Sunday, February 28, 2016

Recent Movie Roundup 21, Part 2

In a few hours, this year's Oscars will be handed out, concluding a season that has been interesting more for the conversation surrounding the nominated movies than for the movies themselves.  Nevertheless, here are some more thoughts about nominated movies (plus a recent one) with my ranking of the best picture nominees at the end.
  • Room - A few years ago, when Emma Donoghue's novel was the topic of discussion everywhere, I found myself, on several occasions, just on the verge of picking up a copy, and then deciding not to.  What held me back was the reaction I had to every one of the novel's reviews, and their description of its premise, in which the experiences of a teenage kidnap victim are filtered through the point of view of her young son, who has spent his entire life in the room in which his mother was imprisoned by her abductor, which he believes to be the whole world, and who must rebuild his worldview when they are rescued.  I kept thinking: this sounds unbearably cute.  And that, unfortunately, was also my reaction to Lenny Abrahamson's adaptation of Donoghue's novel.  To be sure, Room is unflinching in its depiction of "Ma's" (Brie Larson) life as a years-long prisoner, stressing the meanness of her circumstances and the utterly selfish entitlement of her abductor.  And some scenes--chiefly the one in which young Jack (Jacob Tremblay) escapes and tries to get help--are unbearably tense.  But the focus of Room is still on Jack, and on his experiences learning the world, and it expresses those experiences in terms that I couldn't help but find twee, and not entirely believable.  Ma has taught Jack, for example, that the room is the whole world, so he doesn't use the definite article, but refers to "bed," "wardrobe," and "skylight" as if there were only one of each.  The film's segments are bookended by Jack's internal monologue, a cutesy explanation of his personal mythology and how it develops after his rescue, but to me this focus obscured the more interesting story, of Ma and her family's adjustment to life after her rescue.

    This is, obviously, to criticize Room for not being the movie I wanted it to be (and given how heavily the idiosyncrasies of how the book and the film tell this story have been publicized, I can't even claim that I didn't know what I was getting in for).  But the way in which the film prioritizes Jack's story over his mother's is more than just an unsatisfying (to me) narrative choice.  It expresses the film's preoccupations and worldview, in a way that I found increasingly frustrating and disturbing as the story draws on.  What Room is about, fundamentally, is parenthood, or rather motherhood, the way that parents shape their children in ways both good and bad, and the way in which they are, in turn, shaped by being parents.  For Ma (whose real name is Joy), becoming a mother is simultaneously a burden and her salvation.  It gives her confined, hopeless life a sense of purpose and focus (as she tells Jack, before he "came along" she was living in despair, "a zombie").  As we see in the early parts of the film, Joy has worked hard to make Jack's life as happy and as rich as possible.  She tells him that Room is the whole world so that he will never feel as confined and trapped as she does.  She invents activities and stories for him in order to develop his mind and body.  She fights with her captor to get him medicine and clothes, and uses her own body to protect Jack from his father's attentions.  But at the same time, motherhood is something that has been imposed on Joy in the worst possible way, and it means that she will never be able to fully move on from what was done to her.  There are moments when Larson looks at Tremblay, and her face suddenly twists with anger, that to me felt like the most honest, most important scenes in the movie.

    For the most part, however, Room doesn't address this tension, and when it does it's only to criticize Joy and put her down.  Throughout the film, I kept waiting for someone to tell Joy what an amazing mother she was, and how astounding it was that she had managed to give Jack such a normal life under such terrible circumstances, even though she was not much more than a child herself when she became a mother.  But instead, all she gets is criticism.  Seemingly everyone--her own mother, a reporter, even her captor--lines up to tell Joy that she's doing motherhood wrong, when really they should be marveling that she's willing to do it at all.  And the only person in the movie who isn't immediately accepting of Jack, Joy's father, does so in terms that are clearly designed to make him look villainous, and is quickly removed from the story.  There are, obviously, some very complex questions that are raised by Joy and Jack's connection, and I'm not trying to say that Room should have ended with her abandoning him.  But the movie doesn't even try to raise those questions, and instead takes it for granted that a happy ending for Joy is one in which she fully embraces her role as Jack's mother.  In the film's third act, Joy sinks into depression, and while it's understandable that Jack would feel betrayed and abandoned by this, the way in which the film validates his point of view seems to be pointing us towards the conclusion that Joy doesn't have the right to feel her own trauma--or worse, that the only way for her to heal is to embrace her role as a mother.  Near the end of the film, Joy laments that she is a terrible mother, to which Jack replies "but you're Ma."  I think the movie means for me to see this as hopeful--to think that Jack is a positive presence in Joy's life who can help her move forward from her experiences.  But to me it just felt like a continuation of the film's tragedy.  Like any child, Jack loves his mother not because she's a good mother, but because she's his.  So the only positive presence in Joy's life is also the one that traps her in a role that she never really had a choice in assuming.

  • Brooklyn - Coming as the follow-up to Room only did good things for this movie by John Crowley, which taken on its own is sweet but extremely small.  After the rather punishing experience of a movie in which everyone, good and evil, behaves as if the young heroine doesn't have the right to live for herself, it was a profound relief to come to Brooklyn and find a story about a young woman's pursuit of happiness, on her own terms, and even when the people around her tell her that she's being selfish to do so.  This is, perhaps, to make Brooklyn seem rather combative, when in fact it's an extremely, perhaps deceptively gentle film.  Saoirse Ronan (luminous, and to my mind a better choice for the best actress Oscar than Brie Larson because she has to carry so much more of her movie on her own, and manages to convey her character's emotions without a child to play opposite) plays Eilis, a young Irish woman in the early 50s who, lacking job prospects or any hope of a good future at home, emigrates on her own to the US.  Eilis's life in Brooklyn follows the familiar beats of an immigrant story--she's terribly homesick at first, then slowly finds her footing, makes friends, and even meets a young man (Emory Cohen)--and it's therefore easy to see Brooklyn as by the numbers, or even perfunctory.  But the real story here is Eilis's growth into womanhood and adulthood, her discovery of the kind of life she wants and of her ability to pursue it--even when her behavior can seem hurtful, such as when she returns to Ireland for a visit and strikes up a flirtation with another suitor (Domhnall Gleeson), concealing the fact that she's got someone waiting for her at home.  Even more interesting is the fact that the people who help (and sometimes hinder) Eilis on her path towards finding herself are almost all women--her landlady (a delightful Julie Walters), the girls at her boarding house, her boss at the department store where she works, her mother and sister, the local busybody at her home town.

    Brooklyn's script, by Nick Hornby, is sharp and extremely effective, but also a little on the nose.  This is particularly true when it comes to the rather simplistic contrast the film draws between Ireland and the US, which represent, respectively, a genteel conformity that Eilis eventually comes to see as restrictive and narrow-minded, and the land of freedom and opportunity.  (This reductiveness is responsible for the one bum note in the script, the event that finally jogs Eilis to decide where her home is and what kind of life she wants to have, which requires one of the characters to act in a way that, as even the script itself acknowledges, she has no real motivation for.)  But the film's rose-tinted perception of America also means that it makes an unexpectedly powerful statement.  Eilis's story--an immigrant seeking a better life in a foreign country, getting help and support from those who came before her, and establishing herself with a profession and a home--is the story of so many immigrants all over the world, and just as Irish people like Eilis came to America in the 50s and before, people from Syria and South America and everywhere else in the world are making that journey today.  One hopes that at least some of the people who were so charmed by Eilis's story will realize that there are countless young men and women like her living that story today, and feel a little more sympathetic towards them.

