Archive for May, 2018

Last week I read my first-ever Agatha Christie novel. I quite enjoyed it, and I can understand her continued appeal. Her style is charming, in the style of popular novels of the early twentieth century. The content also relies on her readership having grown up in the early twentieth century – the plot seems to indicate a fear of the younger generation, kids my parents’ age.

You know how it was when the war broke out. None of us knew whether we were on our head or on our heels. One war we’re pals with the Italians, next war we’re enemies. I don’t know which of them all was the worst. First war the Japanese were our dear allies, and the next war there they are blowing up Pearl Harbor! Never knew where you were! Start one way with the Russians, and finish the opposite way. I tell you, Poirot, nothing’s more difficult nowadays than the question of allies. They can change overnight.

For a military man, the twentieth century was a confusing, messed-up time. I imagine it was for civilians as well, but they seem more capable of focusing on their daily lives instead of international politics.

As you can see from the quotation above, I’ve finally met the inimitable Hercule Poirot. He’s a fussy little Belgian living in London, and by this point in his career he seems to avoid all the action. He reminds me of several of the older gay men I’ve known. His mustache is described as distinctive, but never actually described, so we are free to imagine as odd a mustache as we desire.

Perhaps it was true. He’d looked at her through the eyes of someone old, without admiration, to him just a girl without apparently will to please, without coquetry – a girl without any sense of her own femininity – no charm or mystery or enticement, who had nothing to offer, perhaps, but plain biological sex. So it may be that she was right in her condemnation of him. He could not help her because he did not understand her, because it was not even possible for him to appreciate her.

It seems that Christie was rather uncertain about young people herself, and by the late 1960s she had been sick of Poirot for three decades, so it’s not entirely clear why she would write this story, except that she felt an obligation to give the public what she thought they wanted. I suppose as people grow older it is inevitable that they begin to feel anachronistic, and Poirot certainly is that. Most of his clues are gathered by Mr Goby, who operates off-screen.

To my mind, the real hero here is Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer in her sixties. She’s the one who gets out and does some sleuthing, finds the missing girl, and helps Poirot to the solution. All he does is lie to people and lock someone up in a mental hospital.

Looking back at the title, a ‘third girl’ is the third roommate in an apartment. What typically happens is a young lady gets a job and an apartment, but wants a little help paying rent, so she gets a friend to take the second bedroom. When they want a little extra cash, they advertise in the paper for a third girl, the title itself indicating that she may end up in a closet or entryway rather than in a proper bedroom. But for her it’s a cheap place to live in an expensive city, so Third Girl adverts are fairly popular. Some even advertise for a Fourth Girl. What a single person needs with that much space is beyond me, so I question the logic of First Girls who get such a big place, but it’s really none of my business.

So in Chapter One Poirot is hanging out and doing nothing in particular, when a girl pops in and asks for help solving a crime she may or may not have committed. She’s not sure whether she’s killed someone or not. But before she gets far, she decides he’s too old to help her and pops back out again. He proceeds to backseat-drive the investigation of a murder that most people don’t believe ever took place. There’s no body, no motive, and the only witness/suspect doesn’t know what happened or what she herself has done. It’s almost like he’s creating the crime as he’s solving it. The book is nearly finished before we get the second murder, immediately after which Poirot solves the mystery by blaming the drug culture of young people. Stupid baby boomers.

It bothers me that Poirot and others define femininity as a desire to please men. Our maybe-murderer is seen as a deficient woman because she doesn’t dress a certain way or flirt with a man old enough to be her father (or grandfather). Living where I do, this is a big issue. Young women are expected to make old men feel good about themselves – The Ex was so successful at this that she got fifty dollars knocked off our rent once. She saw it as a game where men are idiots that can be easily manipulated by a girl who seems helpless and grateful for masculine protection. I don’t like that game, so when I caught her doing it to me I dug in my heels and refused to do whatever she wasn’t asking me to do. I think that if a person wants something from me, she can ask me directly. But frankly, I don’t see women as a decorative gender. They have the same intellectual range as men and in nearly every profession they have an equal ability to earn a living (though they are generally paid less than men doing the same job – I’m talking about whether they can do the job as well, which they can). Most of my supervisors at work have been women; I can’t think of a man who is qualified to give me a professional reference, at this point. Women are amazing, and they deserve better than to be judged by idiots like Poirot who think that their mission in life is to serve man.

