Friday, December 26, 2014


I wanted this to be a picture of Thranduil but it didn't really make sense with the post :(
The conventional wisdom about the Hobbit movies is that three is too many (how many too many is, perhaps, up for debate), given the length of the source material (my 1994 Houghton Mifflin edition clocks in at 272 pages) and its intended audience (as if the fact that it’s a children’s book makes it inherently insubstantial).

What the conventional wisdom is wrong?

Now, I agree with the above only up to a point. I do think three is too many—just not in the case of The Battle of Five Armies. The factors that combined to make An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug terrible end up making Battle kind of great.

When I say "factors," I really mean length of these movies relative to the length of their source material. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies took 558 minutes, or just over 9 hours, to tell a 1,000-page story—and his Hobbit movies took 474 minutes, or nearly 8 hours, to tell a 272-page one. The page-to-minute ratio of The Battle of Five Armies is probably the most egregious of all 6 movies (although I have not done the math). The titular battle itself only takes up about 12 pages—and that’s if you’re being generous and counting both the Thranduil/Dain confrontation before the fighting starts and the parts Bilbo missed while he was out cold and learns about later. The death of Smaug through Bilbo’s return to the Shire take Tolkien 51 pages; Jackson gives himself 144 minutes to tell the same amount of story.

So what does he do with them? Well, he expands on some things: for example, the deaths/death wounds of Thorin, Fili, and Kili. All Tolkien tells us about Thorin is that he “[fell] pierced with spears”; Fili and Kili “had fallen defending him with shield and body”; rather than letting these deaths happen offscreen, Jackson makes them the climax of his film. But where Tolkien does go into greater detail, Jackson pretty much ignores him and does his own thing. Tolkien, for instance, has goblins climbing up and over the back of the Lonely Mountain and swarming down toward the gate; eventually, the elves/men/dwarves find themselves “forced into a great ring, facing every way, hemmed all about with goblins and wolves.” Jackson scraps that (probably because he put both the Fellowship and Aragorn’s army in that exact situation already, in FOTR and ROTK). He also adds his own original material: neither the attack on Dale, nor the showdown on Ravenhill—or, um, Legolas vs. gravity—are in Tolkien’s book.

(I was surprised by some things that actually were in Tolkien’s book. For example, those bats? The bats that seemed so excessive, so preposterous, so over-the-top—in other words, so Peter Jackson that they could only have been invented by him? Those “great bats [that] swirled about the heads and ears of elves and men, or fastened vampire-like on the stricken”? Yep. Pure Tolkien.)

So all of the above is a problem, right? Jackson has too much time and not enough material to fill it? On the contrary, I would argue that the paucity of the source material and the generous amount of time Jackson gave himself to adapt it are actually what make this movie great. He's created a space in which he not only can but kind of must play around and have fun—specifically when it comes to the fight scenes. And the action in The Battle of the Five Armies is some of the most ingenious I’ve seen in some time. There are so many examples. Bard nocking his last arrow on his son’s shoulder. A massive “war beast” wearing a pointy metal helmet, charging headfirst at the wall of Dale, knocking it down, and promptly dies. Dain, Thorin’s cousin, head-butting orcs—or, I should say, killing them by lightly tapping his head against theirs. Thranduil’s elk scooping up a row of orcs with its antlers, for Thranduil to behead with one lateral sweep of his sword.

The action isn’t just creative, though—it’s funny. I was primed to notice this after recently watching two of Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting videos, the one on Edgar Wright and the one on Jackie Chan, both of which are about action comedy. And action comedy is exactly what Peter Jackson is doing here, and doing so well.