  • Hail, Caesar! - The trailers for the Coen brothers' latest movie make it look like one of their trifles, on the spectrum between Intolerable Cruelty and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a comedy full of exaggerated accents and implausible coincidences.  This isn't entirely inaccurate--the accents do pour forth like water, and the film is, indeed, more a comedy than anything else.  But Hail, Caesar! is also a great deal stranger than its promotional materials suggest, and it lacks the kind of structure that might make it a successful comedy.  The loose framing story follows 1950s Hollywood studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), as he puts out fires that include a starlet pregnant out of wedlock (Scarlett Johansson), a Western star who is having trouble adjusting to the transition to dramatic roles (Alden Ehrenreich), warring gossip journalists threatening to unearth dirt about his stars (Tilda Swinton in a double role), and the kidnapping for ransom of the star of his biggest movie (George Clooney).  The individual pieces are all impeccably made--Johansson is a lot of fun in the few scenes that reveal the hard-bitten reality beneath her Esther Williams-esque, bathing beauty facade, and Channing Tatum gets to show off his dance moves as a hoofer in a ridiculously cheesy musical scene--but most of the players appear for only a few scenes, and their stories fizzle out more often than resolve satisfyingly.

    Tying the movie together is Mannix's passion project, a dramatization of the life of Christ seen through the eyes of a Roman centurion (Clooney, delightfully cheesy in a recreation of 50s swords-and-sandals epics).  It very quickly becomes clear that in the movie's central metaphor, Mannix is a stand-in for this centurion, and that his doubts over whether his work has meaning--he is entertaining a job offer from Lockheed, whose executive promise him a chance to get away from the movies' triviality--are being treated as tantamount to the spiritual awakening experienced by the character.  Making movies, in other words, is likened to finding Jesus.  This is, to say the very least, quite odd (and all the more so because it makes Hail, Caesar! the Coens' most Christian--not to say Catholic--movie, which feels strange coming from creators whose previous work's religious undertone has tended to reflect their Jewishness).  It only gets stranger when one considers the kidnapping plot, in which Clooney's abductors turn out to be Communists scriptwriters who spend his incarceration educating him in Hollywood's role in perpetuating the Capitalist machine.  If nothing else, one has to wonder what the Coens are trying to say when they imagine a cell of Communist Hollywood scriptwriters--with direct connections to the USSR, no less--at the height of HUAC's activities, which are directly referenced when Clooney tries to extort a share of the ransom money by threatening to "name names."

    Wondering what the Coens are trying to say with Hail, Caesar! is, in fact, my overall reaction to the entire movie.  Whatever the trailers might suggest, this is not a screwball comedy about old Hollywood and the excesses of the studio system.  But neither is this a film that really seems to know what it's saying.  Near the end of the movie, when the recently-discovered actor playing Jesus in Clooney's movie is sneeringly asked whether he's to be treated as an extra or a featured player--while he hangs from the cross, no less--one simply has to throw up one's hands up in dismay.  The Coens are perfectly capable of making oblique movies that nevertheless have a lot of emotional heft (I'd argue that Fargo, one of their best movies, has some of that attribute), but Hail, Caesar! is ultimately a bum note in their varied filmography.

  • Son of Saul - Like a lot of Israelis my age, I spent my teenage years obsessed with the Holocaust, consuming fiction and non-fiction about it.  But at some point--probably not long after returning from the March of Life--I found myself feeling burned out on the subject.  These days I tend to avoid Holocaust fiction, not least because I've found the modern variations on it frustrating in the extreme--either misery porn, or, worse, sickeningly sentimental.  If it hadn't been for my project to actually give this year's Oscar nominees a serious look, I probably would have given László Nemes's Son of Saul a pass as well, which means that I finally have a reason to feel genuinely thankful to the Oscar voters, because Son of Saul is the closest I've ever seen a fictional depiction come to capturing K. Tzetnik's description of life in a Nazi death camp as "another planet."  A lot of this is down to the film's striking visual (and auditory) style, in which an old-fashioned square frame remains tightly fixed on the film's protagonist, Saul (Géza Röhrig), as he moves through the hellish environs of the camp's apparatus of death--the gas chambers, preparation rooms, and crematorium.  The camera's shallow focus means that everything around Saul and in the background is glimpsed only dimly, even as the sounds of atrocities are unnaturally amplified, conveying not only the chaos and confusion of of the camp, but Saul's own disturbed state of mind, his growing disconnect from the world, from humanity, and finally from life itself as he surrenders to the horror that he's witnessed and been made to participate in.

    Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners made to assist in the running of the gas chambers and crematorium.  In the film's harrowing opening scene, we see him help to corral a newly-arrived group of prisoners into the changing room and the "showers," then brace against the door of the gas chamber as their heart-rending screams emerge from behind it.  Later he and his fellow prisoners scrub the gas chamber clean, and transport the bodies to the crematorium.  The fact that the camera remains trained, for the most part, on Saul's face or back, focusing more on his reactions than on the depiction of horror, helps Son of Saul avoid the pitfall of reveling in that horror, but it--and Röhrig's performance--make it clear that his months in the Sonderkommando have scraped Saul's soul down to nothing.  When he spots the body of a young man among the victims of the most recent transport, and becomes convinced that the boy is his illegitimate son, it's very clear that this is merely an obsession.  Saul becomes determined to give the boy a proper, Jewish burial, stealing the body to keep it from the crematorium, and frantically searching for a rabbi to perform the funeral service.  Along the way he endangers and betrays the trust of several other prisoners, even those who go out of their way to help him, and puts at risk the plans of the other prisoners to smuggle out evidence of the atrocities happening in the camp, or launch an armed attack against the guards.  It soon becomes clear, however, that Saul's insanity is, in his insane situation, actually quite rational.  The other prisoners insist that he is betraying the living in order to honor the dead, but the film leads us to question whether their forms of rebellion are any more sane, and any more likely to accomplish something meaningful, than Saul's belief that he can give meaning to what his life has become by giving one child a proper burial.