So, Agatha Christie is a delight, but rooted in the prejudices and politics of her time. Poirot is the sort of person that can be fun to read but would be incredibly annoying in real life. Highly recommended for the reader who likes mysteries but doesn’t like gore.

I do love the television series based on Charlaine Harris’s novels, True Blood and Midnight, Texas. So when I saw this one in a used bookshop, I grabbed it right up. It’s the first of Ms Harris’s stories I’ve read, so I didn’t know quite what to expect.

As ever, the dramatized version and the written version are quite different. The two most obvious and pervasive changes are the level of action and the level of competence among the characters. On television, each of the many characters has her own story arc and exciting moments of action. The book focuses on Bobo Winthrop’s storyline, so I’m not sure if the other narratives are in the later books of the series or if they’re inventions of the screenwriters. So, Bobo is a nice guy living in this small town in Texas, and Act I introduces us to the town and its residents through the eyes of new arrival Manfred Bernardo. Act II begins with the discovery of the body of Aubrey, Bobo’s missing girlfriend. He gradually learns that she was involved with a white supremacist terrorist group looking for a large supply of weapons and money that he supposedly inherited from his grandfather. He admits to his friends that his family was into the racist stuff but that he left them behind to get away from it. Eventually the townspeople discover the real murderer and take care of it without involving professional law enforcement. Bobo’s friend Fiji gets kidnapped, as she does on the show, but it’s by one guy who takes her back to his parents’ house, and she uses magic to freeze the family and escape (instead of being held underground by a biker gang, getting drugged with a Fentanyl patch, and nearly suffocating). So, all that stuff in the TV series about Olivia’s father, Lem’s past, Manfred’s grandmother, and the demon after Fiji are not present in this first book. Maybe that’ll come later.

Compared to the show, the characters in the book are babies. Fiji only has one or two tricks up her sleeve, the freezing spell and a healing potion. Manfred comes up with one vision of the dead, but is otherwise powerless, just an internet faker who tells people what they want to hear. None of that hanging out in an RV with his dead grandmother. And the actor who plays him is eleven years older than the character in the book. The other characters are still pretty mysterious, their natures hinted at rather than revealed. The reverend delivers a weird sermon on human/animal shape-changers in a restaurant during dinner, but we don’t see him transform, and Joe and Chuy likewise seem pretty normal for a gay couple in small-town Texas.

Speaking of ethnicity, in the book it’s easy to imagine that everyone is white, either Hispanic white or traditional white. And yes, in the United States our obsession with race means that I have to identify myself on official forms as White (non-Hispanic), because listing Hispanics as simply White would mean that they are the same as us, which erases their unique culture (offensive to them) and affords them the same privilege that I receive (offensive to white supremacists). Yet, their genetic material is frequently similar to that of other southern European groups that are simply White, like Italians. It’s a weird, convoluted situation, product of a weird, violent past. I lived in rural Texas for a year without seeing very many people of color, so Harris’s town feels pretty accurate to me. On the show, Lem has very dark skin, but in the book he looks more like Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fiji has light brown hair, so it’s unlikely that she also has light brown skin as in the show. She is also described as being a bit out of shape and has a harder time with physical activity, so I’d guess that the television Fiji is also rather thinner than the one in the book.

As the new guy in town, Manfred seems like the obvious protagonist. He also appeared in a few of Harris’s other novels, the Harper Connolly series. But his perspective is limited, and he’s not that bright, so a good many scenes have to come from someone else’s point of view. Fiji is the other central character, and the two of them come into contact a lot, but not as peacefully as they do in the show. A woman in her late twenties who devotes her life to women’s spiritual and emotional health is not likely to be entertained by the self-centeredness of twenty-two-year-old boys.

She looked back at him, her eyes narrowed and her hands clenched. She huffed out a sound of exasperation. “Listen, Manfred, would it kill you to say the magic words? And sound like you mean them?”

Magic words? Manfred was totally at sea. “Ahhh . . .” he said. “Okay, if I knew what they were . . .”

I’m sorry,” she said. “Those are the magic words. And yet no one with a Y chromosome seems to understand that.” And off Fiji stomped, the drops from the previous evening’s shower blotching her skirt as she passed through the shrubs and flowers.

“Okay,” Manfred said to the cat. “Did you get that, Mr Snuggly?” He and the impassive cat gave each other level stares. “I bet your real name is Crusher,” Manfred muttered. Shaking his head as he crossed the road, he was relieved to get back to his house and to resume answering queries for Bernardo.