But before I talk about that, I want to talk about the kinds of comedy he doesn’t do well. I’m basing this both on what I found funny, and what the other people in the theater both times I saw it found funny—and I can tell you that they didn’t find Martin Freeman’s face-pulling very funny at all. (Much as I love him, there’s something about Freeman’s performance that never quite gels. It’s the jerkiness, maybe. He plays Bilbo extremely uncomfortable in his body, which isn’t a very hobbit-like quality—hobbits, after all, being all about comfort.) And they didn’t find Alfred funny either. This character might be the single greatest miscalculation in a trilogy that, many would say, is in itself one big miscalculation, and barely anyone in my theater even chuckled at his exploits, which included disguising himself as a woman to avoid combat and sneaking out of Dale with two triple D cups’ worth of gold coins shoved down the front of his dress, or at the many one-liners by and about him—“Not every man’s brave enough to wear a corset!” he retorts when called a coward. What isn’t funny in these movies? Reaction shots. Closeups. Nearly all of the one-liners. The humor happens when the camera pulls back, the characters shut up, and the action begins.

That head-butting war beast? The thing with Thranduil’s elk? Nearly all the examples I listed three paragraphs ago—they’re not just creative. They’re funny. And then there’s maybe my favorite example, which goes down during the final showdown between Thorin and Azog, which goes down on an ice-covered pool. Azog, of course, whirls a block of stone at the end of a long chain around his head; if he misses Thorin, he hits the ice, which cracks a bit more each time. Eventually, it breaks, and the two end up on opposite ends of the same floe. Azog brings down the stone just a little too hard; it gets stuck in the ice. Thorin bends down, picks it up, and tosses it to Azog like a hot potato. Azog grabs it, surprised. And Thorin... steps back. Off his end of the ice floe. Leaving Azog to slide off off his end and into a watery grave.

It’s funny.

It’s not funny because Armitage is hamming it up here—what sells the moment is how small his step backward is. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s like something out of Chaplin, but I’m sure there’s a lesser silent comic I could compare it to, if I knew my silent comics. The Chaplin comparison doesn’t work anyway, because so much of what Chaplin did was in his movements—graceful, precise, perfectly timed. Jackson’s physical comedy is more about how his actors interact with their environment. Again, it reminds me of Tony Zhou’s Jackie Chan video—see specifically 1:22 to 1:58 , which shows Chan fighting with chairs, dresses, chopsticks, keyboards, Legos, refrigerators, and a ladder. (Just watch the whole thing, it’s fantastic and only like nine minutes long.) Zhou Tweeted this shortly after posting the video:

Ravenhill is Jackson’s Costco. (Any analogy with the word “oversized” in it seems apt, no?) He isn’t just content with getting characters from point A to point B—he has to get them there in the most interesting way possible. So often, book-to-movie adaptations just feel like checklists to me, even the ones I love. You have to get this person from here to there because, well, the book tells you to—and often, it seems, there’s not much thought put into how they get there. Again, I have to bring up Tony Zhou, the Edgar Wright video this time. Specifically 1:17 to 2:22, where he compares similar scenes (character goes from point A to point B) in Paul Feig’s The Heat and Wright’s Hot Fuzz to show how Wright makes even the most obligatory and potentially boring material exciting. And that’s exactly what Jackson is doing. How is Legolas going to get from cliff A to cliff B and save Tauriel? Well, by jumping off the tower he’s on and onto a huge troll, then riding that troll into the tower and knocking it over to make a bridge between them. The environment is made out of building blocks—quite literally, in several cases—and Jackson is having a blast knocking them down.

That’s perhaps the key to this whole thing. All the apparently terrible decisions that led to this point resulted a big sandbox of a battlefield, where he Peter Jackson can play to his heart’s content. And, as it turns out—when he's having fun, so am I.♥

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Black Mirror Episode 2: "Fifteen Million Merits"

The first episode of Black Mirror, “The National Anthem,” satirized social media; Episode 2, “Fifteen Million Merits,” broadens its scything sweep to include advertising, avatars, virtual reality, and reality TV—perhaps less successfully, but just as thought-provokingly, as its predecessor.

