Saturday, January 17, 2015

Anarchy and Imagination in ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO

Tony Zhou suggested that his Twitter followers watch Louis Malle’s 1960 comedy Zazie dans le métro in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, as a tribute to Paris. I’m so glad he did. Zazie is an endlessly fascinating film, subversive ultimately not for what it does show, but what it does not. By withholding information, Malle draws the viewer into his world, enlisting our imaginations as his co-directors and partners in crime.

One weekend, ten-year-old Zazie visits her uncle Gabriel in Paris. Gabriel, we quickly learn, spends his days immaculately turned out in men’s clothing, but dances every night away in women’s for a living. When Zazie goes to sleep, Gabriel’s “wife” Albertine takes his new dress out of the closet to put the finishing touches on it before his next performance. This dress stands in his apartment during scene after scene, reminding us of the performance we feel sure is soon to come.



Later, Gabriel and his fellow dancers rehearse while a man in a white wolf costume juggles torches.


After a funny sequence in which Gabriel almost bumps into him, this wolf-man remains in the background, always in frame even when our focus is not on him.


You just know something’s going to catch fire eventually.


Gabriel’s dress is like that torch-juggling wolf: its constant presence leads us to believe that we’ll eventually see him wearing it, just like the set must—and does—go up in flames.


Tantalizing hints and even wordplay increase this expectation. As Zazie’s uncle leaves the apartment, Albertine calls “Gabriel! You forgot your lipstick!” Gabriel—or Gabrielle? Wordplay abounds in Zazie, much of it unfortunately lost on me, the English subtitles flashing by so fast that I only just had time to notice that, for example, “obscenities” was spelled “obscelenities”—must less register that as a joke. The humor may not have translated, but I didn’t need subtitles to notice the ambiguity of Gabriel’s name—I could never be sure whether I was hearing the male or the female version. “Gabriel” was no doubt chosen for its gender neutrality, or rather its ability to move easily between genders or gender presentations, just like Gabriel himself.

We don’t see Gabriel perform that night. Malle teases us into thinking we’re about to: after Albertine calls “You forgot your lipstick!,” an orangey-red spotlight snaps on and and jaunty jazz music starts to play. Malle subverts our expectations, however, cutting not to the club but Zazie in the bathroom the next morning. That day, events conspire to make Gabril late to rehearsal. Tension mounts as he makes his way through the clogged Parisian street (the métro workers are on strike)—and as we, the audience, wait for the moment when he will finally take the stage. Surely the whole film is building toward that moment—isn’t it?

When Gabriel invites his friends to come see the show, we think, This is it! The big one! The one we’ve all been waiting for! Albertine brings Gabriel his dress—he takes it out of the box—a voice shouts “Gabriel, you’re on!”—and then Malle cuts to Gabriel’s empty dressing room, in which he confines us, Trouscaillon, Albertina, and Zazie for the duration of Gabriel’s performance. The camera moves adroitly around the room, but never leaves it. Somewhere out there, Gabriel is dancing, and we’re not allowed to watch. Spanish-sounding music, cheers, and applause filter through the walls; every time Albertine opens the dressing room door, it gets louder for a moment, taunting us with what we by now realize we’re never going to see.

Zazie is about not only the unseen, but the unheard. Several times, Malle turns down or speeds up the sound, muting crucial dialogue or turning it into gibberish. This first time this happens, Trouscaillon is chasing Zazie through the streets. When she calls for help, strangers crowd in a circle around her, asking eagerly, What did he do? What did he say? Zazie whispers something into one of their ears; that person whispers it to the person next to them, and that person to the person next to them, in a dirty game of telephone. Eyes widen all around Zazie: 360 degrees of shock. Later, Zazie and Trouscaillon eat french fries and mussels in a restaurant as Zazie tells him how her mother killed her father with a hatchet. It all went down when she returned from soccer to find her father alone in the house, drunk. “He starts kissing me. Why not? He’s my Pop.” And then bam, Zazie throws an empty mussel shell onto her plate, splattering the pedophile with juice—and the sound speeds up so we can no longer tell what she’s saying. As Zazie chatters on, she throws down mussel after mussel, the crash as they hit the plate combining with a series of abrupt, startling cuts to suggest the blows of the hatchet falling on her father’s head. (Every time a shell hits the plate, juice splashes Trouscaillon’s immaculate outfit and he cowers away, eventually ending up under the table. Zazie, like her mother, is a formidable adversary.) Malle heavily implies that Zazie’s mother walked in on her father molesting her—but because of the way Malle distorts sound in this scene, we must imagine this for ourselves.

