During the Christmas shutdown, I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft. It’s something to do but, as I discussed with one of my brothers, it is simply fun-ish. Once I returned to Wycombe, I removed it from my hard-drive and decided to look around for a palette cleanser. There was a winter sale on the Steam service. I picked up a few games, which included Dontnod entertainment’s Life Is Strange. The first episode of Life is Strange was released in January 2015, the last in October of the same year. I will be writing about my experience of playing this game. The story is a coming of age tale with a time-travel twist and elements of murder mystery. I found it a beautiful, albeit flawed, gem. As always, I will warn the reader now that extensive spoilers are to follow.
On Saturday 14 November 2015, I went to see the penultimate performance of Medea by Almeida Theatre. This was a new interpretation written by Rachel Cusk. While based on a play several thousand years old, there are many alterations made for this version, so please be aware that I will be spoiling the play to discuss them. I saw the National Theatre’s production of Ben Power’s version of Medea last year and wrote about my impressions here.
I saw Medea as part of a day out to London with a bit of an antique focus. Prior to the play, I went to the British Museum to look at the Celts exhibition, though that does span from antiquity right up to the modern age. I had had some chance to walk among the artefacts of an ancient age and, in conversation with the friend I was travelling with, refreshed thoughts of the ancient world.
However, this version of Medea, as with the version I saw last year, was a modern interpretation and even further from the source text. It was composed and produced as part of the Almeida Theatre’s ‘Greeks’ season, which also included Oresteia and The Bakkhai. The set, which is sparse and minimalist, a kind of opened up studio space on two levels, immediately intimated to us that this would not be a simple revival of the Classical text.
Kate Fleetwood is phenomenal in the title role and not equalled by any other performer on the stage, though Andy de la Tour comes close when he assumes the role of Kreon. Fleetwood rages, weeps, rages again at Jason, at circumstance, at the on looking audience. This address of the audience invites us to consider our complicity in Medea’s situation: that we as, voyeurs of her breakdown, do contribute it, that in needing her to go through this we are somehow abrogating our responsibility to feel as she does in our lives.
While I enjoyed the play, I was left with a sense that while called Medea, it wasn’t actually Medea that I was watching. As with the Power version, Cusk had chosen to have the characters speak naturalistically, without reference to lyricism. I am beginning to think that this might be a mis-step with performance in general. While it might seem artifice, I think that when something is performed for that stage, attention must be given to the manner in which people listen, as well as they speak. A certain lyricism carries the watcher on through soliloquies. Furthermore, the exchanges between Jason and Medea become screaming matches which, again, while certainly representative, mean that I was little able to follow the exchange. Having bought the script, I can see the effect on the page, but it did not translate to the stage. The only use of verse was on the lips of the Messenger, but I found the structure of these lacking and more than a little affected. I wonder if they were intended to evoke an impression of the otherworldly divine, a Dionysian madness and ecstasy, but if so it didn’t have that effect on me.
In Cusk’s version, Medea remains and outsider but this is less pronounced than Power’s version or in Euripides original. Here she is a writer, considered ‘weird’ by the chorus, difficult, ‘a feminist.’ She is harangued by her mother and enjoys an uncertain relationship with her father, yet they are alive and interact with her. Yet she is not the barbarian outsider, the kinslayer and kingslayer of Colchis, and this robs Medea, and by extension the play, of much of its gravity. Medea is dangerous. We know this from the start of things. She has killed before, killed for, and killed because of Jason.
In the source text, the wrong done to Medea by Jason is profound: for him she destroyed her family and has no life to which she can return to. She came to Athens, bore his children, only for him to set her aside at earliest convenience. It is not just that the divine element is gone, it is that the violent character of Medea is erased. It is important to understanding Medea’s response that she is this violent outsider; she has no other recourse to seek. Cusk’s situation is perhaps more relatable to a modern audience, but the change echoes through the play, reducing the moral gravity of events.