But he stored a new fact in his mental file about women. They liked it if you told them you were sorry.

And yet this stored fact doesn’t alter his behavior. In the end, he’s about as clueless as he was in the beginning.

The bookstore has a label that identifies this book as Paranormal & Steamy, but there is nothing steamy about this book. I don’t know what her other stories are like, but there are very few sexual encounters in this book, and the only one I can think of gets a parenthetical mention while the narrative is focused on something else. That parenthetical mention only says that Joe and Chuy are “fooling around” without going into what that means. I like the sexiness of the show, but it’s not here in the book. Manfred and Creek don’t get together, and neither do Bobo and Fiji. Olivia and Lem may have something going on, but we never see it, just as we rarely see them at all. Maybe that will come in the other books, but I can’t speak to that just yet.

In both the show and the book Joe and Chuy share a business as well as a home and bed, and in both Chuy’s side is a nail salon. But the show changes Joe’s antique store into a tattoo parlor, which I find strange. I’ve come up with two possible reasons for this. (1) People outside the South may not find it realistic to have both an antique store and an extensive pawnshop in the same one-stoplight town. I’ve lived down here most of my life and I can assure you, this is completely realistic. I have no idea how we keep so many antique stores open, but we do. Southerners like tradition, and that means loving old-timey stuff, even if it looks like garbage to me. (2) Portrayals of gay characters in American mainstream media have not caught up with the realities of gay life in America. There was a time when being openly gay limited one’s options to Wilting Flower or Leather-Obsessed Biker, a caricature of one gender or the other. These days, while those two stereotypes still exist, there’s a much wider range of expression for male homosexuals. Most of us are pretty normal, at least where I am now. The older crowd I ran with in Dallas relied on the polarized model of self-expression, but they came out back in that time when that was their reality. So, how do you persuade America that Joe is a masculine human being who is in love with another man? Make him “tough”, because moving furniture all day doesn’t do the trick. It’s easier to force Joe and Chuy into traditional gender roles if Joe draws pictures on people’s skin instead of selling them century-old teapots. I would like to say that the actors don’t portray them as inhabiting gender extremes; that seems to come from somewhere else.

There’s a thing here that bothers me, so I’d like to mention it briefly. Fiji and Creek go to Aubrey’s funeral, but they get there early and don’t know anyone else there, so they sit in the car for half an hour playing around on their phones. I realize that they are in a church parking lot in broad daylight, but I still worry about this being unsafe behavior. Hanging out in cars is a way that women become targets of violence. Most of the violence prevention programs I’ve been a part of reference this habit specifically. When you get to where you’re going, get out of the car and go into the building immediately. When you finish your business inside, get into your car and leave immediately. Many women who loiter in their automobiles become victims; I’m not blaming them for that, but it worries me when people I care about (real or fictional) engage in behaviors that I perceive to be unsafe. I also know that I do this myself, and there are times when I even go to sleep in my car, but I’m a white man and the ability to sleep in my car in a partially darkened gas station parking lot is part of my white male privilege. I also drive a twenty-year-old car with paint beginning to chip, which lets potential thieves and murderers know that I have nothing worth taking.

In the book, life in Midnight is dramatically more peaceful and normal than it is in the television series. The book is a nice comfortable little Southern murder mystery with an honest look at social problems and just a hint of the supernatural element. I really enjoyed it, and I’ve already started looking for the others in the series. And if I want more after that, Harris has a ton of publications, so I should be well satisfied for quite a while.

Let’s take a moment to remember what Stevenson has written up until this point: Treasure Island, Prince Otto, and Kidnapped. All three of these were adventure stories, written primarily for a younger, male audience. His style represents a transition from the loquaciousness of his Victorian contemporaries to the bare, “hard boiled” narration of twentieth-century genre fiction. But apparently that style hasn’t suited everyone, and before the story he references specifically “The Critic on the Hearth,” both a play on the Dickens title and an appropriate yet affectionate title for his wife. In The Black Arrow, he claims to be trying to merge his boy adventures with the type of story (and writing) that traditional novel readers enjoy – in other words, he says that he’s going to infuse some Dickens and Brontë into this one. I suppose it’s because he’s finally writing about a young man who is interested in a woman.