Imagination, I think, is the key to this whole film: imagination, responsibility, and even culpability. We never see Gabriel in his dress—but we see the dress and we see Gabriel. By strategically giving and withholding information, Malle not only allows but encourages his audience to put two and two together, picturing Gabriel’s performance for ourselves. We even see Albertine modeling this in Gabriel’s dressing room twice during his performance:

Time #1
Time #2

Because Gabriel's dance takes place not on the screen, but in our minds, we actively participate in its creation: we are at once dancer and dance floor, the act and the space in which the act unfolds.

Zazie climaxes with an afterparty in a restaurant that quickly spins out of control. In the beginning, the room looks like this:


but soon enough hell breaks loose: glasses are smashed, food is thrown, fistfights break out left and right, and flimsy walls come crashing down. White-clothed waiters, enforcers of order and normalcy, pop into frame and try to get things under control, but they’re no match for Zazie, Gabriel, and the anarchy they represent. The room ends up looking like:




...that. And so, at least in some small way, does the viewer’s mind. By encouraging us to fill in his audio-visual blanks, Malle makes our minds an extension of his screen—they become, if you will, the restaurant from the end of the film: windows shattered, walls knocked down, and law enforcement unconscious on the floor. Zazie, at one point, declares, “To hell with the not-wilds”; we walk out of this film a little more wild inside than when we walked in. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Babadook and the Basement

I am trying really hard to finish stuff lately. Someone once asked FilmCritHULK on Twitter whether they should make one good short film or three bad ones and HULK said three bad ones because the one “good” one isn’t going to be good anyway. My problem usually is that I post things too soon—and that when I do edit, it never feels substantial. I’m not deleting whole paragraphs or restructuring entire posts. But hey, at least I’m finishing them! I’d like to find balance between giving myself permission to write badly and trying to write the best stuff I can.

Here is a post about The Babadook that I originally posted to Tumblr on December 31st, 2014 (my 24th birthday!).



Let The Babadook stand as a perfect example of how, when I write about movies, I almost always end up enjoying them more. I didn’t like this one all that much while I was watching it, but I did appreciate how well the monster worked as a metaphor—and when I started writing about that metaphor (in my journal, longhand, as a warmup before working on something else), I began to understand it better, and my appreciation not only for it but for the film as a whole increased.

Seven years ago, Amelia’s husband Robbie died in a car crash driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to their son. (The film opens with a nightmarish flashback to this death, establishing its importance.) Now that son, Samuel, is in first grade he won’t stop talking about—and obsessively planning to kill—a monster called the Babadook. When a popup book about this very Babadook appears on his bookshelf, however, and Amelia reads it aloud to him, the monster makes itself known to her as well, demanding that she let it in. Amelia does so, quite literally: in a POV shot from the Babadook’s perspective, it swoops down into her open, screaming mouth.

The Babadook is a metaphor for the aftereffects of Robbie’s death. Trauma and grief is what truly stalks this family, threatening not only their sanity but their very lives. Kent makes this clear in several ways—in one scene, for example, the Babadook appears to Amelia in the guise of her dead husband. But the most interesting tool Kent uses to explore the Babadook-as-metaphor is a physical space: the basement of Amelia’s home, where she keeps her husband’s things and which represents the deepest, darkest part of her mind, the part that has not come to terms with his death. Several crucial scenes are set there, beginning with:

Scene 1: The Magic Show. This scene takes place before the Babadook manifests itself to Amelia, showing us what her and Samuel’s respective relationships to Robbie are like. Samuel interacts with the space in several different ways. He happily practices magic tricks in it, with a row of stuffed animals and a framed photo of his father for an audience, but earlier in the film he’s also shown building weapons and traps for the Babadook down there (a rope tied across the stairs to trip it; a miniature crossbow that shoots darts). Samuel is both trying to connect with the father he never knew—by performing for his photograph and playing with his things—and preparing to do battle with the effects of that same father’s death. Either way, the room is open to him; he moves freely in and out of it after stealing the key from his mother.

Amelia, for her part, keeps the room locked because she can’t bear to descend into the part of her mind it represents: the part that hasn’t fully processed her husband’s death. She may well not have gone down there once in the past seven years. As if afraid of what memories Samuel might awaken down there, she chastises him for making a mess when she finds him practicing magic tricks down there—then clutches the photo of her husband to her chest moments later, overjoyed at the reminder of a time when she was happy. Good and bad, Amelia has locked her memories of her husband in this basement of her mind—and it is from this basement that the Babadook is born…

Scene 2: The Fight. …and in this basement that she will do battle with it.

Once Amelia lets the Babadook in, the popup book’s grim prophecies begin to come true. First Amelia snaps the neck of their little white dog; then she goes after Samuel. Using the traps originally set for the Babadook, he knocks her unconscious, then ties her up on the floor. When Amelia wakes up, she breaks free from the ropes and begins to strangle her son—only to then break free from the Babadook, and start to finally fight it. Earlier in the film, Amelia invited the Babadook—the darkest dark of her—in, inhabiting it as fully as it inhabited her. Now she expels that darkness, vomiting Mister Babadook up as treacly black liquid. Amelia and Samuel make their way upstairs to her bedroom, where one final showdown awaits them. “You are nothing!” Amelia screams, defying the monster for once and for all. In a POV shot from the Babadook’s perspective, we see it flee from the room and scuttle downstairs to the basement from whence it came.

Scene 3: The Bowl. How was Jennifer Kent going to end her movie? Using the greatest monster movie of all time as my reference, I figured she had one of two options. Amelia could either kick the alien out of the airlock, or the alien could rip Amelia’s head off, sit down at the controls, and start speaking in her voice—as it did to Ripley in an alternate ending that I learned about from the DVD extras of Alien. In other words, absolute victory or absolute defeat. Kent, though, deftly avoids this binary in favor of a smarter, more complex, and ultimately more hopeful ending.

In a sunny final scene, we see just how much has changed since the Babadook was banished to the basement. In the popup book, he warned that “The more you deny, the stronger I get”; by the end of the film, Amelia and Samuel are no longer in denial about their husband and father’s death. They’re celebrating Samuel’s birthday on the actual day, for one thing. Both also talk openly about why they haven’t done so for the past seven years. Earlier in the film, when Samuel announces to a stranger in the supermarket that his father died driving his mother to the hospital to give birth to him, Amelia silences him him, angry and humiliated. In this last scene, though, when he tells the same story to two social workers, Amelia not only corroborates it but rewards him for telling it by comparing him to his father: “They both speak their mind.” Samuel’s frankness is an asset, not a flaw—and proof that he’s come to terms with his past.

And so has his mother. An unusual shot that begins underground and travels up through the dirt to Amelia, kneeling in the sunlit garden, represents her trajectory from darkness to light. The end result of that journey? She’s digging for worms to feed the Babadook, which has taken up permanent residence in the basement. How is he? Samuel asks. “Quiet today,” Amelia replies, acknowledging the fluctuating nature of her and her son’s mental states. On other days, perhaps, Mister Babadook will be louder, and there’s no magic trick that can disappear him completely, but there is another magic trick of sorts they can perform—a quotidian one, maybe, but no less miraculous for that. Robbie’s death will always be a fact of Amelia and Samuel’s life, and not one that can be kicked out of the airlock—but one that they can accept. And now that they’ve done that, never will it terrorize them again. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Wild and "Cinematic" Adaptations

I have like four different blogs. It's a problem. There's the Tumblr where I log the books I read, the Tumblr where I write about movies I've seen (and the Letterboxd account where I log them), the Tumblr where I write about TV and video games and other stuff that doesn't fit in a strictly book or strictly movie Tumblr (but also sometimes books and movies too), and then there's this. I dearly wish that there was some way of consolidating it all in one place in chronological order, but since (a) there isn't one that I know of, at least not one that would make it look exactly like I want it to and (b) moving it all to one blog would be a ton of work, I'll just make more of an effort to post here exclusively from now on. I'm also going to move some of my more recent posts from other blogs over here, starting with one about Wild (the movie) that I wrote on December 28th.


Wild the book was always going to be a challenge to adapt into Wild the film. The book is a first-person memoir, perhaps the ideal format for a story like this, which is about an internal journey as much as an external one. Its protagonist, Cheryl Strayed, spends a significant amount of time completely alone. How do you tell such an inherently uncinematic story in a cinematic way?

Well, if you’re Jean-Marc Vallée, you kind of don’t.

Here’s what you do do:

  1. You use flashbacks. A lot of them. These are usually triggered by something happening in the present. When Cheryl puts a red rape whistle in her mouth, for example, she flashes back to sucking on a man’s finger during sex. While hitchhiking to the beginning of the trail, a song on someone’s radio reminds her of the time her mother danced to that same song in their kitchen. A line of Adrienne Rich’s poetry, read outside her tent after a meal of “cold mush” at the end of her first day on the trail, transports her back to a college classroom. Vallée uses these sensory triggers to smooth out what could otherwise be jarring transitions. What’s odd, though, is how Vallée and his editor, Martin Pensa (Vallée himself is actually credited as an editor, under the name “John Mac McMurphy”—thanks, IMDb!) cut these flashbacks: very very fast, like, well, lightning flashes of memory, and often mixed together out of sequence. It kind of counteracts the fluid effect of the past-to-present transitions I mentioned above (David Denby, in the New Yorker, notes that "we end up watching film editing, not consciousness"), but it also tells us how unpredictable these memories are, lying in wait to ambush Cheryl at any time.
  2. You have Cheryl speak her thoughts aloud, or you use voiceover. Lots of it. Both for comic relief (Cheryl’s expletive-laden internal monologues, for example, which begin about a minute in to her first day of hiking) and for important emotional climaxes. In the final scene, Cheryl crosses the Bridge of the Gods into Washington State—the last leg of her journey—accompanied by a long voiceover soliloquy, which I assume was lifted verbatim from her book. In the car after the movie, my brother Loren said he didn’t understand the conclusion she came to in this scene. As I began to explain it, I realized I couldn’t; the voiceover was so long that my mind had wandered and I'd stopped paying attention to it. The ending made emotional sense to me even without it, though, which perhaps speaks to how unnecessary it was. From the part I did hear, it sounds like Strayed is a competent writer, and I understand wanting to keep a passage like that in the movie, but its effect on both Loren and I suggests that it wasn't particularly, well, effective.
  3. You use insert shots and on-screen text. There are notebooks placed at intervals along the Pacific Crest Trail in which hikers record their name and the date; Cheryl also jots down quotes by her favorite writers (Emily Dickinson, for example) in them. In Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting episode about how texts and the Internet are represented in film, he posits that (Western, live action) filmmakers haven’t quite figured out how to depict the Internet visually yet, but that Sherlock has solved the texting problem by using elegantly placed on-screen text instead of insert shots. Interestingly, Vallée shows us the first of Cheryl’s quote using an insert shot of the notebook plus voiceover of Cheryl reading it, which is clunky; from then on, the quotes appear as on-screen text, in her handwriting, a much more efficient and visually pleasing solution.
  4. And finally, when all else fails, you use dreamlike (and sometimes nightmarish) visual metaphors to represent what Cheryl is thinking and feeling. Cheryl’s mother appears on the trail in front of her several times like an apparition; she’s also represented by an inquisitive fox that Cheryl encounters at different points along the trail. At one point, during a flashback/nightmare about her mother’s horse—which her brother put down with a rifle after their mother’s death—blood soaks through the roof of Cheryl’s tent, dripping down onto her face.

All of the above are solutions—some effective, some less so—to the problem of adapting this book. But those solutions aren’t the most interesting—and certainly not the most compelling—part of the movie. Wild is a great example of how talking about form alone is never enough—content is equally important. Wild is the kind of story that’s all too rare at the multiplex these days: a story that not only is not, but could not be about a man. A story specifically about the perils and joys of navigating the world as a woman—a petite, blonde, attractive woman alone in the woods. Pretty much every time Cheryl encountered a man on the trail, my heart leapt to my throat. In an early scene, Vallée plays on audience expectations, making us think Cheryl is in danger when she isn’t. Later, though, we see just how right we were to be afraid for her when she runs into a hunter who spies on her while she’s changing clothes. I like your panties, he tells her. They look good on you. “Please don’t say that,” Cheryl says, voice gone soft with fear. Only the appearance of another hunter saves her. Had any number of circumstances been just slightly different—had that second hunter, for example, been in the mood for rape too—we would be watching a very different story, and Vallée makes sure we know it. (As David Denby points out, though, Strayed is a sexual woman, and her encounters with men are "fraught . . . with possibility" as well as danger.)

American cinema needs more stories about women, more stories written by women, and more stories directed by women—and Wild ticks two out of those three boxes. It may not have been directed by a woman, but it was brought into being by one—Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard, optioned Strayed’s book for Witherspoon to star in. Whether Wild a good or bad movie, or even a "cinematic" one, isn’t really the point—the point is that it’s rare. Ideally, Wild would be one woman’s story out of a great many at the multiplex. We’re not there yet, but if anything’s going to help us get there, it is movies like this.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Jacqueline Woodson and Words

This is what comes up when I Google image search Brown Girl Dreaming

From a young age, Jacqueline Woodson is attuned to the pleasures and powers of words. She loves the sound of the ones “that make me laugh / when I say them”: everything from the word “funk” on the radio to the funny-sounding names of her great aunts and uncles—Levonia, Montague, Iellus, Hallique, Valie Mae—and the plants in her grandmother’s garden: “pole beans and tomatoes, okra and corn, / sweet peas and sugar snaps, / lettuce and squash,” “an autumn’s worth of crazy words.” She loves the “smell and feel and sight” and even sound of fresh paper and newly sharpened pencil, which delight her senses before she can read or write. And she loves the shapes of words, the way the J in her name, “top[ped] with a straight hat,” “curves into a hook,” and the promise inherent in that curve—the promise of a full name, and then another word, and another, and another. “Will the words end, I ask / whenever I remember to. / Nope, my sister says, all of five years old now, / and promising me / infinity.”

And Jacqueline loves that infinity. Words can take you away from where you are. Every Saturday night, her grandmother wields what might as well be torture implements (“hot comb, Dixie Peach hair grease, / horsehair brush, parting stick”) as Jacqueline’s sister Dell distracts her with books: Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates, The House at Pooh Corner, Swiss Family Robinson.
Read to me, I say, my eyes and scalp already stinging
from the tug of the brush through my hair.
And while my grandmother sets the hot comb
on the flame, heats it just enough to pull
my tight curls straighter, my sister’s voice
wafts over the kitchen,
past the smell of hair and oil and flame, settles
like a hand on my shoulder and holds me there.
But it doesn’t just hold her there; as the “pictures come slowly at me / Deep. Infinite . . . My sister’s soft clear voice opens up the world to me.” As Jacqueline’s grandmother warns her to “Hold still now,” she sits on her hands “to keep my mind / off my hurting head, and my whole body still. / But the rest of me is already leaving, / the rest of me is already gone.” Dell’s books, their grandmother’s Bible stories of Moses and Salomé, plus the neighborhood gossip of her grandmother’s friends—hearing all of these gives Jacqueline a glimpse of the "infinite"—a word that reoccurs over and over again.

And it isn’t long before Jacqueline graduates from listener to speaker. She retells the older women’s stories to her brother and sister, “making up what I didn’t understand / or missed when voices dropped too low,” taking others’ words and making them her own. Jacqueline’s earliest stories take many forms: often, a form others might call “lies.” When her uncle Robert gives her academically gifted sister Dell silver earrings, Jacqueline blurts out that “I know a girl ten times smarter than her. She gets / diamonds every time she gets a hundred on a test.” Asked to write about her summer vacation at school, she makes up stories of “Africa / Hawaii / Chicago” and Long Island. Though other adults chastise Jacqueline, her uncle Robert understands that the part of her that tells such tall tales is the same part that will write books someday. When her mother says “You’re lying,” Uncle Robert says “Keep making up stories.” Perhaps he understands that there is not only pleasure in stories, but power—a power Jacqueline herself can wield.

And she has an early experience of that power when she does for her grandfather what Dell did for her on hair night, as he lies in his bed racked with coughing. “This I can do—find him another place to be / when this world is choking him.” Give him a glimpse of infinity.

*

Brown Girl Dreaming is the story of its own creation—as Woodson herself puts it, a way of “making sense of herself as a writer.” Her uncle Robert once told her that “If you catch a dandelion puff, you can make a wish. / Anything you want will come true.” Jacqueline wants to “catch words one day. I want to hold them / then blow gently, / watch them float / right out of my hands.” She and her siblings “close our eyes tight, whisper our dream / then set it floating out into the universe.” Jacqueline dreamed of being a writer—and when you pick up Brown Girl Dreaming, you're literally holding a dream come true in your hands. That's a powerful thing.

Stray Observations:

  • I realize I didn’t talk too much about Woodson’s style. (Sometimes I think the actual good posts are somewhere in these “stray observations” and the post itself is just a warmup.) Woodson is a master economist. Toni Morrison did more with the 206 pages of Sula than a lesser writer could do with 2,006; Jacqueline Woodson only needs seven lines. In downtown Greenville, the “WHITE ONLY” signs were painted over, “except on the bathroom doors, / they didn’t use a lot of paint / so you can still see the words, right there.” She doesn’t even need the next two lines (“like a ghost standing in front / still keeping you out”) to make her point. (Maybe in a book for adults she wouldn’t have written them.) In an earlier poem, Woodson’s grandfather explains the Civil Rights Movement—why people are marching, “why people are so mad.” “First they brought us here. / Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863, / and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.” With the poorly painted “WHITE ONLY” sign, Woodson condenses hundreds of years of history in a single unforgettable image.
  • I also didn’t talk at all about Woodson’s relationship with God. Despite—or perhaps because of—her religious upbringing, she does not find him in religion. Jacqueline’s grandmother is a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and her grandchildren spend Greenville weekends at the Kingdom Hall or out pounding the pavement, spreading the Good Word. Woodson treads carefully here. Jacqueline is frustrated by the many rules she must follow, longs for the birthday cupcakes she’s forbidden to eat. Woodson tells us everything about how her childhood self felt about the religion she was forced to practice—but nothing of what her adult self feels now about having been forced to practice it. (She probably wouldn’t use the word “forced.”) She does, though, in a single word—that economy again—tell us where she did find God, and it wasn’t in the Kingdom Hall. As her teacher reads Robert Frost’s “Birches” aloud to the class, some choke back tears at the combined beauty of her voice and the poem. They’ve never seen an ice storm like the one Frost describes, but now they “can imagine / everything we need to imagine / forever and ever / infinity / amen.”


Friday, January 2, 2015

Fairies and Fate in Sylvia Townsend Warner's "Kingdoms of Elfin"


…[O]nce [Gobelet] made Fides an exquisite present. She had gone off on one of her rambles, and he had been sent after her with a message. He found her on the heath, motionless, and staring at the ground with an expression of dismay. She was staring at the body of a dead crow, already maggoty. Forgetting the message, he picked it up and said it must be buried in an anthill. She had not expected him to show such feeling, and followed him while he searched for an anthill large enough for his purpose. When it was found he scrabbled a hole and sank the crow in it. What the maggots had begun, he said, the ants would finish. Ants were good workmen. Three months later he brought her the crow’s skeleton, wrapped in a burdock leaf. Every minutest bone was in place, and she had never seen a bird’s skeleton before. In her rapture she forgot to thank him, and he went away thinking she was displeased.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin—a collection of sixteen stories written between 1972 and 1977, all but two of which were originally published in the New Yorker—concerns, well, the kingdoms of Elfin, all of which appear on the same map as the mortal world. Called things like Brocéliande, Foxcastle, Catmere, and Mynndd Prescelly, these kingdoms are primarily in the United Kingdom, and almost all in Europe (France, Sweden, Spain). (The only non-European kingdom is that of the Peris, in Iran.) If Elfins live in Asia, or the Americas, Warner isn’t interested; according to these stories, they’re an exclusively old world phenomenon.

In “Foxcastle,” although a human abductee describes fairies as not mysterious—they are, in fact, “as straightforward as the scent of a rose, as a wasp sting”—he also admits that “the more he studied them, the more baffled he became.” I felt much the same way. It isn’t that Warner didn’t go into enough detail; there’s plenty of that, about everything from the differences between kingdoms (Zuy has a profitable trading business, importing “fine muslins, mazulipatans, spices, and leopard skins for muffs,” and exporting “musical boxes, marrons glacés, fowling pieces, starch, suppositories, and religious pictures”; Brocéliande, which considers Zuy nothing more than a “gilded grocery shop,” survives on a combination of “pillage, feudal extortions, money-lending at high interest, insolvency, smuggling, and a fathomless national debt”) to customs (in Elfhame, if the queen does not appoint a successor, each eligible lady selects a lark. The court officeholders attach leaden weights to the larks’ feet and drop them into a bottomless well. Whichever lady’s lark takes the longest to drown wins the Queenship) to characteristics (that human abductee in “Foxcastle” notes that, the concept of obligation being foreign to fairies, their motives are “as pure as the heavens” because they always “[do] as they wish”). Despite such details as these, however, after 222 pages of Warner’s book, I understood her fictional race little better than I did before I began.

The forces of cause and effect in Warner’s stories, however, are perhaps even more mysterious than the natures of her fairies. I was never sure why things happened as they did; tragic fates befall Warner’s characters right and left, but not as punishments or even as consequences. Things don’t happen because they must happen, or because it’s inevitable that they happen; they just... happen, like in the quote at the beginning of this post, which is from the story “Winged Creatures.” When the bird-obsessed fairy Fides finds the corpse of a crow, the human changeling Gobelet seeks out an anthill, buries the corpse, then comes back three months (and approximately 150 words) later to exhume the skeleton and bring it to Fides, wrapped in a burdock leaf. Fides is so enraptured by Gobelet’s gift that she forgets to thank him; he goes away “thinking she was displeased” with it. A single moment—one 16-word sentence—is all it takes to dash his hopes. This is how misfortune strikes in Elfin: suddenly, without warning, seemingly at random. (Perhaps it feels random because Warner doesn’t spend a lot of time setting things up: she gives information only when it’s about to become relevant.)

Warner doesn’t revel in dispensing rotten luck, but she doesn’t seem to be losing sleep over it, either. At the end of “The One and the Other,” a fairy changeling kills his human counterpart by not plugging his vein properly after taking a blood sample. In “Elphenor and Weasel,” two fairy lovers fall asleep in the belltower of a church and freeze to death. The end of “Visitors to a Castle” prophesies “the end of our world . . . the end of Elfin . . . the last fairy dying like a scorched insect.” At the end of “Winged Creatures,” a fairy nobleman is torn apart by gulls. And at the end of “Foxcastle,” the last story in the book, that human abductee I mentioned is expelled from Elfin without warning to find that he’s an old man, dressed in rags, incapable of human speech. Not every story ends this way. Flipping through just now, I was surprised by how many have comparatively happy endings, but the overall tone of the book is a kind of resigned sadness. Bad things happen, we don’t know why, and there’s nothing we can do about it. In “Elphenor and Weasel,” one of the titular characters is swept up in a storm at sea. “The force of the gale enclosed him; he could hardly draw breath. There was no effort of flight; the effort lay in being powerlessly and violently and almost senselessly conveyed—a fragment of existence in the drive of the storm.” Fate, in this book, operates exactly like. All you can do is wait it out and hope you’re alive when it’s over.

