Composite Creatures

Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker is the kind of book, and reading experience, I find very difficult to talk about. I know that, theoretically, I am capable of actual criticism of the book — like, maybe it’s not great how Hardaker keeps the reveal for the last pages, and then the coda is kind of a retroactive infodump — but then none of that actually matters. This book set me wailing around the house, absolutely distraught for no reason I could identify with precision. It’s like my interior state became too large, too full with the proceedings, and I end up this inchoate mess who has lost language.

I’ve had this experience a handful of other times, where I have this paralyzed, almost jealous feeling about a novel. Notably, they all tend to be debut or early novels by women in often claustrophobic environments: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke, Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng, Severance by Ling Ma, even God’s War by Kameron Hurley, even though that’s a bit of an outlier in terms of tone. They’re all a little messy, but have the viscera of an artist’s early work.

I’ve always been a fan of the Gothic, which can sometimes be almost cartoonishly large, in both literal and emotional spaces. Degenerate, aristocratic families rot in their crumbling manses, dead wives haunt the folly in diaphanous dresses, and hulking, Byronic figures silhouette themselves on the mountaintop, in the sheeting rain. The trappings of the hardcore, Victorian Gothic are so outsized they verge on comedy, if not deliberately, then in that blinking naiveté which is hard to discern from actual irony. Sometimes the satire can’t be told apart from its object, and Gothics often play with that ambiguity. I’ve been reading the Gormenghast books, for example, and that has both the gravidity and comedy of Gothic fiction in spades.

But Gothic that goes small — that details a cozy bungalow in some suburb, and the inconsequential denizens therein — absolutely catches me where I live. I’m completely susceptible to narratives of women locked in domestic environments which have been rendered inexorably, permanently strange. My outsized reactions might seem easy to psychoanalyze — look at mom, mommishly momming — though I think my affinities are probably at least as messy as the works that provoke them.

We meet Norah on a first date with Art, and everything about it feels jumbled and and wrong-footed. Their relationship with each other has been mediated by an ominous medical corporation called Easton Grove for inscrutble reasons. Though their first date feels no better than average, they are overly congratulatory of how well they got on, and seemingly rush into a cohabitation and marriage. Their first holiday party, to which Norah invites friends from her Life Before, is a master class in social anxiety and dangerous subterranean fault lines. The conversation always dances around some essential violation or transgression of Norah’s, one which must be worse than that Art is boring and American. Norah shies constantly from thinking of her previous lover, the one the friends knew, and this avoidance is a central lacuna, both in terms of narrative, and her personality.

Into this void, Easton Grove sends Nut, a mysterious creature who feels, at least in the beginning, like cross between a cat and an infant. They’re not supposed to name her, nor are they supposed to give her run of the house, but both things happen inexorably, even as these encroachments upend their lives. Art is a midlist writer of crime novels of some success, and Nut’s (and to a lesser extent, Norah’s) intrusion into his writing space disorders his ability to write. Norah more wholly embraces Nut, going against the edicts of Easton Grove, and her everyday companionship with the creature is shot through with anxiety and transgression. Norah often feels to me like Kat from The Mad Scientist’s Daughter: Both live with this inexplicable being in a cozy home in a dying world. Because the world is dying, quite literally, outside the windows of their small domestic spaces.

Norah’s relationship to art is all over this novel, and it would probably be easy to make some pat announcement about domesticity and its impact on creatively or whatnot. For one, her husband’s name is Art, and he is, indeed, an artist (though there’s a lowkey but constant denigration of his crime novels as unserious or lower order, both self-deprecatingly from him, and from others.) More importantly, Norah came into some money — the money that made it possible for her to enter into her relationship with Easton Grove, Nut, and Art him/itself — because of her artist mother. Her mother was locally influential painter, and after her death, her paintings acquired a posthumous cache, and sold for much more than they could have while she was living. Norah, by contrast, works some sort of corporate drone job, and even with Easton Grove’s meddling, is content largely to languish in the middle of the org chart. A large part of her emotional energies go to Nut, and though I think it could be possible to read this as the ways women are lanced of creative purpose by child minding — a sort of A Room of One’s Own where the room contains a fucking baby — but that’s too simple a reading.

I have two children — teenagers — on the cusp of becoming. I live in a comfortable house occasionally uncomfortably. Outside of our domesticity, the oceans literally burn. While I may (and do) struggle with my creativity — maybe some day I’ll finish that novel of Gothic spaces — I am absolutely paralyzed by how fucked up the world is, how terrifying it is to have brought people into this world, who then have to survive the coming cataclysm. Norah’s crisis is both creative and procreative, and I feel in my guts how they both consume and create one another. The old saw about both art and children is that they are a form of immortality. When the world dies around us, neither feels permanent, which is the whole point of immortality, n’est pas?

There feels like a line out from Composite Creatures to Wittgenstein’s Mistress in a weird and winding way. I know my appreciation of Markson’s po-mo novel is all ass-backwards — like, I couldn’t care less about whatever bullshit he’s going on about i/r/t philosophy, but I am gutted — gutted — by the overt plot of the novel. In Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a woman possibly named Kate is the only living animal left on earth. She writes Twitter-length missives on a typewriter in the basement of a house she’s occasionally inhabiting, about what she’s doing and Classic literature and only very rarely her past. It is a record that will be read by no one, not even the narrator, who eschews retrospection. Of course, it’s fiction, so it is read, and by thousands, but that’s not the point.

The point is a dead and dying world inhabited by a being self aware enough to worry about the future, and self-involved enough to cannibalize whatever is at hand to survive. Kate pulls down a house on a beach and burns it for warmth. Norah, well. Her response is what happens in Composite Creatures, isn’t it?

And you know what? I can’t even blame her, even if much of what she does is unforgivable. There but for the grace go I.

Origin Stories: The Day After

This is going to be one of those deep dives into my own bullshit. Fair warned.