    Most Holocaust movies tend to have a broad sweep, showing us the characters' lives before Nazism disrupted them, or the course their life took--whether to death or rescue--once in the camps.  Son of Saul is focused not only in its style but in its timeframe and storytelling.  We learn almost nothing about Saul, and it is in fact implied that he has lost all sense of connection to his previous life (for example, the other prisoners seem to imply that he never actually had a son, and Saul can't offer anything like a detailed counter-argument).  And he also has no hope for his future--there are rumors circling that his Sonderkommando unit is headed for the gas chambers soon--and at no point does the film suggest, as so many other Holocaust stories do, that escape and survival are something he could reasonably hope for.  To both himself and to us, Saul exists only in the moment, and in the hell of the death camp, and the only way for him to hold on to what's left of his humanity is to latch on to the futile, meaningless mission of burying his "son," just as the other prisoners have latched on to their rebellion or attempts to witness and document Nazi atrocities.  Son of Saul wisely avoids the trap of sentimentality--it never for a moment allows us to believe that Saul's mission is noble or meaningful, and indeed he never really manages to bury the boy as he wants.  The only triumph it offers him is a partial, sad, and brief one.  This, too, is essential to its being a worthy work of Holocaust fiction--as I grow older, I become more and more convinced that telling stories about the Holocaust through the lens of survival (for all that it's an understandable focus, since most Holocaust stories come to us from survivors) is inherently dishonest.  The Holocaust was an engine of death, its survivors statistical errors.  Son of Saul depicts that engine, and the small, partial, fundamentally insane instances of humanity that nevertheless managed to survive within it.
With six out of eight best picture nominees under my belt, I'm not very surprised to report that I'm still rooting for Mad Max: Fury Road to win the day (my complete ranking: Mad Max; Spotlight; Brooklyn; Room; The Martian; The Big Short).  None of the other films even approach George Miller's level of accomplishment, on either the storytelling or filmmaking levels, and I think it probably says all I need to say that I saw Mad Max nearly a year ago, and yet it lingers in my mind more than films I watched in the last month.  That said, if I could choose to give the best picture trophy to any movie, it would go to Son of Saul, and I'm honestly disappointed that it didn't make the general ballot instead of just the foreign picture one.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

About a year ago, in preparation for the BBC miniseries adaptation, I reread Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.  This was the first time I'd revisited Clarke's novel since I first read it about ten years ago, and what struck me in this rereading--aside, that is, from its reminder that this is a special, unusual, and exceptional novel--was how very political Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is.  It's not something that one hears discussed very often--partly because Jonathan Strange is so much its own thing that, in the absence of a tradition that springs from it, one doesn't find it discussed very much at all.  And partly, because Clarke's handling of her political subtext is, depending on how charitable you want to be, either halting and incomplete, or, in keeping with the rest of the novel, not an easy fit with any of the templates we use for how genre fiction can address issues like racism, misogyny, and colonialism.

Nevertheless, Jonathan Strange, in which two upper class English magicians try to use their abilities to advance their nation's interests during the Napoleonic Wars, is as political as they come.  As the magicians try to redefine magic as something fundamentally English--and thus a tool of England's imperial expansion--they fail to notice the toll it takes on women, people of color, and people of lower class, or indeed to acknowledge that such people have magical power of their own.  The novel's ending, in which one of its leads prophetically announces that "England is full of magicians," seems to presage a profound change in its world, alongside the return of magic and re-wilding of England, in which the existing social order is upended.  But Clarke has also been criticized for not giving enough space to characters who are not white, upper class men, even as she acknowledges that this absence is a flaw in her protagonists' worldview--there are no female or non-white magicians in the novel, and the one lower-class character who practices magic often feels as if his own story has been pushed aside by the two main characters'.

Zen Cho's debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown (following her exceptional short story collection Spirits Abroad, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons last year), feels like both an homage and a response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.  Its setting is virtually identical to Clarke's novel: England in the late 18th century, in a world in which the normal progression of history has coincided with the development of magical abilities.  The style, an arch pastiche of early 19th century fiction in the vein of Jane Austen, similarly recalls Clarke.  As in Jonathan Strange, the source of magic in this world is fairies--though Cho expands on Clarke's use of English folklore; in her world, the fairylands of different nations exist side by side on another plane of existence from ours, which allows her to incorporate magical creatures from the mythology of her native Malaysia, as well as familiar faces like Titania and Oberon.  The fading of magic is an important question in both novels, as well as an ending in which magic is reintroduced to England, with unpredictable results.  But Cho has quite deliberately and consciously cast as the protagonists of her story a black man (who is also a former slave), and a biracial woman, whose social status, right to use magic, and very Englishness are constantly called into question.

Zacharias Wythe is the titular Sorcerer to the Crown, a role he inherited from his adoptive father Sir Stephen Wythe, who purchased and freed him as a child after recognizing his magical talent.  Sir Stephen hoped that by nurturing Zacharias's considerable gifts, he might explode the belief that only white people are capable of practicing magic.  It is thus up to Zacharias to "prove" his race's abilities and right to participate in civil society, which naturally complicates his role as Sorcerer Royal, the man responsible for ensuring England's well-being on the magical plane.  The resentment and scheming against Zacharias by jealous and racist colleagues is only intensified by the fact that English magic is fading, and that the fairy court has refused to allow English magicians to engage the services of familiars, who give them access to greater power and abilities.  On his way to investigate the cause of the drop of magical "resource," Zacharias stops at a school for young witches, where he encounters Prunella Gentleman, the quasi-ward of the headmistress, someone who has been tolerated because of her general competence and agreeable nature, but whose mixed-race heritage means that her social status is always precarious.  When an incident at the school causes Prunella's benefactress to downgrade her to the role of servant, the outraged young woman decides to seek out her own fortune, and seizes on Zacharias as a means of getting to London and launching herself into polite society.

The scenes at the girls' school give Cho her first opportunity to use her fantastic premise to reflect and discuss real-world prejudices.  A school for magical young ladies (or "gentlewitches," as they are called here) is not, as we might imagine, devoted to helping them develop their magical talent, but rather to teaching them how to suppress it, because using magic is considered unladylike: "Mrs. Daubeney knew just what parents desired her to inculcate in their inconveniently magical daughters: pretty manners, a moderate measure of education and, above all, a habit of restraint."  The official dogma of the English magical establishment, in fact, holds that women are too weak to control and handle magic, but behind the scenes, magic is practiced by all genders, so long as they do it in the right way and for the right reasons.
Zacharias had seen too many hags in kitchens and nurseries, too many herbwomen and hedgewitches in villages around the country, not to know that women were perfectly capable of magic--at least, women of the laboring classes.  Among their betters it was genteel to turn a blind eye to such illicit activities.  One would not like one's own wife or daughter to indulge in witchcraft, but it did not serve to be overscrupulous when feminine magic could prove so convenient in one's servants.
In other words, Cho is using magic as a metaphor for work, and for the double standard that takes it for granted that working class women can do backbreaking, day-long labor, but upper class women are too delicate to handle the kind of work that their husbands and brothers do.  That the girls in Mrs. Daubeney's school frequently break out in displays of uncontrollable magic feels like a reference to every novel and movie about the overheated, hysterical atmosphere at such schools, where girls are sent to have their wildness trained out of them, only to feed on each other's repressed emotions and anxieties.

Paradoxically, it is Prunella's race, and the precarious position it imposes on her, that allows her to escape this trap.  Neither a young lady, nor a servant, nor a real daughter to Mrs. Daubeney, she has a certain kind of freedom to break the rules (as Zacharias later says of himself "There are advantages to being outcast ... One is set at liberty from many anxieties.  There is no call to worry about what others will think, when it is clear that they already think the worst").  When Zacharias, who is already shocked by the punishing methods Mrs. Daubeney is employing to train the magic out of her students, discovers that Prunella has tremendous magical abilities, he seizes on her as his own counterpart--someone who will prove to society that women can do high-level magic, just as he has proven that it is possible for black people to do the same.  Prunella, meanwhile, is less interested in becoming a magician than in securing her own social and financial independence.  She agrees to submit to Zacharias's training, but only if he provides her an entrée into society so that she can find a husband.