Because Medea has not been so wronged by Jason, her revenge similarly cannot be so terrible. In an odd sort of way, this version itself flinches away from rather than confronting the impossible conundrum that Euripides set his audience. The Messenger tells us that there are ‘other ways to kill than knives’ but part of the impact of Medea’s murder is that she carries it out; she transgresses our societal ideas of the duty of motherhood to carry out the divine justice against an oath-breaker. In this version, she instead gains revenge by being a Cassandra to Jason’s downfall. She simply tells a story that goes on to ruin Jason and Glauce’s life. She does not kill Glauce and Creon; Glauce turns out to be horrible and is attacked by a stranger anyway. Creon in turn goes mad. The boys are not murdered, but instead they commit suicide; a tragedy, to be sure, but it does not reflect on Medea, or on us as a society in our treatment or attitudes to motherhood. In a way, the retributive acts are shifted more on to gods, fate, or karma, than in the original. This version does dwell on the judgement of mothers who abandon their children but the power of Medea is that she does something not just unspeakable but unthinkable: she transgresses the moral laws of Athenian (and our) society by upholding the moral law of her own.
Likewise, this Jason is himself something of a milquetoast. He is an actor, probably, having a mid-life crisis. He is not a hero or a wanderer. While it remains that he and Medea are peers – “uncompromising” says this Aegeus. The visiting friend, now an agent in the US, thought of them as soulmates, that as they played chess that “these two people get to have sex with each other too?” The oath between this Medea and Aegeus is also less conflicted: Medea agrees to ghost-write Aegeus novel, but he will produce a play for her. In Euripides’ play, Medea has Aegeus offer her sanctuary in Athens – binding him by the same traditions that will condemn her as a kinslayer in the end.
By changing Medea’s past, changing her from someone instrumental to Jason’s success, the Cusk version robs his betrayal of much of his force. She is an considered out by her peers, but not the absolute outsider that is her position in Euripides play; in many ways, this allows her struggle to be a reflection of that of all women, but taking out the specificity of her situation makes the conclusions lukewarm. By taking the knife from Medea’s hand, Cusk makes her less easily wicked, but also less active. Indeed, in the play all of the resolution takes place in a soliloquy given by the Messenger; a striking bit of theatre as Medea silently shovelling dirt in to a grave, but less than McRory’s Medea considering her children, knife in hand.
The play, rather than being about moral consequence, simply becomes that unpleasant things spiral out of control. Jason is an indifferent father, Medea becomes an absentee mother, and the children kill themselves; the events are sad, and trigger one another, but there is not the conflicted connection of motive and action that makes each actor culpable. I can appreciate the symmetry here, that as Euripides’ Medea was a killer so kills, Cusk’s Medea is a writer so revenges herself through the act of writing, but the changed version lacks the visceral force of the original. Indeed, by having the children take their own lives, it lessens the moral anguish of Medea’s and Jason’s guilt because, while they might be poor or absentee parents, the children become moral actors on their own account – their deaths are something else bad that happens to rather than happens because.
The changes made are good on their own. Having Medea be a suffering middle aged woman, victim of her husband’s mid-life crisis, is something that speaks directly to the experience of the audience. There is also the symmetry of her as writer using words to injure Jason; as the Classical Medea is a kinslayer, so kinslaying is her weapon of choice against Jason. It might have been of use to have had her writing somehow directly buoy Jason up – some mention of them first meeting when she wrote a play that he starred in, that kick-started his career. The Chorus, while not used in a traditional sense, accurately convey both society’s disdain towards this Medea, but also serve as a useful pacing mechanism: as the play progresses, their initial complacency is gradually eroded as they fragment in to their own voices and desires. Eventually, they will dance with Medea and help her as she disassembles her life.
The Messenger does not lie: There are no gods or monsters here. But perhaps there should be.
 The Messenger was an amazing bit of costuming: when she first entered they stage, side on, they were the image of a Monroe like figure. Then, turning full on, we see that she is an intersexual Janus, half-man half-woman. This was really visually striking.
 It is important to remember when watching or reading Medea that the play is titled for her, placing her immediately as the protagonist. Euripides could have easily named the play “The Tragedy of Corinth” or focused on Creon or some such. Instead, we are implicitly in a position where we are asked to understand and even empathise with the actions of someone who does something monstrous, that we ask what is was that pushed them to this extreme end.
 Having Medea being a middle-aged white woman whose primary source of income is writing be served by a maid who is a woman of colour – the only person of colour on the stage – does eliminate some of the ‘disenfranchised outsider’ that is necessary to Medea’s core narrative.