As the subtitle suggests, this story takes place during the Wars of the Roses, though Stevenson seems to avoid taking sides in the York/Lancaster debate. His message is at least partly that it doesn’t matter what side of a war you fight on, because in the end war is a way for the rich to get richer and the poor to die. The poor, realizing this, are hesitant to involve themselves. It doesn’t help that in a civil war of this type, the people they are fighting and killing are their friends and neighbors, all hyped up over one cause or the other. It’s not a happy world to drop your characters into. Displacing the characters in time gives Stevenson the chance to use some archaisms, but not enough to make it seem written back in the fifteenth century.

This is the story of Dick Shelton, told in five acts. In Act I, he’s a young teenager who’s more interested in fighting than in girls. In his guardian’s house he meets a young man on the opposite side, and incautiously promises to guide him to Holywood. So they run off on a secret adventure, and it’s all very homosocial and Kidnapped-esque. But this time, lest anyone think Dick is actually gay, Stevenson pulls a Shakespearean stunt and Jack Matcham is really Joan Sedley, so all those jokes that people were making about Jack being a girly boy were quite accurate. And remember, it’s okay to fall in love with someone of the same sex if they turn out to have been lying about their sex all along. They don’t quite make it to Holywood before Dick’s guardian Sir Daniel recaptures them

In Act II, Dick has to face some home truths about Sir Daniel – his guardian killed his father and persuaded him to believe it was someone else. His life and the love of his new father figure is all a lie, so he goes all rampage and joins The Black Arrow, a group of outlaw archers who live in the forest and are bent on killing Sir Daniel for having killed Dick’s father, among others. Sir Daniel has flipped sides in the war a few times, so The Black Arrow is not wedded to a white or a red rose either. They just care about avenging the wrongs of Sir Daniel and his cohorts. Dick decides that he wants to marry Joan, which is a bit of a challenge because Sir Daniel is keeping her captive so he can sell her in marriage to a rich noble. Doesn’t matter which one, so long as he’s rich and is willing to pay for a really young wife.

In Act III, Dick tries to rescue Joan the first time. He and his Arrows steal a ship and try to come around by the shore, the only ingress unguarded. A huge storm blows up and his men are too sick and scared to fight, and they come into conflict with Lord Foxham and his men. Foxham is Joan’s rightful guardian, and he’s also trying to get her back from Sir Daniel. After they end the first battle, Foxham and Dick team up. They try again, and are unsuccessful again. This time Foxham is seriously wounded and has to go recuperate for a long time. The message here? (1) You’re not going to get the girl and resolve the action in Act III of a five-act play, and (2) Stealing boats is not the right way to go about doing anything.

In Act IV, Dick teams up with the only guy who kept his head during the storm at sea. They disguise themselves as friars to sneak into Sir Daniel’s but they just end up captured and needing to break out again. Dick does meet up with Joan for a short time, but they are quickly separated. We also meet her friend Alicia, Lord Risingham’s niece. Both girls are kind of badass, but hindered by the gender roles of their time. It’s hard to run in a medieval princess dress. At least they didn’t have to wear those cone hats with the veils.

Act V. Dick ditches Lawless and becomes an officer under the Duke of Gloucester, he who will become King Richard III. Gloucester is presented as ruthless and efficient, but still young. Reading Shakespeare I always pictured Richard III as an older man, but when he died he was five years younger than I am now, so maybe young and stupid was always part of his problem. He never outgrew the adolescent need to see everything in terms of black and white. Dick does well with a barricade and is knighted, then drops from favor just as quickly when he pisses Richard off. He saves the girl, forgives the bad guy (but in forgiving holds him in one place long enough for the leader of The Black Arrow to shoot him), and they almost all live happily ever after. Well, until their natural deaths. There is no living ever after in a story set four hundred years before it’s written.

If there’s a big lesson here, it’s that Dick has to learn that his actions have consequences. He’s so focused on his goal of saving the girl that he bumbles around doing shitty things to other people and being surprised when they respond negatively, and when they turn back up in town and respond negatively again. The story takes place in and around one town; it’s kind of dumb to think that people are going to just go away. There is a war on, but you can’t expect the people you don’t like to die and the people you do like to live. Life isn’t that tidy.