Stray Observations:

  • I wonder whether Susanna Clarke has read these stories; they’d be right at home in the footnotes of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Warner even quotes from a fictional manuscript on fairies, “The Secret Commonwealth,” which is written in a 17th century style—similar to that of some of the fictional books Clarke quotes in Jonathan Strange. (“Spirits, and light changable bodies, (lyke those called Astral,) are somewhat of the Nature of a condensed Cloud, and best seen in Twilight.) She also shares a certain digressive quality with Clarke, as well as a fondness for minor details and detailed rituals. Her fairies are less powerful than Clarke’s, though, and more vulnerable (though woe betide the human who falls into their clutches).
  • Speaking of Susanna Clarke, one moment in particular reminded me of her because of how it blends fantasy and everyday life. In "Castor and Pollux," a fairy named Hamlet returns home to the kingdom of Pomace "at short notice, but preceded himself in several people's dreams. Elissa's bowerwoman, polishing the crystal ball, had seen him sailing up the Severn in a gondola drawn by two swans, but said nothing about it at the time, as she did not want to be thought a trespasser on her mistress's domain." (Those dreams are very Only Lovers Left Alive.) The way Warner mixes fantasy and banality reminds me of the scene in Jonathan Strange when Strange uses horses made of "sand and sea-water and magic" to tow a grounded ship to safety—after which they lie down and become new sandbanks, altering the area's shoals and channels such that all existing maps of it are rendered useless. Magic is fallible as the people who use it.
  • Warner uses fairy ignorance to get in some pointed digs at the church. In "The Occupation," the fairy Ellin happens upon a group of humans walking "with an air of being banded together to commit some crime they were not wholehearted about." She follows them to a stone building, into which they file—to massacre? Or to be massacred? "If they were there to be slaughtered it would account for that air of unwillingness." However, "No one was slaughtered. At intervals, everyone sang. Finally, they paid to go away." She's just witnessed a church service.
  • Warner presents the non-hetero sexualities in Kingdoms—of which there are several—in a manner sometimes matter-of-fact and sometimes playful. In “The Blameless Triangle,” four starving fairy runaways try to prostitute a fifth to a provincial governor named Mustafa Ibrahim—who has a taste for young boys—in a conversation full of sexual innuendo: “Let us suppose that a triangle wishes, for reasons we need not go into, to lodge itself in a square. Which part of itself would it direct to that end? . . . Let us further suppose that one of [its] angles . . . was slightly prominent, slenderer, and therefore more insinuating. Have we any reason to doubt but that this would be the angle our hypothetical triangle would choose for its purpose—and rightly so?”) In “Foxcastle,” a human is sexually assaulted by an anonymous group of fairies: “[H]ands were fingering him, lightly, delicately, adroitly. His shoes were taken off, his toes parted, the soles of his feet prodded. His coat was unbuttoned, his shirt opened. Fingers tweaked the hair in his armpits . . . The cobweb bonds yielded as he writhed and struggled, and each time he thought he had snapped them they tightened again. The explorers waited till he lay exhausted . . . and proceeded methodically to his genitals.” And, in “Castor and Pollux,” two identical human twins wrestle naked in a distinctly erotic fashion: “From head to foot they were happiness. Their stature, their long identical limbs, their matched expressions of fierce, unwavering gaiety existed in a world of their own . . . As they clasped and eluded, locked and slid apart, forced one another down, pliable as willow wands, and pliable as willow wands sprang up again, it seemed as though they would wrestle forever . . .” I was surprised by all this until I learned that Warner herself was a lesbian (she lived with the poet Valentine Ackland for 39 years until Ackland’s death in 1969). These three scenes aren't the focal point of their respective stories: the prostitution scheme never comes to fruition, and neither the sexual assault nor the naked wrestling are even mentioned again. Sexual diversity is a natural part of Warner's world, just as it is in ours.