A while ago I had a slightly wine-five conversation with a friend of mine (hi sj!) where we tried to parse the origins of our zombie obsessions. I know I have roughly eleventy million reasons why I keep seeking out zombie narratives – from a love of horror/comic gore that no doubt has roots in the body trauma I experienced birthing babies, to a static-shock kind of irritation I have with common, even prevalent, constructions of domesticity I find when the dead rise – but the reasons why I started picking up fictions of the undead are maybe a little murkier. I believe there are two formative experiences. I’ll start with the most recent.

There’s this half-joking definition of Gen-X that posits that it is the generation just too late for atomic bomb drills, but too early for Code Red. When we hit the school basement, our heads down and our fingers interlaced over our necks, it was because of the most prosaic tornado. (Or at least in the Midwest, where we had such a thing.) At a family function recently that put together my Boomer parents with my Gen-whatever kids, I was keenly aware of this divide. The Boomers and the kids rightly bonded over the trauma of the drills they are subjected to, whereas Richard and I just shrugged. This was not a part of our experience, this exact civic trauma baked into our primary educations. But we were still on the tailing edge of the Red Scare, even if the civic authorities had kenned to the ridiculousness of the bomb drill. My go-to nightmare before the zombie shambled into my psyche – and after, often in a confusing jumble – was one of nuclear devastation.

The Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986, just days after my 12th birthday. I’ve been watching the HBO series about the disaster, and kind of freaking myself out with how clear my memories of the event were, even though I was just a tween in the 80s. I remember Sweden sounding the alarms: where in the fuck is this radiation coming from? I remember all the Russian dissembling, and the slow leak of information. I remember once the disaster was contained, the propaganda they released about the brave and noble workers who sacrificed themselves to encase the reactor in concrete; as if. Seeing how close they were to meltdown — to the poisoning of Central Europe for the next several millennia – retroactively validates my schoolgirl fears. I had a fallout dream a week ago; I haven’t had one in years. Add in the fact that I spent a month in Minsk five years later – 400ish kms from Chernobyl, very roughly the distance from New York to Boston – and my schoolgirl fears look awfully credible. It’s completely crazy we didn’t quite clock the reality of that danger. But then, the whole goram Soviet Union was shuddering apart, so dying of wasting cancer seemed very fucking remote compared to possibly having to yeet off to Poland once all the unrest started in earnest. We were there in April. By August, the Soviet Union had shattered.

But I think the event that caused my zombie thing happened three years earlier.

This is the scene, as I remember it (which is a fairly huge caveat, because I’m regularly interrupted by family members telling me that’s Not How It Happened): I was at my grandparents’ house in Munhall, PA, a post-War suburb outside of Homestead, PA, birthplace of Carnegie Steel. Everyone was gathered round the television to watch “The Day After“,* which was a Television Event of the kind that my kids won’t ever experience: 100 million people watched that broadcast. The internet tells me there were 224 million people in the country at the time, which means that Jesus Christ that was a lot of people. (I think maybe Game of Thrones may be the last big tv event, but even that was a series – not a Big Deal TV Movie event. “Bird Box” this was not.) Or not everyone was gathered round; I’m fairly sure my five year old sister was already abed. We slept in the same room — which used to be our mother’s — in 30 year old twin beds. There were mourning doves who roosted in the eaves and woke us up in the gloaming with their sadly loud laments. Grandpa Ed was in His Chair, my parents and Grandma Fran were on the couch, and I was fists on chin on the plush carpeting. I was allowed to stay up because I was a worldly nine.

The first whatever hour of “The Day After” is just interpersonal bullshit as it plays out in Laurence, Kansas. Nothing about it is particularly memorable or interesting: it is just a day in the life. Some of the actors involved had established film careers, like JoBeth Williams, who had just starred in “Poltergeist” and “The Big Chill”, or Jason Robards, who had a pretty storied career at this point. John Lithgow had been nominated for an Oscar already, for “The World According to Garp” – which, gah, that movie is due for some reassessment – and would pick up another shortly for “Terms of Endearment”. (Steve Guttenberg wouldn’t make it big until a year or two later.) This wouldn’t be notable today – things are pretty porous between the big and the small screen – but back then actors tended to be relegated to one or another. I mean, maybe some second tier movie actor would cameo on Happy Days when they were deep in the junket, but that was about it.

Once the bombs fall, though, that’s when it happens. Or maybe that’s when it doesn’t happen, because the absolute worst thing about “The Day After” is how matter of fact it is about the fallout, both emotionally and physically. A couple of characters just simply vanish, never to be heard from again. Most try to carry on the only way they know how – like Jason Robards’ character, who continues doctoring despite the death of his family, his neighborhood, and his city. When the inevitability of his radiation poisoning becomes clear, he returns home, to find a bleak and blasted landscape with people picking the bones. He breaks down when he’s offered the barest kindness, weeping in the arms of a stranger. He presumably dies in the rubble. It’s a lot of people dying watching other people dying, at least until some of the dying start to kill. A woman delivers a godamn baby. They are all going to die.

I didn’t see this ending in 1983 because I freaked the fuck out so hard my parents carried me bodily to bed, where I presume I eventually slept. As a parent now, I can just see my parents’ slowly dawning awareness of my freakout: glued into the narrative, until my brain starts screaming with momservation, and I turn and see that look on my kid’s face. Sitting in the darkened bedroom and shushing quietly why I rub a back, trying to quiet the tears. I watched “The Day After” all the way to the end much later, and it was zero to the bone how closely the post-nuclear landscape aligned to my nuclear dreams, how the visual language of my nightmares is cribbed from just the barest glimpse of the end of this film. My mind goes to rubble, to the shadows on the wall, in the cold sweat of nightmare. The zombie shambles out of this landscape, its ataxia like radiation burns.

In retrospect, my viewing not much later of “Night of the Living Dead” at a slumber party would only act as cement on my personal horror landscape, setting the bleak nuclear winter as my discontent. My dreams tend to redress the houses I have lived in as the set for both the tedious and the terrifying, so my terrors tend to be the familiar turned strange: a sink full of blood, a doorway half-shattered but holding, a hatch in the floor above me raining down debris as someone – something – treads the boards.