So. Did Stevenson succeed? Well, he finally does have realistic female characters, and Dick realizes that he’s turned on by a girl who’s going to call him out on his shit, but this is still the same kind of adventure story he’s been writing before. The girls are awesome, but we don’t get to see them much. They’re damsels in distress, but that distress is mainly caused by the fact that they can’t wear trousers or take fencing lessons. Given the chance, I’m sure they could manage their own problems. There’s an independence of mind that Stevenson’s previous novels haven’t afforded women, so in that sense this book is a step forward. People who read novels for psychological studies and mature themes are still going to be disappointed; it’s still aimed at the younger male audience, full of unnecessary violence and idiotic attempts at heroism. I suppose that could be another message, don’t set people up as heroes because they’re as fallible as you and will inevitably let you down. But it’s an early Stevenson novel, fun in a late Victorian sort of a way.

After reading a few literary novels and the memoir, I have to admit that I was ready for some brain candy, and the skeleton hand clawing the gravestone on the cover promised that this would be just the ticket. And of course, the tagline

To possess the amulet is to be possessed by evil beyond imagining

meant that this book was going to be way too lurid to be thought-intensive. And man, were my preconceived notions justified. I know that old adage about judging a book by its cover, but in this modern world of marketing and maximizing customer experiences, I feel like book covers can be pretty reliable.

I’m not sure if they ever use the word, but this is a book about a zombie attack in a small village in the UK. There are some aspects of this town that are strange to start with – both the head librarian and the police inspector are far too young to occupy such roles of authority. Maybe that wasn’t such a big deal in the 1980s, but these days we don’t expect a twenty-two-year-old man and a twenty-one-year-old woman to do that sort of job. We value age and maturity, which these two lack. They’re a married couple, so I suppose that most readers would rather read a sex scene between two people young enough to have strong metabolisms. I mean, I’m in my late thirties and my new guy is nine years older, but the sexual experience is just as intense for me now as it was back in my newlywed days. In writing, we describe sex as the characters perceive it, so they don’t have to be porn stars like Neville’s protagonist and his wife, the Lamberts.

You know, it’s a trope of horror stories that people who have sex end up dead, and that’s seen as proof that the writers/directors/producers need to punish the beautiful fuckers, but this book made me doubt that interpretation. Yes, the teenagers who engage in premarital intercourse get zombified immediately, but the married couple are fairly sex-positive and have quite a few graphic scenes without getting killed. You could argue that they survive because they’re married, but I think there are two strains converging: (1) nearly everyone dies in these stories, so whether a person has had sex on camera or not isn’t really the best way to differentiate, and (2) guys like sex just as much as women do, but most of your sexually graphic material is contained in romance novels and directed at women. A book like this gives men a chance to read some juicy bits in a story where they can recognize themselves as the obvious hero, where the emotions are simple and not harped on about.

So, the action starts with a grave digger finding a magic amulet on a corpse buried outside the cemetery. I think they were preparing the ground for consecration or some such. The amulet turns him into our Zombie Zero, the origin of the plague. From there, things progress as they do in zombie pictures – people disappear while the undead take over the streets at night. The amulet provides the opportunity for some anti-occultism, because this was the ‘80s. I think there’s some social commentary going on here as well; the prevailing narrative seems to be that the British lower classes are only waiting for a tiny spark to turn on each other in heartless violence, and that it’s necessary to preserve the aristocracy to protect them from themselves. While the police inspector and his wife have personalities, most of the characters are fairly unimportant and flimsy. This is the story of an entire community, so the individual faces aren’t often significant. Zombie stories are, after all, about losing a sense of individual identity, and it doesn’t seem to make much difference whether a person is alive or undead, they’re all part of the mass.

I’m an American, but I consume a lot of British media, so English ways don’t always seem foreign to me. However. I had forgotten that the British police don’t carry guns on a regular basis. I know that there’s the stereotype of the gun-crazy American, and I don’t usually fit that, but during a zombie outbreak you need some guns because cricket bats just don’t have enough range to keep you safe. So when Simon Pegg and Nick Frost run to the Winchester in Shaun of the Dead, it’s because the rifle over the bar is the only gun they’re aware of in town. Lambert and his officers have to go to Nottingham to get some guns, and then they have to train with them because none of them are any good at shooting. As an American, this seems appalling. Our law enforcement officials are prepared for zombie outbreaks at all times. Or, you know, outbreaks of normal peaceful living by people of color.

The gun thing doesn’t seem like a big deal in the long run, because most of the zombies are killed when Lambert burns down the cinema. George Romero’s zombies congregated in a shopping mall because conspicuous consumption was the cultural attitude he was protesting; I guess Neville feels that the English are obsessed with American media (sorry, we make more movies than you do) and thus losing their individuality.

The ending sort of displays some of the plotting issues Neville had with the novel as a whole. We spend most of the book thinking of Zombie Zero as the principal antagonist, and he does lead the zombie recruitment brigade, but Lambert shoots him as part of a crowd of zombies. There’s no big emotional death match. But then there’s Mathias, the medieval wizard who created the magic amulet. A minor zombie escapes and places the amulet around the dead wizard’s neck, resurrecting him for a big one-on-one battle in an ancient church. But the thing is, Mathias only appears here in the final battle. Debbie Lambert, the porn star head librarian, spends a good part of the book translating a Latin text about him, which shows the problem of fighting zombies before the internet, but we get so few details about him that it’s hard to generate the kind of feelings that we want in a final battle. Tom Lambert is supposed to be redeeming himself – he was driving drunk and wrecked his car, killing his brother in the process – but fictional emotional catharsis follows the same law as homeopathy: like cures like. Defeating Mathias and saving the town isn’t similar enough to the car accident to make it feel like it should cancel the preceding guilt. The bait-and-switch takes place at the wrong moment – it would have been better if Mathias had arisen at the beginning of Act III instead of at the end. And, the Lamberts aren’t smart enough to destroy the amulet, so the epilogue implies that the whole story will begin again years later. He’s such an idiot he can’t even save the town right, guns or not.

Amazon doesn’t have any other titles for this author, so it may be a pseudonym, or the contemporary reviewers may have been unwarrantedly harsh and crushed his career. Either way it’s unfortunate, because it’s really not a bad little book. It was precisely what I wanted when I picked it up, and while I am planning to give it away at my earliest convenience, I don’t think of it as a waste. We need pleasant little interludes, a break from the heavily literary diet.

 

I know it’s been a couple of weeks that I haven’t written here, but it’s not for want of reading. I have four or five books that I need to write about; I’ve been reading rather a lot. The problem is with my computer – it’s five years old, and they’re not built to last that long any more. It’s reached a phase where it crashes every time it gets jostled or tipped, and that doesn’t fit well with my computing style – I take the term ‘laptop’ seriously. I’ve put it on a desk for the writing today, so perhaps we won’t have any unpleasant interruptions.

Start with Shakespeare. The Winter’s Tale is one of those plays that people don’t always like to call comedies because some terrible things happen. A truly nice guy has to exit, pursued by a bear. It’s not always clear who’s good and who’s bad, though I suppose that’s part of the point. It’s a story of dissolution, followed by gathering and forgiveness. King Leontes is convinced that the second child about to be born to him is not his, so he has one of those huge operatic scenes with his wife and friends after which the lady is unconscious and everyone assumes she’s dead. He sends the baby off to his best friend, whom he believes to be the true father, but the baby gets lost because the courier is eaten by a bear. She gets adopted by a poor shepherd and his idiot son, and sixteen years later she does meet Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, but it’s because her boyfriend Florizel is actually the king’s son. The truth about her starts to come out, but in a distorted form, so Florizel and Perdita run off to Sicilia to get the real story. Leontes, after suffering in isolation for so long, takes back his daughter and his best friend, and they go to see a statue of his dead wife, but the statue comes alive because she hasn’t really been dead all this time. In the end, Leontes’s pain seems to have redeemed him because everyone forgives him, which makes the ending seem unrealistic to me. It’s not enough to suffer – everyone does that. The suffering has to change you so you’re not a jealous homicidal nutbag, and I don’t see enough change in him to warrant bringing him back into Hermione’s life.

The Winterson novel is a retelling of the Shakespeare play, brought up to our time. There’s a good bit of the weirdness of Shakespeare in her story as well, because I find the story inherently strange. Leo is a successful businessman, married to a famous singer, MiMi. Their friend Xeno has been staying with them, and Leo suspects the two of them of cheating behind his back. Xeno and Leo are so close that they fooled around together in their bicurious stage. Leo has stuck with women ever since, but Xeno identifies himself as gay, though he also admits to being strongly attracted to MiMi. He kind of wishes they could have a three-way polyamorous relationship, but that’s not really an option for anyone else. Leo accuses her and gets to raping her, but her water breaks and they have to rush her to the hospital to give birth. Leo sends the child away to New Bohemia (which feels an awful lot like New Orleans), but his messenger gets killed and Shep and Clo pick up the child and raise her. Shep is an older guy, maybe a little too old to raise a baby, and Clo is his grown son, not bright. MiMi and Leo divorce and she moves to Paris, spending the next twenty-one years in near-total seclusion. As in Shakespeare, their first child, a son, gets killed for no apparent reason except to punish Leo, who loves the boy.