Scene one. Our protagonist, Bing, awakens in a cell-like cube of a room, just barely big enough for his twin bed. All four walls are screens, currently displaying a cheerful, crudely animated barnyard scene. As Bing goes about his day, we learn more about his world (although never, as I’ll argue, quite enough). He and his fellow drones spend their days pedaling sluggishly on stationery bikes, surrounded by the very screens they’re helping to power. Episode 3 of Gimlet Media’s new podcast Reply All, “We Know What You Did,” is about the guy who invented the popup—because Ford didn’t want their ads appearing alongside gay porn on his website, as it happens—and his subsequent apology in The Atlantic (the headline of which called his creation “The Internet’s Original Sin”). In the world of Fifteen Million Merits, that original sin has metastasized into something out of Stanley Kubrick. Because almost every wall is a screen, ads can actively pursue you, appearing at the worst possible times. When Bing tries to strike up a conversation with a girl he likes, a porn channel pops up on the wall, a cheery voice crying “Hey, regular user!” “SKIPPING INCURS PENALTY / RESUME?” it asks, as he shamefacedly tries to wave it away.

(Speaking of waving it away: the technology of Fifteen Million Merits uses what’s called a gestural interface, like that employed by the Precrime police force in Minority Report. On Episode 95 of 99% Invisible, “Future Screens Are Mostly Blue,” guests Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel point out that gestural interfaces are actually super impractical because they’re physically exhausting to use (apparently Tom Cruise had to keep taking breaks on set!). In Fifteen Million Merits, though, these interfaces work as a visual metaphor for how disconnected these people are, both from the physical world and from each other. Emotionally significant moments unfold via avatar; one character cycles while playing air violin.)

Anyway, when Bing turns off the porn channel, virtual currency is subtracted from his account. It’s all too easy to draw parallels between the show and one’s own life; and these irritating, semi-sentient ads reminded me of nothing so much as the desktop version of Spotify, which can tell when you’ve not only muted an ad but even turned it too far down and pauses it until you turn the volume up again, penalizing you for not paying attention. Black Mirror, though, ups that intrusiveness to Clockwork Orange levels: sometimes, when Bing closes his eyes, all four walls of his room flash red, and a woman’s voice intones “Resume viewing, resume viewing, resume viewing” over a piercing, high-pitched whine until he opens them again.

It’s not clear why this happens some times but not others—and the episode suffers somewhat from refusing to fully explain its own rules. For example, take the scene in which Bing’s crush, Abi Kahn, auditions for Hot Shot, an American Idol–like competition show. Backstage, someone gives her a George Saunders–like substance called Compliance, which she’s told will “stop [her] puking with nerves” but which, as its name suggests, will force her to do whatever the judges say—or at least that’s what I initially thought. When one of them tries to get her to take off her top, though, she successfully refuses, and its unclear whether the life-altering decision she makes at the end of the scene is drug-induced, despair-induced, peer pressure–induced, or some combination of the above.

There are two such Hot Shot scenes, and Jessica Brown Findlay, with her lovely husky voice and hopeful eyes, 100% nails hers. Daniel Kaluuya, as Bing, doesn’t quite—but it’s not so much his fault as that of his speech. Bug-eyed with rage, dripping with sweat, dagger-shaped shard of glass pressed to his throat, he screams at the dumbstruck judges. “All you see up here, it’s not people, you don’t see people up here, it’s all fodder! And the faker the fodder is the more you love it because fake fodder’s the only thing that works anymore! Fake fodder is all that we can stomach! Actually, not quite all. Real pain, real viciousness, that we can take!” This monologue is meant to be a searing indictment of the dehumanizing nature of our virtual lives—but that’s what the entire episode is, in its every detail, from the shuffle of Bing’s feet as he approaches the bike to his listless pace when he mounts it, from the oppressive absence of wide shots to the overwhelming pattern of identical rooms that the camera reveals when it finally pulls back. For Bing’s speech to work, he needs to be saying something that every single frame hasn’t been saying all along.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Black Mirror Episode 1: "The National Anthem"

It's fitting that I learned about Black Mirror on Twitter, because episode one, “The National Anthem,” is about Twitter—and Facebook, and liveblogging, and sexting, and selfies, so very of the moment that it risks near-instant irrelevancy. Which in no way lessens the pleasures of watching it—in fact, the opposite is true.