In the past few weeks I have been taking the trains a lot, visiting different cities. While riding the rails I have allowed myself a bit of lighter, leisure reading. For the past few years I’ve drifted towards classical history, philosophy, and a bit of political theory in my reading, as well as critical & literary theory. I’ve moved in this direction not out of any distaste for fiction (that would be a bit rich) but rather out of a desire to educate myself a bit more. I went to University and learned how little I knew. However, a train ride, with all its attendant interruptions and discomforts, isn’t too great a place to concentrate on a theory reader, so I switched to my e-reader and downloaded a few e-books.
Of the ones that I started to read, I finished two. When I was a child I never abandoned a book, no matter how bad, because I considered there to be a virtue in finishing what I had started. As I’ve gotten older I’ve given up on that notion: there are many books, and I do not have the time to read them all. The two that prompted me to press on were Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and James Smythe’s The Explorer. Both well written, it was a moment of dissonance that prompted me to keep at them rather than put them aside for a crossword puzzle. Spoilers to follow, please proceed with that in mind.
Neil Gaiman is, obviously, the more famous writer of the two, and needs no introduction, least of all by me. Stardust is a novella originally published in 1999, telling the story of the slightly hapless Tristran and his star-crossed lover Yvaine. Normally, I’d say there’s more to it than that, but in the case of Stardust that really is the whole of the tale, barring some witchiness and Tristran being heir to the kingdom. It was also adapted to a film in 2007, which I mostly liked. I have read a few Gaiman stories (American Gods, Anansi Boys, Fragile Things collection) but I’m hardly an expert. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Stardust was something of an experiment by him. The prose read to me as quintessential Gaiman: the junction where fairy-tale poesy meets modern prose.1 Gaiman is very, very good at this style, I’d even go so far as to suggest that writing in a pre-modern fantastic idiom is his lived in home when it comes to words. He weaves in touches of the fantastic, invoking mythology to make a magic that feels everyday but not precisely commonplace. I particularly like the fieldmouse that “was a prince under an enchantment” eaten by an owl “herself under a curse”, the potential “Nut of Wisdom” then falling in to a river to be eaten by a salmon, evoking the bradán feasa eaten by Fionn mac Cumhaill. The commonplace binding chains are of Norse origin; even the reference to stars falling and never rising evokes Milton and Paradise Lost. Gaiman is a writer who knows much, is not afraid to show it, yet does so deftly and with a light yet commanding touch. His agility with language is reflected as he describes an opened body as with “vital organs like wet jewels” or a rakish character “a foppish assassin from a minor Elizabethan historical play.”
However, Stardust imports something a bit unpleasant, a bit of unthinking that it never really resolves, and which dogged my reading experience. To put it simply, Tristran is quite the creeper. He initially goes in search of the fallen star (Yvaine) because he is attempting to win the affections of Victoria Forester, described in this way:
Every boy in the village was in love with Victoria Forester. And many a sedate gentleman, quietly married and with grey in his beard, would stare at her as she walked down the street, becoming, for a few moments, a boy once more, in the spring of his years with a spring in his step.
When I read this, my heart went out to Victoria. I do not know, personally, what it is like to be scrutinised on the street, but I have spoken to enough people who have that Victoria immediately had my sympathy. She is a young woman who wants a job, is impeded in this by convention, and at every turn is ogled by men and boys. She comes across rather well in light of this.2 Tristran is, of course, in love with Victoria, though he is “painfully shy” for which he overcompensates. This is presumably a set up so that we don’t judge him too harshly but… there follows a scene where Tristran forces Victoria in to conversation, invites himself to walk her home, asks to kiss her and is rebuffed, asks to kiss her again and doesn’t understand why she won’t kiss him now when she did before, proposes to her while ignoring what she is saying, then finally gets her to agree to marry him3 and then struts off in to Faerie where he finds Yvaine, a star incarnated as a woman, ties her up in an unbreakable chain4 with the intention of taking her back through to Wall5, his cruelty to her justified by his desire for Victoria:
every time she winced or flinched Tristran felt guilty and awkward, but he calmed himself by thinking of Victoria Forester’s grey eyes.
We never see Tristran develop or question how he behaved to Victoria in the first place, nor how he treats Yvaine. It is particularly galling since the fictive world of the book supports a perspective of Victoria as the trouble-maker, and the appropriate response being to:
tell her to go shove her face in the pig pen, and go out and find another one who’ll kiss you without asking for the earth.
