#5. Ahead of the Game

You have to be a somewhat closeted person to get to this day without knowing some of the great ‘twists’ in famous films. I watched Se7en vaguely aware of what happened at the end, and of the person who would be starring in that crucial moment.

Do not read any more if you do not want to know what happened, nor if you want to know who is involved at the end. 

There are spoilers ahead…

Image result for warhol's soup cans

I’m not doing this to persuade you to read on, but I think it was important for me that I ‘knew’ what happened, as I could appreciate everything else so brilliant about the film. Films with twists sometimes are asking to be spoiled, and Se7en is perhaps one of those. Once you ‘know’ what happens, the notion of a twist takes on an ulterior tone, and elevates this noir about good cops trying to do good in a corrupt world, to a higher level.

Let’s start with thinking about the information the film gives us. It is a film replete with references to culture, both and high and low, references to other images and other films. The film, like any great film, is aware of its own image in the context of others. The film focuses on these murders which are representations of the seven deadly sins; the killer clearly views these as art, but  the way Fincher represents them is after they have happened – we only see what there is left to see and as a result, have to do the work of reconstructing it ourselves.

And so the work is like a piece of pop art, a postmodern visual piece that blends high and low references to turn things into potential art. That’s a twist in itself. What’s high is low and what’s low becomes high, or we don’t know what constitutes what. The world becomes unsettlingly unreal but overwhelmingly real seeming. Don’t you think the sauce cans used in the gluttony murder resemble Campbell’s soup cans, already subjected to the attention of art? The murders could be elevated to high art, and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is comfortable to accept that as he searches the library for motions and vindications, empirical support for the murders. These are his clues. Mills (Brad Pitt) however can see no logic, it’s banal and the man is a lunatic. This is not art.

Image result for library scene seven

Library scene from Se7en

There is no answer, Fincher is making no judgement. This sense however of us, the viewer, making a judgement has never been poised so awfully. One of the ways that Se7en is exceptional is in the sense that it directly asks the viewer, how can you watch this and ultimately how can you take part in this. How can you not make a judgement? But you must make a judgement, these are murders. How can you just sit there and watch it all happen?

The twisting continues. Not just are your guts twisting, so is your perception of the world and your position as the viewer and participant in it. Fincher sets it in an unnamed city that feels incredibly real but isn’t. It feels like something from Blade Runner (1981), the way that the rain persistently falls, and how that world (when I say world, I mean the filmic world) was also full of referents to a past, but present world in the future. Fincher also came from sci-fi beginnings, with his first film the continuation of Ridley Scott’s famous franchise, regardless of how much he wanted to be associated with it. But it’s also Lumet’s Serpico (1973); Mill’s wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) references it at the start, and the film’s constant rain is also reminiscent of its opening. This is oozing noir.

When a news report in the nineties set out to find out who Thomas Pynchon was, the reporter located his home town and decided to leave it there, and reasoned that Pynchon in a sense was ‘everywhere and nowhere’ and perhaps that’s how it should be. Like Pynchon, I get this sense with Fincher, two great postmodernists; his films are everything and nothing. The world of Se7en is a world made from film. We’ve already had Serpico and its similar attempts of somebody trying to do right in an inherently corrupt world (look how often the law gets in the way rather than serves, notably demonstrated in the scene with the killer’s lawyer; this is the sense of twisting again, the world turned upside down). I’ve mentioned Blade Runner but you go back further than this, as it could be the city that held so much wonder and fear in Lang’s (1927) Metropolis and Murnau’s (1927) Sunrise: The Story of Two People, or have we merely run down the plug hole after the shower scene in Psycho (1960: Alfred Hitchcock)?

Isn’t film everything and nothing? Look at the killer. He is called John Doe; in the UK, this might be somebody known as ‘Joe Bloggs’, the everyman. Meet John Doe (1941:Capra) however focuses on a news reporter reluctantly agreeing to cover one last job before being laid off, but suspects and begins to uncover corruption, way beyond the seven days will allow her to report on. This sounds familiar to the situation Somerset finds himself in – his last seven days are tied up in the investigation of this murderer. When we first see the killer though and the brilliantly choreographed chase scene between him and Mills, we see him in a bowler/trilby hat and a long overcoat. He resembles one of Magritte’s men (or Magritte himself) which Magritte said of: “The bowler poses no surprises. It is a head dress that is not original. The man with the bowler is just bourgeois man in his anonymity. And I wear it. I am not eager to singularise myself.” The nineties however, in which Se7en was filmed, and Fincher also directed The Game (1997) and Fight Club (1999) during this time, there were a spate of films that played on this idea of the man who’s presence is not really known but is certainly felt. Perhaps The Silence of the Lamb(1981) pioneered this, and Se7en does a similar thing making the criminal in control of the proceedings and us rarely seeing him. In Se7en this is not obviously known until the end, but it becomes increasingly clear that John Doe has planned every step, right until its tragic denouement. Spacey even has a similar appearance to Hopkins, shaven head, pale face and a down turned, glowering look. And Spacey had effectively played the same role in The Usual Suspects (1995: is this Keyzer himself?)

Spacey might as well be wearing a mask, and he arguably is, as he’s hidden throughout the film. It wasn’t a necessarily commercial reason that they chose to keep Spacey out of the credits I don’t think though, but instead because it emphasises that blankness of the character. With all due respect to Spacey his round face is ‘unremarkable’ in the age of photogenic celebrity, and again, perhaps why Fincher thought of removing his credit. That blankness, that white mask, serves us in being able to project onto it our fears, our personal fears that have come from our minds, but more importantly, positioning him as that bourgoise everyman, the fears about ourselves. Because the thing is, you, the viewer are accessory to the killings in Se7en. Here is the twist; without you the film proposes these killings would not have happened. How can you sit there and watch? There is a term in psychoanalysis – Projection Identification – which means effectively ‘putting’ something in another person so that the person can relate to these projections, and that person who has been projected onto can potentially unconsciously enact this. This is of course what the killer does; he hates gluttony, sloth, so he effectively gets people to embody these things that he hates (the killings are meticulously planned, they are self-fulfilling prophecies, and so they kill themselves in a way). But isn’that what also happens to us? What do we see at the end? Do we see in the box? Do we see the bloody visceral image of the final murder? Depending who you are, this may you surprise you or not, but we don’t. You inagined it, you created the image of it. The history of cinema is the history of the image, but just because it’s there in front of us, it doesn’t mean we don’t do some of the work ourselves. How much do you think you see behind the curtain in Psycho? If you saw it, why didn’t you do anything about it?