The episode opens with a phone call informing British prime minister Michael Callow that Princess Anne, the Duchess of Beaumont, has been kidnapped. On video, Anne tearfully relays her kidnappers’ ransom demand: at 4:00 p.m. that day, the Prime Minister must "have full, unsimulated sexual intercourse" with a pig on live TV. When he sputters to his staff that they are not to let this information leave the room, they look at him in consternation. They got the video off YouTube, they say. It’s already gone viral.

This is a story not only about what unfolds at #10 Downing Street, but also, and more importantly, about the Internet response, each feeding off the other in a ravenously symbiotic relationship. From the moment the Anne video is posted, social media is all over it; British news networks, temporarily muzzled by a Defense Advisory Notice, scramble to catch up. None of the other networks are running the story yet, one UN News reporter says. “I hear Facebook’s coverage is pretty comprehensive,” snaps another. Yet another announces that The Guardian is liveblogging the event and running “a short thinkpiece on the symbolism of the pig.” The Prime Minister’s wife scrolls, horrified, through a slew of tweets like “Callow gonna get pig AIDS LOL,” hashtagged #PMpig and #trottergate and being posted at a rate of 10,000 per minute.

“The National Anthem” is a gripping, blackly comic and at times emotionally acute commentary on the dual nature of online memory. The Internet both never forgets—and forgets all too quickly. #trottergate is tailor-made for social media, which gobbles it up then tosses aside the bones as it scrolls down to the next scandal du jour—or du second. When it becomes clear that the PM and his staff can neither rescue Princess Anne nor outwit her kidnappers, one of his staff members assures him that it will be “a criminal offense to store any recording or still images of the event”—as if such a stopgap could possibly close these floodgates. But, as it turns out she needn’t worry—leave them alone, and they’ll close themselves.

Perhaps "The National Anthem"'s hyper-relevancy means it won’t age well—but, for this subject matter, a short lifespan seems appropriate. The episode is tears along at breakneck speed until ill-fated broadcast begins. Then, the camera cuts away from the television where the PM, fumbling with his belt, is approaching the pig, to pan in super-slow motion across the faces of a bar full of spectators who, perhaps, moments earlier, were posting the cruel tweets, their faces now twisted with disgust, disbelief and maybe even sympathy. This story is a mirror held up in front of us for the briefest of moments—but the glimpse we catch lingers.

The Returned

One seemingly ordinary day, an isolated French mountain town awakes to find that its dead have come back to life. Why did some return and not others? Did they do so for a reason—and if so, what? Neither the dead, the living, nor the viewer knows—and if the show’s creators do, they’re not telling. HBO's The Leftovers has a similar premise: one day in October, 2% of the earth’s population—140 million people—inexplicably disappears. The Returned and The Leftovers aren’t concerned with the how or why of these events, but with their fallout. Both shows are like lab experiments: with their creators putting characters in freakish situations and recording the results.

The inexplicable premise of The Returned suffuses it with ambient dread. Wikipedia says that, “High-concept narratives are typically characterised [sic] by an overarching ‘what if?’ scenario that acts as a catalyst for the following events.” On The Returned, the unexplained catalyst creates a reservoir of unease, its water level steadily, inexorably, rising. Mogwai’s moody, atmospheric score creaks like a rusty door and thuds like a frightened heart. In my struggle to convey the show’s creepiness, I never came up with a better way than Emily Nussbaum did in her brief New Yorker review, which simply listed images: “A butterfly breaks through a glass case; mountain goats float in a lake; a girl’s fingers trail across a fogged window.” In one of my favorite shots, from the opening credits, electricity crackles along power lines like the lightning that animated Frankenstein’s monster. As the camera lingers on the landscape, its lush, lonely beauty takes on a sinister quality; agonizingly slow pans—down a closet door, along a line of stunned faces—build tension. Violence simmers, occasionally rising to the surface: in shootings, stabbings, fires, and festering wounds. At those times, too, the camera lingers quietly, not looking away.

