The Last Outpost 

Watching Olivier Assayas’ (2014) The Clouds of Sils Maria the day after Carrie Fisher died, it seemed to throw a poignant coincidence and reminder that only the world of the screen can offer. It almost felt as if I had meant to leave watching this film, not going to watch it in the cinema even though I had wanted to, and knowing that it was on a streaming service, and delaying watching it until now, just like I had with all of the Star Wars films. But the coincidence wasn’t because Assayas’ film was about an ageing actress worrying about her standing in the world and cinema, instead, it was the odd way that it made me think about Carrie Fisher when I had no connection with the films that made Fisher famous – Star Wars. Yet here I was thinking about her and what her death possibly meant.

2016 was a year that seemed replete with deaths of global stars. Rickman, Prince, Bowie to name a few, names synonymous with fans around the world, and now, Princess Leia had joined them. Social media is flooded with outpourings of adoration at times like this, and these are people who have inevitably figured in the lives of millions, immortalised in their roles and their personas. They, unlike the rest of us, have the opportunity to live on, through their art and performance, but it as at these moments of passing that we realise these people who we invest our time and attention to via watching or listening to , are only made of the same stuff as we are. Perhaps then this is why we’re fascinated with celebrity deaths. At first it strikes in us the crippling fear that these people are not just fantasy, they are ‘real people’. It’s as if one moment these events allow us actually to consider for a moment that death happens to us all, but at the same time we’re still participating in the unreality of the media and still rejecting the truth of the matter by participating: namely, that we all die.

Clouds of Sils Maria didn’t particularly ‘tell’ me anything about this, but it was strangely correlating with the world now, both mine and globally. It stars Juliette Binoche as Maria, an actress who has been asked to play a role in a stageplay that she has already been in before. This time however, she has been asked to play the role of the older person rather than the younger one she previously played. She stars opposite Kristen Stewart (Val) who acts as her PR manager, and has a remarkable ability to deftly balance all the screens that mediate Maria’s life; text, phone, email, voice-call, video call, Val is the person who connects Maria with the world. In the opening scene on a train, Maria is seen reading a newspaper which seems a representation of Maria’s way of being informed about the world, archaic compared to Val’s wizardry with the screens.

Maria initially though is on the way to give a speech about Wilhelm Melchior, the reclusive writer of the play, and has yet to be asked to play the older role. Melchior dies and it is after the speech she is approached. The young role has instead  gone to Jo-Ann  (Chloe Grace Moretz) a brattish child-star who has appeared in a major Hollywood franchise. Maria sets to find out about her new co-star watching videos via the internet of her pugnacious interviews with the press. Val and her then watch Jo-Ann in the franchise film and Maria (quite predictably) derides it whilst, Val sees its qualities (when they actually meet her, she is extremely polite).

While the film may appear to be oozing self-referentiality, the fact that Melchior dies, I think propels it beyond that. Now, this is more than the, as Hamlet says, ‘the play where-in we’ll catch the conscious of the king’. We see Maria and Val rehearse for the play in Melchior’s home which look like lucid moments between acting and rehearsal and for a moment you’re wondering if they are rehearsing for the play or actually acting as the characters Assayas assigned them as in his film. Val says to Maria ‘an interpretation of life can be truer than life itself’; indeed it can and often is, but that ‘truer than itself’, is an exaggeration, and exists within a realm, out of time with reality, like all fiction is. The realist paintings of the 19th century, were depicting real life, but that reality was only realer than life itself.