 

Image result for the pilgrim magritte

The Pilgrim (1966) by Rene Magritte

 

Remainder: Lessons at the Limits

Latin from the books of the Laws of England, which taken along with the context, means, that of all whales captured by anybody on the coast of that land, the King, as Honorary Grand Harpooner, must have the head, and the Queen be respectfully presented with the tail. A division which, in the whale, is much like having an apple; there is no intermediate remainder” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

 

There was a time when it seemed that that essay by Zadie Smith – ‘Two Directions for the Novel’ – was more known and read than Remainder itself. But now, McCarthy is one of the most notable and talented British novelists writing today, and two Booker nominations go to show for it. A Booker nomination can be a mystifying accolade though, and what would this ‘avant-garde’ novelist, eschewing the reliable and persisting, lyrical realism Smith riles against , make of being nominated for such a mainstream, literary prize? Clearly his work is not antithetical nor rejecting the culture at large.

This is one of the many paradoxes central to McCarthy’s work;  Remainder is a novel that plays with the redundancy of language so it becomes a novel that has plenty to say but doesn’t say anything and more directly, a novel that has had so much said about it, it is a wonder what to say next; what it is made up of, it rejects. Smith uses James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to elucidate the issue when she says:“The received wisdom of literary history is that Finnegan’s Wake did not fundamentally disturb realism’s course as Duchamp’s urinal disturbed realism in the visual arts: the novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry a trace of the real”

Let’s look at how it carries this trace of the real.

~

It’s not necessary to do a point by point summary of the plot of Remainder, and instead point toward Smith’s essay and the text itself. However, what is making this task even more subservient, is that the edition that I’m using comes with an introduction by McKenzie Wark, which will be divulged later.  We know however, that our nameless narrator (or Enactor as Smith calls him) is bequeathed a large amount of settlement money after an accident. About the accident he says “I can say very little” and  this is no journey of discovery or reconciliation. With his money, instead of any hedonistic or philanthropic impulse (as Smith notes, both feel as inauthentic as the other), he decides to reconstruct a moment, that arrives through Deja vu, or a memory that he cannot locate in any time but feels that is inherently his. The reenactments multiply, becoming reenactments of reenactments, before culminating in a bank heist in a real, working bank.

Now, A film adaptation of McCarthy’s Remainder, directed by Omer Fast, has just been released and is coincidentally the impetus for writing about the book here. Putting it into the context of a film adaptation, Remainder shows itself to be the remarkable work that it is. This question of language that was highlighted at the start becomes even more complicated in this new context. Would Jacques Ranciere confidently have written this if he had read Remainder when he wrote in The Intervals of Cinema: “Cinema has been asked to fill the dream of a century of literature…Literature has been able to carry that dream because its discourse on things and their intensities stayed written in the double game of words, which hide from the eye the palpable richness which shimmers in the mind. Cinema just shows what it shows.” Remainder is a novel that just shows what it shows and seems to ask if we’re all anxious about what is real, and if we’re even worried that subjectivity is inauthentic, why divulge and express it with more inauthentic language?

Fundamentally it is grappling with what is real in the image culture, a very classically postmodern issue. And as we witness the narrator become obsessed with dissecting and slowing each moment in his reenactments, watching him only try to grasp at this thing we call real, all that is revealed is more space and vacuity; as Smith says Remainder “makes you preternaturally aware of space” as you read it.  Look at the narrator’s continual references to cricket. Smith uses this as one of the cruxes of comparison between Remainder and the ‘other direction for the novel’ Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. But McCarthy is not trying to wedge in any postcolonial metaphor, but is instead trying to understand the sport’s relationship with space and the image. Think of the different types of images that cricket gives to its viewer; the different types of replays; not just slow motion, but super-slow-motion, along with inventions like Hawkeye and Hotspot. These images don’t change the fundamentals of the game but they transform the viewing experience of it, and now, through a referral system, can alter decisions. A replay in effect, can now change the outcome of a game, and has become part of the game, rather than just the viewing experience.

Cricket: ‘Hotspot’ showing subtle edges and marks left by the ball.

What is the real experience with the image anymore then? Let’s remind ourselves how this starts – through a moment of Deja vu – an image, or a ‘memory’, that we feel that we have already inhabited before it has happened. The narrator says that “I’d been in a space like this before, a place like this” before he recounts the moment of being in that bathroom and looking at a crack in the wall. And unlike Deja vu dissipating, it instead persists. But Deja vu is the remembrance of a thing that hasn’t happened ultimately, of the brain working before itself, or the feeling of a memory that is not located in a particular space; or is not triangulated within the schema of our linearity of past, present, or future? It is as if working on all three,  suspended above them all, working on the memory – the arbiter of the past; experience – the recognition passing of the present into the future; and desire –  the wish for something to occur. What makes it such a striking experience though is that it is deeply personal. And like a replay, like all the reenactments, it feels like it has happened before, within reality,  like the moment a batsman watches his decision overturned and is now considered out and his innings over.

The narrator is trying to understand before experiencing. This is entirely possible: look how after the accident, the narrator receives physiotherapy and begins relearning the basic motor functions that occur automatically in a process called ‘rerouting’. Here is the essential predicament summed up when he says: “[rerouting is to]cut and lay the new circuits, what they do is make you visualise things. Simple things like lifting a carrot to your mouth…Understanding this, and picturing yourself lifting the carrot to your mouth, again and again and again, cuts circuits through your brain that will eventually allow you to perform the act itself. That’s the idea (my emphasis)”. He then goes on to detail all the minute possibilities that are encased within the act of putting a carrot to your mouth – twenty seven separate manoeuvres – and the thousands of imaginary carrots that he has successfully consumed. But when it comes to the actual physical carrot itself, he cannot get it to his mouth. It’s by repetition that he thinks he can understand it, reinforce it and in doing so, make it a real, manifested, repetitive action.