Where Stardust is a fairy-tale, and embraces fairy-tale mores. I don’t know whether it was in adherence to this, but it felt as if the latter part of the book was quite hurried. We get Tristran and Yvaine’s adventures reported to us in a brief, almost cursory paragraph. To some extent this is in adherence to the demands of the genre, to not stay overlong once the tension of Yvaine and Tristran (and the witches) is resolved. However, because so much rests on believing that not only could Yvaine forgive and even love Tristran, I find that being told rather than shown damages the conclusion of the story, as does having Victoria only free to marry who she wants by Tristran’s largesse. I was disappointed by the time I had finished Stardust, given the obvious care and thought that went in to the language and the mythological grounding that was not applied to the development of the characters. I don’t know, obviously, but I sense that the reluctance to interrogate this stems as much from love of the inspiration as anything else, and to question the assumptions underpinning a fairy-tale work is to scare away magic.6 It also might be said that it is simply ‘not that sort of story’ but it at least implicitly draws on the ideas of bildungsroman, but does not actually execute them. I think in a post Angela Carter/Bloody Chamber literary landscape, though, this just isn’t the case.
The Explorer is narrated by Cormac Easton, a journalist on a once in a lifetime journey in to space. He’s separated from his wife7 It is a science fiction narrative that at first one might be forgiven for thinking of as in the vein of Star Trek, boldly going where none have gone before. That is indeed part of the premise under which the characters operate. It even includes this about the pursuit of exploration:
And it inspired people; it made others do the same, and that led to countries being discovered, populated.
Reading this, I had to pause and consider the implication there. Exploration, in the tradition being discussed, is that of western sailors going to already populated places and declaring them ‘discovered’, usually resulting in colonisation and lots and lots of suffering. “This is about man, and what we’ll find out there” we are told. It put me on edge, but this was merely the set-up.
The Explorer sets up this expectation to explode it. It is not about discovering new places, but rather about discovering the self and, unlike with the tradition of explorer narratives such as She or Heart of Darkness, the blank canvas upon which this exploration is undertaken is not just of an existing space white-washed, but rather of absolute blank space. The events of The Explorer take place within a time-loop on board a sabotaged space exploration. Cormac is forced to watch himself over and over again, living through the same series of accidents and murders. Cormac realised about himself that he “can’t deal with knowing I’m here with no purpose.” It is an interesting comment on the idea of the neutral observer, how Cormac’s initial experience differs from how he observes things that the story returns to:
the faces of the dead as they tell us about themselves when they were alive – not who they really were, but who the public perception of them was.
Cormac, in being able to see himself, come to despise himself. It is most succinctly described by Emmy who, following Cormac Prime’s murder of another member of the crew, tells Cormac Other that he is “a man… who thinks that the world revolves around him. That what happened is because of your choices, not hers.” Cormac never considers himself not at fault, or not instrumental, even when he considers himself ‘just’ part of the circuit that makes up the timeline.
What The Explorer does with its time paradox is a reflection of the particular capability of science fiction in a meta-textual sense. As science fiction allows us to reflect on ourselves at a remove, so does Cormac do so. Yet it is quite bold in that, despite being aware of his failures, Cormac acknowledges that he
can berate him [the other Cormac] doing it [staring at pictures of his dead wife] as much as I like but, truth be told, given the opportunity, it’s what I would be doing as well.
And he does indeed go back to stare at her pictures when the other Cormac leaves the terminal open. The Explorer is about personal growth and change, the difficulty of it, that is requires “hindsight, and even then I’d be suspicious.” Like Stardust, The Explorer does miss out a long period of time in Cormac’s subjective timeline: we know he has repeated this experience many, many times, but not a particular figure. Yet it does this to illuminate how hard change and growth are. Yet it does offer Cormac the tantalising, painful opportunity to change, having lived this loop so many times he has lost count. Just at the end, he can either return to the loop or reach out to the potentially destructive unknown.
As I have written before, I believe stories are as much tool for empathy and self-reflection as they are entertainment. These two books proved to be difficult reading for similar reasons – concerns about the characters and where the narrative was going – with two quite different outcomes. Yet even though I was disappointed with Stardust and surprised by The Explorer, I think being able to identify and consider the good and bad, contrasting how they operate in their particularly niches, embracing them as they do, helps to a more full understanding of the text.
- “it [the star, Yvaine] said ‘Fuck.’ And then is said ‘Ow,’ once more.”