Emily Nussbaum calls The Returned “an effective meditation on how absurd a notion ‘closure’ is after any terrible loss.” The show also explores ideas of enclosure and escape. Glass shatters, dams burst—and walls close in. Like the dinner guests in Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film The Exterminating Angel, who find themselves mysteriously unable to leave the dining room at the end of their meal, so too are this show’s characters confined, the very landscape refashioning itself around them in an unsolvable maze. In the seventh and penultimate episode, three of them try to leave town, only to find themselves driving around and around in an endless loop. In the season finale, the principal characters’ world shrinks to the size of a single room, in which they huddle all night long, kept awake by the clatter of undead hands on metal shades. Fittingly, far from providing answers, the season finale opens up yet more questions, as the characters emerge blinking into the morning light to find the landscape of the town forever altered.

Stray Observations: 
  • Popular culture has reached a serial killer saturation point. It’s hard not to say this without sounding schoolmarmish, but for me, if you’re going to feature one, you must justify doing so. (The Fall is one such example.) In any case, this isn't a subject to be handled carelessly, and Serge, the serial killer who eats women’s stomachs, is pretty carelessly handed. I’m not sure what the show wants me to think of him—which, to be fair, is true of almost every other character too. But none of the other characters, um, eat women’s stomachs. In one scene, after abducting a teenage girl, Serge smears healing nettle paste onto a wound on her back, fingers trembling with barely contained lust. When he steps away from her, instead of attacking, the show seems to encourage us to applaud his restraint—it certainly rewards him for it when the girl has enthusiastic sex with him later on. Years ago, Serge’s vicious attack nearly killed a young woman named Julie. “It wasn’t your fault,” Serge's brother Toni tells him. Then whose exactly was it? The show doesn’t bother to explain. It isn’t so much what the show does with Serge as what it doesn’t do with him—and if you’re going to neglect a character like that, why write him at all?
  • Speaking of Julie. I love the way she dresses. Baggy pants, bulky sweaters, plaid flannel button-downs over t-shirts: lots of protective layers. Unbrushed hair. Hooded eyes. The guardedness in her face, the tightness of her body, shows rather than tells us she's nowhere near recovered from Serge's attack. The psychological scars are evident even before she lifts her shirt for the first time to reveal the physical ones. 
  • Also speaking of Julie—who is gay, by the way—well, speaking of the person who plays her—Céline Sallette, that's the name of the person who plays her—does anyone have any idea whether there's any chance she's gay IRL? Any chance at all? And if you do can you get at me? Thanks x

Monday, December 8, 2014

"The Ladies of Grace Adieu" and the Gendered Nature of Perception

Well hello there boys. (This has nothing to do with the post. I just wanted Eddie Marsan's pigeon toes in here somewhere.)
Susanna Clarke didn’t really address gender issues in Jonathan Strange. Perhaps the closest she came to doing so is a fiery speech of Lady Pole's. To recap: Mr Norrell, newly arrived in London and eager to begin building his reputation as the greatest—and only—magician of the age, summons an ancient and powerful faerie, known only as the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, to bring the recently dead Lady Pole back to life . . . in exchange for her life, pretty much. Lady Pole, resurrected but enslaved to the Gentleman, is summoned nightly to his castle, where she must dance til dawn. Over the years, exhaustion wears her down to a shadow of her former self. Everyone can see that something’s wrong, but no one knows exactly what—every time she tries to tell someone, the Gentleman’s spell snatches the words from her mouth, replacing them with stories about a man named Mr Redeshawe who awoke one night to find two armies of tiny soldiers wearing gold and silver armor, riding white rabbits, and about to fight a battle on his brand new Turkish carpet. When the spell is finally broken, an enraged Lady Pole vows "a woman's vengeance" against Strange and Norrell's "cold, masculine" magic. I always thought this was a little unfair of her—but Clarke’s 2007 short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, has made me reconsider.