Image result for the clouds of sils maria couch

In recent years there has been a trend or an emergence of fictions that have protagonists that are paired, or are reflected off another character. Elena Ferrante is perhaps the most prescient example as the first book of her Neopolitan Series My Brilliant Friend (2014) is exactly that; a young girl reflecting on a relationship she feels inadequate in, in which she reflects on her friend’s brilliance, yet she is the writer of (and there is a brilliant irony where she remarks of her friend that she is a better writer than she is, despite her ‘writing’ the novel). These ‘other’ characters seem to act as a reflection, a mirror, not quite fantasy but certainly represent what the other wishes they could be. There is a wry, but poignant moment when Maria sits above Val, as Val lays back on a couch. It almost looks like Maria trying to analyse herself through Val, explore, project, retain her youth in Val. This is the persistent irony, the younger knows more about the world than she does, and so when they go on a walk together Val, tells her to ‘follow her lead’. Val has the map, but does Maria have the territory? It would appear not, as they have a disagreement (one of many) and Val ambiguously disappears. Does she return? Or has Maria finally let go? Is this for her benefit? 

As we know, it was Val who has control of the screens for Maria– cinema is not the only screen any more – you are no longer the centre of attention in the world of cinema. Assayas’ naturally promulgates the cinematic one but he doesn’t seem to be proclaiming this to be the death of cinema. Notice the frequent fade to blacks which seem indicative of the fact that demise and disappearance, of ourselves and others, is imminent and inevitable and it is no longer dramatic. It is akin to your smartphone, switched off many times throughout the day. Instead Assayas’ film seems to be trying to teach us, in the most unpreachable way that there are actually things bigger than the screen, even the cinematic one: there is more to life than it. Maria is only learning what her younger films stars will have to learn, what we all will have to learn.

The screen promises immortality and immediacy; we can all feel touched by those stars, like they have all entered our lives and have been with us at particular moments in time. David Thomson, in what can be described as a sort-of biography of cinema in his book, The Big Screen (2012) says at times everybody felt that they had or could have spent a night with Marilyn Monroe. I think to The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955); all males who watch a film could be Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) and spend a weekend with Monroe who is only given the title of ‘The Girl’ as if to emphasise the fact. Sherman can scarcely believe it either.

Image result for tom ewell the seven year itch

Zadie Smith’s novel  Swing Time (2016) follows a similar to model to Ferrante about a girl who bedazzled by her friend’s brilliant talents ironically ends up working for her childhood pop-star idol. Here is Smith talking about the narrator’s moment she begins to work for Aimee:
“I was still a child when my path first crossed with Aimee’s – but how can I call it fate? Everybody’s path crossed with hers at the same moment, as soon as she emerged she was uncontained by space and time, with not one path to cross but all paths…”
What is living contact any more? The narrator seems more believing of the fact that she is working with a worldwide pop star than she ever does to be friend’s with Tracey. But the screen can never truly tell us how to connect; no matter how much a film tries to depict a non-fantastical, ‘realistic’ relationship, it will never be real. It is as Val says, truer than life itself. 

And so, here I was, back thinking about Carrie Fisher, made famous in a set of films that I have no real concern for: i haven’t even seen all of them. Certainly it speaks about the intrusiveness of the spectacle but I was giving it the consideration that it spoke about something much greater than that. In her last few months, Fisher had released some memoirs and spoken about her affair with Harrison Ford during the making of Star Wars. It was there for us all to see. All along Fisher along with Ford had been trying to tell us that there were things greater than the world inhabited by celebrity and the media, they had been trying to step outside of the screen. It was in that moment when Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back looks to be going to his death, and Princess Leia tells her that she loves him. The next line is apparently ad-libbed by Ford. What does Ford say? Maybe it wasn’t ad-libbed depending what side of the screen you’re on.

Perhaps my New Year’s resolution should be a simple one: watch all those Star Wars films.

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Oleg Zaionchkovsky – Happiness is Possible

Happiness is Possible
by
Oleg Zaionchkovsky (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
And Other Stories: £10.00rrp.: 303pp.

 

We live in a society now where we are expected to give our lives meaning. We never truly step out of work, and we’re led to believe that we can be ‘happy at work’ or that work can be a meaningful endeavour. This no longer feels like a choice, and as Boris Groys notes in In the Flow (2016) “In earlier times, recreation meant passive contemplation. But today’s society is unlike that spectacular society. In their free time, people work – they travel, play sports, and exercise. They don’t read books; they write for Facebook, Twitter and other social media.” It is what I am doing here is it not writing this post? But the ways we make meaning or understanding meaning in our lives has changed. Happiness is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky is about a narrator constantly struggling with the difference between his work and his writing and ultimately how he finds meaning.