- Unlike in the film which, because of reasons, she was rewritten as rather horrible.
- An agreement that, we learn at the end of the book, Victoria intends to honour, even though she does not want to!
- Of the same sort used to bind Fenris, naturally.
- This will kill her.
- “each land that has been forced off the map by explorers and the brave going out and proving it wasn’t there has taken refuge in Faerie.”
- We later learn that his wife had committed suicide just before he boarded the spaceship.
‘Making Babies’ is a piece of original fiction by the writer, journalist, and all around good egg Laurie Penny. It is available for free here. It is quite a short read, so I recommend giving it a look before I spoil it horribly for you. It concerns the relationship of Annie and Simon, a (presumably)* affluent couple raising a child together & confronting (or being confronted by) the anguishes of new parenthood. Except it is a science fictional story, so it also deals with what makes a human, what constitutes humanity & our consideration of acceptable human-ness through the lens of an android child.
Penny’s style superbly alights on familiar ideas to locate us in the grief and anguish of the characters, in few words expressing a compelling depth of emotion:
“He flashed her a smile, that wide corn-fed American smile with the two dimples, one on his cheek and one on his chin, that she always loved. Had loved. Stillloved.”
There is a wonderful sense of mourning and loss that the brief, italicized sentences express there. This excellent metaphor that locates the sensibility of the story in the science fictional:
“All the light and joy and energy draining out of life like a plug had been pulled somewhere deep inside, leaving you scrabbling to find the stopper before every last drop of you poured away.”
That people are more like machines, or machines more like people than are readily apparent. This blurred line is the crux of the story as embodied in the synthetic baby Tommy. Tommy was constructed by Annie as she does not (for the above quoted section) want to go through a biological pregnancy.
On my first read-through of this short story, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. That’s not true; it left me flat. I thought it was excellently written but bereft, or at least avoidant of any conflict. The surface issue is that Simon has been inattentive and allowed Tommy to be damaged. Simon and Annie are perhaps not precisely happy. In Simon’s case, this might be because he is feeling redundant. Annie is a perfectionist “Nothing was ever quite good enough” and Simon cannot get the coffee right, he is a “disappointment.” If a reader has familiarity with Penny’s political writings, this might seem to be the angle to the story: Penny has written (with exceptional compassion) about the difficulty and estrangement of young men in the late-capitalist world undergoing a crisis of masculinity. In Simon’s case, he is not an adequate provider (his gifts are improved), he is not the practically proficient one (Annie is a robotics engineer), and even their child has “nothing of [him]” in it. Annie rebuts this by demanding Simon look at Tommy, see the things she made in Tommy to resemble Simon, yet this is undermined in the text as Tommy is Annie’s “greatest project.” This could be the crux of the conflict, exploring familiar ground for Penny, and at first I took it to be, and was a little disappointed. After all, their differences are resolved (or glossed over?) rather rapidly when Tommy says ‘Dada.’ My initial response wasn’t negative – Penny’s prose is really rather good and her exploration of the characters well realised – just that I read it as a fictional exploration of her politics. I happened to agree, but it didn’t grab me.
Then I considered the final moments with Tommy, where Annie pushes a “small, hidden switch” to deactivate Tommy and prevent him from crying and distracting her and Simon from the urgent business of fucking, and looked at the whole piece as a synchronous character study of Tommy and Annie, rather than expecting a conventional narrative arc (rising tension and all that). Much as with Simon just ‘forgetting’ Tommy on top of the car, in cutting off the power, Annie transforms Tommy from surrogate child in to appliance. Even if she does love Tommy, it is difficult to tell if it not just the love of an engineer for her work – but is that then grounds for saying it is not love? It evoked in me that almost Sevinian sensation of cognitive estrangement, that feeling of almost looking at the back of my own head. The moment when Annie deactivates Tommy reminded me of the very end of Philip K Dick’s ‘Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sleep?” where a tired Deckard thinks he may have found a genuine, living frog, only for it to be revealed to be a very convincing synthetic, in exactly the same manner as Tommy is – a cleverly concealed switch. Tommy takes on an uncomfortable position from this point: He is like a real child in that he personifies the commitment between Annie and Simon, and at the same time remains a disposable prop** to them.