Ladies is a decidedly feminist text, one that might have been written by Lady Pole herself. Surely she would have delighted in "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse," in which England's most formidable military commander is brought low by his abysmal embroidery skills. She would also, no doubt, have felt a kinship with the women of this book, who are a determined, resourceful, and occasionally bloodthirsty bunch. The titular ladies, a coven of three in a time when women aren't supposed to use magic, are literal man-eaters, turning two murderous male interlopers into mice, swallowing them whole, and spitting out the bones. In "Mrs Mabb," a gender-swapped damsel-in-distress story in which the dogged Venetia Moore must save her lover, Captain Fox, from the faerie woman who's holding him prisoner. Venetia's clashes with Mrs Mabb culminate in a bloody battle with Mabb's butterfly-soldiers, after which Mabb concedes defeat and returns the captain to her. Fox—who spends the entire battle asleep in the back-parlour—has no idea what's taken place.

Ladies acts as an alternative history within an alternative history, laying bare the world of women's magic that has always existed parallel to that of men. Only two women appear in the magio-historical records of Clarke's world: Lady Catherine of Winchester, Martin Pale's teacher, and Maria Absalom, Gregory Absalom's daughter. When one of the Ladies tries to tell a male acquaintance about them, he brushes her off, just as historians have for hundreds of years. This man’s disinterest, plus the obliviousness of both Captain Fox and another male character, the doddering Mr Field—who passes many a pleasant evening dreaming about socializing with his wife while she's off studying magic with her friends—suggests a broader pattern. Women are missing from magical history not because they weren’t doing anything worth noticing, but because men neglected to notice them.

Which brings us back to Lady Pole. I always thought her wrath, while entirely justified, was a tad misdirected. "Masculine magic" wasn't the issue; Norrell, my reasoning went, sold her out to the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair not because he's a man, but because he's a dick. As for Strange, how could he be at fault? He had no idea what was happening. However, "Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower" indicts male inattentiveness in a way that makes me reconsider.

Allesandro Simonelli—a Cambridge student "too long accustomed to the rigours of scholarly debate to feel much enthusiasm for female conversation"—accepts the position of Rector of Allhope Village. Not soon after arriving there, a parishioner calls him to the bedside of his wife, who is in labor. The parishioner's home is "a most extraordinary muddle" of squalor and splendor: "over here a greasy apron embraced a volume of Diderot's Encyclopédie; over there a jewelled red-velvet slipper was trapped by the lid of a warming-pan; under the bed a silver diadem was caught on the prongs of a garden-fork . . . " On the filthy bed lies a fifteen-year-old girl, wracked with pain, "bones shew[ing] through almost translucent skin which was stretched, tight as a drum, over her swollen belly" and attended by a "tiny old woman . . . [with] long, coarse hairs that grew upon her cheeks and resembled nothing so much in the world as porcupine quills." The spell laid on Lady Pole prevented her from telling anyone what had happened to her. When John Hollyshoes' child bride tells him exactly what happened to her—to whit, she was "taken by force to a place where she was watched day and night by a hideous jailoress," aka Porcupine Quill Face—he concludes that "she was like a house through which a great wind rushes making all the doors bang at their frames: death was rushing through her and her wits came loose and banged about inside her head." The girl's words aren't even words to him; just meaningless noise.

Strange and Simonelli’s obliviousness, taken together, begin to look like part of a larger pattern. Many of the stories in Ladies deal with the different ways that different people perceive the world around them. Venetia Moore thinks she’s battling a faerie host; the local children see butterflies. Venetia passes out and wakes with a fistful of their crushed wings, which she sends to Mrs Mabb, wrapped in paper; Mrs Mabb receives bloody faerie bodies. Such duality is present in John Hollyshoes’ house as well; while he sees luxury all around him; Simonelli sees a filthy mess. When Simonelli licks his finger and cleans the blood from a captive girl's eyelid, she’s finally able to see her surroundings as they truly are, enabling her to escape. With the examples of Simonelli and Strange, Clarke suggests that blindness can be gendered. Male inattention perpetuated Lady Pole’s enslavement and caused an entire country to omit women from centuries of magical history. Ladies is a licked fingertip to the bloody eyelid of Jonathan Strange's alternative English history, scrubbing off the male narrative that has predominated for so long to reveal the female one that had been unfolding alongside it for centuries—had men only eyes to see it.