Much as it owes to and references Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, in the scenes in which Prunella and Zacharias clash about the wisdom and propriety of her plan to travel with him to London, it becomes clear that Sorcerer to the Crown has another, powerful antecedent, the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer.  The similarity only becomes clearer when the two arrive in London, and Prunella repeatedly steamrolls Zacharias's objections to her plan to present herself to high society as the mysterious daughter of an unnamed but supposedly wealthy gentleman.  It's a premise that repeats in several of Heyer's novel (the one I'm familiar with is Cotillion)--a determined, headstrong, unscrupulous-yet-basically-good young woman who is willing to do anything to achieve her place in society, and who imposes on a more proper, bewildered man through the simple expedient of refusing to take no for an answer.  Much of the novel's humor--and this is a deeply funny novel--comes from scenes that seem to channel Heyer, in which Prunella turns her laser-like focus and considerable ingenuity not to her magical training, but to questions of fashion, social standing, and matchmaking.
It had been her intention to avoid Zacharias if she could, since she presumed he was at the Ball, but in fact when she saw him she was so consumed by disaster that she hurried towards him, grateful to see a familiar face.

"Mr. Wythe, what is to be done?" she exclaimed.  "Mak Genggang assured me that the sky knew these things, but it is clear to me that the sky knows nothing of high society, and I wish I had never come!  It was very unwise--indeed, it is nothing less than a disaster!"

"I cannot but agree," said Zacharias.  "But if you think so, why did you come?"

Prunella was too troubled to attend.  "Only look at my dress!" she said.  "To think of wearing hoop skirts and silk taffeta when every other young female is in white muslin!  I do not know if the sky meant to be disobliging, or if it is merely ignorant.  Surely it must have seen that this not at all the thing.  I look a very guy!"
The basic conceit of Heyer novels like Cotillion is that a person with very little social capital or standing--women, and usually women with little financial wherewithal--attaches themselves to someone who has both, using them as a stepping stone to respectability and a chance at a good match (before, of course, falling in love).  Her heroines get to ignore propriety--the rules that say that they are compromising themselves by being around their reluctant rescuers, or the mores that frown on social-climbing and husband-hunting--because they know that those rules were created to keep them subservient and maintain a social order that they could never escape by behaving properly.  The fact that Zacharias and Prunella are both people of color complicates this story, because though Zacharias is privileged, in some ways, by his gender and wealth, he is also more disadvantaged by his race than Prunella, and more specifically by the combination of his race and gender.  It might, in some circumstances, be more acceptable for a woman of color to marry into high society, than for a black former slave to achieve high rank and office through his own abilities--the latter might pose more of a challenge to the racist underpinnings of Regency society.

That Zacharias and Prunella have such different reactions to that racism, and such different experiences in Regency society, is, however, only partly due to their genders or wealth.  In part, it's simply down to the fact that they are such different people, and one of the most interesting things that Sorcerer to the Crown does is to suggest that different people can experience racism and prejudice in very different ways, even in the same setting.  Zacharias is, as one of his friends says, "the most nice-conscienced, duty-bound fellow," devoted to the memory of his benefactor, even as he struggles with resentment of Sir Stephen, for separating Zacharias from his parents, and for being the representative of the very system that enslaved them in the first place.  As he says, he is "held by bonds of gratitude," and in addition, by bonds of respectability--having had it drummed into him since childhood that he represents his race and their ability to participate fully in society, Zacharias is unsurprisingly studied and careful in his behavior and reactions.  He suppresses his anger and resentment of the racism and suspicion that greet him, while at the same time, Prunella simply steamrolls over them by refusing to admit their existence--and by questioning the importance of the institutions and conventions that Zacharias is devoted to.

Though fascinating, the profound differences between Zacharias and Prunella, and how they deal with racism, are also the source of the novel's most significant imbalance.  The fact that the rules seem so different for them can make it hard to feel that they are part of the same story, and the fact that the emotional registers of their plot strands are so different can lead to feelings of whiplash.  Zacharias gets most of the novel's affecting, gut-punching moments--for example when we realize that, for all that his English contemporaries see him as a foreigner, to actual foreigners, be they fairies or people of color from other parts of the world, he is a European, and thus doesn't belong anywhere.  But at the same time, his determination to be respectable and not give into anger means that he is an essentially passive character, while Prunella is constantly acting on both his and her own behalf.  Cho is clearly making a point by juxtaposing such different characters with such different stories, whose problems nevertheless derive from the same place--and who are able to find in each other a friend who can understand their predicament--but the balance between the two characters, their stories, and their approaches to the challenges facing them feels a little wobbly.

I haven't, in fact, said much about the actual plot of Sorcerer to the Crown, which involves, aside from the already-discussed question of England's dwindling magic supply, a plot to supplant Zacharias as Sorcerer Royal, another plot to assassinate him, and a delegation from the island of Janda Baik, which throws Zacharias and Prunella into the path of Mak Genggang, a powerful, no-nonsense Malaysian witch who injects a great deal of humor into the novel, as well as a reminder that the characters' obsessions, both magical and cultural, are only the parochial concerns of one tiny corner of the world.  All of these elements tie together in a way that is satisfying, but perhaps a little too neat and easy--one never really fears that the dangers facing our heroes will come to pass, because the heart of the novel is clearly less in these elements, and more in the comedy of manners surrounding Prunella's introduction to society, and the difficulties that she and Zacharias have navigating that society as people of color.  In that sense, it's possible that the Heyer plot grates against Cho's choice of genre and story, because the fundamental attribute of a Heyer novel is that no one in it takes its events very seriously, whereas Sorcerer to the Crown ultimately concludes that its events are of utmost importance to England (though even then, not all the time--in the book's climactic fight scene between a dragon and a sea monster, the two turn out to be distant cousins, and pause their battle to do a bit of genealogy).

In its conclusion, however, Sorcerer to the Crown seems to use the disconnect between the tones of Zacharias and Prunella's stories--and their worldviews--to make a powerful statement against Zacharias's approach of appeasement and careful respectability.  Prunella turns out to have an amazing magical heritage, which allows her to take center stage in the English magical political system--a role to which, the novel implies, she is far more suited than Zacharias, because she doesn't share his obsession with "proving" that she is worthy of respect, but simply demands it.  The same unscrupulousness that makes it possible for her to shake off racism and the norms of polite behavior in her pursuit of social status, solidifies into something more serious, and a great deal scarier, when Prunella shows that she is willing to do whatever it takes to assume power.  To cement her power, and save Zacharias, she must take a ruthless, cold-blooded course of action, one that shocks the men around her.  There is the potential for a troubling reading here--the fact that Prunella is able to make this kind of sacrifice, or that Mak Genggang advises Zacharias, after he defeats a political rival, to "set fire to his house, too, and sell his children to pirates," can be taken as saying that these two women of color are inherently more bloodthirsty than the "civilized" white men around them.  It might have been good if the novel had more strongly stressed the point that the same English gentlemen who are scandalized by Prunella's actions are complicit in, and benefit from, acts of cruelty that dwarf hers--most obviously, the slave trade.  But even without that reminder from Cho, it's easy to realize that Prunella is merely bringing an already existing cruelty to the surface, using it to protect people of color for once instead of victimizing them.