That’s the idea, that’s all it is, and the obsession of ideas permeates in all the reenactments.  But the transitions from an idea to the actual, physical completion of something are in different parts of the brain, and might as well be in different worlds. His world, both inside and out, is one of metaphysics and language, and although we can accept that our inner, thinking world is a foundationless one, to accept that the outer, physical world is as well is an abysmal one. This is the crisis, and it is a novel entrenched in crisis. It is embedded both locally within the novel and globally in the postmodern world. Smith says both Remainder and Netherland are enduring similar crises but playing them out very differently. Everything in Remainder is an idea, reducible to language, and not pretty lyrical language (“even my fantasies were plastic, imperfect, unreal”), a language that, even though it is the last vestige, is still stricken with inauthenticity. The narrator however is wanting and desiring to understand, but at each occasion, he’s greeted by more space that is only filled with more lyrical units.

Most books set out to answer why, or resolve, or at least through the dialectical process of reading, allow the reader to resolve. A book’s creation starts with just that though – the desire to create – and the narrator of Remainder at his core is a creator. This is where Smith and Wark converge. Remainder is typically self-conscious for its time and is effectively a creator creating a creation, but through the guise of an affable, naïve sounding narrator (McCarthy seems to have the ability to develop these effectively neurotic narrators that are implausibly limited, but at the same time affable and likeable). Wark addresses this more directly though when he says: “Creation once had a particularly exalted range of meaning. It is what God does. Remaining has more lowly connotations. Those not chosen come Judgement Day remain behind…” before adding that they become “unwanted books sold at knockdown prices are Remainders.” He says therefore that the questions that Remainder asks are: who gets to create? And when something is created, what remains, or is left behind? Furthermore, even if it is in the real physical world, is it real?

It is easy to look at this through the lens of postmodernity and ideology. This is a person who has an excessive amount of money and is investing it in these meaningless endeavours in an attempt to create meaning. The result is more surplus, debris, excess, indeed – remainders. But since the turn of modernity, we believe that we have the will to power, not a divine, invested power through a God. This sense of creation and being a creator is continually criticised, but what’s more, a criticism of critique is underway. The dispensation and availability of different theories to apply to the Remainder and the novel in general  is further adding to this sense that all is beneath us is more theory, or more language (McCarthy takes this even further in his latest novel Satin Island). Marxist, Feminist, Poststructuralist, Freudian, or even Theologically, there is no way one to understand, but there’s only one way to do it.

What does feel real however is the sense of anxiety (you may ground this in psychoanalytic interpretation) and as Smith talks of Netherland, even though there is a real anxiety there, it eventually reminds us of our ‘beautiful plenitude’, where Remainder resolves nothing and instead aspires to be more debris, or even, junk. Here is where the naivety of the narrator comes in: if it is a novel that is self-conscious, it doesn’t understand itself as a novel, and the creator doesn’t understand himself as a creator. Yet there is a palpable anxiety, because there is a desire withheld, which we may call creation and accept all of that words umbrage, from artistic to Freudian connotations.  What adds to it, is that he is not fully conscious of this anxiety, yet the reader is and feels it right till the very end and beyond. There is, as said nearer the start, no realisation or completion and although the creator produces a text, he doesn’t realise it. He is back to the problem of understanding and doing; he is doing and writing a novel, not understanding the implications of doing so, resulting in a novel that is not, by modern realist standards, necessarily a good one.

This is of course purposefully done by the real creator, Tom McCarthy. But where people like McCarthy and David Foster Wallace began diverging from the likes of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, is that they stop-short of there being some kind of fictive Other on which to project, regardless of the aesthetic of that Other. Think of the ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ in DeLillo’s White Noise or the Thurn und Taxis and the Trystero mail systems (one fact, one fiction) in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: we know that they are ironic fictions, but there is something there and somewhere to project all this anxiety onto. Whether this is the grounding or not for the obsessive reenactments, but repetition is  born out of a desire and an anxiety to understand, in the same way writing a novel is born out of a desire to understand the self and the world. The anxiety acknowledged becomes intensified, even if the narrator doesn’t recognise it as so. Early modernity at least allowed there to be a private self but Remainder doesn’t; what isn’t private is unconscious.

Where it may become more a matter of ideology might be illuminated by some of the work Wark has done on the Situationists International (SI), mainly in his books ‘The Beach Beneath The Street’ (2011: a Situationist slogan, ironically used as an epitaph in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice) and ‘The Spectacle of Disintegration’ (which i’m going from here). The SI were a Marxist organisation that tried to counter the fact that capitalism had become so advanced that it had venerated not just labor and production, but every aspect of life and culture. But where Marx may have grounded his critique of society in philosophy, Guy Debord, the figurehead of the SI, ground his in culture. In his manifesto, The Society of the Spectacle (1968) Debord wrote, “the spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living”. There is clear influence from the likes of Lefebvre and consequently on people like Baudrillard, but capitalism had become so dominant and pervasive that culture had become commodified. Or rather, life, or the experience of it has. Remainder is at least aware that it is mixed up within the garble of slogans and commodification.

 

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

And yet, with all these remainders and reminders the novel is centred on the fact that there is no remainder for him after the accident and the fleeting moment he initially has in the bathroom is without substance. Watch how the final scene shows how we need no precedent for there to be experience, or for that matter, a remainder. In the rehearsal for the bank heist there is a kink in the carpet that the actor repeatedly trips over, but when it comes to the actual heist, the kink is not there, which still causes the actor to fall and ruin the heist. The narrator in his perennial naivety says:“But it was a re-enactment. That’s the beauty of it. It became real while it was going on. Thanks to the ghost kink, mainly – the kink the other kink left when we took it away”.  Remainder is like a Mobius strip, and even though there’s no definitive starting point, everything has an idea and a desire, and as a result, a remainder. This is why this ‘avant-garde’ novel is so central to late, postmodern culture, because like Warhol’s Soup Cans, it is so eminently made up of it. All the stuff of it.