The nameless narrator is a writer and the impetus, drive, or energy for his novel, appears to have deserted him. Indeed, he even appears to have been deserted by those he love. He has no inspiration for characters and only his dog remains. We watch him visit parts of Moscow, pick up on threads of conversations and glimpses of lives to try and turn them into stories and narratives, but as A.D. Miller writes in the introduction to the book “the urge to find and keep a place to live in Moscow dictates where and how people choose to work”. There it is: work. We are watching a novelist at work. What is the work that leads to meaning and what is its worth?

He is given an assignment to write about a restaurant. He goes with his ex-wife and his new partner (of course these are the ‘characters of the novel he is not-writing-but-is-writing), who is an important figure in his life as he lends him money to keep him afloat: ““when my indebtedness exceeds my creditworthiness Dmitry Pavlovich doesn’t write it off, he restructures it.” Surely it is the writers job to write it off?

But at the restaurant we, as the reader, see the narrator’s personal reflections and realise how difficult a task this is going to be for him

“What an array of dishes we sampled at his insistence – I can’t recall them all now!”, which is slightly worrying for a writer.

Can he not make it up? Dmitry, noticing his struggle says to him,

“Ah what a Joe Blow you are,” Dmitry Pavlovich put in unexpectedly. “Write something beautiful about all this…about the way destinies are defined. The establishment gets a boost for its image and you, you fool, get paid a fee. There’s a balance for you.”

People know more about the act of writing than the writer himself. The writer who is now at the behest of other forces than his own creations, or than any power of personal inspiration. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) was one of the finest and recent novels to challenge this idea of creation and meaning in our postmodern age, and particularly the financial forces that Groys suggested above, are caught up in this messy conception of work. The work of the novel and the work of labor are the same thing to Zaionchonsky’s narrator in this postmodern world. Its progenitor is somebody like McCarthy’s narrator, even though  unlike McCarthy’s character he doesn’t have any money, the pressure is still the same, rich or poor: one must find meaning.

That image of a writer in his flat that we see often in Happiness… was reminiscent of Camus’ The Outsider (1942). Although Camus’ novel is not about a writer, it does seem to ask, what is an outsider but a person struggling to find meaning? Camus’ outsider is a man who is struggling to find feeling, meaning, in the death of a loved one: and why? Because he has to? There is a chapter in which Meursault, after seeing his dead mother, retreats to his flat, where he idly sits looking out of his window, observing the world below him. Like Meursault, the narrator of the Happiness… is often ‘boxed in’. Even when he is not in his flat, he carries this image of him being disconnected, of him trying to reach, connect and configure with the outside world. Instead, moments and events stream or filter through his vision and perception, and not in a stream-of-consciousness manner, but as phenomena, gone before he can comprehend it. At the opening he is saying how his air vent functions like an ‘old wired-in Soviet radio speaker'(that important mention of history as well), and he hears other people’s arguments filter into his flat.

“I don’t know their names, I don’t know what they look like but I think about them a lot. When my own text – the one that’s my vocation , the one I’m paid money for – when that text betrays me, then my weary thought mingles with my cigarette smoke and streams out through the air vent.”

Is it the death of the author? A couple of pages later he says “I am mute: my own soap opera has been a silent one since my wife left me.” The author might not be dead, but he is rendered mute. The sole, individual creator seems archaic in this society. This would hint toward Russia’s history of suppressing and incarcerating writers in one or way or another, but this sense of the individual being able, at least, to turn something into a personal, reflective experience is gone. McCarthy’s narrator in Remainder did wield a dictatorial power, but it seemed only meaningful in his life, in a purely solipsistic sense. It is inherently paradoxical, and like Meursault, no matter how much the narrator tries to enter the world, he takes the box with him. He needs others, but others don’t need him. Perhaps this then is The Insider?