Stray Observations: 
  • I didn't really talk about the collection as a whole, which I mostly liked quite a bit and occasionally loved. Some of the shorter stories ("On Lickerish Hill" especially) felt lightweight (and goddamn did the dialect in "Lickerish" set my teeth on edge), but "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" (and "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner") is a perfectly crafted little champagne flute of a fairy tale. 
  • "Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby" is a total Jonathan Strange trial run: not only does it have footnotes chock full of faery lore, but its protagonists, Jewish doctor David Montefiore and fairy Tom Brightwind, have a bickery affection for each other that prefigures the Strange/Norrell relationship. The introduction to this tale mentions other "Tom and David stories," which were popular for a time in both Faerie Minor and England. Clarke clearly loves the buddy movie dynamic—and part of what makes the fact that she may never publish again so painful is that her next book was basically going to be a buddy movie starring Vinculus and Childermass :(
  • Fun note about Clarke's footnotes: she fully expected the publishers of both "Tom Brightwind" and Jonathan Strange to make her take them all out. She said in a 2004 interview with that she wrote Jonathan Strange solely for herself, without "consider[ing] the reader at all." (Which is probably why the book was so hugely popular and widely beloved.)

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Moor's Account

"Nothing new has ever happened to a son of Adam. Everything has already been lived and everything has already been told. If only we listened to the stories..."
–Laila Lalami, The Moor's Account 
Every year NPR creates a "Book Concierge" wherein they post their favorite books of the year. You can find this year's here. It looks like this:

Scrolling through this year's, it hit me, harder than it had in a while. I want my job to be making these lists someday. But if I want to get paid for writing about books, I'd better, you know, practice writing about books. To be perfectly honest, I don't think I'm often very good at it—but I suppose there's only one way to get better. And so, without further ado: 

The premise of The Moor's Account alone should make you sit up and take notice. It is the story of the first African explorer to set foot on American soil: a Moroccan slave by the name of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori who traveled to La Florida in 1528 with an ill-fated Spanish expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez. When author Laila Lalami first learned about him, she found there wasn’t all that much to learn. A fellow traveler's version of events contains only one sentence about him: "The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor." In The Moor's Account, Lalami fills in the blank, telling us Mustafa’s version of events in his own words.

From early on, it’s apparent that Lalami understands the significance of her project. She is giving voice to someone who has been silenced for nearly five hundred years. After the expedition's disastrous failure, Mustafa's three surviving companions were called upon to testify before the Spanish Viceroy; Mustafa was not. Both Lalami and her narrator understand the great power of such testimony. In an early scene, the expedition has just landed in Florida; a notary steps forward and begins to speak. "[W]e ask and require that you acknowledge the Church as the ruler of this world, and the priest whom we call Pope, and the King and Queen, as lords of this territory..." Mustafa is surprised to realize, halfway through this speech, that its intended audience is the native Indians—none of whom are anywhere in sight. "How strange, I remember thinking, how utterly strange were the ways of the Castilians—just by saying that something was so, they believed that it was. I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt others after, gave speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it."

Mustafa respects thus creative power, and takes pains to use it responsibly. He's honest about his complicity in the atrocities he not only witnesses but sometimes actively perpetuates. While a conquistador smashes an Indian captive’s fingers with a hammer, one by one, trying to learn the location of the city of Apalache, rumored to be overflowing with gold, Mustafa looks on and says nothing. One can't fault him for this—speaking up would mean his fingers under the hammer, or worse—but one also understands his guilt. Guilt for the things he has not done—intervening as the Indian's fingers are being smashed and, later, the women of Apalache are raped—and for the things he has: finding the first nugget of gold that stoked the flame of Narváez's greed; stealing food from Indian villages; and, years ago, when he was a free man, selling three men into slavery. This isn't a confessional account, just an honest one, and Mustafa's commitment to the truth, even at the expense of his own image, gives this story weight.