Time passes.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter that there was any time before this time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that it’s night or day or now or then. Sometimes where you are is enough. It’s not that time stops or that it hasn’t started. This is time. You are here. This caught moment opening into a lifetime.

Winterson often speaks of time as if it were a character, and she titles the book after one of the last lines of Shakespeare’s story. Leontes, newly surrounded by his loved ones, says they’ll all go off and discuss what they’ve been doing in “the gap of time,” the sixteen years that they were all out of contact with each other. The thing that fascinates me about this phrase is that time has no gaps. It just keeps moving on, one second at a time, and there’s nothing we can do to speed it, slow it, or skip over it. The only gap is in our experience as an audience. We don’t see the sixteen years in the middle of the play, or the twenty-one years in the middle of the novel, so we perceive it as a gap, but the characters do not. If Leo had really skipped over all those years of isolated pain, he’d be the same asshole he was in the beginning, and isn’t the lesson here that pain makes people less assholish, more deserving of love? Neither writer shows me convincing evidence that Leontes has changed, and I think that pain in isolation isn’t the best way to teach someone how to love. You have to practice, and that means not being isolated.

Xeno and MiMi talk a lot about Nerval’s dream – a French poet dreamt that an angel fell to earth, in one of those crowded back alleys of Paris. If he opened his wings, he’d destroy everything around him; if he didn’t open his wings and fly away, he’d be trapped and die. Xeno uses it as the basis of a video game he designs, The Gap of Time. It’s all about feathers falling and becoming angels, and deciding whether the angels are good or evil, whose side you want to be on. Of course he and Leo take opposite sides, though they both haunt MiMi’s virtual apartment, where he’s programmed her as a statue. Xeno’s portrayal troubles me because he seems like Winterson’s primary antagonist, but I don’t read him as one in Shakespeare. Polixenes seems a bit clueless, careless and thoughtless but not really bad. Xeno seems bent on making the people he loves unhappy. He’s the dark side of the moon, and Leo is the bright sun that burns. Leontes talks about adultery as the spider in the cup – if you don’t see it, your drink tastes normal; once you do see it, the drink tastes poisonous. But to me, the important part here is that there is no spider in Leontes’s cup – he’s seeing spiders that don’t exist, imagining his wine is contaminated when there’s nothing wrong with it. But Winterson keeps bringing it back, Xeno’s seemingly inherent arachnous nature. For her, Leo does have a spider in his life, even if it isn’t fucking his wife.

I’m troubled by Hermione. She seems like one of those Gothic heroines I enjoy so much, a beauty who falls in love with a beast. She’s an innocent, forced to suffer through the insanity of the men around her. As with Hero from Much Ado About Nothing, the most effective way for her to prove her innocence is by dying when she’s accused. Also like Hero, she doesn’t actually die because life doesn’t work like that, but she pretends to be dead so that the accuser she still loves will suffer. When he’s sufficiently proven his penitence, she takes him back as if that had been her plan all along. If a man is so irrational that he will only believe a woman is telling the truth if she’s dead, he’s not a person that woman should be with. Maybe he’s a murderer. Maybe he’s a rapist. Maybe he sticks with subtler forms of abuse, but that’s no reason for her to share her life with him. In both stories, she’s one of the least realized characters; more of an ideal than a human being. I’d like to read a story where someone really breathes life into her, but neither of these is it.

Winterson seems to connect most with Perdita, the adopted girl who finds out her birth parents are rich and famous. She also discovers that her boyfriend isn’t just a mechanic at the local used-car dealership; his parents are rich too. She’s literally the girl who grows up poor and turns out to be a princess. Polixenes and Leontes are both taken by her beauty, but there’s not really enough time in the story for them to build a relationship with her. Winterson’s Perdita makes the connection clear, but she’s a bit like Miranda from The Tempest. She grows up with a single father in relative isolation, and then she discovers that the world is larger and more beautiful than she had imagined.

Perdita heard his car. Perdita saw him across the fence.

She moved back. Her heart was overbeating. Why do I feel this way? And what is this way that I am feeling? How can something so personal and so private, like a secret between myself and my soul, be the same personal, private secret of the soul for everyone?

