Posts Tagged ‘film’

Somewhere in Time (Richard Matheson)

I read somewhere that Matheson considers this one of his two best books – this is the one where love transcends time, and What Dreams May Come is the one where love transcends death. If that’s true, I can’t say I’m very interested in reading the rest of his work. Somewhere in Time is a time-traveling romance, where a man reads J. B. Priestley and realizes that time travel is a function of the mind (not a machine), and all you really have to do is hypnotize yourself. If you really believe it’s 1896, it will be. Our subject is a screenwriter in his mid-30s. He’s dying from a brain tumor, so he wanders away from his family and lands in a hotel on the coast of southern California. There, he sees a photograph of an actress from the previous century and he becomes completely obsessed. He goes through all the historical research and theories of relativity and time, and then he goes backward seventy-five years to see her.

She’s an actress who’s just okay, and has had two experiences with fortune-tellers who predict the love of her life. Suddenly a man shows up who fits their descriptions, and he’s odd but ardent. She’s guarded by her manager and her mother, but she still finds a way to meet up with this guy. Because we read the research, we know what’s going to happen. The actress is going to disappear from the stage for about nine months, then she’s going to be amazing. She’s technically flawless before, but it’s only after meeting her time-traveling man that she can really put some emotion into her roles.

Neither had ever loved anyone before, even though they’re certainly at an age to have done. The whole love story feeds into this misconception that there is only one love of a person’s life. I think it’s ridiculous – in a group of eight billion people, you think only one of them will love you? Rubbish! Love is everywhere, if we’re willing to look for it. These two people try to cram a lifetime of loving into a span of three days, and it’s a dismal failure. Not that they don’t love each other, but that waiting your whole life for one intense weekend and then never having another is a frightful waste. They have sex three times in one night, and it’s great, but why would she never try it again with anyone else? She has a long life ahead of her. He doesn’t, but in 1971 people with brain tumors are capable of casual sex.

What I’m saying is that the attitude toward love and sex is about as realistically believable as the idea that you can think yourself into a past you’ve never experienced.

This book is not as long as it feels. After a while, it seemed like the obstacles preventing the lovers’ union are simply there to stretch the story out as long as possible. It may have been more enjoyable as a short story. There’s a film that wasn’t well received, but it might be interesting to watch. Any excuse to stare at Christopher Reeve, right? Besides, the original title of the book was Bid Time Return, but it’s now printed under the film title, so maybe the movie is better? I don’t know. But the talent seems good, and the music is apparently popular, so it’ll be worth the experiment.

 

Men Under Water (Ralph Lombreglia)

It’s a risky business, giving young writers awards. You never know how the rest of their career is going to play out. This guy, for example, wrote two short story collections twenty-five years ago and has apparently spent the rest of his life teaching and doing media consulting. The stories are decent – all about men in pain acting out in one form or another, so it’s sort of like The Man of Feeling, reclaiming the primacy of (heterosexual white American) men’s emotional lives and the art they produce. I get the feeling in another month or two I will have completely forgotten this book. There’s one about transforming one’s house into a museum of love that caught my attention, museums and libraries being so closely related, but it’s another example of an unhappy man making everything about him, reducing a woman’s existence to a series of objects that he has a sentimental attachment to, and imprisoning himself in a literal basement.

 

What Remains (Garrett Leigh)

I seldom go for gay romances written by women, but this one was good. I wouldn’t recommend it to people who are squeamish about reading explicit gay sex scenes, because there are a ton of them, but if that’s no obstacle, this is a good story. Jodi is a web designer in London who gets hit by a car. There’s a coma, and some amnesia – he forgets about coming out of the closet and his five-year relationship with Rupert, a handsome Irish firefighter.  Personally, I’ve been having amnesia fantasies since I was a teenager, so the book touched on some ideas that I’ve thought out myself. I’d love to start over without all of the social conditioning. This is probably uncomfortably close to suicidal ideation, but it doesn’t feel the same. I don’t want to stop being; I want a shortcut to getting past the mental corset that hampers my ability to express myself freely in daily life. They fall in love again and there’s a happy ending, but it’s not super-sappy and the male characters are not unnaturally expressive or clearsighted as to the nuances of their emotional lives. They deal with things realistically, in a manner that is consistent with my experience of gay men of their ages.

 

The Nine Wrong Answers (John Dickson Carr)

The classic mystery of the 1960s. It’s such a perfect exemplar of its genre that nothing stands out too prominently, except for the gimmick expressed in the title. Every so often, there’s a footnote where the author discusses one of the genre conventions as a potential right answer, but as the title indicates, they’re all wrong. It’s a way of pointing out how well he’s meeting audience expectations while subverting them at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not super memorable either.

 

The Library at Mount Char (Scott Hawkins)

This book is engaging and well written, but terrible. A godlike figure kidnaps twelve kids and forces them to study in a mystic library, which is divided into catalogs. The protagonist studies languages, but other kids learn about animals, or war, or healing, or death. Their study involves a lot of practical application as well as book learning, so the girl learning about death dies and Father brings her back, over and over and over again. This is just one example of the way that something that sounds pleasant, like a magical library, turns into the locus of trauma and abuse. There is so much needless suffering, and the library is the source of it. For me, libraries were a refuge from the horrible things in my life – Hawkins makes the library the opposite. There is no safe place, and the library is the source of the terror. Knowledge is power, and you can’t trust anyone to use power altruistically. Carolyn does eventually learn that joy is better than pain, but it takes her a long time to figure that out. Most of the characters in the book die at least once, but my favorite does come back at the end, so there’s a little tiny bit of hope. But it’s not like in Catch-22, where the ending makes you realize there was always hope and the last four or five pages make the whole book of suffering worth it. There’s so little joy that it doesn’t compensate for the difficulty of the rest of the book. Maybe if a reader isn’t full of traumas like me, they won’t find it as triggering as I did. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks telling people to stay away from this book. It is too upsetting for me.

 

A Wish Upon the Stars (TJ Klune)

The finale to the series about Sam of Wilds and his friends. The only thing that can compensate me for the loss of more books is the fact that I can reread these four again. Happy endings all around, marriage, recovery of lost unicorn horns, defeating the evil one, reclaiming the land for love, secrets revealed, relationships repaired, gay sex. It’s great. The author includes an endnote about how he started writing these books when he was in a dark place and needed some laughs, and these characters and their ‘overt immaturity’ really helped him a lot. They’ve helped add to my life’s store of happiness, too. It does make me question whether his other books will be as delightful as this series was. I’ll have to try one sometime and find out.

 

The Riddle-Master of Hed (Patricia A. McKillip)

Heir of Sea and Fire (Patricia A. McKillip)

Harpist in the Wind (Patricia A. McKillip)

Truth be told, I read this trilogy in a single volume, which has been published under more than one title. The one I borrowed is Riddle-Master: The Complete Trilogy, but I’ve also seen it as Riddle of Stars.

Morgon is a lot like Ged, the wizard of Earthsea in Ursula le Guin’s books. He’s just learning how to do magic, so he goes on a quest that spans the length of his known world to find an authority who will reveal to him who he is and what his life’s calling is. He thinks that he’s meant to rule over a peaceful island of farmers, but his life moves in a different direction. All the journeying is really typical of your Tolkien-based fantasy novels (McKillip admits the influence in her introduction), and Morgon even has to face the fact that the end of his journey is quite different to what he had imagined it would be.

But that’s only the first book. Part of Morgon’s journey was to complete a task that a local king had decreed would be rewarded with his daughter’s hand in marriage – Morgon had met her previously, having gone to college with her brother, so he was really okay with marrying Raederle if she would agree to it. The second book is about Raederle’s journey to find Morgon after he goes off to Erlenstar Mountain and never comes back. The series is full of women who are powerful rulers, fierce warriors, and even determined little sisters. While Raederle doesn’t set off with self-discovery in mind, it’s a strong element of her story as well.

In the third book, they’re finally together, but we see things mostly from Morgon’s perspective again. The conflict between multiple antagonists is finally coming to a head, with a giant war that spreads to all the lands. It’s sad, but McKillip does a good job of focusing on individual characters instead of faceless masses of humanity. The end is a new era, which we hope will be better.

I really like the way that McKillip doesn’t shy away from portraying abstractions, magic that can be perceived with the mind only and has no equivalent in our world. She takes up the challenge and does it well. I also appreciate her female characters for their strength, and the examples of nontoxic masculinity she provides as well. Some of the men are toxic, but not all, and Morgon’s journey has a lot to do with learning how to express his emotions. I like the fact that in the end, Raederle is still free to do as she likes, and that she and Morgon can love each other without living together. For the 1970s, the idea that a woman needs to grow in ways that don’t involve a man is sort of radically feminist. And true.