Maybe it becomes more about feeling. It stretched beyond tired postmodern debates for me. Where Meursault was given the one, weighty event, in the form of his mother’s death, the world in which Happiness… is, there is a fecundity of meaning, or least potential for creation like in Remainder. Of course the reputability of these creations is the question. The political and ideological criticism is obvious, and in the ways that Groys talks above and in his book, it is how this work is turned into something of artistic value. When the narrator of Happiness…is at the restaurant and cannot find anything to say about the food, is it because he has nothing to say or because he doesn’t want to say anything (the juvenile use of the exclamation mark would suggest the latter to me)? He is under pressure to find something meaningful, something real out of his experience. As McCarthy demonstrates though, no amount, or lack of money can help re-create the real.

Image result for rogier van der weyden the descent of the cross

From Rogier van der Weyden’s (c.1435) The Descent from the Cross

Happiness…is ultimately about art in such an unpretentious way, in a way that would initially be seen as pretentious (self-referential narrator) that you can miss how profound this book is at times. It is primarily concerned with the gaze; that of the gaze outward by the artist and the gaze returned to the artist. Here is Groys again as he talks about the development of art and its practice:

“the division between artists and spectators seemed to be clear cut and firmly established socially: spectators were subjects of an aesthetic attitude, and works produced by artists were objects of aesthetic contemplation. But from the beginning of the twentieth century this simple dichotomy began to collapse” (Groys’ work is timely for this work as he references Soviet art frequently. But his discussions of the art and the avant-garde now in the age of the internet means its a book you should consider visiting if I haven’t persuaded you enough yet).

And what has it collapsed into? As I sit here writing this blog there is perhaps a clue there. The quest you follow in Happiness…is how this narrator can turn himself and his art into something that is worth the gaze of others, and is worthy of spectators. This is of course what all novels are, but you’re in the process and the pursuit, you the reader become the voyeur of the voyeur in Happiness…. For this reason it reminded me of Ben Lerner’s (2012) Leaving the Atocha Station. The similarities are not just startling with each other but with their precursors, as we’ve mentioned here, like Remainder and the The Outsider, as well as one another. For a start Lerner’s and Zaionchkovsky’s work were both published in 2012 and feature nameless narrators. Happiness…unlike Lerner’s work, is not by a debut novelist (yet only Zaionchkovsky’s second), but they are both narrators who have been given a capital to produce something (in Lerner’s; a thesis on the poet John Ashbery). And then, when you open the pages you get both narrators in their apartments, in a cosmopolitan city with the noises filtering, meaning to go out and have an artistic experience. Lerner’s endeavour appears much more of a crisis though; his narrator looks upon somebody else having a meaningful experience of art in a gallery looking at Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. I urge you to visit or re-visit that opening, but after looking at this person, Lerner’s narrator verges on panic and says, “I had long worried that I as incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew.”

The narrator, whether he knows it or not has received something from his experience, but not from the art. He has ‘discovered’ something, and all that might be, is a lack of an ability to have a profound experience by looking at somebody else. The Other has gotten in the way. The narrator in Happiness…tries to use others to develop his novel by recreating their stories, but it must ultimately come from one-self.

Happiness…is a self-conscious novel; the anxiety doesn’t seem as palpable as something like Leaving the Atocha Station but there is an acute awareness of the self and its lacking – the art is not making him whole. Ultimately, Happiness…like the other novels of its time, is about how do I create meaning from myself? How do I strip the societal, capital investments and pressures to produce something from myself? A question posed but not necessarily created by Woolf: how do I find a room of one’s own?

There is a lesson to be taken from Old Salamano in Camus’ work when his dog escapes. But when does it escape? When the old man is distracted by watching the stalls at the fair, and a performance of “The Escape King”. So, the thing that you are watching could in fact be the thing that is happening to you without you knowing it. In Lerner’s and Zaionchkovsky’s work, we have become the spectator of the dog disappearing, watching the watcher, but the gaze now may also be upon you. Art is not something that renders you entirely unconscious like it did to Old Salamano; art is more than a distraction, it requires somebody to pay attention to your attention.