*This is stupid and doesn’t matter, but I’m having a hard time deciding how exactly to deal with television/movie/episode names. AP and Chicago style are at odds, so I’m going with Chicago because they actually say what to do with series television names vs. episode names.

Sharcano!!!1!

There’s this dismissive, tautological quote that goes something like, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I can’t find a reputable source for this line — it’s been attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, or a tumblr image of some cats — but it has the kind of epigrammatic pithiness that makes for great ad copy. I think you can fairly easily tell by the title whether you are in the audience of this book. Sharcano = shark + volcano!!!1! You know if this math is for you.

I guess I expected Sharcano to be a nod to pulp horror like anything by Guy N Smith, a journeyman writer who churned out well over a hundred novels, and, given that he isn’t dead yet, likely is churning them out still. (His wiki page notes that he is an “active pro-smoking campaigner”, which I find inordinately charming. I even smoke, and I know that shit ain’t good for anyone, mostly because I smoke.) I was expecting shoddy continuity, uproarious misogyny, and lurid bloodbath, the kind of thing banged out in two non-consecutive weekends with a lot of uppers in the mix.

But no, Sharcano is more a nod to big budget action disaster films, movies like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. This is not a criticism; more an observation. There’s an estranged couple — one of whom is a massive television personality slash dillhole — so you’ve got your remarriage plot; a couple of moppets of various ethnicity; a priest at the focus of a shady Vatican conspiracy; some bubbas; sasquatch &c. There’s a lot of destruction that would work well better on the screen with Michael Bay-ish craptacular jump cuts, but then there’s a wry comedy aspect that would never be evident in a Michael Bay film.

What Sharcano reminds me most of is The Core, which is a silly disaster film complete with unobtainium and Stanley Tucci. The scene where Tucci is in a train car thing, about to die, bloviating into a tape recorder in his showboat way, and then starts laughing at the ridiculousness of such an act is one of my legit favorites. Almost as good as Samuel L in Deep Blue Sea starting into a monologue about how we’re not going to fight anymore! right before the supershark fucking drops the knowledge. Drop the knowledge, sharks made out of lava. We’ll catch up.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure this book needs to be 400+ pages, and I’m seriously unsure that it should be the first in a trilogy. Sharcano is well better than it should be, a quality which gives with one hand and takes with another. Pulp’s got a certain energy to it, a rough, unedited pulse. Sharcano has a more arms-reach approach to the material, a half-ironic tone that tries to split the difference between straight up satire and gleeful homage. That’s a hard line to walk, very hard, and that Sharcano manages it at all should be seen as a win. If you like this sort of thing, as the cats of tumblr tell me, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

 

I received my copy from Netgalley. Thanks, dudes.

Resurrection, and the Returned: “I’m not sure it would be a good thing.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched network television, I realized halfway through the premiere episode of Resurrection, which is the newest revived-from-the-dead offering on tv. (Though I’m not bothering to google this, there are several such shows in production at the moment, I am given to understand.) Though I kind of can’t imagine network tv taking on the latent and blatant nihilism and grimdark nature of the zombie show – despite Walking Dead‘s cable ascendancy – I could see the more domestic concern of people in a small town returned years after their deaths working as a sort of Lost-ish mystery show. Who returned Laura Palmer?

Network television can pull off the Gothic melodrama, with even creature-of-the-week procedurals like early seasons of the X-Files bending towards the childhood traumas and interpersonal machinations of the principles. Alas, what I got from Resurrection was a whole mess of anxiety about whether the viewer was even going to buy the premise. The cold open works as an image – this boy in the rice paddies and his collapse in a Chinese town – but once the cut-rate X-Files agents get involved, it all goes downhill. A seriously put upon agent of ICE, which might be the least sexy of all federal agencies, picks up a boy who has been repatriated to the US because obvs he’s an American? Why are we being showed this travel time? Start in China, switch to the small town. Also no, the agent doesn’t just haul off to magical New England town just on the say-so of some rando kid.

The thing that killed me about Resurrection was how arm-wheeling the emotional and social problems are, all of these painful conversations with ICE ICE agent, man of exposition and explication, reiterating over and over how obvious the stakes are. The childhood friend of the resurrected boy now a priest, stuttering through his homily as the boy’s mother ushers him into the pew. The fact that every single person in Stars Hollow appears to be related to the resurrected boy, down to his doc. Also, you are seriously not allowed to put a lynching joke in the mouth of Omar Epps in a show this white, no. After the joke, my husband yelled, “Omar Epps, everybody!” Sorry, that’s a fail.

There was altogether too much hugging, speechifying, and shaming going on in Resurrection for my taste. I do not even get why everyone ragged on resurrected boy’s dad for not believing this miraculous kid was his, even though the boy was unchanged after 20 years and reappeared on the other side of the planet. I get that Americans don’t like skepticism or science, but this is beyond the emotional pale for me. I’m going to need some time, DNA tests notwithstanding, to accept this manifest creature of a family’s grief as something other than its shocking reiteration. Quit mansplaining what I should think, ABC, sheesh. (Also, total waste of a few of my favorite character actors, especially the boy’s parents.)

Which was why the first episode of The Returned, “Camille”, was so damn good. The events occur in a small town in the French Alps, with four or five – its not entirely clear – people returning to their lives after years of the absence of death. Camille dies in a bus accident with 38 other people. Years later, we watch a group therapy group consider the monument to the loss that is to be installed in order to enact their dubious healing. Camille comes home and her mother follows her through the house, shaking, getting her a robe, pulling down the half-considered shrine on her dresser. “Why did you rearrange all my clothes?” the girl asks, and the mother doesn’t answer. A creepy boy keeps being framed through glass. A morpho eugenia butterfly, pinned to a display case, flutters, and then breaks free.

a morpho eugenia butterfly

There is little dialogue in The Returned, more a series of reaction shots and tight Gothic interiors interspersed with tight Gothic landscapes: a reservoir, a row of suburban alpine houses, an underground walkway with flickering lights. None of the relationships are telegraphed in megaphone dialogue, but in subtle nods of the head. Camille’s parents are divorced now, but were not 4 years ago when she died. “Tu fumes?” she asks her dad, as he pinches a shuddering cigarette with his ex-wife beyond the glass of the sliding door, hissing at each other, what are we going to do? What do you even say, years past someone’s death? How awful would their return be, a tearing of all the scar tissue, both personal and societal?