Once on a Time (A. A. Milne)

This is a fantasy book written for adults (now probably considered YA). Of course, that doesn’t mean that there’s anything inappropriate for children here, merely that they are not the primary audience. There are people who are bad and unhappy because they are miscast, and Milne makes sure we understand that – a good leader can be an underhanded, manipulative follower, and a good swineherd can make a careless, aggressive king. The difficulty in life is to figure out what people’s strengths are, what they are truly well-suited to, and then putting them in those roles. I’m seeing a lot of that in my management class, but it’s true here as well. Magic kingdoms that are somehow excessively small, transformations, foolish men, women who don’t actually need help – it’s a great book.

The Biology of Luck (Jacob M. Appel)

I read this book in unhappy circumstances, sitting on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck, but I don’t think I’d care much for it in the best of contexts. Protagonist writes a book for the woman he loves, recounting the day that he finally gets the courage to ask her to marry him but from her perspective, and then he waits for the day he has the letter from the publisher either accepting or rejecting it to ask the big question. So, we see the day from his side, as he gets his letter and tries to hang onto it during the course of his day as a tour guide. We also read the book he wrote, telling the day from her side, but the two stories keep intertwining, so Protagonist predicted the day accurately, with its deaths and disasters and everything. A better writer would take a little time to speculate on the nature of reality, whether Protagonist is trapped in his own story or whether he is influencing future events in which he is not involved, whether free will exists or we are all pawns in some cosmological plan that he got an accidental glimpse of, but Appel ignores it all. There is no meditation on the fabric of events because Protagonist is completely obsessed with this girl Starshine. She doesn’t think of him at all. He fills the same role in her life as the gay best friend, only without being gay. I’m really confused as to why he would portray the woman he loves as a manipulative bitch, but he does. The common folk would call her a cocktease – she holds the possibility of sex in front of men in order to get them to do what she wants, but she prefers not to actually let them touch her. The boyfriend she meets for lunch is fabulously wealthy and wants to take her away to Europe; the boyfriend she meets after lunch is fabulously sexy and wants to take her away to Europe as well. The first one is young and entitled, the second is older, muscular, and revolutionary. Sleeping with two men is enough; she doesn’t need more sex in her life, but she still presents herself as available to other men so they will donate to the nonprofit she works for or do whatever else she wants. Why does protagonist love her? He digs all into her psyche, but I can’t find anything there to justify his feelings for her.

This book is another example of how New Yorkers think that a book is good, interesting, and important simply because it is set in New York. There’s nothing else to recommend it.

The Witching Hour (Anne Rice)

I first picked this book up in the staff room at my workplace ten years ago. I read through the first chapter, and I knew that this book could completely take me over, so I put it down and decided to leave it alone. Until now. There’s something about Anne Rice’s writing that feels real; it didn’t feel like reading fiction at all. It was a complete experience for me. Which is good, because at over a thousand pages, it took me nearly three weeks to get through it.

This is really two books. Nestled in the center is an epistolary multigenerational Gothic novel, along the order of Daphne du Maurier, about a family of witches. In seventeenth-century Scotland, a girl named Suzanne was a local healer. She slept with a witch hunter who told her all sorts of stories about witches are supposed to be able to do, so she went outside and called forth a spirit who whipped up a storm. She named him Lasher. He guides, protects, and supports her descendants for the next three hundred years. Lasher picks up various tricks from them over the years. The witch gene doesn’t stick with only female children, though, so he gets the idea to breed them for magical talent the way a puppy mill inbreeds for floppy ears and gentle dispositions. There’s some gay content here, but since the gay men in the family also tend to fuck their sisters/aunts/daughters/mothers/nieces, it’s not as gay-positive as I’d prefer. The Talamasca is a group of scholars who try to learn about the paranormal and protect the Mayfairs from their own witchcraft. They provide some genetic material for the line as well.

The frame story, the second longer book, is about the newest witch, Rowan Mayfair. She’s a neurosurgeon sworn never to see the family in New Orleans, who rescues a hot drowning guy and falls for him. He’s a poor Irish from New Orleans as well, so just her type. He gets some psychic powers after his near-death experience, as well as a driving mission to help the Mayfair witches. Not the ones living now, all the dead ones. Lasher’s in on it too, glad to have finally found a Mayfair who understands enough about anatomy to give him corporeal form. I’ll admit that my attention started to flag sometime around page 850, but I pushed through and things got intense there at the end. It’s a good book, just very long. The other two books in the trilogy are of a reasonable length.

The Consumption of Magic (T. J. Klune)

This is the third in the series about the magically bitchy twinks who gather dragons to put down the Rising of the Darks. When we finished A Destiny of Dragons, Sam hadn’t quite forgiven his mentors for concealing some details from him, but he gets over it here. Things are getting too dangerous for him to pass up allies, and this is a book about reconciliation. Even Gary and Kevin get back together, and we’re all glad we don’t really have to imagine what unicorn-dragon sex looks like. Knight Delicious Face is still dashing and immaculate, though once Sam starts telling his own secrets things change a little. Prince Justin is a bit less of an asshole than he has been, so maybe Sam’s charisma is winning him over at last. As ever, Klune’s writing is a joy and a delight, and if I knew him I would be begging for a beef injection. I love this series so much. This isn’t the end, and this installment finishes on an Empire Strikes Back sort of a note.

 

I know that I usually discuss books in the month that I read them, but it’s the afternoon of March 2 and I’ve already finished two more, so I’m going to go ahead and discuss these as well.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J. K. Rowling)

I’ve heard people say that this series takes a dark turn in the fourth book, that the death of Cedric Diggory changes the series in less pleasant ways. I’d disagree – things get really dark here in Book Two. I know the movie makes him look like a Pixar chihuahua, but Dobby the Self-Harming House-Elf is really disturbing. Far from being the friendly sidekick, he’s one of the primary antagonists, despite the way he gives himself severe burns and bludgeoning trauma. It’s a miracle he hasn’t had any amputations. Then two fourteen-year-olds steal a car, only to have two twelve-year-olds steal the same car a few chapters on. Fortunately for it, the car goes feral and hides in the Forbidden Forest. Then there’s the giant spider, and the even gianter snake who kills on sight. Hagrid continues to be incredibly irresponsible with the children, even though it’s strongly implied that he’s sixty-three, so I feel like he should be more mature than he is. How long do half-giants live? How long does it take them to grow up? There’s also a great deal of cynicism in relation to celebrity culture and government authority, which will persist throughout the series. Bring on the darkness.

Prater Violet (Christopher Isherwood)

I read this book in about twelve hours, and most of those I was asleep. It’s the fictionalized account of Isherwood’s involvement on a motion picture in 1933 and 1934. The book focuses on his relationship with the Austrian director. There’s a lot of talk about politics, Hitler, and preparing for war – writing in 1945, Isherwood knew where things were going so he makes a big deal out of it, but the character Isherwood doesn’t know that World War II is just around the corner and just tries to keep the peace. The real meat of the book, for me, is in the last ten pages, where Isherwood starts thinking about what the experience means. What are we living for? In the midst of a worldwide economic and psychological depression, why do we bother to keep ourselves alive? It’s an expensive business, stuffing food and water in your mouth so that the cells keep replicating. It’s an interesting and intense burst at the end of the book. It got me thinking – he talks about how he takes lovers to hide from his fear and depression and hopes that eventually he will reach a point where he doesn’t need a man’s body to distract him from his terror and despair. I wonder if that’s what I’m doing. Why am I still with this guy? And if I do shake him off, how long will I stay single? Am I into relationships for the sex, or am I using men to avoid facing who I am and how I feel? Am I so in love with being alive that I really think it’s better than the alternative? Haven’t I always wanted the sort of adventure you never come back from? How aware am I of what’s going on in Venezuela, and to what degree does that make me complicit? Maybe I am just a stupid American, using more resources than an entire village, taking up more space than anyone has a right to, foolishly optimistic about the future and so not working to stop war or climate change. I’m hearing the girl from The Last Five Years, singing “I suck! I suck I suck I suck!”

This is another book that is just what I’m looking for right now: interesting, but not demanding.

Alan Lennox is a temp. I don’t mean a fresh-faced, wide-eyed young go-getter; I mean mid-twenties and realizing his life isn’t going anywhere. His best friend is Caitlin Ross, an actor whose career is not taking off, so she’s probably more accurately called a bartender. They have two roommates, Dakota Bell and Mark Park. Dakota works for a giant company and is probably the only one who can afford to live in their apartment (I never understand how these fictional kids can always manage to live in New York). Mark is a personal trainer, so people go on about how hot he is. For the first part of the book, it’s a bit like playing Six Degrees of Separation, as the threads of their lives gradually tighten. Of course, it was all a big evil plot.