This is, perhaps, to make Sorcerer to the Crown sound more serious than it actually is.  This is still a comedic, romantic novel, the kind of story that ends with a marriage proposal, and a fun, impeccably stylish read that recreates the tone of Heyer's novels perfectly.  That tone isn't always perfectly balanced with Cho's use of it as a delivery system for a darker, more serious discussion of slavery and colonialism, and ultimately this, as well as the too-neat resolution of many of its plot strands, leaves the novel feeling a little scattershot--still, perhaps, a little too indebted to its inspirations, both Clarke and Heyer.  (Some of this might be addressed in later volumes in the projected trilogy of which Sorcerer is the first volume, but I have to admit that, much as I enjoyed it, I should have been happier if it were a standalone volume.)  Nevertheless, Sorcerer to the Crown's response to and development of the ideas raised in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is impeccable--and necessary--and despite some shakiness, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.  I've been looking forward to Cho's work ever since I first read her short stories three or four years ago, and hoping that someone would pick up the threads raised in Clarke's novel and do something more with them for nearly a decade.  It's a delight, and not really a surprise, to find both coming from the same source.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Recent Movie Roundup 21, Part 1

Every year I promise myself that this is the year I'll start watching more grown-up movies, instead of just flocking to the same action and superhero movies.  And every year I remember why that's a difficult promise to keep--because unlike TV, the Israeli movie market is still stuck in the 80s, with screens devoted almost exclusively to either blockbusters or middle-of-the-road pablum aimed at people thirty years older than me.  An additional complication is that Israeli film distributors only bring out prestige movies if they've been nominated for awards, so all the Oscar contenders show up here within the space of a month, making it even more a challenge to catch up.  (This, by the way, is an additional wrinkle to the #OscarsSoWhite problem that hasn't gotten a lot of play.  Israeli film distributors will only buy a movie focused on African-Americans if it's received award attention, which means that lot of those movies never even make it here.  I suspect we're not the only country of which this is true).

This year I was determined not to be overcome by these challenges, and it even felt like a good year to make an extra effort, because so many of the Oscar nominees seemed a little unconventional and off the beaten path.  Instead, the first batch of these movies--there are still several more to come--has reminded me why I tend to steer clear of what Hollywood terms prestigious.  While there are good performances and ideas here, so far the 2016 Oscar race has mostly left me feeling rather bored--and still rooting for my favorite film of 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road.
  • Carol - I've seen some reviewers compare Todd Haynes's mannered, intimate lesbian romance to Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain.  Aside from the fact that they're both prestigious historical movies about same-sex romance with gorgeous visuals and music (and let's face it, how many of those have there been?), I don't see that the comparison makes sense at all, and in fact it might lead prospective viewers to expect very different things from Carol than what it actually delivers.  Brokeback Mountain was a sweeping romantic melodrama, but Carol is a character study and coming of age story, in which the romance often feels more like the means to an end than the point of the exercise.  Set in the early 50s, the small-scale story begins when wealthy suburban wife Carol (Cate Blanchett), who is in the middle of an ugly divorce, meets shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) and is immediately smitten.  The two quickly develop an intense friendship, which only turns romantic fairly late in the story, but which is nevertheless all-consuming, with Carol acting as a mentor to the unformed, uncertain Therese, and Therese functioning almost as a surrogate daughter for Carol, whose own daughter has been removed from her care by her husband.

    The late point at which the romance between Carol and Therese develops is only one of the ways in which Carol defies the expectations of the genre it leads us to expect.  This isn't a story about two repressed women discovering their sexuality.  Carol knows exactly what she is, and isn't particularly bothered about it--she's even slightly frustrated by the fuss that everyone, especially her husband, makes over it.  Therese, meanwhile, is on a journey of self-discovery, but her sexuality is only a small component of it.  Over the course of the movie she finds herself as an artist and an adult who knows what she wants from life, not just what gender she's attracted to.  It's perhaps for this reason that the romance between the two women never feels entirely convincing.  While we never doubt the intensity and importance of their connection, there isn't much sexual heat between them, and I never found myself longing for them to fall into each other's arms.  By the end of the movie, I was fairly sanguine about whether Therese and Carol would even end up together--they were, it seemed to me, at such different points in their lives, and Therese in particular was still figuring out what she wanted, that to tie themselves together might actually do more harm than good.  Both characters are fascinating as people--especially Carol, who knows herself more fully than most fictional characters; who is, as she says, not a martyr and thus not willing to give up her own happiness for the sake of propriety, but who also recognizes that just because her brand of happiness is forbidden doesn't make it OK for her to trample over other people's lives.  The romance often feels more like a way of illustrating them than something worthwhile in its own right.

    Haynes's painterly direction, the sweeping score by Carter Burwell, and most of all, the two lead performances, are what carry Carol and make it special (though it is an obvious crock that Mara has been allowed to submit herself as a supporting actress in a movie in which she is the main character; I might even argue that it is Carol who is a supporting character, since she so often functions as the object of Therese's fascination and curiosity).  They can't do quite enough, however, to conceal that the film's script is sloppy and a little misshapen, with a first act that dragged and left me rather bored, and not enough attention paid to any of the supporting characters, no matter how important.  In one scene, Carol tells her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) that he shouldn't drag their divorce through an ugly dispute in the courts, because "we're not ugly people."  This is plainly true of Carol, but Harge, who has functioned solely as an antagonist who stands in the way of his wife's happiness, has been nothing but ugly, no matter how much we might want to sympathize with his confusion and hurt feelings.  The lack of a tighter script around the two central characters means that Carol ends up feeling small and a little ephemeral.  There's enough here to watch for, but the movie as a whole is not entirely successful.

  • Spotlight - A short way into Tom McCarthy's dramatization of the investigation by journalists at the Boston Globe into the decades-long conspiracy to conceal and enable the actions of pedophile priests, I found myself wondering what I go to the movie theater for.  As I said in the opening of this post, I often forget to get my recommended allowance of grown-up films, so a lot of the movies I see in theaters are extravaganzas of special effects and explosions, and it's obvious what the added value of an evening out is in their case.  But there are also some more mature movies, like Birdman or Upstream Color, that benefit from the immersive experience you get in a movie theater.  Spotlight, on the other hand, could just as easily have been a TV movie on HBO, for all its interest in the visual or cinematic--and given how much more prestigious television has become in the last few decades, it could probably have done so without losing any of the A-list actors it features.  What, for example, is the difference between Spotlight and The Normal Heart, an HBO movie about the early days of the AIDS epidemic and the struggle to get homophobic authorities to take it seriously, which, incidentally, also happens to feature a stellar performance by Mark Ruffalo as a crusader for justice who allows his righteous anger over the indifference of those in power to take over his life?