This intertextual connectivity enriched my appreciation of Making Babies; the story is aware that it exists in a continuum of science fiction, and embraces that. Most obviously, any story about the creation of artificial life evokes the core narrative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Making Babies takes this head on: just as Frankenstein creates his monster to overcome death, so does Annie. Whereas Frankenstein nominally believes his work to be selfless but is ultimately selfish, Annie creates Tommy from motivations that are rooted in her own history and fears, her mother’s sickness*** and fears of the same, the synthetic baby becomes something ultimately more selfless and shared than the monster.
Through this science fictional prism, Penny has allowed us to consider how our relationship to abstracted things manifests as our relationship to one another, and how potentially disposable one or the other is. Making Babies is a whip-smart short piece of fiction that continues the dialogue that good science fiction has about how technology and our relationship to it alters and reflects our relationships with one another.
* I assume this purely on the basis of the gift given to Annie by Simon (a custom coffee maker) and that they have the time and resources to construct an android child, and no mention is given of particularly financial difficulties. It’s a blank slate, in that sense, of the kind I primarily associate with fiction located in a middle-class idiom. I could be wrong.
** I’m relatively confident in this position. The story switches between the perspective of Simon and Annie with some fluidity, but we never experience anything from within Tommy’s awareness, which implies he is not aware. There could be some deeper comment on when a child becomes a human here, but I’m going to take it as not – though that does make both parent’s disregard (even more) horrible!
*** There is also an element of whip-smart and wicked humour in this. In Annie’s memory of a good year with “trips to the park and jam sandwiches” I was automatically reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter’s lament of “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.” There’s a very bitter humour here that enriches Annie’s position beyond just a fearful martyr.
I’ve been moving the content in this blog in a consistent direction the past few weeks. This is prompted largely by feedback. My younger brother likes to read when I am doing criticism (and hates when I talk about my life!) so I’ve been erring more on the side of that. However, I’m not comfortable shilling, which is kind of what he suggested. A conversation I had with my oldest friend when I was last visiting Nottingham, part of an ongoing dialogue which we have had over the years, a replay in micro of the tension generated by criticism, reminded me that this is actually an unusual view. He finds that criticism just tears stuff apart, or at least the way I do it does that. “Why can’t you just enjoy it?” is not exactly his words, but the implication is there. Perhaps obviously, I don’t see it like that. Putting aside for a moment whether or not my tone’s all wrong (which it probably is, I am blunt to the point of stupidity at times!) I sincerely believe that critical engagement with any piece of artistic production is integral to the enjoyment of it. It enriches the experience, and enlivens us as human beings. Furthermore, a film or book that is at least aware of issues of critical engagement can surprise us and produce something, for lack of a better way to put it, better.
One of my favourite films is Scott Pilgrim vs The World, released in 2010, directed by Edgar Wright and starring (among others) Matthew Cera and Mary Winstead. I first heard about it in the (relatively muted) promotion in the months before. I heard very little about it other than it was a hipster film, and it had some problematic issues with race representation. I wrote it off as a lost cause but, a few months later, the same friend I refer to in the opening paragraph got me to watch it. It was an absolute revelation. Scott Pilgrim was funny, witty, and it had heart. Furthermore, it spoke to me on a level that few movies do. For a while, it was my default feel good film. I can say with no hint of irony that I would watch Scott Pilgrim to prepare myself for going out in to the world the same way some people listen to music. The film is a very, very modern coming of age story. It’s not about being or becoming a man, but a story about being an adult, making adult choices and accepting adult consequences. The film asks us to bear with it as we follow the progress of a relatively shabby, if not outright awful, person as he develops in to something approaching maturity not through overcoming hardship, but through self-reflection. It does all this to an excellent visual language and catchy soundtrack, not harmful in winning its place in my heart.
Scott Pilgrim, a Canadian ass, is played by Matthew Cera. I think the best summation of his roles to date has been made in contrasting him against this role. Until this point, Cera had made a name for himself playing pleasant, quiet, unassuming young men; the sort of dorky guy who has heart and, in older films, would find his inner lion or something, but these days more often serves as the non-threateningly foil/self-insert for a certain subset of people. Casting him as the (at least initially) dickish Scott Pilgrim is something of a triumph of this film, as it intertextually spears that particular character-type, who all-too-often intersects with nice guyism and hipster lifestyling in place of genuine introspection. It’s also something of a problem, though, because by and large, movies with unlikeable protagonists drive their audience out. For the majority of stories, that Cera-in-another film, the story would be about realising what a great guy he really is and how much he has to offer. Pilgrim instead shows a guy who learns that actually, he is kind of a bad human being and needs to change if he wants to be happy.