You remember all those movies about machines becoming conscious and taking over? Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 2001: A Space Odyssey, that sort of thing? Imagine if that concept could be applied to a corporation. What would happen if a company could become sentient? Just how human can a business enterprise be? This is the idea that Olsen explores. Amalgamated Synergy as a single mind/entity takes over. She does weird things, like create departments that don’t do anything and buy and sell in pointless ways. When given complete control, the company doesn’t know what’s best for itself. She likes games, so she plays around with Work It, a sort of Second Life office environment simulator. And she falls in love with our boy Alan, Christine-style, and uses a combination of murder and manipulation to get him close to her, including killing his boyfriend, which is tragic because I really like him. They only go on one or two dates, but Pete’s great.

The one thing that is specifically human, which the machine doesn’t get, is the search for meaning. Meaning itself she can comprehend, but not the life that doesn’t have it but wants to. Like so many of us in our twenties, that’s where our main characters live. They look for meaning in their work, but it’s a challenge when your paycheck doesn’t match your self-perceived worth. Trust me, I have a lot of experience being underemployed. When society doesn’t recompense your work with enough money for food and shelter, you question not only the worth of your work but the worth of yourself as well. Caitlin gets shaken out of it in this overly long excerpt, but Alan never quite does.

They sat there in silence for a moment. Then she sat forward and turned towards him. “Okay, but why did you ask that?”

He took her hand. “I don’t know, honestly, I didn’t mean anything by it. You’re an actress, that’s great.”

“Actor,” she corrected immediately. “You don’t go to the doctress when you’re sick. Your colleagues aren’t accountresses.”

“I’ve made you angry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to.”

“Finish your thought,” she said. “You said, ‘And a bartender, I know, but . . .’ But what?”

“You’re just going to get madder and I honestly don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“Too late now, Aussie. Spit it out. But what?”

“But… being an actor and a bartender, that’s great, really, it is. But… they’re not real jobs, are they?”

And there went her evening, Caitlin thought. So much for showing off the hot Australian guy in the morning.

For some reason she couldn’t fathom, he was still talking. “I just mean – unless you’re a movie star or something, you can’t do it forever, right? I was just wondering if you had thought about what you might do when you’re a little older. That’s all. You don’t have to answer.”

“Oh, Lachlan, Lachlan, Lachlan. Beautiful Australian Lachlan.” She pulled her hand away from his. “Acting is an uncertain career, full of insecurity and doubt, and that has been a big, big problem for me lately. I admit, I’ve been having second thoughts. I haven’t been working much lately, haven’t even been getting a lot of call-backs.”

“Maybe…”

“Shush. I should thank you, I think. What you just said has made me so angry that I’ve realized how important what I do is to me. I really, really don’t give a shit if you don’t see any value in how I’ve chosen to live my life. That doesn’t matter.”

“I…”

“Still talking. What matters is that I see value in it. That I know there is value in it, worth in it, because the times when I’m on stage are the only times when I feel like I actually contribute something of meaning to the world. I’m an actor and I can’t be anything else. So if I really can’t do this for the rest of my life, I guess what I’ll do when I get older is starve.”

Lachlan was quiet, waiting to be sure she was finished. “I’m sorry, really, I am. I didn’t mean to offend you. I don’t know much about acting, I’m a numbers guy, maybe I’m just ignorant.”

“Maybe.” She didn’t look at him. She realized that at some point in this conversation she had decided to take the job at AmSyn on Monday.

He stood up. “The party’s winding down, looks like. I should get home. I’ll…I’ll call you.” He walked away.

She waited until he was gone, then sat there for a while longer, thinking.

The key to it is, of course, to stop deriving your self-worth from your job. Alan has people who love and care for him and don’t want him to be enslaved to a giant corporation, and that in itself should indicate that his life is worth something. I find that life is more rewarding when I think of self-worth in terms of what I give to and how I interact with specific people instead of society in a mass. The faceless public doesn’t give a shit; the individuals do. I suppose that’s another piece of Olsen’s project: the short-sighted self-centeredness of the corporate mind in contrast to the genuine love and support of the members. Focus on the units, not the aggregate.

It’s a bit strange, getting into a career when people have been predicting its demise for thirty years. The face of librarianship has changed a lot in that time, but the core mission remains the same: connecting people with the information they need. People will always need librarians, so I think this is a worthwhile career. But when the going gets tough, as it will, my personal mission in life doesn’t have to be my job. There are people who love me and don’t want to watch me starve to death, so I really think I’ll be okay, so long as I can remember that the job isn’t my life. Thinking of the film Across the Universe, it’s not what you do, it’s who you are.

This is a cute little book. I’ll probably continue the series: there’s one title for each of the four. Enjoyable, highly readable, great for winding down during a time of high stress.

In 1941, the similarities between Brett Halliday and Dashiell Hammett are more pronounced. It’s easy to read Mike Shayne as Humphrey Bogart, though I didn’t cast the rest of the book and he doesn’t have red hair.

Mike Shayne is a private detective with two apartments – one on a higher floor where he lives with his wife Phyllis, and one on a lower floor that he uses as an office. As he and Phyllis are preparing for a vacation in New York, he gets an urgent professional call. Some drugged girl wanders into his office, vaguely connected with an upcoming local election. As he’s getting his wife to the train station without her finding out about the girl, someone sneaks into the office and kills her. He does a decent job of pretending she’s just asleep when the police come with his reporter friend Tim Rourke, but then the body disappears.

The rest is as you’d expect. Menacing thugs, car chases, car wrecks, reappearing corpses, an insane asylum, a maid who desperately wants both to divulge some information and to ride Shayne’s ginger cock, and all the Miami politics that I’m beginning to see as a vital part of the Mike Shayne universe. If it isn’t organized crime and crooked politicians, Halliday doesn’t care.

One of the things that really struck me in this novel is the way Mike Shayne’s peers police his sexuality. It reminded me of Private Romeo, a not-that-great LGBT movie that locates Romeo and Juliet in an all-boys military school. We expect parents to guard their children’s behavior, but when Lord Capulet’s lines are suddenly coming from a seventeen-year-old, it gets sort of weird. Why is this boy acting in loco parentis? Is he homophobic, or is he trying to save Juliet for himself? But here, the police and Rourke aren’t trying to bed Mike Shayne; it’s as if somehow marriage is a fragile concept, and if Shayne has extramarital sex then the whole thing is fake. His infidelity would make their unrelated relationships mean less to them. He got the fairy-tale ending they all wanted in a previous book, and now they need him to live up to the Prince Charming role that they assigned to him. To be clear, Shayne doesn’t want to cheat on his wife with either the drugged girl or the maid – he loves his wife, and really is the white knight everyone needs him to be. But he needs the police to think he’s screwing the dead girl so they don’t look closely enough to realize she’s dead and start an investigation, and he accepts the fact that he might need to give it to the maid to get the information he wants. Of course, Halliday makes the maid disappear so Shayne is freed from temptation, but still. Everyone has an opinion on Mike Shayne’s sex life, and they all act as if their opinion should matter to him.

“It just goes to show,” Rourke went on, “what damn fools we all are when we pretend to be so tough. You and Phyllis were a symbol of some Goddamned thing or other around this man’s town. While you stayed straight it proved to all of us that the love of a decent girl meant something – and that was good for us. Every man needs to believe that down inside.” Rourke was talking to himself now, arguing aloud a premise which his cynicism rejected.

“That’s what distinguishes a man from a beast. It’s what we all cling to. There’s the inward conviction that it isn’t quite real – that it doesn’t mean anything – that we’re marking time until the real thing comes along – like Phyllis came along for you. And when that illusion is shattered before your very eyes – like with you today – it’s ugly, Mike. It’s a shock. It doesn’t laugh off easily.”

It does make me wonder about my relationship, and what I’m doing here. He’s convinced that we’re going to get married and live happily ever after, but I’m not convinced. I love him, and I’ll give him what time I can, but I don’t have that sense of finality. Maybe it’s because I have a hard time believing that anything endures, but I don’t see this as the last relationship I’m ever going to have. I’m getting what good I can out of it, but I’m not expecting forever.