But there is something real that comes from this; there are real traces and remainders out there to remind us of all our creations. Wark opens his account of the legacy of the Situationists International, The Spectacle of Disintegration  with a description of the Great Pacific garbage patch in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which is nothing more than a great mass of dispensed litter. Feeling related in some ethereal way, McCarthy warns in the acknowledgements to his latest novel Satin Island (2015) that all his books are regurgitated ideas and theories. There is some fun to be had in finding the traces in Satin Island. 

This is perhaps a real, reluctant lesson to be taken from Remainder.  After all, there is an experience of it. Experience is unique in that it is formed by our past, present and future, and sometimes they’re like kinks in a carpet, can only happen before we understand what it means. But understanding just means more language and relativity. Experience cannot simply be transformed into words: that is a reluctant, real, transcendent matter.

Remainder directed by Omer Fast, and starring Tom Sturridge is out now. A new edition of Remainder (originally published in 2005) by Tom McCarthy, with an introduction by McKenzie Wark, has just been published by Alma.

Satin Island (2015) by Tom McCarthy is published by Vintage.

McKenzie Wark’s The Spectacle of Disintegration (2013) is published by Verso.

 

Modern Day Marvels

If you have not seen American Beauty or Fight Club and do not wish to have the endings spoiled, then it would be advisable to watch them before reading this.

Midlife crisis: an easily applied term to any middle aged male of thinning hair who spontaneously buys a bright red sports car. That is probably what made Kevin Spacey the perfect (or unperfect person) to play Lester Burnham, a man seemingly going through the motions above. His droll, drab voice-over introduces you to his droll, drab existence as an advertising executive in middle class suburban America. Crisis itself is though seems to be the key word of our times.

Everything seems to be in crisis. In this material world everything about Burnham’s existence is grey, beige, lifeless – material; his house that he shares with his wife Carolyn (Annette Benning) is a dull mixture of creams and greys, and indeed she remarks in her job as a realtor trying to shift a house that is anything but what she says it palatially isn’t “a simple cream could lighten things up”, stood in a cream suit that does not lighten anything up.

The film’s narrative and Lester’s crisis is driven by the arrival of his daughter, Jane’s (Thora Birch) friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), as he watches a cheerleading sequence (in Chaplin-esque hats), that begins several fantasies of Lester’s involving Angela, and the film’s key motif – vibrant, red petals. Many allusions have been made to Nabokov’s Lolita and Dolores Haze, and whilst she represents the prohibited, repressed fantasy of a middle aged man, she is also perhaps a hark back to the age this film’s characters are trying to live. The age when advertising was an exciting, and believable venture; when white middle class American’s were the government’s people to lead the country forward, and not the varied, and diverse ethnicities and orientations that Carolyn shows round her house; when Coca Cola was becoming the worlds most prevalent and ubiqitous company, but a benevolent, representative one; the age when America and American’s, and even Britain had a true belief in their country and their principles.

Angela Hayes is not the only object of desire as Lester’s daughter Jane is continually filmed by her new neighbour, Ricky (Wes Bently) on his cam recorder. Ricky lives with his passive mother Barbara (Allison Jarney) and Bigoted ex-marine Col.Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), who displays his attitude to all when he meets a gay couple who live on the street (“we’re partners” they say to Frank on the door who replys with “so what’s your business?”).

And so the Burnham’s comfortable suburban life they’ve forged for themselves begins to implode as Carolyn catches Lester masturbating in bed, off one of his many fantasies about Angela. American Beauty echoes the films of its time in this respect, particularly Fight Club (1999, David Fincher), as middle aged, middle class men questioning their existence bluntly tell their bosses they no longer want their jobs, using blackmailing powers to secure a good pay-off. Lester takes a job at a fast-food restaurant.

Rather than it being life changing decisions that affect the Burnham’s that some have noted (if anything they just become more immersed in the world they live in; Lester joining Mr Smiley’s, a stand in for McDonald’s if anything, but he is just lower in the chain) they submit to their prohibited fantasies. It is difficult to determine how cynical Mendes is being of fantasies on Freudianism, like Nabokov in Lolita was. Jane, who now seems so far removed from the nuclear family that American Beauty seems so intensely investigative of, finally begins a romantic affair with Ricky, about the time his relationship with Lester is developing. Ricky, who is obssessed with home footage (as if a precedent for the imminent, internet, youtube age) and filming Jane, shows Jane one of his videos, what he believes is the most beautiful piece of camcorder footage he has filmed – a paper bag floating in the wind. It is here that Jane submits to Ricky, and realises him for what he is. Not the weirdo, or asshole voyeur, but a man obssesed with finding beauty in his own way, tired of the grand movie projects he has undoubtedly seen in the media saturated age (Ricky’s room is like a black and white negative, filled with video tapes, and it’s the film with the plastic bag, that is one of the few pieces of colour that the characters watch, the utter banality of it rendered in colour. Television features a lot in American Beauty, but most of them are black and white images).Jane’s fantasy, like most other teenagers is to be beautiful, and the television and films, are the modes that are seen as beautifying, but here she has found a man and a medium that makes her beautiful for what she is, as the film is concerned with the typical archetype of beauty in Angela – a young, submissive blond nymph.

It is not just the Burnham’s who are submitting to their fantasies and projections. Col. Fitts is becoming concerned with his son, Ricky’s, behaviour. Going through his possessions (an inversion of what Ricky does to his possessions when finds the Nazi plate), he finds footage of Lester working out in his garage, a chance happening after he had been filming Jane. From this Col. Fitts deduces that his son is gay. As he waits for him in his bedroom, after Ricky has returned from Lester’s, and again, where Fitts mistakenly assumed that his son was performing an act of fellatio on Lester. Fitt’s hits his son, when Ricky baits him with a fake confession, and can embark on his on voyage of freedom with Jane to New York. Angela denounces this and in doing so Ricky uncovers her own primordial fear – the she is ‘ordinary’. She is no beauty, she uses friends like Jane to boost her  image. The next shot is of Angela, sat on the stairs viewed through the banister, evoking the recurrent image of imprisonment in the film. She is now trapped and condemned to this idea of beauty that she thinks she has forged, but rather what has been cultivated by those around her. She really is Low on the dotted line.