Cera carries this off very, very well. He’s self-absorbed, tactless, borderline sexist and explicitly racist at various points of the film, all in ways and with an understated delivery that high-lights how easily these sorts of behaviours get ‘stealthed’ in to everyday life; consider his interactions with “fake high school girlfriend” Knives Chau. When she confides she has never kissed a boy, he makes a glib joke; when offering to introduce him to her parents, Scott asks if she is even allowed to date outside her own race. Cera’s insouciant delivery, his noncommittal tone, absolutely makes these: Scott’s an all too believable asshole. He won’t be planting a cross on anyone’s front lawn, but he will be the guy tone policing. That the film culminates in the confrontation with Nega-Scott, rather than G-Man, and the resolution is not of an all-out brawl but rather acknowledging that Scott has a lot in common with his dark side is a stroke of genius, a clever summation of the main thesis of the film: someone can be an ‘alright guy’ and still hold horrible values, do horrible things, and need to change to be a better, adult human.
It’s a shame, then, how the film undermines this. The hipster scene of Toronto is uniformly white. This might be forgivable in the context of Toronto demographics (though keep in mind that the Toronto of Scott Pilgrim is a created Toronto, not the real thing) except that the only persons of colour included in the film are… iffy. Knives’s personality is developed only in cursory notes as an obsessive fangirl, and the Katayanagi twins are the only ‘Evil exes’ to not get to speak at all, and are presented as voiceless, interchangeable electro-drones.
I go back and forth on my opinion of Matthew Patel; I think that in a film embedded in the hipster music scene, it makes sense for him to use music in his fight with Scott, but Patel is undoubtedly a (struggling) hipster, so why bhangra style music? Likewise, while we are told that cheating on Ramona/Knives is bad, Ramona remains a prize to be fought for – even though Scott only triumphs with the power of self-belief. His self-actualisation is only realised by getting the girl. Envy broke Scott’s heart; in return he gets to kill her boyfriend (who is admittedly a “cocky cock”).
The (excellent) character of Wallace and the (admittedly played for laughs clichés) of his on-screen homosexuality are undermined by the defeat of Roxxie through sexualised attacks. It’s uneven and a little thoughtless. The film has some great, funny women and they get some of the best lines and schticks. Scott’s sister Stacey has excellent turns as supportive and cruel, and Julie Powers is simply great every time she shows up – “did I f*cking stutter?” is a great line delivered in exactly the right flat tone. Yet I come back to the rather poorly concealed fact that most of the time, the women of Scott Pilgrim are there as props or enablers of Scott’s development as a human. I found it awkward that the alternate ending was Scott ending up with Knives Chau; obviously the limitations of youth-targetted comedy abound but it makes me wonder if no consideration was given to an ending in which Scott is on his own, but ok with that. This is not as punishment – you were a bad man Scott Pilgrim, now you must alone – but as a realisation that even if you are a better person now the consequences of your actions follow you from the past. Also, possibly, that as a person previous defined in part by his negative relationships with women, it might be good for Scott to get a little distance and figure what else he might want out of life.
Mary Winstead’s ultra-cool Ramona Flowers is the perfect foil to Scott’s insincere disinterest – his affected ennui is exploded in the face of her genuine prioritisation of what she wants and doesn’t want. (Though the Scott & Ramona in bed scene is initially shot in a way that makes me frown). This is attitude revisited in Scott’s assault on the Chaos Club; the first time he gains entry through nonchalance, tired of all this shit deflections. Even now he hasn’t learned. When he returns he is ready to strike out, to put his selfhood on the line because, actually, he does care about this and he doesn’t want or need to hide behind affectation. He achieves this not through a will to power, but thanks to the critical appraisal of his peers (and a bit of exposition from Ramona).
This might seem needless. The film is not about those people, it’s not about their problems. I argue, though, that by not seeming to care overmuch about those things, the film does harm to the central premise of growing to acknowledge that the harm you do unintentionally is still harm, still something you have to take responsibility for. Think to the final final club scene, where Scott takes the time to address Kim to just say “sorry… for everything.” There’s no more he can do, nothing he could do, but Scott owns up to his past of hurting people. Can we, living vicariously through the film, do any less than to acknowledge those things within the film that limit this message?