KISS KISS BANG BANG

This movie claims to be based on the Halliday novel, but it’s more homage than picturization. Harry (Robert Downey Jr) is a small-time thief who blunders into an audition and gets shipped to Los Angeles because he can do the part and he looks sort of like Colin Farrell. Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) is hired to give him detective lessons, and they stumble into a plot that also has car chases, car wrecks, disappearing and reappearing corpses, and an insane asylum. Honestly, that part of it is straight out of Victorian sensation novels, especially The Woman in White. Being in Hollywood instead of Miami, the politicians are replaced by movie people, and some other plot points are adjusted to match 2005’s version of gritty (more severe than 1941’s). Also being in Hollywood, there’s an aspiring actress played by Michelle Monaghan. I think she’s pretty great, in this and in her other films. There’s actually a lot of conversation around the ethics of consent in the first part of the movie, RDJ being the good guy of course. But still, despite the occasional naked woman, my favorite sexy bit is when Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr make out in an alley. Gay Perry is my hero.

New Guy has been moving in with me over the last couple of weeks (one more reason to be behind in writing about books – I’m three behind again), so when I watched the movie to remind myself of it before writing here, he was there with me. He started to like it when MM cuts RDJ’s finger off halfway through; so afterward he felt like he had to tell me how boring he thought the first half was. Several times. And when I told him that I had gotten the message and he could stop saying that, he still had to say the word two or three more times. I didn’t feel like I needed to explain this, but apparently I do: when I say that I like this movie and I really want to watch it, a part of me identifies with it. When you insult my favorite movies, you’re telling me that I have bad taste – you’re insulting me. I’m ready to be lovers again, but I’m not quite as peaceful about it as I have been.

Brett Halliday’s novels are turning out to be just what I need in terms of reading during grad school: untaxing, relaxing, exciting. This is one of the first – Halliday (a pseudonym) began writing Mike Shayne novels in 1939, and in 1941 this is the fifth. He continued writing them until 1958, but other writers took over and continued writing the series until 1976. It’s a bit strange to think of Shayne’s career lasting almost forty years; he doesn’t seem to age. In terms of physical fitness and prowess, he’s just as good twenty-five years later as he is here, and his hair is never anything but red. I suppose we don’t like to see characters growing old, even though I think it’s a good thing. We all age, so we need healthy models to learn to do it well. No one learns to be healthy from reading Mike Shayne books.

I hope I don’t have to tell you how much I love this book. Love is so hard to quantify, and a look through my posting history ought to tell you that this is precisely the sort of book that I value highly. I know that some people see it primarily as a book about adultery, but that’s hardly the point. There’s an incident before the book begins, but there are no sexual acts performed by the characters during the course of the book. This is a book about justice and rehabilitation, not crime.

We begin with Hester Prynne. Back in early seventeenth-century England, she grew up in the country and was married to an old scholar. He decided to relocate to Boston, so he sent her on ahead. After two years without seeing or hearing from him, she started to give him up for dead. And then she becomes pregnant, and her troubles really begin. She has some jail time, and some public shaming on the scaffold where the stocks are kept. Then, for the rest of her life, she has to wear a red A on her chest as a constant reminder of her sin and shame. Well. We call it a red A, and Hawthorne calls it the scarlet letter, but the background fabric is red and the letter itself is in gold thread. It’s so beautiful that strangers sometimes mistake it for a badge of honor, and Hester’s artistic skill with the needle is so intense that no one can recreate what she’s done, not even by backing the thread out and tracing backwards. She takes her daughter to live in an abandoned house on the edge of town, and unleashes her artistic revolutionary soul in solitude. Hester has an acute awareness of the injustices of society against women, and dreams of being a prophet of the new age, proclaiming the equality and rights of women. Which leads to what I find to be one of the creepiest lines in the book:

The scarlet letter had not done its office.

From our position in the twenty-first century, it’s expected that we’ll admire Hester’s rebellious spirit – because she’s right. But Hawthorne is writing in the nineteenth century, when women were valued for their inactivity and endurance, and his story is set farther back still, two hundred years before his own time, when according to Virginia Woolf women were beaten and flung about the room with impunity. Besides, Hester’s rebellion drove her to break the law, and sending the attitude underground is no guarantee that she won’t break the law again. Outwardly she is a model citizen while inwardly she longs to burn the world down and start over. The town elders even begin to discuss allowing her to remove the scarlet letter, but she won’t let them take it from her. I don’t blame her – if I had a free pass out of social obligations, I would hang on to it too. The scarlet letter holds her outside of society, which helps her to have such a different perspective. She doesn’t want to be just like everybody else.

The letter represents human justice and all its inadequacies. The idea behind it is that forced suffering will teach criminals to value society and its laws, a sort of Stockholm syndrome hope. Divine justice, based on the idea that love heals and unites us, gives Hester a daughter, Pearl. Pearl is a weird kid, in a city full of weird kids. She’s light and graceful and dances all over the place, imaginative and artistic like her mother. Seeing these qualities in children often upsets adults because society trains us to pour our imagination into prescribed channels, but kids don’t know the prescribed channels, so it’s more like a flood that pours over everything. Nothing is off limits, no thought too strange, no subject too holy. She has a natural irreverence that seems to come with youth and intelligence. Hester traces all her iconoclasm to the crime that conceived her, but that’s Puritan values. Does anyone really want Pearl to be like other kids, who say things like:

Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!

Kids are jerks. But the town leaders worry about this one, and discuss taking Pearl away from Hester for the sake of her soul. They think Pearl will grow up better without being raised by the town harlot. But Hester argues passionately for her right to keep her child, and they relent. As the book progresses, Pearl drifts closer and closer to revealing her father’s secret, which is after all a major part of the real justice Hawthorne is portraying. And through the love of Pearl, Hester really does calm down and rehabilitate. She still sees the injustice, but she gives up the idea of changing things by herself. For Hawthorne, criminals have no place in the revolution. Women’s rights have to be won by blameless women. I understand his point, that in order for changes to happen at the top of society they need to be championed by people that society’s leaders will listen to, and it’s hard to get people to listen to a single mom with a criminal record. But if no one breaks laws, no one will realize the laws are unfair. If no one breaks taboos, society doesn’t change.

Roger Chillingworth is Hester’s husband. He didn’t die on the crossing from Amsterdam; he had been living among the Native Americans, learning their systems of healing. At the time we meet him, he’s skilled in four-humors medicine, alchemy, and homeopathy, which is the highest we could say for a doctor in the seventeenth century. He sees Hester’s public shame and convinces her to conceal his identity so he can search for the man who cuckolded him and drive him to confession. When he finds his target, he psychologically tortures him while tending to his illnesses – Chillingworth’s alchemy leads the man’s body to produce a scarlet letter on his chest, red on pale skin, the visible sign pushed out from the adulterous heart. Chillingworth frames this to himself as a quest for justice, but he’s really only interested in punishment and revenge. It reminds me a bit of the television program Lucifer, where the title character is constantly pointing out that the devil doesn’t take pleasure in sin – it’s his job to punish it, that’s all. TV Lucifer likes joy and tries to convince people to have a good time, so long as it remains innocent and consensual. I don’t mean devoid of alcohol, drugs, and sex; by innocent, I mean there is no malice. But as Chillingworth dives deeper into his vengeance, he takes joy in his victim’s suffering. For Hawthorne, this is worse than the adultery. Chillingworth learns to love malice; it becomes the only important feature of his character. By focusing exclusively on one goal, and that goal being to cause pain, Chillingworth becomes an evil caricature of his former self, twisted psychologically as much as he has scoliosis physically.

The fourth principal character is Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister who fucked Hester, both literally because he loves her and figuratively because he’s too afraid of losing his position to stand with her. Because of his fear, she has to go through all of this alone. While Hester is on the path of healing and Chillingworth is on the path of vengeance, Dimmesdale shows us the effect of hidden sin, crimes unconfessed. This theme gets a much more careful representation in Crime and Punishment, where Dostoevsky demonstrates the extreme stress of feeling guilty and holding it inside. Dimmesdale’s poor mental health affects his physical health as well, and he wastes away from the constant stress of seeming the opposite of what he feels himself to be. In many ways he’s like a closeted gay man – being gay isn’t sinful, but staying in the closet involves the same type of duplicity and vigilance. He has a secret that no one must infer; he must hide the core of who he is from everyone he meets. There is no relaxation, only self-hatred and lies. Even when alone, he just punishes himself. It’s no wonder he goes crazy and dies. The relief of confessing the reality of his soul is so intense, and the required change in his lifestyle is so extreme, that he collapses on the spot. But his confession is necessary for the closure in all the other stories as well – Chillingworth’s vengeance, Hester’s rehabilitation, and Pearl’s socialization all require it. Dimmesdale’s refusal to confess doesn’t just hurt him; it retards everyone’s progress. Secrets are poisonous, and there are very few that I find myself willing or able to keep. Those few are related to situations that I didn’t create and are none of my business, and the people I keep them for are very special to me indeed.

It is hard to calculate the impact of this book. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela has been called the first British novel because it was the first piece of extended prose fiction that delved heavily into the psychology of its protagonist; The Scarlet Letter holds a similar position in American literary history. I don’t mean to imply a bad opinion of Irving or Cooper; it’s just that Hawthorne popularized the inward look in a way that they didn’t. Charlotte Temple and Hope Leslie aren’t quite as meditative either, but the critics who defined The First Great American Novel would never have ascribed that title to one written by a woman, even though Charlotte Temple was the first American bestseller and Hope Leslie has an exploding pirate ship.

It’s fairly well-known that The Scarlet Letter changed the course of Melville’s career – he seems to have had a bit of a crush on Hawthorne, from the extreme praise he printed of Mosses from an Old Manse and Hawthorne’s discomfort on meeting him in person. People hear that he read The Scarlet Letter while writing Moby-Dick and then blame Hawthorne for all the cetology, but have you ever looked at White-Jacket? It’s the book before Moby-Dick, and it’s all about describing the mundanities of life on a man-of-war and drawing parallels to life in general. Hawthorne didn’t teach Melville to do allegory; he showed him that it’s possible to combine allegory with a good story. There doesn’t have to be a separation between the two. And, of course, critics at the time hated Moby-Dick, so The Scarlet Letter led to the bitterness that flowers so uncomfortably in Pierre and the later works.

It also had a strong effect on George Eliot. Her first full-length novel, Adam Bede, is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter in a Hardy-esque Wessex. Arthur Dimmesdale becomes Arthur Donnithorne, Hester Prynne becomes Hester Sorrel, and Roger Chillingworth becomes Adam Bede. Eliot focuses on the suffering rather than the justice, because she’s writing a tragedy rather than a journey. When I think of Adam Bede, though, I tend to focus on Dinah Morris’s story, the young woman preacher who marries Adam in the end. She reminds us that Eliot’s previous fiction is the Scenes from Clerical Life. Dinah shows us graphically that a woman can be a prophet, though she is the type of ‘pure’ woman that Hawthorne imagines central to gaining respect for women’s issues. In her own life as mistress to an unhappily married man, Eliot must have had a lot of sympathy for Hester Prynne, more than I could muster for Hettie Sorrel back when I read Adam Bede for the first time. Hester is intelligent and artistic, two qualities I value, but Hettie’s just a pretty face masking a pile of discontent. I never understood what Adam Bede saw in her.

The biggest effect, though, is in the way Hawthorne taught us to think about the Puritans. By all accounts they were never as ugly, joyless, and strict as he represents them. But The Scarlet Letter is more often and less critically read than historical documents, so people assume Hawthorne knew what he was talking about. He was closer to us in time than to his subject. It’s like the whole Jonathan Edwards thing. In school, we read “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” and assume that he and all the other Puritans were obsessed with hell and believed in a God of hate, disappointed in our goodness because he longs to throw us into the fire like unwanted spiders. But if you read Edwards’s journals, you find that he was a mostly happy guy who loved nature, God, and the people around him. He was a lot closer to modern evangelicals than people think when they only read the one revival sermon. In fact, we’re so similar that a few years ago someone made a movie of Emma Stone as Hester Prynne in a modern California high school.

Of course, with me being who I am, I see it as a story of two people who fall in love in a society that tells them that they can’t. And despite all of the bullshit, Hester and Arthur really do love each other.

And, as if the gloom of the earth and sky had been but the effluence of these two mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow. All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the gray trunks of the solemn trees. The objects that had made a shadow hitherto, embodied the brightness now. The course of the little brook might be traced by its merry gleam afar into the wood’s heart of mystery, which had become a mystery of joy.

Such was the sympathy of Nature – that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth – with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!

Love is love. Hester’s marriage to Chillingworth, which even he admits was a mistake, creates some legal troubles, but her love with Arthur is as real and intense as anyone else’s. Hidden, but real. It draws my attention back to my own situation, of being in an affair with a man who is still legally married to his wife. I’ll admit that I don’t completely understand why he lives as he does, especially when I see how little happiness it brings him. I guess Norman Bates is right, that some people get stuck in traps and can’t get out of them. I’m doing my best to motivate him, but he has to get out of this on his own. I can’t do it for him.

I read this book during my transition to a new house in a new town. I’ve been having to take a lot of self-care time these last few weeks, but hopefully I’ll be able to put more time and attention into being a student and less into being a ball of anxiety. Getting my financial aid check will help – food insecurity makes everything else seem unimportant.

Speaking of perceived unimportance, I want to put in a good word for “The Custom House.” A lot of people skip it, but I find it a delight. Hawthorne describes his time working for the government as a customs agent and a few of the incredibly aged people who work there with him. He stresses the importance of paying attention to daily life, which is a skill I don’t always have.

The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by the reality of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted the insight and my hand the cunning to transcribe it. At some future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the letters turn to gold upon the page.

It’s hard to understand what’s important as we’re going through the daily round. When do changes take place inside us? How do our desires and needs change? Why is literature so interested in moments of change rather than moments of stasis? When it comes to life, I’m better at the big picture, the broad strokes. Other people are good at the diurnal continuity. I think that a life well lived needs both; I value the part that I’m good at because I value myself, and people who are good at the everyday stuff should do the same.

I hesitate to make sweeping generalizations, like Everyone should read this book, but everyone should really read this book. It’s about justice, forgiveness, and living openly and honestly without fear. We all make mistakes, so it’s important to learn how to restore our sense of ourselves when we’ve violated our internal laws. None of us lives up to our own standards all the time, so we have to forgive ourselves and press forward. It’s a book about how to go on living when you start to hate yourself, as well as how to stop hating yourself once you start. It also stresses the importance of gender equality, and we’re still working on that nearly two hundred years later. The long sentences and advanced vocabulary can be a challenge, but I think it’s worth it.

As an undergraduate, I found writing feminist literary criticism to be incredibly simple. You begin with the assumption that somewhere in this text, a man is oppressing a woman, and then you look for the evidence to support that fact. There’s always evidence. I think I would have been a better thinker if I had trained myself to examine the text for what’s there before imposing my narrative on it, but I was more concerned with reading than with writing intelligently. I’m not saying that every feminist literary critic did that, but I know that I sure did. Whenever you start with a narrative and then impose it on the world, you really will find evidence to support your narrative. It’s called confirmation bias.

Martin Grotjahn was a Freudian psychoanalyst in the 1950s. Freud applied a narrative to human development, and his followers kept telling the same story over and over again, as if all human beings were the same. Boys (the significant gender) are born and derive nourishment from their mothers. Their fathers intervene at some point and the boys are weaned. This creates hostility between the child and his father and strengthens the boy’s desire for his mother, while at the same time also creating hostility for the mother as well. The mother is simultaneously loved and hated, while the father is merely hated. As the child grows, all desire is merged with the desire for the mother, so when we call someone a mother fucker we’re merely saying that he’s accomplished what we all want to do. In the mind of the growing child, all authority is merged with the father, whether religious, political, or professional. We men rebel against authority in order to kill the father (symbolically) and thus enjoy the satisfaction of our desires, permanent access to our mothers’ breasts. They call this narrative the Oedipal complex, because of that Greek myth where the guy accidentally killed his father and married his mother.

How is this related to humor? I’m glad you asked. As you can tell from their story, we all hate everyone all the time, but we can’t all live in isolated cells, so we mask our hostility in wordplay and veil our insults in wit. Jokes are a disguised form of aggression. We laugh because of the frisson between the hostility and the playful disguise. Sometimes the hostility is itself a mask for attraction (see above for why we hate and love the same person), as in the cases of Beatrice and Benedick, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Britta Perry and Jeff Winger. The quality of the disguise determines the quality of the humor.

Grotjahn does acknowledge that this style of wit is masculine in our culture, and that women can joke without hating each other – cross reference that to Deborah Tannen’s comments on gendered forms of workplace communication – but women are different to men. According to the Freudians, men are afraid not only that their fathers are going to make them starve to death, but that their fathers are going to cut their penises and/or testicles off. A girl looks down at herself, sees that she has no penis or testicles, and assumes that the worst thing that could happen to her has already happened, so there’s no use fussing about it. The Freudian woman can thus accept the world as a terrible place where incredible violence is being done to women without complaining. I think that Freud followed this interpretation by shouting, “Bitch, make me a pie!” Seriously? Grotjahn doesn’t see women as rebelling?

I find it unfortunate that our ancestors didn’t think to define ‘man’ as ‘a human being lacking a vagina.’ I don’t have one, but society doesn’t see that lack as anything to be lamented. Why is penis the default? According to Grotjahn, men are seriously envious of women’s ability to bear children. Creativity comes from the uterus, which means that as men we can only embody destructive impulses. As I said, we hate everyone and everything. Men who create art are really only expressing their jealousy that we can’t get pregnant. Grotjahn takes some time here to make sure we understand the difference between art and entertainment: art helps us to deal with our hostilities in a disguised fashion, while entertainment only distracts us from our hostilities. With this simple formula, it should be easy to confront your video collection and divide them into movies that are art and movies that are entertainment. Try it; you’ll see how easy it is.

A complication of the Oedipal narrative is ‘the primal scene,’ meaning that at some point every boy watches his parents having sex. I never did, but that’s probably because I’m not European (we all know that Freud was Austrian, and with a name like Grotjahn, he has to be Dutch). The mother’s cries are interpreted as pain rather than pleasure, so the child believes the mother is being attacked or killed. This is yet another reason not to use the missionary position. The child believes that the father is murdering the mother at night, but then she’s awake and happy in the morning, which is incomprehensible (see Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Every crime, every mystery, every murder is a return to the primal scene. Murder mysteries and westerns are apparently our attempts to understand the fact that fathers fuck mothers, which sort of explains rape culture as well. If little boys see consensual sex and confuse it with rape, then of course they’ll stay confused about the importance of consent unless someone talks to them about it. In the United States, parents seem to have decided that talking about sex with their children is too uncomfortable, so every group of teenagers has to reinvent the wheel, making the same mistakes and committing the same crimes over and over again.

What’s that you say? You know a man whose life and psyche don’t fit this narrative? Well, he’s probably gay. Homosexuality gives the Freudians an out, a reason for data points that don’t conform to their line. Grotjahn says that gay men are helpless in the face of their own perversion, so they shouldn’t be discriminated against. It sounds sort of advanced for the 1950s, but in today’s terms it’s not. This is why I don’t get excited about Pope Francis arguing that discrimination is bad – he still thinks we’re freaks, his church still teaches that we need to stay celibate or burn in hell, he just thinks it’s important to love the hellbound aberrations. For the Freudian, gay men are as incomprehensible as women.

Okay, so how much of this shit do I actually believe? Not a whole lot. I think of children as pre-sexual, so I don’t think infants are having Oedipal fantasies of mother fucking. I can agree that a lot of wit is inspired by hostility, whether directed at the self or others, but I don’t think that’s the only source of humor or enjoyment. If there’s a song that I like, not because it helps me deal with my deep-seated issues but because I like the melody, does that mean it isn’t art? Of course not. Psychology and psychiatry, as professions, have moved beyond Freud. His ideas started the modern form of these professions, but now we also think of Freud as someone with a screwy childhood who became famous by trying to convince women they weren’t being raped by their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, or cousins. Freudianism explains male objectification of women, but doesn’t fight against the objectification. It treats objectification as the normal state of things, as if it’s natural to see the penis as the source of all power in the universe.

Obviously I have many problems with Freud’s theories, and Grotjahn’s book reminds me of most of them. For students of Freud, this is a great introduction to his ideas. Grotjahn was writing for a general audience, so the style is very approachable and he seldom uses phrases like ‘penis envy.’ And, he’s analyzing jokes, and humor makes everything better. He does spend a lot of time talking about Jewish jokes, which can seem a little racist – frankly, every minority I know of tells self-deprecatory jokes that highlight society’s injustices toward them, so singling out Jews is a little weird to me. I guess this is the minority community he had the most access to. So, this book is interesting, dated in offensive ways, and not to be read uncritically. For instance, have you considered the fact that the God of the Bible does not laugh, and have you wondered why that is? Might explain why so many conservative Christians have a hard time with humor. After all, people in the Bible who laugh are generally punished for it. Now, measure that statement against your own experience and beliefs. You’re saying that there are people who believe that someone created a duck-billed platypus without laughing during the process?

Platypus mothers have little channels built into their bodies. They lie back and excrete their milk into the channels and the babies lap it up, because you can’t nurse with a duck bill. Tell me, Freud, what do you make of that?

When you find your seat you glance at the businessman sitting next to you and decide he’s almost handsome. This is the second leg of your trip from Miami to Casablanca, and the distance traveled already has muted the horror of the last two months. What’s to stop you from having a conversation with this man, possibly even ordering two vodka tonics with the little lemon wedges that the flight attendant will place into your plastic cups with silver tongs? He’s around your age, thirty-three, and, like you, appears to be traveling alone. He has two newspapers in his lap, one in Arabic, and the other in English. If you get along well enough, you could enjoy a meal together once you get to Casablanca. You’ll go to dinner and you’ll sit on plush, embroidered pillows and eat couscous with your hands. Afterwards, you’ll pass by the strange geometry of an unknown skyline as you make your way back to one of your hotels. Isn’t this what people do when they’re alone and abroad?

But as you get settled into your seat next to this businessman he tells you he plans to sleep the entire flight to Casablanca. Then, with a considerable and embarrassing amount of effort he inflates a neck pillow with his thin lips, places a small pill on his outstretched tongue, and turns away from you and toward the oval window, the shade of which has already been shut.

Thus begins a book about disappointments, betrayal, and starting over. The entire book is told in the second person, so the protagonist is always this ‘you’, and while I understand that this can be an effective rhetorical strategy to make the audience empathize with the protagonist, it came out as false and forced to me, because she is constantly making choices that I wouldn’t. It took me a long time to read this book, much longer than it should have because it’s so short, because of the cognitive dissonance between me and her.

But really, my biggest problem with the book is that it ends too quickly. A number of events happen to shatter her sense of identity (we never do learn her name), but she doesn’t create a new sense of herself as a whole person. She has one big scene where she cries over the people she’s lost, but that only moves her from Denial to Anger. There’s no healing; she just keeps running, inventing false identities, jumping on whatever is going to get her through the next ten minutes. At the end, the author makes it clear that she’s really looking for herself, the self that she has lost, but she just runs again. She doesn’t reach any stability or honesty; nothing is resolved. The stakes actually get smaller and smaller as the book goes on, the opposite of the usual trajectory, so that her last change of identity is simply to avoid social embarrassment in front of a group of total strangers, people she has never seen before and will never see again, except for the one person who knows her trauma and would be sympathetic. So maybe she doesn’t get out of Denial after all.

People going on vacation really need to take some time to think and plan it out. If you’re going to Casablanca, watch the movie and see what it’s like: a rat’s nest of criminal activity that no one wants to be in. I’m sure that there are lovely bits in the city, and some really nice people, but when the guidebook says that the first thing to do when you arrive in Casablanca is to leave, maybe it’s best not to go there at all.

As part of the whole identity shift, she spends a good part of the middle of the book working as a stand-in for a famous American actress (also unnamed). Things seem good here at first, but she starts to be too good, and the director tells the famous actress to take some notes from the stand-in, and that is problematic. The actress also sends her on a date with a wealthy Russian that she wants to distance herself from, but the girl is more successful than she is with him as well, and some photographers get shots of her drunk and falling over, and of course they assume she’s the actress. Role reversal at work plus tabloid smack equals no more job. But it’s while she’s acting, doing a scene in a big mosque, that protagonist lets go of her tears and is finally able to admit to herself what happened. Acting can be a means of self-revelation, even revealing the self to the self, finding bits of you that you were hiding from. I don’t think I was very good at it – I had the desire to be someone else that so many teenage amateur actors have, but I didn’t have the self-knowledge to portray feelings appropriately. If you don’t know what you’re feeling, you can’t display feelings well. Also, I was too tightly self-controlled to emote much in my daily life, and that makes it hard to do it on a stage. Subtleties can be hard to read at that distance.

Life is hard. But sometimes we make choices that make it harder, and this protagonist just keeps making things difficult for herself. We never see her actually pay for her bad choices because she never has a moment where the choices in the book catch up to her. She has the one moment where she faces her trauma, but then she goes right back to running away from the consequences of her decisions, and that makes it really hard for me to identify with her, or even like her.

If you’re fond of books that imply that the best way to deal with trauma is to keep lying and keep running, and if you are about to get caught then lie and run some more, then this is the one for you. If you’re looking for a book that involves learning to deal with trauma in healthy ways, then stay away. There is so much poor mental health here, and very little healing.

Clive Barker’s horror stories generally touch me in a way that few stories of any type do, but this collection didn’t do as much for me as he usually does. At least part of that is my fault; I’ve been stuck in this malaise, that vague dissatisfaction with life that makes enjoyment of anything more difficult. Books are seeming sort of exciting at the store, but by the time I get them home, I’ve lost interest. It seems that way with most things, actually. Not a lot of joy these days.

SON OF CELLULOID

A dying criminal breaks into a movie theatre and somehow merges with film. Now, he can alter his own appearance and the world around him in order to kill people. Someone goes into the bathroom after a show, and they end up on the main street of a Wild West town, where they get shot for taking a shit in the middle of town. Or maybe Marilyn Monroe appears to a man in a dark hallway and kills him as he reaches for her. Death must be awfully lonely; otherwise, ghosts wouldn’t spend so much time forcing people to join them. The less attractive woman wins in this one.

RAWHEAD REX

This story was made into a film, which I found odd because Rex was the hardest creature for me to visualize. It’s kind of like in Signs, which a lot of people enjoyed right up until they reveal the alien. It was a little too much like the Jolly Green Giant. Rex is sort of humanoid, but he has a furry body (I think) and a head that looks like the skin has been pulled off, or maybe like it’s been boiled or something. He’s also nine feet tall and has a giant mouth that he uses to eat people. The story is a little Godzilla-ish.

CONFESSIONS OF A (PORNOGRAPHER’S) SHROUD

An accountant leads a normal, boring life, until it’s revealed that his client is a distributor of pornographic films. When things get bad and gangster-film-ish, the accountant gets the blame for the entire operation, even though he didn’t even know what was going on. He gets killed, and finds a way to press his consciousness into the white sheet they put over him in the morgue. He then sets off to kill the guys who framed him.

SCAPE-GOATS

This one seems much more filmable. Four college kids go on a sailing trip through those little island groups in northern Scotland. Two of the kids are a couple, the others are the boy’s best friend and the girl who secretly has a crush on the boy. She’s the narrator. So, when the couple start having sex on deck, the other guy goes looking for the other girl, and there’s some questionable consent activity. He drops his trunks and rubs his erection on her, and she seems to have the attitude, it’s a fine enough penis when you’re not thinking about the dick it’s growing out of, so I might as well let him fuck me. It’s sad to me, how entitled he feels to her body, and how little resistance she makes to unwelcome advances.

So they get to this island to have more sex on the beach, and they find a pen with a few sheep. No people, no civilization, just some random sheep inside a little fence. Naturally, the vaguely rape-y boy kills one, just because he feels like murdering something after being too drunk to get his second erection of the morning. Just as naturally, now they all have to die. The place is full of the ghosts of sailors who have died on this tiny island, and the sheep are there because they like sheep. You fuck with their sheep, you die. No survivors in this one, but you don’t really expect there to be.

HUMAN REMAINS

The rent-boy has, of necessity, a short career. Men who are willing to pay for sex are only willing to pay for a specific type of experience, and they don’t want to have to pay for someone like me, a guy in his late thirties who has to fight to stay thin because he can’t afford a new wardrobe or the self-hatred that would come with needing a wardrobe of larger clothes. No, they want someone like I was twenty years ago, scrawny and energetic and naïve, or someone like I never was, young and muscular and well-endowed. By the time the rent-boy reaches an age where he questions the direction his life is taking, he’s forced to ask those questions because his sell-by date is right around 24. My metabolism took its first hit at 23, which is probably what happens to these guys. It gets harder to look like a child, so johns pass them up for someone who still looks like they’re underage.

Gavin has reached this transitional stage in his life, when he has no education and only one marketable skill, but the market for that skill is drying up. One night his trick has a strange wooden statue in the bathtub. It’s a doppelganger, and it gradually takes over Gavin’s appearance and life. Like most mature sex workers, he fades away while being replaced with the newer model.

Sometimes, horror stories are about finding unlikely hope and overcoming insurmountable obstacles. Sometimes, horror stories are about hope being crushed and the pointlessness of attacking insurmountable obstacles. The good horror writers can usually find some beauty in the world, no matter which strategy they’re using. I haven’t been in a good headspace to see the beauty – I hope that changes. Soon.

During the course of his career, Forster published two collections of short stories, and then they were combined to form this volume. There were several other stories that he didn’t publish, and they came out posthumously as The Life to Come and Other Stories. The posthumous volume consists of stories that are overtly gay, and this one contains the stories that aren’t. In many of these stories, the gay content is still there, if you’re willing to look at it that way. I know I am.

My edition has no information about the writing of these stories, but if I remember the introduction to The Life to Come correctly, all of these were written before World War I, even though the second collection came out in 1928. If you’re accustomed to Howards End or A Room with a View, these stories are likely to strike you as strange. Many of them are allegorical fantasies, and while I love those, they don’t seem to be much in vogue at the moment. Critics pounced on Collateral Beauty, for example, because the personifications of Love, Time, and Death are portrayed differently than expected. I’ll admit that I had a hard time with Love the first time I saw it, but then you could argue that love doesn’t come easily to me in real life either. I idealize the concept based on the fictions I’ve read and watched, and then get upset when it doesn’t turn out the way I want. I guess that makes Keira Knightley better than I expect her to be.

THE STORY OF A PANIC

Of the supposedly not-gay stories, this one is probably the gayest. A conventional English family is on holiday in Italy, and during a picnic, everyone feels a rush of panic and runs from the scene, all but the teenage son. He feels a delicious languor and stays, but doesn’t talk about the experience. It seems like they’re running from a suddenly blossoming gayness, and he welcomes it. Their guide warns them to let him stay out at night so that he doesn’t die of unfulfilled longing, but of course they lock him up and he has to escape. His longing is for nature and privacy with a lovely Italian boy, so of course I see it as gay. It’s like he was touched by the god Pan, but it’s traditional society that starts to panic and constrain him. Life and health are to be found in the fulfilling of desire, while following societal conventions leads to illness and death.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HEDGE

Imagine life as a path we’re all walking down, bounded on both sides by thick hedges. We see the dusty road and the hedges look dying and wilted. Protagonist slips to the other side, and sees that reality is wider and more full of life than he had imagined. Of course the hedge is death and he discovers an atheist nature lover’s heaven, with grass and trees and streams. It’s nice.

THE CELESTIAL OMNIBUS

Does this sound like Hawthorne? It should. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a story called “The Celestial Railroad,” a parody of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In Bunyan, the pilgrim has to travel a long and difficult road full of temptations to reach the Celestial City, the allegorical heaven. Hawthorne’s story is about taking the train instead of walking – you skip all those distractions (temptation, suffering, exertion) and go straight to the gates of the City. However, the train doesn’t go through the gate; it turns sharply down and drags you to hell instead. Hawthorne wanted people to understand that you can’t skip over the hard things in life, and there’s no way to keep someone both sheltered and worthwhile. Truly decent people have enough experience of the world to have compassion for others and the ability to help them in their troubles, so you can’t become decent by shutting yourself up and reading your Bible all day long.

Forster’s omnibus doesn’t go to the Christian Heaven. The boy who rides the bus goes to the place where stories come from and live, so he meets Achilles and Tom Jones and all the other characters from the books he’s read. He tries to take his tutor there, but the older man insists that these stories should be kept separate and that these are good and those are not, so of course he suffers and can’t stay. The story is about leaving children free to find joy in literature where they can instead of telling them which books to appreciate and why. To some extent, this is why I wasn’t so great at teaching literature: I can’t always articulate why I love a book, or why students should. I don’t know how to communicate my own sense of beauty and wonder because I’m so frequently left speechless by them. It’s a bad idea to try to teach a book that leaves you without words. I also share the protagonist’s universal love of literature; I love all the wrong things.

OTHER KINGDOM

It’s a common enough story. A girl who is pretty and imaginative catches the eye of a man who is rich and conventional. He claims to value her for the wildness she brings into his life, but he immediately contains it and forces her into his own conventionality. It was never about valuing her sense of adventure; it was about taming her to prove his own power. It’s a sad story about a woman who wants a place of her own and the husband who ruins it for her.

THE CURATE’S FRIEND

I took myself in, and for a time I certainly took in Emily. I have never known a girl attend so carefully to my sermons, or laugh so heartily at my jokes. It is no wonder that I became engaged. She has made an excellent wife, freely correcting her husband’s absurdities, but allowing no one else to breathe a word against them; able to talk about the sub-conscious self in the drawing-room, and yet have an ear for the children crying in the nursery, or the plates breaking in the scullery. An excellent wife – better than I ever imagined. But she has not married me.

The curate meets a faun in the woods and gets blocked from the heterosexual marriage narrative. He took the girl and a neighbor boy on a picnic, and the faun (invisible to them) got the girl and boy together instead of helping the curate get the girl for himself. There’s a bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream in this. In the end, the curate realizes he’s happier without marriage, which has often been the conclusion of homosexuals who strike out with the opposite sex. As with the panic story above, proximity to nature and existence outside the marriage narrative seems to indicate there’s some gayness. Were I directing this as a play, the gayness would be more obvious, but a closeted first-person narrator isn’t going to slip up and reveal anything.

THE ROAD FROM COLONUS

This is the story I’ve seen anthologized the most, but I don’t see it as all that different from the others. I guess someone just picked this one (having an old man who changes might appeal to the old men who made the selections long ago) and then everyone else kept picking it because it was cheaper than asking the printer to set a different story.

Another conventional English family is traveling in Italy when their old man finds a spring of water bubbling up inside a dead tree. He stands inside the tree, in the spring, and feels a sudden restoration of youth and energy. He wants to stay, but his family insists he push on with them. They literally sneak up behind him, pick him up, and place him on the donkey when he tries to stay. With the best intentions, they ruin the end of his life. After they leave, there’s a natural disaster and the area is destroyed. Did nature throw a tantrum because he left, which he could have averted by staying? Did his children steal him from a happy death and force him into a miserable life? However you choose to interpret it, it seems that no one is free from the bonds of society – young and old, male and female, rich and poor, we’re all circumscribed by the people we live among. It seems so necessary to choose carefully whom we live among instead of accepting life’s default by living among our closest blood relations.

THE MACHINE STOPS

This begins the second group of stories, published in 1928. This also seems to be the story with the most scholarly work done on it. This is unusual for the collection because it’s high-concept science fiction, more H. G. Wells than D. H. Lawrence. It’s also very timely; people live in isolated, Matrix-like cells and communicate through the internet, constantly on a version of Facebook where they spend all day sharing their thoughts and watching videos. Forster makes them more like TED talks than like that one of the cat wearing a shark costume and riding a Roomba, but the concept is the same. The Machine feeds them and caters to their physical needs, except exercise and genuine human interaction. People are allowed to go outside, but they are discouraged from wanting to, and the guy who wants out eventually folds to peer pressure. Of course, what happens when the machine breaks down? They have to come up to the surface and try to live in the real world they’ve never seen. There are obvious ties to Huxley’s Brave New World.

THE POINT OF IT

The protagonist ends up in hell because he doesn’t understand the point of it. Forster’s Bloomsbury friends claimed that they didn’t get the point of it either. Scene 1: A sickly boy insists on rowing a boat across a difficult river, even though his companion is much more physically fit than he is. The effort kills him, but he dies happy. The friend doesn’t understand. Scene 2: The friend goes on to live a quietly ordinary life following the path of least resistance that his class privilege lays before him (also race and gender privilege), never making waves, always going along to get along. He never understands the point of doing otherwise. Scene 3: The friend is in hell, a bleak desert of prone figures. He eventually figures out that he can stand up, walk to a river, and cross it into heaven, but he first has to understand what the point of it is. It seems obvious to me, the point is that exertion is its own reward, that resistance is necessary to a life worth living, that we all need to see ourselves as heroes. The path society sets before us leads to complacency, tedium, bleakness, and hell. The Stonewall patrons weren’t trying to make history; they just got sick of being told they couldn’t choose their own identities. The point of it is to resist enslavement by society’s conventions, even if it kills you, because the alternative is a long, slow death and a longer, slower hell.

MR ANDREWS

Mr Andrews has died and is going on up to heaven. He meets a Turkish fellow who is doing the same. They find heaven to be exactly as their religions taught them to imagine it, but with enough space for them both to have the heaven they believe in. They both find it boring after a while, and decide to join the World Soul instead, which is a far more ecstatic experience than they could have dreamed. The forms of organized religion are so limiting, and can’t take us to ultimate happiness. For that, we have to let go of the forms and let reality take us where it wants us to go.

CO-ORDINATION

Protagonist is an unhappy music teacher. She has to teach pairs of girls the same duet all day long. It’s part of the school’s system of coordination, which means that everyone teaches the same topic in their different subjects. So, suppose this month the topic is Napoleon. The kids will read stories about the Wars in literature class, get the real history in their history class, see French armies in their word problems in math class, and study ballistics in science class. Some educators find it to be effective, but the forced conformity is here presented as stifling, and as with The Celestial Omnibus, Forster seems to advocate an educational system based on following the students’ interest, with the chief aim to provoke delight rather than correct test answers. Aesthetic sensibility triumphs over strict regulation, and if the teacher is released from her position, that’s really not such a bad thing.

THE STORY OF THE SIREN

As with many of the stories from the first half, we have a journey to Italy and a classical allusion. It starts with a young man losing his dissertation in the water (a similar thing happened in one of the stories from The Life to Come), and then he meets someone who tells him the story. You remember the sirens from the Odyssey; beautiful women who sing to men and lure them to their deaths. In this telling, you can only hear the song once, and if you’re prevented from following it, you spend your whole life wasting away from desire, likely to drown yourself to be able to hear it again. Being touched by magic unfits you for the life of society, and you have to plunge into nature like the boy who gets fucked by Pan in that Panic story. You don’t plunge, you die; you do plunge, you likely die anyway. Everyone dies; the question is, how? Do you live the life of daring and die reaching for a goal you can’t reach, or do you live a life of quiet desperation and die with the knowledge that your life was wasted? This seems the question the siren asks, as well as Forster, but people are obviously better off if the question never occurs to them. It’s easier to hate your life if everyone else does too; being called into a life of fulfillment is scary and could lead to death, but I think it might be better to taste fulfillment and die young than live to an old age and never feel complete or satisfied. Long and empty, or short and full? Realistically I know those aren’t our only options, but it’s hard to have a life you value if you don’t risk it every now and again.

THE ETERNAL MOMENT

An elderly author comes back to Italy, where she had fallen in love with the young local who inspired her first novel. They each followed the conventional paths society chose for them: she remaining single and virginal, he becoming vulgar and overweight. Athletes who let their figures go can be so disappointing.

For she realized that only now was she not in love with him: that the incident upon the mountain had been one of the great moments of her life – perhaps the greatest, certainly the most enduring: that she had drawn unacknowledged power and inspiration from it, just as trees draw vigour from a subterranean spring. Never again could she think of it as a half-humorous episode in her development. There was more reality in it than in all the years of success and varied achievement which had followed, and which it had rendered possible. For all her correct behaviour and lady-like display, she had been in love with Feo, and she had never loved so greatly again. A presumptuous boy had taken her to the gates of heaven; and, though she would not enter with him, the eternal remembrance of the vision had made life seem endurable and good.

Which is why it’s better to go ahead and enter the gates. A handsome man takes you off into nature and offers a pleasant, consensual experience, I say take it. I don’t regret the sex I’ve had, but I do regret the opportunities I let pass by.

I seriously loved this story collection. It’s weird and different and a little bit gay, and I think it’s great. As I said, not typical of the novels of his I’ve read, but I like them so much more. In a shorter form, he really hits the theme of resisting conventions because society strangles people faster and harder than in the novels. These are good stories, and should be read more often than they are.

 

I do thoroughly enjoy a Dashiell Hammett story. That being said, Go watch the movie for this one. It’s unusually faithful to the book, so you’ll actually get a good impression of what Hammett is about in a shorter period of time. The only major difference is in how Spade looks – Hammett’s isn’t exactly Humphrey Bogart.

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.

Spade is also more given to outbursts of temper.

So, this is the story of a San Francisco private detective. He’s partners with Miles Archer and lovers with Miles’s wife, though he doesn’t seem to like either of them very much. A young woman comes into their office and asks for help locating someone. Miles agrees and gets killed immediately, along with the man they were supposed to find. Over time, it becomes clear that the girl is part of an international gang of jewel thieves who are all trying to double-cross each other and take the prize for themselves, the prize being a falcon encrusted with gems and painted black. The leader is Mr Gutman, and they don’t body-shame him in the book as they do in the film. There’s a kid named Wilmer who demonstrates the elegance of early twentieth century euphemism:

The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second “you.”

There’s also an effete Greek named Joel Cairo that everyone assumes is gay. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but he doesn’t actually make a grab for anyone, so who’s to say? Add the girl and her missing, quickly murdered bodyguard and that’s it. Rather a small cast for the amount of lying and backstabbing, but I suppose it doesn’t take a big group if you’re committed to your work. Also, Gutman has a daughter who plays a very minor role in the book who was dropped from the film.

In some ways, all mystery novels are dedicated to the search for truth. If the Maltese Falcon represents truth, or beauty, or whatever it is we’re all supposed to be looking for, then the search is stupid. These characters dedicate their lives to searching for the bird, and most of them die before they find it. The quest eats up people’s lives, and just when you think you’ve found it, you find you’re holding a fraud. Kind of a bleak message, but this was 1929. Bleak was in.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I’ve been in the mood for mysteries lately, and this is a good one. The movie is good too.