And so with that in mind I’ll leave you with this passage from Zaionchkovsky’s novel.

“It seems to me that the image of Moscow only exists in the minds of the provincials. It’s the same with a whale for example: look at it from the outside and you see a certain image, but when it swallows you and you end up in its belly, the image disappears.”

Readers of Smith’s essay will have an advantage at seeing the strong claim in Zaionchkovsky’s novel to settle in with some of notable works of recent times, even if, as the narrator continually worries that he is a mute in his own soliloquy, even if he worries, as Prospero foretold, of being but a spirit and melting into thin air.

Orient, Christopher Bollen – A Review.

As we drive out of the city and into the suburban village of Orient, it might be that cool, clinical score that Thomas Newman provided for American Beauty (1999) that provides a soundtrack for the opening of Orient. Mills Chevern, a nineteen year old foster ‘child’, is arriving into Orient village on Long Island ‘mostly innocent’. Whatever your standing on prologues, a 10 page first-person prologue is the only time Mills gives his own account of what precedes in the next 590 pages. Mills is an outsider, outlier, a suspect before he is suspected as he asks in the prologue “what seems lost, In he growing storm of blame, is how I got there in the first place.” In a post, a couple of weeks ago, a precedent of this review in a way, I asked what is happening to the now not-so-comfortable lives of the suburban middle classes. There seems to be a return to a post-war kind of realism. We know who they are, but we don’t know what they mean in this post-recessional, post-postmodern age.

Mill is adopted by Paul Benchley, a long-time bachelor and resident of Orient. You wonder if anybody can be technically fostered at the age of nineteen, which the Orient community greets with a whispering frenzy on the day of Pam Muldoon’s garden party. The Muldoons are established Orientites, and In our close-knit villages we all know these locals who seem to hold a powerful nexus in their communities.

Not long after Mills’ arrival, deaths happen. It’s a foreboding atmosphere for Mills and the reader, and he is immediately one of the suspects. Who’s America is this? There are certainly elements of realism, where early modern Fitzgerald meets hypermodern Franzen. If, at the end of Franzen’s prologue to Freedom (2010), as the neighbours watch the dissolution of the afflicted Berglunds, “they just don’t know how to live yet,” Orient’s answer would be a much more cynical one than Freedom eventually offers. Like Freedom it is a long book, and although Orient has been eschewed by some as a thriller, there are a steady succession of ‘gripping’ events, but it would be unfair to linchpin it as a thriller. Instead Bollen builds up the drama at a sustained rate, increasing the suspicion and intensity. Mills is already in too deep in a world that is not made for him; the family world, the constant of Orient that is family, and as Mills is drawn into it, it’s apparent that he is bringing the unsettling storm with him from the city. There is a threat underlying the gleaming facade of American family life, and they’re desperately trying to eradicate it before they get eradicated. Away from the thrilling aspect, this is the real subject of Orient – ­ family.

Bollen uses Paul Virilio’s quote “The invention of a ship is also the invention of the shipwreck” as an epigraph. I’ve not read many books where the epigraph seems to frame the book so aptly, and the ensuing chaos that follows as Orient begins to fall apart. Orientation is ironically central to Orient; maps, geography and the conflict within it. Where does the conflict come from? Typically, everything points toward the nineteen year old orphan, and all his differences to the rigid straitlaced Orientites. At first, and echoing those films of the late nineties, there are homoerotic undercurrents, as Mills makes an advance on the Muldoon’s son Tommy. In the way that American Beauty did, it becomes something like the fantasy of the other that these rigid structures do not allow, the object of blame, and Mills is that. He is not just the hatred and the phobia, he is also the desire and the wonder of the other. “Tommy had taken him for some kind of street hustler, with his earring and his city background, and his trip out here under the charitable wing of an upstanding neighbour like Paul Benchley.” But then there is the disappointment, that these people we so firmly believe are different, are the reasons for our downfalls, are more similar than different, regardless of skin colour, background, affluence. It’s as if hate is the stock response. Mills is the provocateur without being provocative, a catalyst against everything that Orient is trying to preserve – “He felt suffocated by the mother in front of him and embarrassed by Paul’s display of protection,” as he himself is uncomfortable in this stable environment, one of the few times Bollen lets us inside Mills’ head.