It is the revelatory, and maybe slightly cheap, fantasy of Fitts that brings the biggest shock. As Lester is doing pull-ups in his garage (mimicking the self-satisfying, and gratifying masturbatory action we see of Lester at the beginning of the film, Lester has found just another way to gratify himself rather than enliven himself), unaware of what is going on in the house around him, Fitts is seen approaching his garage. He opens the door to the torrential, biblical rain outside, perhaps reminiscent of another film of it’s time – Magnolia­ (1999, P.T.Anderson) – that also features flowers as its central motif, symbolic deaths and approaching deaths, to Fitts in a white t-shirt. Contrary to the violence we expect of Fitts, he kisses Lester, whom calmly turns him away. Fitts turns around, and walks away.

When we return to Lester’s death at the end with the denouement in mind, he is looking back on the rest of his life, philosophising on simple yet poignant metaphysics, that a reasonably educated, middle-class man might try to get at in wistful later life. But Lester’s mid-life crisis wasn’t in mid-life, Lester was at the end of his life; in fact going from his narration, orbiting the suburbs (god-like, ethereal, no?) he is already dead. Like the films of that era it focuses on these symbolic deaths, but unlike Fight Club, the gun is a very real embodiment that kills the character, and not his alter ego. Lester actually lives his alter ego, in an inversion of The Usual Suspects (also starring Spacey) where the narrator or creator of the illusion (also Spacey) has to create the creation of his other characters for his survival. Tyler Durden has to realise his creation, is subconscious (a film also heavy with homoerotic references) to finally exist as a person. Lester however must die for his creation, because he is the one who ultimately lives it.

So, unlike those films about men who don’t really exist, and about men who really don’t want to exist, who cannot exist in their manifestation, we are left wanting, and striving for Lester to exist, which brings the sadness in the denouement of the film. We’re not left wondering about the mystery of his existence because of his death, just what he could have finally made of it, and what we can make of our own mysterious plenitude, not in some grand, pseudo-revolutionary escapist style like Fight Club, just how and what makes our lives matter to others, in the small immaterial, and ultimately beautiful aspects of life.

Now as we move forward 15 years later, the subject, rather than the setting of the middle-class American home is a prominent one. In this post-financial-crisis globalised society, the problems seem to have become internalised in the home, using Gone Girl and the game-playing, killing instinct is within. I’m using Fincher’s, 2014, film version as an example; it’s as if the set from American Beauty is being used, dull, grey, life-less, but all the problems lie within the marriage. This has also transcended literature, as in front of me I have a review copy of a book by Christopher Bollen called Orient (released in April 2015, review coming up in the next few weeks). It Is distinctly set in the real-world middle class lives of Americans on the outskirts of New York. It is a sprawling work, touching 600 pages, that calls into the old cliché of the great American novel (or the great global novel it should now be called). To borrow a Thomas Kuhn term, the American novel seems to undergo paradigms, and right now we seem to be in the Jonathan Franzen paradigm, who seems to either be the most marketable, or the most suitable chronicler of the times.

American Beauty, as I suggest above, goes against the trend, because it is about a man who ultimately wants to exist but cannot, as if this is not the way the world works anymore (the black and white photos, the homoeroticism). It is preceding the idea that this comfortable world is coming under threat? The fantasies of the other maybe; terrorism, gays, immigrants, feminists, artists, orphans, absolute anything (Orient overtly touches on this), anything that threatens to destroy the sanctity of it. But it is as if the family is the last domesticity of the real. As we come out of postmodernity, artists now return to the family as a way of returning to the real. Franzen’s Freedom (2010) certainly did this after The Corrections (2000). What is being done is, is rather than the mechanics being broken down, the illusion is being created again, only to be dismantled in the way the realists an early moderns constructed and revealed the secrets lying beneath. But it’s as if now the family can not just go on as it is; it not just about the father’s who can just go out to work because there are all these other presences and antagonisms, and the fact that there are also no jobs to go to.

One of the key precedent’s set for this was Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997); Roth’s superb work about a successful man Swede Levov, inheritor of his father’s glove company who sees his daughter, Merry become political fanatic. As the blurb states ‘overnight Swede is wrenched out of the longed-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk’, and that is what seems to have happened – the west’s safe capitalist pastoral has now been interrupted, maybe even shattered and what we’re witnessing is the wake of this. I think to quote at length the ending of American Pastoral would be sufficient (not necessarily a spoiler as such, but if you don’t want the ending spoiled don’t read this next bit)

“Marcia sank into Jessie’s empty chair, in front of the brimming glass of milk, and with her face in her hands, she began to laugh at their obtuseness to the flimsiness of the whole contraption, to laugh and laugh and laugh at them all, pillars of a society that, much to her delight, was rapidly going under – to laugh and to relish as some people, historically, always seem to do, how far the rampant disorder had spread, enjoying enormously the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.
Yes the breach had been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened, it would not be closed again. They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everything and everyone that does not like their life.”

There is obviously a great irony in all this. All these writers and directors are male, it’s as if their sanctity is under threat at the same time, and underscores the hypocrisy of the world they’re dismantling, but are still limited in their effect of. That passage precedes it all, and although Roth’s setting was 1968, it speaks a truth of now, written in 1997. Those final few paragraphs for me, set up what has followed in the past 15 years, and poses the questions that now novelists and artists try to answer. Will they recover? Is this why the world seems to have been Marvellised, why there are so many superheroes on our screen now, as we look for new heroes, new fantasies to save us, or at least save our minds, because like the picture above, maybe people are tired of the responsibility of being role models. Our fathers are not our heroes any more (look at the existential paternal anxiety of Don Draper in Mad Men). To paraphrase Franzen in The Corrections, who does this leave to be ordinary, in the grey, beige world of crisis.