I don’t mean to keep hat-tipping Twin Peaks, even though I do, but there’s something here that reminds me of that. Not in the pin-wheeling grotesquery of Lynch’s middle America,  but in the Gothic dread of the small town, the flickering iteration of civic grief, and the half-careful invocation of the supernatural, like a shrine swept suddenly into a drawer. (Also because the cinematography is gorgeous.) When the priest avows the durability of the human soul and then demurs about the resurrection of the body – “I’m not sure it would be a good thing” – I was all in. I suspect there will be fewer answers in The Returned than there will be in Resurrection, which I count as a good thing. There is no answer to grief.

Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger

I’ve read four novellas out of DarkFuse‘s novella series now, and that this is the first that didn’t really do it for me is a pretty great track record. All signs pointed to Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger being in my wheelhouse: big, steampunky habitation called the Machine, an authoritarian dystopia with religious overtones, a planet-wide storm called the Maelstrom, a big freaking chthonic Pit of Doom. I mean, look at that gorgeous cover, for crying out loud. Unfortunately, I felt like the all that very cool stuff ended up being used as little more than ornament on a fairly perfunctory infidelity plot.

The horror novella seems to be a perfect thing, in a way: long enough to get some good grist, short enough not to exhaust the spooky possibilities. Here, I don’t know, this seemed to fall in a fallow area. I can imagine this story being relocated to an apartment complex in the Soviet Union – or any other society with a harsh cultural ideology and dense industrial landscapes – without too much tweaking. Some gross and crazy things happen, but I honestly couldn’t tell you whether they were intended to be dream sequences or not, or if that would matter.

While I freely admit that my disappointment is based on false perceptions of the book, I think I could have liked Marrow’s Pit despite my disappointment if the main character held any kind of resonance for me. There’s something clever about creating a character who has these gauzy and indistinct fantasies about revolution getting sidelined so thoroughly by domestic drama. However, schlubby cuckolds with no particular energy don’t turn my crank. Also I straight up do not get that ending. While I can see that it should slash does have meaning, I just can’t access it.

I don’t know. I always feel bad about disliking this sort of thing. It’s not doing anything wrong and I can see how the whole cabbage-redolent dread of the Marrow’s Pit might work for someone else. Better luck next time, I guess.

 

 

I received my copy from the fine folks at DarkFuse and Netgalley. Thanks.

The Wind Rises: Childhood’s End

I finally got to see my first Miyazaki film in the theater when I took the kids to see The Wind Rises this weekend. I’m still kicking myself for missing The Secret World of Arietty when it passed through town as that has since become my most deeply felt Miyazaki film – I hesitate to use words like “favorite” with my darlings – and that would have just killed on the big screen.  Hayao Miyazaki has stated that this is his last film, and even though he’s retired before, I should not be messing around with being “too busy”. The Wind Rises is the biography of plane engineer Dr. Jiro Horikoshi who designed planes before and during WWII. As a last film, this is both a departure and right in line with Miyazaki’s body of work, a puzzling, deeply personal biopic about a childhood hero that elides as much as it informs. It it both gorgeous and strangely inert.

This isn’t going to be a review, btw; it’s more going to be a collection of impressions. I don’t have a mind for the visual, and I’m no film scholar.

There are two Ursula K. Le Guin novels I haven’t read: Malafrena and Always Coming Home. (Note: Ursula K. Le Guin is my heart, and the writer whose works are most important to me on every single level.) I’ve only taken one run at Malafrena, and I suspect it was mostly wrong timing, as her other Orsinian tales – Orsinia is the fictitious country in which a collection of her stories occur – worked for me entirely. (She’s coming to terms with Virginia Woolf, on some level, in those stories. I know!) I’ve crashed on the rocks of Always Coming Home at least twice, making it a third of the way in before I just set it down and walked away. I posted a non-review of my failure at some point, and a fellow ursine reader sent me this just transcendent explication of the book, calling it her most personal work, this deeply felt but also surface-placid recollection and exploration. I still haven’t read it, despite circling around the book-with-cassette-tape edition I have on my shelves. I have a discomfort about it, like watching something too personal.

There’s something to that here, in The Wind Rises. My husband and I had a long conversation about works we thought fit this strange format: undisputed masters of their craft creating art that ultimately fails (on some level) because the artist has an audience of one: the artist. We can piggyback into this audience, or worm our ways in using biography or the tabs on the personal that align in some feeling way, but the art itself is ultimately impressionistic in a way that defies that external logic. You can hang on by the skin of your teeth or the teeth of your skin, but you will never get it on some visceral level, even if your viscera responds. This can seriously fucking piss off viewers or readers, as evidenced by a lot of nasty, false-populist reviews like Rex Reed‘s for To The Wonder:

To the Wonder is the kind of fiasco that keeps film-festival programmers salivating and discriminating audiences stampeding toward the exit doors. It’s a simpering yawn that makes The Tree of Life seem like an action thriller with Bruce Willis. It is about … nothing.”