Western liberalism seems to have a tag-line: how could this ever happen to us,and that’s what the murders on Orient do. As Bollen continues to dismantle Orient and many western myths as they search for the reason why (artists, terrorists, gays are all part of the blame), it is not the enemy within, but the enemy we create ourselves to cover up own fallacies. No matter what the derivation of the word ‘homicide’ is, it certainly sounds like it features the word ‘home’. As our western nations continue their wars of imperalisation, this seeps down into the psyche as the problem abroad covers up the one at home. As Tommy observes, America must be a superpower if, even when it loses its wars, it still remains a superpower.

Bollen asks Virilio-esque questions from his characters, “When do the defense measures of a paranoid country become their own agents of self-destruction?” The answer to that question would be that it seems to be happening. Beth, a one-time artist, and some-time mother strikes up a kinship with Mills as they investigate the murders, is married to a Romanian-emigre artist. By looking online, she diagnoses herself with Neurasthenia:
“At the bottom of the entry, a donning footnote: Americans were said to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, which resulted in the nickname Americanitis.” We self-diagnose ourselves with our own problems – we are creating the diseases we are trying to battle, like poverty and terorism. Beth is pregnant at the start of the novel, and is still pregnant at the end of it. Bollen seems slightly cynical of motherhood, but it is as if Beth is trying to delay the gestation and the arrival of a child into this world.

For all our beliefs in technology, how it is enhancing the world, for all our myths of connectedness that it brings, globalisation is the creator and the antithesis of it all, despite what its name implies. Beth is overriden by her motherly and creative instincts to Mills, how she wants to connect in a natural way but can’t,

One was to mother him, to buy him lunch or simply press her palms to his forehead. The other was to paint him…It had been so long since she had felt this way – inspired. She sped east on Main Road, racing toward the tip, afraid at any minute that she’d lose the sensation, this happiness for the company of a stranger who reminded her why she’d once enjoyed painting strangers in the first place. To love them, to – that horrible technological term now ruined for all time – connect (Bollen’s italics).

Only connect, which was of course central to Forster’s (1910) novel about the contrasting lives of social classes, it is ratcheted up from Howards End  and the homage to it by Zadie Smith (On Beauty, 2008). There is the sense of the new and the old in Orient, the conflicts of the city and its outskirts, art and the technological, and ironically in Bollen’s style, the conflict of the literary and the genre. His multi-layered narratives are as if to try and make these characters ‘live in fragments no longer’.

If the invention of the ship also means the invention of the shipwreck it also means the invention of a lot of similes and metaphors for Bollen to use. His prose really is enviable at times with a skill both for the polemical and the poetical: take this from the prologue “Each window was flooded with the reflection of water,” – superb. Yes, Orient is surrounded by water, and although geography is more important to Orient to any other book i’ve read this year, you can sometimes feel yourself drowning in the constant imagery of water and the elements that seem to occur on every other page. With this diverse cast of characters and subplots, you do sometimes feel that it is what is holding it together. But only rarely does the structure keep, and Bollen, to his own skill keeps it going.

This is a remarkable achievement though; an immensely satisfying experience by an immensely skilful writer. As there are elements of genre fiction, Bollen typically uses certain tropes of it, and maybe Bollen should be wary of not becoming a Joyce Carol Oates mash-up of the literary and the genre fictions, because he is an artist with potential for great successes. Many will not begrudge him though if he does.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since, said Nick Carraway, the eponymous narrator of The Great Gatsby (1925). How the residents of Orient need that old fashioned, parental advice now.

Orient (609 pp.) by Christopher Bollen is released in April 2015 (£16.99 rrp.). Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy