Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Transatlantic" by Colum McCann

I will preface this by admitting that I am one of those awful human beings who not only managed to escape school with a bare rudimentary scrape of historical knowledge, but further does nothing to patch the leaky sinking boat, floundering in a sea of ignorance. Therefore I devoured Mr. McCann's story in the April 16th edition of the New Yorker in a state of giddy bliss, the will-they-won't-they dynamic providing the perfect "tug" through to the end.

Then I consulted Wikipedia. There needs to be a new word in the dictionary (not like lol or cougar, but a legitimately new word) to describe the desire to have a "save game" and "re-load" feature in reality. Enough people experience this emotion on a daily basis (and now have a model for it in the form of videogames) that it should be classified as a distinct emotion. I wish I could go back and re-read Transatlantic with the benefit of knowing all about Misters Alcock and Brown, because I don't know if the story would have had such a strong effect on me if I had.

To be fair McCann is adept with characters. Brown is the rightful center--conflicted internally and externally, with enough at stake to intensify the flitting dangers of the flight. Alcock is part foil, part mirror. While reading I never felt that I needed to know more about him, but looking back I see an elusive character, slipping in and out of the story. The supporting characters are just present enough to root the piece in its setting. But the attachment I felt towards Brown and Alcock was heavily influenced by the uncertainty of their fate which, if I were a better student with a proper knowledge of history, I would have known at the beginning of the piece.

Unlike, for example, Jim Shepard's Love and Hydrogen, which inserts two fictional characters in the familiar historical setting of the Hindenburg, Transatlantic portrays people who actually existed; people whose fates are a simple internet query away.

The tension that builds in Love and Hydrogen, and which is also evident in pop culture epics like Titanic, comes from the reader's knowledge that, despite whatever the characters contend with in the foreground, there is about to be some kind of grand reckoning which the characters may not survive. It is a sort of pre-cliff-hanger; it creates the sublime irony of reader dread vs. character petulance.

Transatlantic is not as structurally complicated. It is an adventure piece: man vs. challenge, and while there is a decent amount of back- and side-history, it really only serves to heighten the anxiety the reader feels in not knowing whether Alcock and Brown will survive their flight. And of course, I felt a euphoric sense of relief and triumph when Alcock and Brown crashed into the bog. But if I'd known it all along, how would I have felt? I'd love to discuss this with someone who read this without the pretense of ignorance.

Working in reverse, there are elements of the story that are gently diminished by historical knowledge, and then there are those that become especially beautiful. Most of the dramatic action--the breaking of the fuselage, the almost-crash into the pine trees--reads dopier now. The urgency is diffused in knowing that Alcock and Brown survived. But McCann is clever to put the story in the present tense, and when it becomes crucial he slips inside Brown's mind--Good God, Alcock, lift her!--which manages to stir me even on a second read, even after the Wikipedia. I wonder why McCann chose not to have Brown climbing onto the wings to sort them out as in reality.

Curiously, on this read it is Alcock who makes the bigger impression. He died just six months after the transatlantic flight, crashing the newest version of the plane that had carried him from Newfoundland to Ireland. Knowing this, his character now feels ephemeral instead of obtuse. It reminds me of the DVD extras for the film Stand by Me. Someone, I can't recall who, points out the moment that River Phoenix's character waves and vanishes at the end of the film. Trite in the film, tragic in the context of the actor's short life. Recontextualizing stories provides us a stronger means of enjoying them. I now see Brown as the sole survivor. There is something to tie him to the ground. Alcock is leashed to the sky; his daredevil antics are the mark of hamartia, his bravado will be his demise.

Without asking McCann himself, it's difficult to know whether he expected his readers to know the history of Alcock and Brown. It feels, paradoxically, important and utterly irrelevant. I'm glad for the introduction and his story lent a well of rich emotion to what would otherwise be a two-paragraph entry in an encyclopedia. This is the power of writing fiction about real people. Like Pynchon does in Mason & Dixon, McCann creates a bridge between fact and sentiment. Even (in Pynchon's case especially) where the fiction divulges from reality, it feels charmingly honest because it gives us an opportunity to develop a relationship with a character who takes on the attributes of a living person.

One of the follies of my mind is that I find it difficult to conjure images of people who are long-since deceased. Even history's boldest figures are little more than bytes of information to me. It is only when someone is bold enough to recreate that figure in fiction that I can begin to extend my sympathies. We sometimes say books are our friends with absolute sincerity. It is only because the author has been adept enough to smoke life out of language: to make a thing that gives us as much pleasure, resentment, sadness, hope, and fear as our closest friends, dearest lovers, most hated enemies.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Junot Diaz Bingo

In honor of Diaz's latest New Yorker piece, Miss Lora, I hereby present Junot Diaz Bingo (click to enlarge):

Sunday, April 15, 2012

"The Turin Horse" by Béla Tarr

In the middle of Béla Tarr's "The Turin Horse," Ohlsdorfer's daughter snuffs out every gas lamp in the house and retires to an out-of-frame bedroom. The camera remains trained on the dim kitchen, thin flickers of light from the fire in the aga's grate providing scant illumination. Nothing moved and only the shrieking wind sounded unceasingly. Gradually, as my eyes strained to adjust, the figures of two devils seemed to become distinct. One, with a long pale face, stood legs apart, back hunched, long sickening spider-like arms hanging low by the ground. The other was a tall, shrouded figure against the back wall. I knew that the pale-faced devil's legs were the legs of a bench, and that his face was a small white cupboard. The hooded devil was a robe on a hook. Still, I couldn't avoid a creeping sense of horror and a deep fear for the sleeping father and daughter.

These moments of almost banal real-world horror are what made "The Turin Horse" a satisfying experience. For someone with ADD I've seen my fair share of endurance cinema, from the borderline-interesting "Andrei Rublev" to the profoundly tedious "Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks," and have developed a strategy of asking questions to confront frustration and tedium. (It helps to envision Werner Herzog asking the questions.) In "The Turin Horse" I found myself asking questions which all boiled down to the same concept: what was driving the inertia of these two people?

I struggled with how disconnected I felt from the characters. I compulsively mastermind solutions to imaginary problems, so it was difficult to watch two people submit to death without expending any energy to save themselves. There is, of course, a kind of natural horror endemic in witnessing a sentient creature disobeying its survival instincts. This is first evidenced in the titular horse, who begins a Bartlebian refusal to eat and drink at the beginning of the film, and then is continued (or contracted?) by the horse's owners.

At only one point do they make an effort to save themselves, packing up the necessities for basic survival and setting out on foot up the winding hillside road. The camera remains in the valley; just as soon as I could be sure that the horse's ears had disappeared over the lip of the hill, they reappeared and without any ceremony Ohlsdorfer and his daughter were back in the house.

What befell them in those thirty seconds off-camera that could cause them to return to certain death? Only two points in the film provide any sort of resolution and exposition. One has been kindly reproduced on youtube:

The other is when Ohlsdorfer's daughter reads aloud from a book she has been given by the gypsies (an "anti-bible" according to Tarr) which details a meeting in which a figurehead announces that, because the congregation has disobeyed, they will be punished with a series of natural disasters including sweeping winds and a blackout.

These expositions contradict one another--the first makes the case for a godless, meaningless paradigm of destruction and oppression while the latter creates a dichotomy of quasi-religious sin and punishment--but they are equally nihilistic in their conclusions. They hearken to the film's introductory monologue describing Nietzsche's mental breakdown and insanity in his final years. The sensation is of a sudden snuffing out followed by a prolonged horror--as in the kitchen scene I mentioned earlier.

I believe the reason that Ohlsdorfer and his daughter turn back to their house is that beyond the lip of that hill everything has been swept away by the howling wind. Where once perhaps some houses dotted another desolate plain, now there is nothing. Perhaps a great blackness rose on the horizon. Perhaps there was fire, or a flood.

Most of my questions were answered as I made a sincere effort to imagine the scope of these people's lives. Their world is so isolated, so cut off from any possible modernization that they have no recourse when the whatever force driving the universe conspires against them. Their stark, monosyllabic communication--Ohlsdorfer frequently lapses into guttural grunts--is all they have. They can't fabricate an escape because they don't have the words to do so. Late in the film the wind suddenly drops and the daughter asks "What was that?" "I don't know," Ohlsdorfer replies. In my world "I don't know" is the platform for imagination and discovery. In theirs it is the final statement in an empty conversation. For them, ignorance means sticking to a familiar ritual.

At the end of the film Ohlsdorfer's daughter sits before the window and stares at the hillside, which is obscured by huge clouds of dust and debris. I was so sure that I could see something careening down the hillside road towards the house, but I couldn't be positive. Not long after, the daylight cuts out. Not a gradual night, but a sudden one. Some of the lamps won't light in the house.

She and her father sit at the table, trying to face a plate of raw potatoes now that the last of the water has run out. The remaining lamp scutters out. Suddenly the film felt too short because it was time to leave. My mind was full of Mihâly Vig's disturbing music, and with a tangle of horrors as it conjured vile images of the fate of those peasants.

"The Porn Critic" by Jonathan Lethem (New Yorker, April 9th 2012)

In place of criticism, here is an updated list of cardinal sins for short stories set in New York City:

  • Set in the 1980's.
  • One or more characters is a student.
  • Shameless abuse of the phrase "baggie of pot."
  • Reference to a "walk-up" apartment in attempt to characterize poverty.
  • Quoting of Velvet Underground lyrics.