So, too, does the unadorned quality of Lalami's prose. James Wood, in his New Yorker review of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, writes that "Much contemporary writing fetishizes style, and the priority is felt as a constant anxiety. Prose has to sign itself, establish its showy authority in silvery cutlass swipes through the air: clever insights, brilliant metaphors, unusual words, sharp observation, perpetually buoyant dialogue." For those who deplore this tendency, Lalami's prose will be as a balm. Her style is anything but showy: it soothes, not grabbing your attention but pulling you in steadily and inexorably. This is a world in which rape, torture, slaughter, starvation, and disease abound, where death is "at once spectacular in its violence and common in its frequency." Mustafa's calm, measured narrative voice actually emphasizes, rather than downplays, the horrors he describes, conveying the mental and physical exhaustion of being lost and enslaved on a strange continent more effectively than verbal showmanship ever could. And, every so often, light sparks from a strange, vivid jewel of detail: the noses, ears, and fingers of slain Indians dangling from a tree beneath which lies a post-battle pile of bodies, like "some creature of the underworld, lying in wait for whoever might cross its path"; the rattling bag of five hundred dried deer's hearts, given to Dorantes as a gift, a prisoner's eyes "like dark pools, filled to the brim with attention."


Near the end of his account, when Mustafa, on the brink of despair, thinks he's lost everything. "But a voice inside me said no—not everything."

I still had one thing. My story. I had journeyed through the Land of the Indians and had witnessed many things that my companions had preferred to revise, embellish, or silence. What had been changed, perverted, or left our was the heart of our history, the part that could not be explained, but could only be told. I could tell it. I could right what had been made wrong. ... For every lie I had heard about the imperial expedition that had brought me to the edge of the world, I would tell the truth.
The truth, perhaps, but not the only one. Though Mustafa casts doubt on his companions' accounts, he does not hold his own up as definitive. Rather, he ends by celebrating truth's multifarious, many-faced nature. Mustafa's exposure to both Christianity and the Indians' faiths has led him to wonder whether "the diversity in our beliefs, not their unity, is the lesson God wanted to impart? ... The idea that there was only one set of stories for all of mankind seemed strange to me." After all, what, for young Mustafa, is the "Story of My Birth," is for his father the "Story of How He Lost His Arm"; there are as many versions of events as there are witnesses. Throughout history, however, too few of those witnesses have been called upon to testify. Mustafa ultimately concludes that "there is no true story" but that "maybe if our experiences, in all of their glorious, magnificent colors, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of the truth." Lalami's story not only calls to Mustafa to the stand—it reminds us how many witnesses to history are still waiting silently for their chance to speak.

Stray Observations (an idea stolen whole cloth from Zack Handlen's A.V. Club Star Trek reviews, which may be my favorite things ever written about television/on the internet ever):

  • Another quietly strange detail that didn't make it into the main post: when Mustafa and his wife Oyomasot are talking outside their house in Tenochtitlán, "A candle was lit at the kitchen window, as if the house had opened one eye and was watching us." Very Susanna Clarke.
  • Pleasantly surprised by the appearance of the Yguace healer Chaubekwan, "a man who dressed as a woman, did a woman's chores, and took another man to his bed, but was in all other respects an ordinary member of the tribe." Lalami doesn't elaborate on the Yguace's concept of gender, but it clearly a fluid one, one that has room for the kind of "crossing over" at the root of our word "trans."
  • On a related note, I love this Kotaku piece on Dragon Age Inquisition's trans male character, Krem, and how EA/BioWare writer Patrick Weekes went about writing him—specifically, by running early drafts by Weekes' genderqueer friends and revising based on their feedback.