A review of Christopher Bollen’s Orient is coming up in the next few weeks.

The Living Anonymous

Advice for a young, unpublished writer is not to have a picture of your literary hero on your desk because, chances are, they committed suicide. It is almost cliché to link the creation of art and madness. A common parlance by writers and artists is to describe at some point in their artistic life, the process of creation as torturing. Art is infuriating; at some point you have to realise that whatever you create will never be a perfection. You may create your masterpiece that may define a movement at some point in time, but that Is what it is – a fixture in time only to be succeeded by the next defining monument of a period.

Perhaps this is slightly cynical but the link between mental illness and creativity, no matter what the cliché is, has a very sombre truth to it; that even the most successful artists are sometimes tortured minds who sometimes cannot bare the thought of living. Groucho Marx’s funny, yet horribly pertinent quip that “all geniuses die young” asks whether to be a genius you have to be of a certain tragic age. Let’s look at some famous examples in the writing world; Melville, Woolf, Plath, Foster-Wallace. All can arguably defined as movement definer’s, initiating movements, and retrospectively being heralded as such (i’m not wanting to discuss the contentions of this, you may argue they’re under/overrated but that’s not the point). Moby Dick, Mrs Dalloway, The Bell Jar, Infinite Jest; all key texts in key movements. I include the Bell Jar mainly for it’s head on tackling of the mental state Plath was in, not necessarily as a defining movement, but seems to have been adopted by the feminist cause, amongst many others. Melville didn’t commit suicide but is famous for dealing with depression.

Artistic creation is torturing though. You’re battling yourself, your own capacity to create, and the intense cerebral nature of it does question the existence of genius; if you can immerse yourself in your own world and other people’s created worlds for so long, and then want to create your own world whether it be on canvas or page, and can accept that what you create will still be nowhere near as good as the masters you emulate, that you can only strive and work hard, and look at more of the masters, just some day you may get there, stand remotely near, be for once considered in the same sentence as them. You have to accept this. “If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn’t call it genius” apparently said Michaelangelo, an undisputed genius.

Camus stated “I don’t want to be a genius – I have enough problems just trying to be a man” which arouses an interesting proposition. Zadie Smith in her essay on David Foster-Wallace remarked that in his deep, exhaustive, postmodern stories that he was “always trying to place relationships between persons as the light at the end of his narrative dark tunnels” and as Wallace once claimed “banal platitudes can have a life or death importance”; she then asks “what are those…stories but complex re-enactments of platitudes we would otherwise ignore.” Now Camus’ quote comes in to the frame, the way we interpret the world now, the western one, with tricksy postmodernists like Wallace only playing with language rather than giving us wholesome narratives with beginning, middles and endings points to this torture of art; it is a response to the world we live in, and Wallace’s stories are tortured response to this world where meaning has been distorted to the extent that any trace of depicting those banal platitudes will be rendered as sentimental. How do we get to the essence of life now? How is it possible? How do we try and be men, women…humans.

Camus’ absurdist theory uses suicide as a key example of how we live, or not live in this world. The absurd refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning, and the inability to find any. In this Nieztchean world, where god is dead, and now, when art is pushed to the fringes, where monetary value and positivistic science takes precedence, where is the meaning and human value of life? Where are we supposed to look for it if our artists, and potential artists are given little room in this commercial world

Suicide for Camus was the result of this meaningless dissonance – a rejection of freedom. Of course it is damagingly reductionist to attribute suicide to this, but there is some kind of truth in Camus’ quote about being a man, being a person, that our most humane investigators of human experience (artists) ultimately fail to find. There is no moral, universal code in this godless world; a Christian always something to aspire to, a perfect big other, where the artist has not, and perhaps has to live with the fact that he is that other, or desire to be the other.

Let’s also not be caught up in the idea that art fails us, or we fail art. Mental illness is a deeply complex issue, and we’re no nearer to comprehensively treating it than we are to understanding it. As a student of community and critical psychology, approaching the end of my masters, indeed I am nowhere nearer, favouring the political argument perhaps generated by Foucauldian thinking. Because if anything arts saves us, and it’s now time to look at how it does that.

                 *

As a part time reviewer of books, i’ve received a number of publications, mostly from smaller, début artists. Some of these have gone on to big things (Donal Ryan, Eimear McBride for example), some haven’t. I always try and treat books with respect, and appreciate that whatever the book is, at the heart of it is a remarkable intelligence that wants to be some way dissected and understood. This kernel of intelligence/spark/throb/intention, whatever it was, has been so powerful, and overwhelming that the person has thought it appropriate to articulate this over a lot of pages in the form of a narrative, that not a lot of people have the comprehension, or stamina/will to even consider doing. I don’t think it’s a matter of intelligence; if you read enough, you can write enough. Obviously there are more factors than that, but if you have a vision, a belief, you’re getting there.

On my desk I received By The Light of The Silvery Moon: Inside the Schizophrenic Mind (Austin MacAuley publishers). A slim volume with only ‘Anonymous’ accredited as the author. The blurb describes what follows as an account of an ‘ordinary girl’ arriving in the London in the nineties, with ‘unclear aspirations’ but ‘with a determination to enjoy life’. After a bout of using recreational drugs the author developed paranoid schizophrenia.
What follows in the next sixty pages or so is entirely the authors words. The first page, ‘About the Author’ is clearly the wording of Anonymous.

Paranoid Schizophrenia could afflict anyone. Could be anyone. A disease that happened in her late 20’s, due to certain life choices. Recreational drugs. Relationship deaths and self-destruction.

There are many famous accounts of mental illness, ‘real-life’ struggles; William Styron is famous for accounting it. This thin book points to a more rounded idea though; the use of art when the person involved is not an artist. The struggle to grapple real life, to depict the real is on the problems with narrative; how real and truthful is this account? With By The Light…, you feel it as truthful as it’s ever going to get.
The choice to remain anonymous is justified by the fact that ‘growing up is hard enough these days without having a paranoid schizophrenic for a mum’. Indeed the stigma of mental health is still so prevalent. No matter how benevolent a title may be of having a mental illness is, it remains a stigma. The prevalent discourse seems to be that physical illnesses you cannot help, or at least anything that you are seen to be helpless with are given a fair ride. Everything in this society is predicated by a choice though; if you ‘choose’ to be obese, to lead that consumptive lifestyle you’re damned with what you get from it. And that, I still believe, is the case with mental health; if you choose to be unhappy, if you choose to take drugs, you deserve what happens. That is our society – the illusion of choice.

By The Light…instead brings into light those ‘other’ things that we should look at, in the environment. For a start there is a Anon’s abusive partners (which ironically she refers to one as ‘Crow’, evocative of Ted Hughes poetry collection after the death of Plath) which our mainstream media, so damning of the single mother, would again, suggest it is down to her choice of partners.

“Crow came to see his son for a week…One visit he brought drugs which I freely smoked and suddenly all the old fears came flooding back, leading to a frightful night when Babe was 9 months old, when I slipped into a psychosis. I was unaware of becoming aware.”

There is one of the true moments when Anon, clearly not a writer, writing this account with purpose of getting a truth out there, slips in those moments of poetry, that we are all capable of – ‘unaware of becoming aware’. It speaks on so many levels, and reaches out to a capability that we all have, to invoke poetry at desperate moments in life.

I’ve just finished reading George Saunder’s Tenth of December. Saunders critically acclaimed stories,of which Foster-Wallace is aSilver Moon p42rguably a precursor, are battling with this idea of coming out of the postmodern age. They have a distinctive style, and like Foster-Wallace was, they’re trying to get to grips, to a truth of an age that does not like dealing with truth. Saunder’s style, no matter how valiantly can only mimic; accounts like By The Light…in their imperfect style, regardless of the amount of clichés they use can be said to be closer to that truth. Cliché here speaks truth. In a novel, a piece of fiction, it speaks of a failing, that people like Martin Amis would not allow us to use. If on a graph, it could be depicted as truth on the x axis, and imitation on the y axis. The more imitation the lesser the truth. It comes down to what our artists are rendering and as Smith said of Wallace’s stories, they are accentuations of banal platitudes that are postmodern age will not allow us to observe, they will not permit us any sentimentalism.

Now it could be perceived that i’m piggy-backing Anon’s account on the back of these big names. Far from it. This is nowhere near them obviously, because it is not even an attempt at that. This isn’t a review of a novel, because it’s not a novel, and it’s something that does not render reviewing, because for the first time I find myself touching on a truth. Instead Anon’s account sheds light on mental illness over art, what can be brutal, horrific and demonising. As you go through it however with the interstitial pictures of art that Anon has produced, one comes near the end, amidst the other messy, complicated acrylics; a set of swirly blues and whites, simple and fresh. And it is here comes the realisation, or the epiphany if we’re talking in novelistic terms; instead of art torturing us, art ultimately saves us, and has saved Anonymous here, and as we hope will save many other Anonymous’ in the process. Art rescues us, and the artist just wants to rescue others.

                                                                               *

Inkwell Arts is perhaps the embodiment of this. Here at Inkwell, positive mental health is promoted through the use of artistic creativity. This is not art therapy. Instead Inkwell offers a place to explore your mental health (and let’s not get carried away with the idea that ‘mental health’ denotes a negative term, it’s an all encompassing one). Inkwell shows how through the arguably individual nature of art, that it allows people to connect through its community. It is a place to explore your mental health and those of others, in a place that devolves any barriers that society would normally have us upholding. Art allows you to connect with yourself and others.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” – Howards End – E.M Forster.

By The Light Of The Silvery Moon – Inside A Schizophrenic Mind (55pp.) is published by Austin MacAuley Publishers and is out now (£6.99)

Inkwell Arts is based in Chapel Allerton, Leeds, and is part of the Charity Leeds Mind. This post was also featured on Inkwell’s website and you can visit their website at http://www.inkwellarts.org.uk

Review: The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

The literary cinema of Peirene rumbles on with The Dead Lake, part of it’s new 2014 series ‘Coming of Age: Towards Identity’. The first in the series, The Dead Lake  begins in a way that rings bells with the a growing trend in modern cinema; the based on a true story epitaph. Postmodern cinematic trends aside, the movies rely on these epitaphs in ways that the novel does not because we are expecting to be suspended in fictional reality with a novel. The movie increasingly needs to add credibility to it’s tired Hollywood vehicle. However two non-fictions here are the brief paragraph at the beginning that details the history of Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site; 468 nuclear explosions were carried out there, and that Kyrgyzstan born Hamid Ismailov is exiled from Uzbekistan. As you continue to read, another pertinent truth of sorts emerges.

They add another arc to this self-conscious, fable-esque novella (exquisitely translated by Andrew Bromfeld) that is as much a story as it is a mediation on the art ofnarrative and story-telling. An immediate referential opening sets this in motion with the opening line; ‘The story began in the most prosaic fashion possible.’ Once upon a time there was a story, another story in the world of stories. Our principle, first-person narrator is on a train journey. Into his fourth day on the train a ‘ten or twelve year old boy’ appears in the carriage playing Brahms on his violin. Speaking to him it transpires that the boy is a twenty-seven year old man who sets out to tell his story.

Yerzhan was born in a barren outlet on the East Kazakhstan Railway line that consists of two families; Yerzhan’s and his childhood love Aisulu’s family. Nobody seems to know how Yerzhan was conceived – nobody knows his father, no-one perhaps ‘except God’, which summons Granny Sholpan to invent stories about his arrival. but he was found in ‘The Zone’, which is also where Uncle Shaken works carrying out nuclear tests. Intermittent booms, which are test bombs (on most occassions) persist through the story, like all the other noises that awaken Yerzhan, like the ear for the violin he has that awakens the narrator to him. He associates a gadfly ‘that became the droning word: Zone…And the word began buzzing around in the child’s imagination’. The fly gets stuck in Yerzan’s dreams, and with it so does his fear of the Zone. The transfer of language to noise to crystallized experience.

One day Yerzhan is finally taken to the zone that torments his childhood, “and the gullies and ravines brought them to the zone that had tormented Yerzhan’s boyish curiosity like a gadfly for all these years”. This is Uncle Shaken’s workplace and the nuclear testing site is being used in case of an imminent war with America, where the point is constantly battered home by patriotic Shaken. This is the moment Yerzhan arrives in the zone “Has Aisulu seen this?” he asked Uncle Shaken fearfully. The man shook his head. ‘If we don’t simply catch up with the americans and then overtake them,’ he added in his usual manner, ‘the whole world will look like this’. The prophetic visions of war resemble the earth’s terminus, but Shaken, is unshaken in his duty to serve the government by working at the site.

One blast, distinctly more powerful than the others interrupts school lessons that Yerzhan and Aisulu are in. As a result, their class is taken on a school trip to where Shaken works and they are explained about Nuclear testing site. Finally toward the evening they are shown, what the novella lends it’s title to, the dead lake; a crater as a result of a bomb filled with unhealthy, unnatural water. In a daring moment of bravado by Yerzhan, which it is difficult to surmise why he does it, he takes off his shirt and walks into the lake. It isn’t just dead in appearance, but it is dead in the sense that it kills any kind of growth in Yerzhan (there is a vicious irony when Yerzhan is taken to a doctor and told that the growth zones in his body are dead) and why the narrator knows Yerzhan as the dwarfed talented violin player.

This pivotal moment is also where Ismailov’s writing is showcased. It is in these moments that the complex political nature of the test site is laid out for the school children in it’s basic terms, and the ‘chain reaction’ of the events that would set in motion a world war, and where they are expected to abide by it.The children are shown a video about nuclear war, but how Yerzhan cannot understand the greater meaning of the demonstration , ”They were shown a film about the peaceful use of nuclear power. Some of the children had never watched a film before and the rustling of the sound and the quick scene changes frightened them and they cried”. Brilliant writing of the highest quality: The blend of irony with an overwhelming, belated sadness.

The implications of Yerzhan’s stumped growth as he watches other children and Aisulu grow up quite literally as Yerzhan does not, retaining the consciousness of an older person but not fulfilling it in height. It’s a question that not only Yerzhan deals with, but is enveloped in the greater one that the likes of Uncle Shaken are trying to answer and justify in their pursuit of America. It is one that has particular resonance at the moment, and one that Ismailov has commented on, with the Winter Olympics in Russia. If the financial crash has taught us anything it has taught us nothing. Instead it has strengthened leaders egotism on the world stage. They are more willing to show that cost does not effect their treasuries, and at the same time more than willing to gloss over the clear fact, denies those who really need the money. The Winter Olympics has cost Russia £30 billion. How much of this will go to the workers, migrants and Russians building these in hideous labour conditions for a paltry sum? Not as much as is likely to go to the corporate companies, and sponsors on all levels of the corruption spectrum. Let us not forget the scandal over LGBT persons rights in Russia in the sense that they don’t have any. Talks of boycotting by other nations are quickly quelled as they go on the pursuit to, once again, strengthen their countries credentials by the pursuit gold medals. They’re all playing the same games on a sporting but also political level. Great Britain for one has an embarrassing presence at Winter games, yet still feel the need to go and compete for the three medals it is aiming for, when a boycott may just show it’s regard, for once, it’s recognition of human value over the egotistical assumption of sporting and national glory. Could we not go 4 year’s without 3 gold medals? We’re all caught up in these games of ideology whether we like it or not as citizens. As is most often in these cases, and as Ismailov openly admits, it is not the elites who pay the price, it is those at the bottom, like in the case of Yerzhan. He is the chain reaction as he admits at one point.  Interchange any world leader saying ‘One day we will take over America’ for Uncle Shaken. And this is not just something that happens to those behind the old iron curtain. This is something all our countries are responsible for, but sport is a great source of monetary capital, a great big advertising vehicle. This is not just something refined to the old iron curtain as the west would have us believe.Britain shoddily treated it’s security staff expecting voluntary work, then giving the best seats to corporate sponsors who failed to show up on most occasions, and Britain has an unrelenting belief in itself as a powerful nation. And look at the continuing scandal of IDS: Iain Duncan-Smith.

Towards the end, Ismailov finds time to ask metafictional questions in a more blatant manner, as the first person narrators intrusion becomes problematic. There are stories within stories in here, but they all seem to emanate when characters get bored, like the narrator on the long train journey. And to return to that opening, ‘the story began in the most prosaic fashion possible’; is that not just the modern day debunking of ‘Once upon a time’? It’s the stories that we tell ourselves of our own existence but also the stories that nations tell themselves, and we’re all expected to go with it and be patriotic citizens. The overwhelming point Ismailov seems to be getting across then is to deconstruct these stories, the ‘beautiful lies’ as Althusser might call it, and uncover real truth’s behind narratives. This is why writers like Ismailov are exiled from nations, because the governments cannot bear these truths being exposed.  Ismailov’s writing draws parallels with that other famous exile, Salman Rushdie.

In this fable of sorts, the moral if we are to assume one is clear: the cost of human life is so often less regarded than the cost of pursuing and building our nations. But if Ismailov is demonstrating to us the strength of storytelling, he has done it an almost implausible manner; maybe a lot of it is down to the timing of this review, but the overriding moral of it is timeless.

All this in the novella. But this is not a championing, or surpassing of one form over the other, it is rather just the brilliant and powerful art of fiction In whatever length or form and it’s ability to illuminate truth’s like no other medium can. These really are beautiful lies.

If you’re wanting justification for novels, stories and writers in the modern day technological, capitalist world, here is one of them.

The Dead Lake (122pp) by Hamid Ismailov, translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield is published by Peirene Press (£12.00 rrp) and is released on the 27th February 2014.  Hamid Ismailov is also the BBC’s Writer in Residence and works for the World Service.

Thank you to Peirene Press for providing a review copy.