 

Which, look, I’m not going to say that To The Wonder is approachable or even worthwhile to a lot of people, nor am I going to say that those people are either idiots or “discriminating”, Rex. But it’s not about nothing. We’ve been hacking our way through Malick’s To The Wonder over months now, stopping for tirades from my husband – what is this shit? – and conversations with friends – hi, Eric! – about the individual, national and cultural response to a work that’s clearly, clearly, as much about personal mythos and national narrative as it is about, like, telling a story. There is no story that can tell me. There’s no story for anyone. It’s all memory or recording. My husband made peace with To The Wonder when he realized the film depicts all the interstitial moments – just after that conversation, just before that realization – a collection of boring connective moments that are the troughs between the high heights, the slack edge of feeling. But that’s an intellectual response, in the end, to a stark emotional landscape. That’s what we’ve got, I guess.

A lot of The Wind Rises bores me in the same way that To The Wonder does – these vistas where I consider the shape of the light or the angle of the sky more closely than I should, knocking myself out. Huh, you don’t see animated characters smoke anymore, and that smoke is gorgeous. Look at the ripples on the water. Look at the fluid dynamics of the clouds. But then there’s the moments that poleaxe me, like when Marina’s daughter asks her, “Why are you sad?” and she says, “I’m not sad.” There’s no reason on earth that should freak me out, but it does. The moment when I realized that all of the machine noises in The Wind Rises were made by people, which is occasionally funny and sometimes alarming. The 1923 Tokyo earthquake was made by human voices as well; yeesh.

It felt important to me that Hayao Miyazaki was born in January of 1941, about a month after Pearl Harbor, just weeks before my grandparents married and my grandfather enlisted in the Navy, which would send him to the South Pacific where he would encounter Jiro Horikoshi’s planes, at the very least in their effects. Miyazaki is not a Boomer but a War Baby, living through this profound upheaval as a pre-linguistic person; the war more a series of impressions and conversations remembered over dinner or around the doorjamb. I remember these times of my pre-personhood myself – Nixon impeached, the end of the Vietnam war – but I remember them more from my relationships with Viet and Hmong children who began peopling the elementary school, or the conversations overheard but not actually listened to, in the way of children, as my parents talked. Miyazaki is dealing with a part of his life that cannot be accessed through memory.

That The Wind Rises works best in its soaring, physics-defying dream sequences makes perfect sense to me, in this context: Miyazaki painting these watercolor vistas – like the landscapes Jiro’s wife paints en plein air during their courtship? The goofy, childish authorial voice of the Italian engineer intoning with its almost easily-dismissed gravitas as a bedtime story about the worst things there are, and the ugly, logical conclusions of the engineering war machine. There’s a lot of criticism of The Wind Rises because it never exactly owns the effects of Jiro’s engineering in the war effort, but then also some real anger in Japan about its pacifist message. I get the impression that a man of Miyazaki’s generation cannot win, in artistic portrayals of his generation and the gauzy childhood memories of the one before, a rock and a hard place of national narrative and the you lost mentality of the post-Allies. I’m aware of my dislocation as a viewer because I am not Japanese; here I felt the generational disconnect as well.

One of the things I noted as I watched was the strange convergence between Jiro Horikoshi’s marriage and the one between Richard and Arline Feynman when Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. (The wiki article on Jiro has exactly zero about his personal life. I honestly don’t know how much Miyazaki bent here, in terms of life story, and it would be interesting indeed if this was fictional. Also, bearing in mind I’m getting most of my information about Feynman’s marriage from Feynman’s anecdotal memoirs and the film starring Matthew Broderick. I refuse to google, because on some level this has more to do with how biography is created than dreary facts.) The sick woman of Jiro’s wife is something of a thing in Miyazaki’s films, from the absent mother in My Neighbor Totoro to the boy in Arietty. The sequence where Jiro holds his wife’s hand while working slayed me, slayed me like the harsh breaths in Arietty. There’s a lot of his signature characters – the dwarfish superior played for comedy like the mean housekeeper in Arietty; Jiro’s sister who is so like Ponyo in her chubby, brutal girlishness, even when she is grown. I can see the war machines from Howl’s Moving Castle or the thrill of flight from Kiki’s Delivery Service.

The Jiro Horikoshi of the film has the same courtship as Feynman with a tubercular woman, a marriage despite filial objections, and the same divided loyalties as he works unceasingly and tirelessly for a dubious purpose.  The same dislocated relationship to the war effort – tangible, but indirect – the same lonely death of the wives. And the same transcendent belief of the unflinching beauty of their arts as they practice them. There is something wrong with the world that intellects like Feynman’s and Horikoshi’s are spent on things that florescence and then explode. “None of my planes came back,” Horikoshi tells his soul-body in the end. It is left to the viewer to see them driven to debris and the end. Feynman’s creation rains down on Japan in a hellfire. That Miyazaki inserts himself in a wand-breaking sequence like Prospero’s, the authorial acknowledgement that talent and mastery come to their end, hellfire or not, lends a tragic sweetness to the film. Is this the end? Does it have to be? Oh, God, no, please.

 

World War Z: The Movie

Of course when I started seeing trailers and reading descriptions of the film adaption of Max Brooks’s journal of the zombie apocalypse, World War Z, I immediately jumped up onto my high horse and started penning angry screeds in the comment sections of Reddit. (Just kidding. I don’t use Reddit.) Why in the hell were they even calling this movie World War Z if exactly nothing was taken from the book but the title? The book World War Z is nerdy and wonky, very much what a serious military history geek would write about the zombie apocalypse with CNN on mute in the background. So, maybe the individual voices were a little same-same; Brooks’s take was refreshing in its long, global pan, broken out from the locked room scenarios of so many zombie narratives. Instead of the usual how will we survive tomorrow, it was a consideration of how society – societies – would respond to such a threat.

Admittedly, the book is a little bloodless – the snap gone out of recountings because we know the raconteur has survived – and I was expecting changes. Much of Brooks’s book simply wouldn’t work on the screen. I did have some fantasies about the film being about the soldier’s narrative. He pops up at least three times in the book, moving from the Battle of Yonkers – which is actually beautifully narrated, and a pretty biting criticism of the ways military tacticians refuse to adapt to changing realities – to a West Coast enclave, and then back out through the flyover states, reclaiming this grand America. The zombie herds like buffalo, the consideration of the in-fill towns and the feral domestic animals, the drudgery and mud-covered victories: all this would have worked on the screen. Alas, no mas.

World War Z, the film, opens with a languorous morning flipping pancakes and only occasionally tense domesticity. Gerry Lane is an ex-CIA investigator, clearly still in the recovery phase of adjustment to stay-at-home dad and unemployment. His kids are moppets, and while I think it might be indicted that his wife is a professional of some kind, this isn’t lingered on. The New York setting and the traffic snarl action pieces reminded me of Will Smith’s I Am Legend, but the New Yorkiness and generally elegiac tone is absent from the movie. Pitt’s Gerry Lane seems like someone who would be better played by Tom Cruise, whose asshole Ethan Hunt routine from the Mission Impossible movies might register stronger than Pitt’s surfer insouciance. Much as I generally like Pitt, here he lacked an edge that made his supposed backstory anything but narrative justification. I was in the CIA, like, I guess.

From here, the movie bops around the zombie apocalypse, running set pieces with the thinnest of narrative fiber between them. Some of the set pieces were honestly thrilling – like the zombies swarming over the Israeli wall, or some of the stuff in North Korea. Some of them felt like hey, what about an outbreak on a plane??? I felt twitchy about a wasted David Morse vamping through a toothless mouth prosthetic about Jews and how they never forget, although the chatty Jurgen Warbrunn – one of the few characters (sort of) from the novel – explains a little better what looks like unvarnished antisemitism in Morse’s explanations of the Israeli response. I liked the look of the androgyne Israeli soldier tasked to escort Lane out of Israel, but there wasn’t much more than a look to her character. All in all, the movie was the kind of contentless flash-bang that can be fun in the dollar theater on a Sunday, but will likely diminish on the small screen to the point of boring.

Rather than just complain about fast zombies, because honestly, that’s maybe the lamest criticism one can level at the zombie narrative, my complaints more have to do with the lack of viscera. (Seriously, I’ve been trolled one too many times by people exclaiming that fast zombies aren’t really zombies, like the taxonomy of imaginary creatures isn’t flexible enough to include a little sprinting.) But really it was the lack of guts that got me, because whatever other societal jibber jabber zombie narrative might capture, they can thrill because of entrail-rending zombie bouquets, the mob ripping someone limb from limb. They’re about physical fear, body horror, our fear of the inevitably declining meat-sack we all live in. It’s not about the fear of death, but of decomposing life. Blood splatter was notably absent in World War Z, which seems a crying shame.

But that’s not even what I want to note about this movie. What I want to talk about is Gerry Lane’s wife. I’ve noted before that zombie stories deal with domesticity in a weird way, and the housewife, as the embodiment of domesticity, ends up bearing the brunt of the weirdness. And maybe I should just take a minute to define terms. Yes, obviously, Lane’s wife is working outside the home, and Lane himself is playing emasculated parent to her harping worry. There’s a quelling quality to their marital interactions: you shouldn’t want to go back out into that manly, war-torn landscape, Gerry. No, no, of course I don’t. I’m using housewife as a shorthand term for the straight, white, middle class momming set, working or not, who regularly are the focal point of the Mommy Wars, the cultural wars, and apparently, now the zombie wars. The housewife is a category more mythic than actual, but she’s got teeth like any other monster, and sometimes she sprints.

But when the fit hits the shan, it’s Gerry’s war skills that nurture domesticity. Gerry mansplains to the Hispanic family that they have to move to be safe in crisis, and they don’t listen, bringing moppet count up to three when their son takes the advice they don’t. By the time the Lane family makes it to the aircraft carrier, Mrs Lane is in full on helicopter mom mode, hissing at Gerry and the UN dude that they should take their conversation about zombies outside lest they upset the children. I punched my husband at this point in the film — in the arm, jeez — why wouldn’t she want to know wtf was going on? Fair enough, don’t freak out the kids anymore than you have to, but given that they were pretty much unconscious in every scene from here on out, maybe you have a shred of curiosity about anything but making sandwiches? Why would a professional woman just wring her hands and push her sleeping babies’ hair out of their eyes? You’re in danger of getting chucked from the relative safety of the carrier, why don’t you offer up whatever hastily sketched skills you have?

Mrs Lane’s story reaches a nadir when she calls Gerry in a panic while he’s on a dangerous op in North Korea, the squeal of the phone alerting the zombies to their locale. Life pro tip: set your cell phone to buzz when in the zombie apocalypse. (Also: cell phones work?) His world-weary decision not to tell her that her domestic panic got a lot of good men killed – good men! – just exhausted me. Broads, man, amiright? Don’t text me right now because I’m in a v. important meeting. Mrs Lane ends up as this tragic impetus for action, inert and often interfering, but without agency or motivation beyond the cheesy invocation of family. Someone smacks down Gerry near the end when he invokes it right back — I watched the thing that became my wife kill my children — but this is a weird conversation, bros ruminating on their obligations that are little more than luggage. Think of the children! Because that’s all we can do!

I don’t know. It’s late, and I’m tired, and maybe I’ll be back to bloviate tomorrow. I thought WWZ: the Movie was fine when people were running and screaming, but it wasn’t much more than that in the end.

Oh, and also, the scene where Gerry pops open a Pepsi machine and the cans all rolled with their labels out cracked my shit up. Pepsi: The Choice of the Undead! Pepsi quenches your thirst for brains.

For There She Was: Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway is a hard book to write about, for me. I read this on planes, and not on foot, in hard tubes that bolt up into the blue and down again into the strange sameness of airports; surrounded by strangers and boredom; trying to mask my weeping, coughing back my laughter; the phones off; the world insubstantial and patchy out the window of the plane. Wrong. I should have been walking, but then maybe flying is the better metaphor for Woolf’s strange prose, her perfect movement. At the end, wrung out after a week on vacation, I cried and pushed my head into my husband’s shoulder. We talked. I tried to convey why I was crying, but it’s all so inexplicable. Not sadness. Not sadness. Something more like the pain of recognition; the joy of disconnect; the shock of understanding.