There’s nothing new or strange or wonderful about how I feel.

I feel new and strange and wonderful.

Perdita is a girl who loves. Her name points to her as lost, but that only describes her from her parents’ point of view. In herself, she seems to know who she is and what she wants in life, that identity not being solely based on her genetic background. She meets Leo, but still insists that Shep is her father, in all the important ways. And she loves Zel, even if his parentage is different from what she had assumed. Zel grows up knowing who his father is, and hating him. Polixenes spends a year on a visit of state to his best friend, but it’s assumed that he spends the sixteen-year gap with his wife and son. Xeno keeps wandering around the world with very little contact with his son, so Zel has reason not to value someone who shows so little value for him. When Xeno makes an effort, Zel resists, so there’s not a lot of hope for them. I grew up similarly, but when my father reaches out I try to reach back. I don’t think there’s anything productive to be had from being unkind to him. You could read this as contradicting what I said up there about Leontes and abusive relationships, but fathers are different from husbands. I don’t live with my father, and I make sure I filter and evaluate everything he says. I know he’s doing his best, even if I find that best to be wanting at times. The effort would be too much to keep up with a man I lived with. The marriage relationship makes the partners vulnerable to each other in a way that I’m not with my dad. The constant presence of the abusive man would erode his partner’s sense of individuality and freedom. As with MiMi’s interest in the Nerval story, the only way out is to destroy everything. That’s not the case with me, a man who lives independently of his father and only speaks with him occasionally.

Free will depends on being stronger than the moment that traps you.

Time seems to take on the role of Fate – it’s like people are stuck in a story that they’d rather not be living. I don’t believe it works that way. Leontes’s actions have disastrous consequences for the people around him, but none of that is inevitable. It’s not clear how much choice Shakespeare’s queen has, but in the twenty-first century we expect women to be able to choose their own husbands. MiMi didn’t have to marry him. It’s all a matter of accepting responsibility for choices. I think that twenty-one years of misery is a heavy penalty to pay, but that’s the story as Winterson gets it from Shakespeare. Leo has to accept consequences of his own behavior, but most of those consequences he’s forced onto other people as well. MiMi didn’t destroy her world by divorcing her husband – he did that by falsely accusing her and losing her children. Perdita and Florizel didn’t choose their circumstances, but they make choices, hopefully better ones than their parents made. If Winterson is correct, then I believe we are all stronger than time, we all have free will and are only trapped by other people, not by fate or moments or time.

Have you noticed how ninety per cent of games feature tattooed white men with buzzcuts beating the shit out of the world in stolen cars? It’s like living in a hardcore gay nightclub on a military base.

I love Winterson’s sense of humor.

The endings interest me, primarily because of the difference between them. Shakespeare doesn’t show us the reunion of Leontes with Perdita and Polixenes; that’s narrated by an eyewitness to someone else. Shakespeare’s attention is on Leontes and Hermione, so restoring the marriage is the important thing for him. The other relationships seem harder for him to imagine, which is the explanation I can find for the indirectness of that scene. In Winterson’s story, the important reunion for Leo is with finding Perdita and Xeno. It’s the meeting of father and daughter and the repairing of the gay relationship that matters to her. She closes the scene with Leo and Xeno standing in the aisle of the concert venue, watching MiMi onstage, before they approach and talk with her. For a singer, MiMi has astonishingly little voice in the book, and here when she has an opportunity to talk to the man who hurt her and may or may not be forgiven, she is silent because she’s putting on a show for the larger crowd. Maybe it ends here because Winterson had a hard time facing the next scene, where she is supposed to forgive him and reunite. I’d have a hard time writing that scene, because in my imagination Hermione would not make that choice. I would have written her a community and a job and a life; I would have her prove to Leontes that she doesn’t need him. By ending the book where she does, Winterson doesn’t have to write MiMi’s decision to take him back or not, and we can choose to believe what we like.

I love reading Jeanette Winterson novels. I’ll admit to having found this one weird and a little hard, but I think the same thing about her source text, which means this is a good adaptation. This is dramatically more recent than anything else of hers I’ve read, so it’s good to see that I can enjoy books from different periods of her career. Her writing is beautiful and I get engaged quickly with her characters, even if they’re people I might not like in real life. And I still don’t know what to make of Autolycus, in either version of this story. But it’s a good book, and begins with a summary of Shakespeare for those who are unfamiliar with his telling.