, but in a world that is demanding I assert what images I find worthwhile, I am happy to choose his. And to look at this while I write to you.
Check out Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry on Netflix. It is a great introduction to him as an artist and as an activist. There’s a great episode on him on the podcast State of the Arts and right here in Boston, at the MFA, there is an exhibition featuring his work. Check out Megacities Asia and report back. Until next time,
I’ve been away many months now trying to set up a bit of a new life. I got a new job working in publishing, the field I have been trying to get into for a while now. I was easily swept up in the the whirlwind of a new workplace and new friends. But, for reasons both varied and frustrating my department in being laid off and relocated to the midwest. As I don’t see myself moving across the country just now, I am starting the process of looking for jobs again. And, I am going to start this blog again.
So look for the new and improved, better than ever, totally rad Person I Am Tonight. I will be writing to you soon.
There are some things that we cannot experience anymore except under special circumstances. This week, I have been thinking about two of them: damnation and darkness. The Witch‘s ability to terrify relies upon our acceptance that the characters really do fear the fires of hell, not in a metaphorical way but in a very real sense. They can feel them licking at their heels.Lisa Dwan’s Beckett Trilogy Not I, Footfalls, and Rockabye relies upon our inexperience with total darkness. The hour-long production is performed in a total blackout, including exit signs and safety lights. This creates a blackness that is almost unheard of for the average millennial city-dweller. The darkness lays on top of you, at first calming and dazzling and then suffocating and sharpening every sound and movement. It is easy to understand how someone could fear darkness like that.In Not I, Dwan’s mouth floats like Tinkerbell, tiny and bright in all that darkness, spewing and spitting and cackling. Then, in Footfalls, her heels tread out a rhythm of imminent grief. Her character paces just beyond her mother’s deathbed, waiting for the end to come, recalling the years of suffering. The lighting only illuminates her, sometimes brightening her white face and gown, sometimes dimming so low that she seems like a ghost. The darkness around her allows her to move her body slightly in any direction to create a different effect, while the audience remains in almost total darkness throughout. There is nothing else to focus on, just her and her pale brightness.The Witch, shot in the natural light of what looks like a perpetual New England February, shows women as similarly pale bright creatures. Thomasin, the main character of The Witch, is luminous. The eye is instantly drawn to her whenever she is on screen and that magnetism is what causes her family to fear and distrust her. Her beauty is powerful and female and thus dangerous. We as a society are not free of the fear that powerful women can inspire, but we are mostly beyond the concept that that power signifies evil. In the New Yorker review of the movie, Anthony Lane asserts that the vital point is that “we can’t be damned.” These people believe without question that they can be and thus, they are.Beckett’s women, several hundred years later, transfix us. But it is not them that we are afraid of, it is the darkness that surround them. Even though they are grief-stricken, doubt-ridden, and terrified themselves, they are the powerful brightness we are drawn to like a flame. In both The Witch and these three plays, these women fill the screen with their emotions and their power.I felt I had experienced something truly unique with both of these. I felt that family’s fear of hell and sin and damnation in The Witch as if it were my own. That fear is what stays with you long after the violent flashes of fire and blood fade. They feared the darkness of the woods and the darkness of a world without God. So many years later I sat in the kind of oppressive darkness their every night was likely filled with. One could understand turning to prayer in all that vastness. Or turning to something else.