Ten days before my husband and I married, twelve years ago this month, my grandfather died. My mother, in whose house we were to marry, was in Ireland. My sister, who was to be my only bridesmaid, was sick, so sick, ensconced in my mother’s bedroom. I would go there daily, more often if I could, and drop off videotapes of movies for her to watch, clear the dishes. She spent so much time lying down that her face swelled with uncirculated blood, narrowing her eyes to a squint.

Two days before he died he called me from the hospital, and we held a confusing conversation. He kept talking to nurses while talking to me, until he abruptly cut off the conversation and hung up. I tried to say I love you, but it was never said, or only said to the dead air on the phone. I cried then, cried hard, and I can see my not-yet-husband’s face while I wept into my hands alive with compassion and helplessness. He never did meet Grandpa. This week, in a shop in New Mexico, I looked over a set of string-ties, felt them with my hands, and told my husband that Grandpa would have loved these. I thought of his neck.

Grandma called to tell me he died. She told me not to tell my mother, not to disrupt her trip. Mum called me that evening, and I tried to lie, stupidly, bowing to the wishes of a woman who had lost her husband. I was strange, horrible. She called Grandma, who told her herself. Mum called back, and I confessed, broke it all over cords that run under the cold Atlantic all the way to Ireland. She was a daughter; I was a daughter; we owe these things to one another. That act of silence was the worst thing I’ve ever done.

I found myself in Homestead, that homely, ghostly town, in the week before my wedding running the strange minutia of a funeral that is in profound & exact correlation with the detail of a wedding. There is music, and an officiant; an afternoon going through poetry to find the poem to read; a caterer, a church, a house. The front row cordoned off for the old women; hats; nylon stockings; shoes. My father, my mother’s ex-husband, in my grandfather’s suit reading Fern Hill to a room of people. To me.

“Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

We took my grandfather’s giant, metal car though the car wash before the funeral. He had always loved those grandfatherly Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, the seat belts belted to themselves so the warning lights wouldn’t chide him to buckle up. The car wash attendant, upon hearing of our loss, testified to Jesus. My atheism is soft – a lost tooth or a missing thumb – but I felt his foaming compassion in those imaginary fingers, in that void in my bite, in a way I have never before or since. He admired the car, and I think, had we not planned to drive that soul-body to the funeral, I would have given the keys to him and walked.

I married him, my husband, ten days later, in my mother’s house, with my sister, in a small miracle, by my side. During the reading of one of the poems, the Edna St. Vincent Millay I’d chosen before death sat me down to remind me of impermanence, I reached my hand back and found her hand and held it as hard as I could.

“Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.”

Maybe families are accidental, maybe. But maybe not. My sister dreamed of him, our Grandpa, the night he died, unknowing of his death. She went to the attic and looked through old pictures. When I told her he was gone, we sat on the floor and she recreated her steps that night: my mother as a child; the pictures of the family car, my grandmother stylish and stunning in her fur-trimmed jackets in front; trips to Florida; unremembered friends. We didn’t cry, but talked, and it was like crying in its release. I would be on a plane within a day, and land down into the Homestead of grief, into the city of loss. My sister was too sick to come.

Mrs. Dalloway makes me think of this, makes me think of me. It’s shocking to find me there, in London, planning a party, this inconsequential thing; to find me in London, moving, and also far above the earth. She went out to buy some flowers and napped; she ran into an old lover; the party happened and was marred & perfected by death. It’s dangerous and egotistical to find meaning in events. My grandfather did not live and die so that I could be reminded of this long string of being, this ineffable web, but I couldn’t help thinking it at the time, and can’t help drawing the narrative that way now. It writes itself, our lives, my life. A life is not symbolic. The truth is unflattering and lacks the grammar of logic, but it moves in beauty and the snapped sentences of emotion. I have my stupidity for comfort, my unintellectual love, the unthinking feelings of connection and desertion.

“‘I will come,’ said Peter, but he sat on for a moment. What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?

It is Clarissa, he said.

For there she was.”

 

Sow by Tim Curran

Tim Curran writes such wonderfully juicy tactile horror prose that it makes me wish Sow bit off more than it chewed. Sow starts with Richard realizing his pregnant wife, Holly, is not just pregnant with their unborn child, but with an unspeakable, nameless horror. Richard is only hastily sketched – he’s described as the kind of guy who bores the census takers – and Holly even less so – we get not much more than wistful descriptions of her summery smell before the possession turns her into a stinking baby bag.

Curran captures a lot of the male anxiety around pregnancy, which, as you might have noticed, has become an absolute political nightmare in the US of A. Richard’s wobbly mental state, and the ways he shifts between seeing Holly as Holly, and Holly as this fecund sow-witch that he vividly imagines murdering reminded me of the factoid I learned when I was pregnant myself with my first: American women are more likely to be murdered (usually by the father) when they are pregnant than to die from any other pregnancy-related condition. Spousal (or partner) abuse is more likely to start at pregnancy than any other time. But Curran’s not really interested in such psychological jibber-jabber, and Sow is instead a sticky, straightforward witch-possession story with a lot of gross-out fun, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Maybe this is just a gendered response on my part. I’m not even kidding when I say that the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is absolutely the scariest fucking thing I’ve ever read. It’s freaky for a lot of reasons, but one being the way it broke the mother’s terror into all these perspectives, all bearing down on her, this cacophony of people expressing all the things she cannot about how fucking gross and wrong the whole thing is, leaving her, the mother, smiling beatifically at a baby covered in blood with a full set of teeth. That’s possession, for me, but I admit I have my girl bias. This may work perfectly for dudes as an expression of procreative terror.

I did really like the almost off-handed descriptions of rotting, rural Midwest. I just drove through 200 miles of the Minnesota outback, and the half-caved farmhouse just klicks down the road from a sign for some shitty office-park in development (“Ask us about our signing bonus!” “Think Barnum for your headquarters!”) spoke to the bleeding rural landscape and its metastasizing suburbanization. There’s a land war out there, fought over the most fertile farmland in the world. That the abandoned piggery would spit forth horror into the mushrooming condos spoke to me.

So, a fun little thing, shot down in a sitting. I don’t think this is novel length, though I find it hard to determine length in the ebook format. The brevity is a selling point, as there isn’t enough here, in what Curran has decided to take on, for many more pages. More’s the pity, because I think there’s more here.

Thank you to Netgalley and DarkFuse for the ARC. Their novella series is just aces for horror shorts.

Ice by Anna Kavan

I woke up (on that June 2nd) from a very vivid dream. In my dream, two people were having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods. One of these people was just your average girl. The other person was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire. They were discussing the difficulties inherent in the facts that A) they were falling in love with each other while B) the vampire was particularly attracted to the scent of her blood, and was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately.

Stephenie Meyer, from her Twilight FAQ

I don’t think I’m going to rate Ice by Anna Kavin, as I don’t think I can say I liked it – like is such a degraded term – but I also feel a fiercely uncomfortable kinship with its dead-eyed wonder. I think if I’d read this 20 years ago, I would have gone one of two ways. Either I’d dismiss it as plotless mind-fuckery – using, no doubt, a brilliant metaphor involving an emperor’s sartorial stylings or lack thereof – or I’d enact that uncomfortable bullshit of pretending to understand something I didn’t get. Maybe I’m not giving younger me enough credit, and I’m not trying to humble-brag that I get this now by trashing my younger self. I believe Ice is ultimately un-get-able, probably intentionally so (not that that factors for me, entirely), but in a way that speaks to several of my personal obsessions: the housewife in fiction, post-apocalyptic landscapes, the harder to describe slipperiness of mid-century female writers. Ice, for me, reads as a daughter of Story of O, fraught with the eroticism of landscape and decay, the brutalization of half-sketched girl through the eyes of half-sketched men, written by a woman who, like Pauline Réage, ran her identity like artwork itself. 

Nameless characters in a post-apocalyptic dream state enact a chilly, brutal love triangle.* There is a man, and another man – sometimes a warden, sometimes a husband – and they tug-of-war over the image of a sylph-like girl who is described dismissively by her hair color and her victimhood. She cowers, there. Her wrists become bruised. Her mother was cruel and taught her submission. The man – who is the main character – alternately murders her and tries to rescue her from the other man, sometimes at once. Locations bleed from one to the next; walls of ice rear up or cower themselves, in the distance; concrete details of flat-letting and luncheons dissolve into war and radiation. The girl is trussed and murdered a thousand times, or she isn’t, and everywhere she is half out-of-sight, a mirage in a damp-smelling room or a field of trees lit by moonlight and her bare, frozen feet are blue against the snow. Or the warden’s eyes are blue like a gem whose name the narrator can’t recall. Ice is infuriating until it poleaxes you, like the dream I had last night of a bunch of gossipy chatter at a picnic with a bunch of friends that did a focus-in, dolly-out on a creature, made of smoke, who sought possession of me and mine and I ran until I was screaming and my husband woke me up, telling me I was shouting in my sleep. Exactly like that. 

Like with Story of O, I’m maybe more interested in Kavan’s fascinating biography than I am with the text itself. Born to ex-pat Britons in France, people who are primarily referred to as cold, she was a heroine addict through most of her adult life. This is often described as medicinal, as she suffered from what we would pigeonhole as depression, and she herself was unrepentant about her addictions. She burned all her correspondences and most of her diaries near the end of her life, saying, “I was about to become the world’s best-kept secret; one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be.” And how, woman. Way to rock the fuck out of self-as-art. I can see thousands of sophomore-level papers about ice-as-addiction or ice-as-domestic-panic, and they wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, but they would also hugely fail. Ice might be the artifact of biography, but wrestling this bear down with life details won’t do. We shall not be going to the lighthouse today. 

“For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”

To the LighthouseVirginia Woolf

I read this up at the cabin, in snatches, like something stolen. In the category of post-apocalyptic post-Modern meta-mind-fuckery I’ve read at the cabin, I’m going to give the award to Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but it’s probably not wise to conflate the two. When my friend Alexis showed up with her daughter so we could enact our own lighthouse-not-going with the kids, we walked over the harsh geology of the north shore and shit-talked books and people. She’d read the back-flap of Ice, which likened Kavan to a raft of female authors, for no discernible reason other than they had lady-parts, and then named a raft of people she influenced, all male. Sure, it’s just blurb-craft bullshit, but it is also A Thing, this melting fulcrum of the pen spurting out its translations between the genders and influence and anxiety and all manner of Bloomian bullshit. 

Bullshit, she said, and pointed to the land, this mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon. 

Whatever. 

I am losing my coherence, the way I do. But I started with Stephenie Meyer talking about Bella Swann, that girl in the gloaming imagined by a woman asleep, the day before her kids were to start swimming lessons which would give her the brief stolen moments to write her dream of a girl being fought over like a bone by boyish monsters, her blood in the snow, her warm chastity, his chilly skin like a wall of ice. Sometimes when we dream, women dream of being killed by men. You can collapse the narrative of Ice with fractal precision into its opening and closing lines: “I was alone” and then, “The weight of the gun in my pocket was reassuring.” The rest is geometry, and the angles cut. 

*Though I admit my use of the term love triangle is primarily a troll – let’s see how many people run up in the defense of the seriousness of the literary qualities of this book – I’m somewhat douchily trying to enact the gendered ways we approach literature of all stripes. Love triangle is a dismissive term – oh, sigh, another girl thinks she’s average-special enough for a ream of hot guys to love her to the point of annihilation, which is, here, absolutely the fucking point, or not, who knows what the point it? There is no spoon. Do or do not. Both, motherfucker. None.