    None of this should be taken as saying that Spotlight is not an excellent movie.  The story it tells is fascinating, and it tells it in a clear, compelling, and exciting way, without sensationalizing it.  The actors are all excellent--as well as Ruffalo, Michael Keaton is very good as the more seasoned reporter who leads the investigative team that breaks the story, and Stanley Tucci nearly steals the show as a cagey but determined lawyer representing some of the victims.  Perhaps most importantly, Spotlight avoids what must have been a powerful temptation to tell a story in which the protagonists are stalwart crusaders for justice battling an evil foe.  The film makes it very clear that it's not just the Catholic Church that is to blame for enabling and turning a blind eye to abuse, but an entire system that takes it for granted that some people get to abuse with impunity, while others don't get to complain when they are abused.  What's more, the reporters of the Globe are part of that system--in one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, the oily lawyer whom our heroes have been castigating for helping to conceal the abuse reminds them that he tried to blow the whistle years ago by sending information to the Globe, which ignored it.  What Spotlight is saying is that abuse is the product of an entire community, and that we're all trained from a young age to accept and ignore it.  That standing up and shining a light on these violations can often be an act of redemption for people who have been complicit for too long.  That feels like a powerful, important statement, in any medium.

  • 45 Years - The end credits of Andrew Haigh's film note that it is based on a short story, by David Constantine.  This does not come as a surprise, since even at a rather short (90 minutes) running time, 45 Years is, like a lot of literary short stories, all premise and no development.  Days before the celebration of their 45th wedding anniversary, the marriage of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) is rocked by a letter informing Tom of the discovery of the body of his girlfriend Katya, who died suddenly in a fall while they were hiking in Switzerland fifty years ago.  While it's never made entirely clear what Tom has told Kate about Katya, it's obvious that the depth of his emotional response to the news is shocking to her, and as the week draws on she begins to suspect that she--and her marriage to Tom--have only ever been a replacement for the great love he lost with Katya's death.  But the thing is, that's all that 45 Years does with its premise.  Rampling is great at conveying Kate's growing grief and anger, but the story around her never gives her another note to play.  And as much as 45 Years tries to present itself as a mystery, with Kate slowly working out just how much Katya meant to Geoff, it's hard not to conclude that the problems in their marriage actually come from someplace much more mundane--that Geoff is selfish, and happy to let Kate take care of him and shoulder the burden of maintaining their marriage, while he stews over his own preoccupations (and that he most likely would have been just as emotionally absent if he'd married Katya instead of Kate).  45 Years is one of those movies that you know everything about once you've heard their premise, and despite great performances from Rampling and Courtenay, it never delivers more than what that premise implies.

  • The Big Short - From the moment I first saw a trailer for this movie, I had only one question: how in god's name could director Adam McKay manage to make sympathetic heroes out of people who were trying to get rich off the 2008 financial crisis?  And the answer is, he can't.  Which on one level is reassuring--it means we haven't got another Wolf of Wall Street situation, where a movie ends up making its reprehensible main character a lot more charismatic than it wants him to be.  But on the other hand, this is also a huge problem for The Big Short, which does want us to see its protagonists--a group of Wall Street bankers and hedge fund brokers who realize, a few years ahead of the pack, that the US housing market is built on a foundation of quicksand, and go about making bets against the market that stand to net them billions of dollars--as heroes.  The movie's argument is that the banks, mortgage peddlers, and credit rating agencies who created the financial crisis are so much more odious than our heroes that taking their money is laudable even if it happens with the pesky collateral damage of the destruction of millions of lives all over the world.  And there are indeed moments where it managed to get me to feel the outrage it was aiming for--mostly scenes involving Steve Carell's cynical, world-weary fund manager, who rails against the injustices of the system before finally realizing, to his own disgust, that he is part of it.  But in the end, The Big Short is still constructed like a heist movie, a Robin Hood story in which the rich steal from the even more rich, who pass along the cost of their mistakes to the poor.  The entire final act of the movie revolves around the protagonists' indignation that the banks with whom they placed bets against the housing market are refusing to downgrade mortgage-backed securities even as the number of defaults rise, and somehow the movie doesn't realize how whiny this makes them look.  If you go into business with a corrupt system--with the intention of profiting off that corruption, no less--you don't get to complain when it behaves in a corrupt way.  You certainly don't get to do so with the self-righteousness that The Big Short's heroes do, selfishly complaining that the economy isn't collapsing fast enough for their get-rich-quick schemes to pay out.  The Big Short wants to be a movie dripping with anger and righteous indignation, but its focus on its dudebro heroes, and obvious desire for them to come out ahead, means that its anger is inescapably undermined.

    There's a very obvious comparison to be made between The Big Short and Spotlight, another movie about a real-world travesty being exposed by a group of plucky crusaders.  The two movies' styles couldn't be any more different.  Spotlight is dry as a bone, a dramatized newspaper article.  The Big Short is consciously stylized, comedic in tone, and deliberately artificial--characters occasionally address the camera to explain that the scene we just watched didn't actually happen in real life, and was merely included in order to make the real events seem more dramatic, and when complex financial concepts are explained, the film brings in various celebrities, who play themselves, to speak to the camera and explain them.  It's all very entertaining, but in the end I found myself less engaged by The Big Short than by Spotlight, which has an honesty and a sense of integrity that The Big Short never comes near.  The Big Short lacks Spotlight's sober acknowledgement that its characters were complicit in the horrors they uncovered, instead trying to sugarcoat that realization by making them seem like unsung geniuses (though there's even some question about that argument).  Maybe that's inevitable, since unlike Spotlight, The Big Short can't claim to have put the scandal it exposes to bed--as the film's conclusion points out, hardly any of the people responsible for the crisis suffered legal or even financial consequences, and the banking system continues to try to play the same games, getting rich by selling garbage bonds to ordinary people.  In light of that, it's perhaps understandable that The Big Short wants to wring some sense of triumph out of its characters' success, but to me that's just adding insult to injury.

  • Deadpool - In a slight break from this post's theme of consuming grown-up, mature fare, if you sympathized with my recently expressed frustrations with superhero stories and their reductive, reactionary politics, Deadpool might very well be the movie for you.  Which is not to say that it's a movie you should see if you're looking for progressive politics--on the contrary, it shares the common Hollywood flaws of being mostly white and treating the naked bodies of women like wallpaper, and adds to them a truly dizzying number of rape jokes.  But in a pop culture landscape still trying to seriously ponder the question of how one maintains a civil society in a world that has superheroes in it, Deadpool is refreshing for admitting that this is basically impossible.  That all superheroes, be they heroes or villains, are effectively thugs who inject chaos and mayhem into any situation they find themselves in.  I'm sufficiently fed up with this genre that simply owning up to this felt like a tonic.

    As for the movie itself, Deadpool has the advantage of an R rating, which means that unlike, say, Guardians of the Galaxy, when it claims to be outrageous and rude, it actually backs up those claims (up to a point, that is; this is still a movie looking for major box-office success, which means that it knows where the line is; and, as is unfortunately typical for such movies, when it chooses to skirt near that line it's usually with misogynistic comments, because that's the most "acceptable" kind of over-the-top humor).  At the same time, though, Deadpool is more often outrageous than it is funny--in fact, its best joke might come in the opening credits, which replace the actors' names with catch-all descriptions like "hot chick" or "gratuitous cameo"--and that outrageousness has a short half-life that doesn't last until the end of the movie.  (This is especially true of the film's fourth-wall-breaking humor, which constantly comments on the conventions of superhero movies; it only takes a few dips into this well to realize that Deadpool doesn't really have anything to say on this subject, beyond pointing out things we all already noticed.)  The film works largely because it takes the by-now-familiar, Apatovian approach of using its rude exterior to only lightly conceal a soft, gooey center, in this case the undying love between mercenary-turned-mutant Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) and prostitute-slash-stripper Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), the only person in the universe to match his filthy sense of humor and even filthier sexual proclivities.  The romance between them is rather sweet (the Valentine's Day release date turns out to have been on the nose), and a nice reminder that people don't have to be squeaky clean and vanilla to have a good, successful relationship.  The actual details of the superhero plot turn out to be ancillary to this love story--Wade, who has been disfigured by the same treatment that gave him his powers, wants the bad guy who created him (Ed Skrein) to return him to his previous appearance because he fears that Vanessa won't love him with his current face.  Along the way the X-Men get involved, but in a way that only reinforces the film's distrust of the very notion of superheroes as saviors of humanity--these are just a couple of street gangs raring for a brawl, which once again strikes me as a lot more honest and realistic than nearly any other movie in this genre.

    The central romance and refreshingly dubious approach to superheroes keep Deadpool afloat long after the jokes (or rather, "jokes") start falling flat, and on the whole I found the movie enjoyable--albeit in a way that left me utterly uninterested in seeing any more of the character.  In that sense, Deadpool is both a massive success and a complete failure.  It's clearly trying to sell the idea of a fourth-wall-breaking, irreverent, potty-mouthed, decidedly unheroic hero, but though Reynolds is very good in the part, the script simply isn't tight or clever enough to make that character seem like anything more than a one-trick pony.  The movie is at its best when Reynolds and Baccarin deliver precisely the kind of earnestness that is supposedly Deadpool's anathema, and at its worst when it keeps trying to convince us how bad, how outrageous, and how groundbreaking it is.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

The Lie Tree begins with a gloomy, wet boat journey to a gloomy, wet island in the English Channel.  Fourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly, our protagonist, is moving with her family to the Isle of Vane, so that her father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, can consult on an archaeological dig.  It's the 1860s, and amateur natural scientists like Erasmus are grappling with the new, controversial theory of evolution, while trying to reconcile it with their ironclad belief in the Biblical stories of creation.  Erasmus's claim to fame is having discovered a fossil of an apparently winged man, but as the inquisitive Faith realizes soon after settling in the family's new house on the island, the reason for their hasty relocation is that the authenticity of this find--and of many of Erasmus's other discoveries--has been called into question.  When Erasmus is found dead, Faith's mother and uncle quickly scramble to protect him from the accusation of suicide, but Faith believes that her father has been murdered, and determines to find his killer.

All this--the 19th century setting, the bleak and isolated landscape, the small island community where currents of connection and enmity run beneath the surface, the murder mystery, the tone of barely-suppressed horror as our heroine peels back the supposed gentility of her family and neighbors--is very familiar, the stuff of novels going back at least a hundred years (I was particularly struck, while reading The Lie Tree, with how it recalls The Hound of the Baskervilles, though it no doubt has many other antecedents).  It's a little surprising--and, in the first half of the novel, a little disappointing too--for a story like this to come to us from Frances Hardinge, an author I fell in love with, in no small part, for her ability to construct elaborate, minutely-observed fantasy worlds.  Even Verdigris Deep, an early Hardinge novel set in the real world and present day, had more fantasy worldbuilding than The Lie Tree, which apart from one fantastic element is a thoroughly naturalistic novel (I have not yet read Cuckoo Song, Hardinge's previous novel, so I'm not sure where it falls on the fantasticness scale).

The problem--or perhaps I should qualify, my problem--with The Lie Tree's naturalism is that Hardinge is a writer who likes to explain her novel's worlds.  More specifically, she likes to explain the mores and conventions that govern them, the currents of prejudice, propriety, and artifice that make their societies run.  This is great when those societies have been invented from whole cloth--when she needs to explain how social class determines how many different emotions one gets to express in A Face Like Glass, or how the tensions between colonizers and colonists have forced an ethnic group despised by both to adopt curious social customs in Gullstruck Island--but to a reader of my age and experience (which, to be clear, are not the novel's target audience), it's a lot less tolerable when Hardinge needs to explain the rules by which Victorian society is governed.  I don't need Faith to explain to me what a curate is, or why On the Origin of the Species threw such a bombshell into Victorian society.  The first half of The Lie Tree, which sets up Erasmus's death and Faith's investigation into it, is littered with scenes in which Hardinge spells out the rules of the novel's world.  A lot of these passages have power, such as this scene, in which Faith is surprised when a strange man intrudes on her games with her younger brother:
Fourteen years of trained fears broke into full stampede.  A strange man.  She was a girl, nearly a woman, and of all things she must never be near a strange man without protectors and witnesses.  That way lay a chasm in which a thousand terrible things could happen.
Or this one, in which Faith's mother Myrtle explains to her the proper way to order a servant:
You phrased it as a question to be polite.  Will you fetch the tea?  Could you please speak with cook?  But instead of your voice pitch going up at the end, you let it droop downward, to show that it was not really a question, and they were not expected to say no. 
But taken together, they have the effect of making the first half of The Lie Tree feel obvious and over-articulated.  We do not, for example, need Faith to spell out to us, after the observation about speaking to servants, that "that was the way her mother talked to her."  It should be obvious from Myrtle's general air of distraction, and from the attention that she pays to her husband and son, and deprives from Faith.  The strongest portions of this half of the book come when we get a sense that there are things about Faith's world that she does not yet understand, such as the casual way in which she drops it into the narrative that there were five dead Sunderly babies between her and her younger brother Howard.  For Faith, who is young, devoted to her father, and casually dismissive of her mother for using her looks and coquetry to get what she wants, this is merely a statement of fact.  We see it as a sign of what's to come, Faith's growing understanding of what it means to be a woman in the novel's world.  But moments like these are the exception, not the rule.

After Erasmus's death, Faith discovers his most secret specimen, a tree whose fruit produces true visions.  But the tree only flowers if it is "fed" lies, which must then be spread among other people.  Faith, determined to prove that her father was murdered, decides to use the tree, spreading rumors that his ghost continues to haunt the island, angry at the villagers who have insisted that a coroner's inquest be held to determine whether Erasmus killed himself, or that the archaeological dig Erasmus was invited to is actually searching for hidden smuggler treasure.  These lies, helped along by the observant, manipulative Faith's careful nurturing of them, spread like wildfire, causing unrest and violence within the community, to Faith's mingled horror and exhilaration.

Like many other Hardinge heroines, Faith is someone who has been warped and stunted by her upbringing (in fact the warping and stunting of children appears to be a general theme in the book--Faith's brother is being "trained out" of his left-handedness by being made to wear a jacket with the left sleeve pinned up).  In Faith's case, what has stunted her are the restrictive gender norms of her society, which teach her that her only value is in being "good"--which is to say, obedient and meek--and that her intelligence and curiosity are aberrations, to be ignored and suppressed.  As in her other novels, Hardinge is too clever and too honest to promise that the effects of fourteen years of this learned self-hate can ever be fully cured.  The core of The Lie Tree is Faith coming to realize how much she's been shaped by a childhood that has taught her to see herself as worthless, and by a society that refuses to recognize her intelligence and capability, and calls her monstrous when she expresses any emotion other than demure, meek acceptance.  That the result has been anger and frustration isn't very surprising to us, but to Faith it is only further confirmation that she is a bad person.

Using the Lie Tree allows Faith to give free rein to her worst impulses, to the feelings of resentment and frustration that have been allowed to fester in her, and to the joy of having power over other people's lives instead of feeling powerless in her own life.  She ends up doing terrible things: tormenting the servant girl who first spread the rumor that Erasmus killed himself, and blackmailing a local boy into helping with her investigation.  One of her rumors even convinces the villagers to attack and seriously injure the local postmistress, Miss Hunter.  But at the same time, exercising her power allows Faith to see more of the world than she previous had--she goes below stairs, interacts with strange men, sees the seedy underbelly of her polite society, and learns to understand the adults in her family.  It's an experience that forces Faith to see herself for what she is, and to decide what kind of person she wants to be.  Again, as in many of Hardinge's novels, salvation is found not in overcoming your past, which is impossible, but in learning to live with it, and be the best person you can be within the limitations it has imposed upon you.

As you might have guessed already, The Lie Tree is fundamentally about gender, and its use of lies as Faith's weapon--in a society that leaves women no other tools but their words and their ability to manipulate and insinuate, and then castigates them for using those tools to get what they want and need--is an inspired choice that has many complicated nuances.  It is, for example, intriguing that the tree has such obvious Biblical associations, given how often the men in the novel use religion--and the Sin of Eve--to justify distrust and oppression of women.  It is equally intriguing that Faith seems to be so much better than Erasmus at spreading lies without them ever touching her, or having the kind of splashback that Erasmus's lies had on his family.  Once again, there's a lot here that older readers will have seen before--it will surely come as no surprise to such readers that Faith eventually realizes that Myrtle's use of flirtation to get her way is in service of protecting her family with the only means available to her (and Hardinge again hammers the point in just in case anyone misses it).  But there's also a more ambitious project, as Faith's investigations of her world reveal more and more women who are living in the chinks of the world-machine, invisibly breaking the rules, and only occasionally reaching out to each other to say that such a life is actually possible.

Hardinge is hardly the first one to point this out, but when a society defines "proper" feminine behavior as rigidly and as narrowly as Faith's does, it ends up producing a lot of women who are, by definition, monstrous.  And it's therefore up to those women to decide what kind of monsters they will be, to come up with mores of behavior where society has abdicated its responsibility to do so.  Faith starts the novel horrified by her own intelligence and curiosity, convinced that she is a bad person because she loves to spy and eavesdrop and figure things out.  And, to be fair, these are all propensities that can easily lead a person astray, and when she indulges them in her investigation of her father's death, Faith does terrible damage.  The hope that Hardinge offers, at the end of the novel, is that Faith can find out how to be herself, and use her power, in a way that is as honest and honorable as possible.  It's a mingled hope, however.  If Faith wants to be a scientist, she realizes, she is signing up for a lifetime of being discounted, distrusted, and derided, and an afterlife in which she will be forgotten and erased.  And it's a life in which she will always be in danger--from others, and from her own worst impulses.  When Faith tries to apologize to Miss Hunter, she gets the following complex response:
"We both played the gossip game."  Miss Hunter wielded the reins with the confidence of practice.  "After your mother upset Jane Vellet, I was angry and told everyone about that Intelligencer article.  You spread a rumor in turn, but you were not the one that set fire to my house.  A woman like me makes enemies."

Faith wondered what "a woman like me" meant.  Perhaps a willfully happy spinster with a sharp tongue and good salary.  In Faith's eyes, Miss Hunter had always seemed icily smug and unassailable.  Now Faith saw glitters of defiance, and a tightrope beneath her feet.
It's that tightrope that Faith--and, to a lesser extent, all the women in her society--will be walking for the rest of her life.  And it's an admission that makes the happy ending of The Lie Tree--which otherwise might have left me feeling, once again, that this is not a book for me--a lot more tolerable.  Yes, it's a little unbelievable that Faith can come to understand herself as quickly and as fully as she does, and it's a bit of a pipe dream that, at such a young age, she could come to such a full accommodation with her flaws and weaknesses (once again, this is the sort of thing that's easier to swallow in fantasy world than in one that, historical setting nothwithstanding, so closely resembles our own).  But this moment, in which Faith realizes that she will always be in danger of making a mistake, of becoming the monster that society sees her as, and of justifying the violence that is always on the verge of being turned against her, is a powerful statement that not a lot of books--for adults or children--are willing to make.  I still prefer Hardinge as a writer of secondary world fantasies, and I still feel that I was not quite The Lie Tree's ideal audience, but it's moments like this that remind me of Hardinge's brilliance, and her importance to the genre.

Friday, February 05, 2016

E-Books Galore

When I promised to start making ebooks of some of the posts in this blog's (gulp) ten-year-old archives, I thought I'd get on that in a few weeks.  Six months later, I've finally done it!  the E-Books tab has been updated with three new collections: the series Back Through the Wormhole and Let's See What's Out There, in which I reflected on the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation, and Austen and Friends, a collection of my reviews of Jane Austen's novels and other related books.  All three ebooks are available in epub and mobi formats.

Please let me know if there are formatting issues or problems downloading any of the ebooks, and if you have comments on the contents.  It was an interesting experience, going back to my old writing to edit and format it for these collections.  In some cases, posts that I wrote ten years ago, when I was still working out what I wanted this blog to be, still resonated with me.  In other instances, things that I wrote just a few years ago struck me as misguided.  I've made some alterations to the original texts where I felt that they were making points that I genuinely couldn't stand by anymore, but mostly I've left them as they were, as a testament to how I used to think, and how I hope I've grown as a writer.

If you have any ideas about what subject should be collected next, I'd love to hear them, though maybe this time I shouldn't promise to be too swift about it.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Review: The Liminal War and The Entropy of Bones by Ayize Jama-Everett

Over at Strange Horizons, I review the second and third books in Ayize Jama-Everett's Liminal People series.  This was one of those cases where a book comes to you just when you need it the most.  As they've slowly taken over popular culture, I've found myself growing increasingly impatient with superhero stories, and with how the ones that show up on our screens choose to handle politics (see, for example, this series of tweets from last night in which I try to sum up my frustrations with the seemingly endless barrage of superhero shows and their messed-up politics).  It's been particularly frustrating watching what is, by now, the dominant genre in pop culture carefully and studiously avoid anything like a real engagement with issues of social justice.  For all that they claim otherwise, superheroes are about preserving the status quo, and that usually means siding with those in power, not those whom they oppress.

So Jama-Everett's books, in which opposing--and trying to dismantle--the status quo lies at the core of most of his superhero characters' stories, were just what the doctor ordered.  And as if that were not enough, most of the superhero characters in these books are people of color, and people whose ethnic and cultural heritage is central to their identity and to how they see the world, which is also something that mainstream superhero stories don't do enough of.  I might not have like these books as much if I'd read them five years ago, but I'm extremely glad that they exist now, and if you're like me and are finding the glut of reactionary superhero stories oppressive, I heartily recommend these books as an antidote.