The visual language of the film is similarly brilliant and myopic. I cannot express how much I absolutely love the melding of real and computer life, the clever way it is introduced to the humorousness with which it is used. Scott and Knives’s earliest date is at an arcade where they play a fight game; this could be an allusion to Scott’s immaturity but also serves to introduce to a world that looks like any other romantic comedy but obeys the rules of a side-scrolling beat ‘em up. As Scott says to Miles when the other is freaking out “You know bands, I know battles.” Even though Scott is a skinny dork, we see he is a fighter as well as a lover. Similarly, the fourth-wall shredding ‘Pee bar’ is both a hilarious visual joke and a reminder of Scott’s evasiveness; the numbered shirts of the evil ex’s and Scotts almost constant ‘zero’ shirt marking their position and his as-yet-undefined position in his narrative arc reminding us that Scott is always a risk of becoming evil ex eight. This postmodern playful penetration flows from world into speech – Scott has learned to play the bass-line from Final Fantasy, Young Neil plays a variety of computer games. It’s another facet of the hipster world of Scott Pilgrim, obscure old computer games played by younger nerds.
Yet I think it probably skews a little too old. Scott is twenty-two years old in this film; Wallace, his wise ‘old’ friend is twenty-five. When I first watched Scott Pilgrim I was twenty-seven, and only got most of the jokes because I have older brothers who introduced me to this stuff. This isn’t too much of a problem, surely? Well, no, except that the film is a coming of age story, a realisation that the things you hold dear about yourself might not, in reflection be great about you, and as such the audience skews in to the late teens and early twenties. Scott’s a fighter, yet his ultimate conflict with himself can’t be resolved with fists; he’s a lover, but it turns out he’s pretty awful to women and his only serious relationships have been ruinous to one party or the other. It’s a hard sell to get people to care enough about an unlikeable person. A film like Scott Pilgrim is going to find it difficult to communicate with it audience when it’s speaking in the language of their teachers or (at best) their aunts and uncles, if not their parents. It spoke to me but I was older than any character in it when I watched it, and am now older than most of the actors were. I don’t doubt that an enthusiastic enough teen could decipher all the in-jokes and cues but with such a steep entry requirement, Scott was destined for cult status, not breakthrough blockbuster.
And that’s alright. It is a beautiful, flawed film that does ask the viewer to pay attention to it and, in doing so, you notice more and more flaws. The message at the heart of Scott Pilgrim is not that Scott is or becomes perfect, but only that he might, if I can paraphrase Beckett, fail better this time. It is a good message to give. Similarly, by looking at films, books or games in the same way, we can do the same. This is the value that being able to critically appraise anything gives us; it provides us with the tools to reflect in media on those things we might not realise about ourselves. By learning that there are problems in the things we like, and still like them while acknowledging these things, we might learn to see those things in ourselves not as something to abhor or hide, but aspects to learn and grow past. A critical impulse is not axiomatically destructive, but rather a reflexive and reflective one: the knowledge that even if the things we love have feet of clay, we love them all the same. It is through this that we learn, gain, and develop empathy. Much like Scott, when we question ourselves we allow ourselves the opportunity to grow beyond what we were in to the greater people we might yet be.
I’ve finished Moby Dick, at long last. My earliest memory of Moby Dick was as a segment in a sitcom on British TV when I was a child. Brian Connolly has been set to read the book by his parole officer. He never reads it, preferring to watch one of the film adaptations. I’m not entirely sure if the parole officer had read it; she probably had not (that being the joke) as I’m not sure how it could help an ex-criminal reform. Years later it would resurface in the person of Moby who is, apparently, named for his relation to Herman Melville. Another glimpse off the bow, another nothing that signifies the behemoth that is the White Whale. Closest was when a former partner read Moby Dick for her under-graduate degree, or rather chose to read something else instead. Nobody read Moby Dick; it was a leviathan as elusive as its namesake. I read homages, pastiches and heard jokes about the whale, but only encountered people who had at most begun the pursuit only to let their harpoons drop, their ropes slacken and the White Whale only descend once more. Being possessed of more than a little time and, finally, an impetus* to tackle the book, I decided to… well, to be an Ishmael.
It’s an odd beast; neither reporting nor travelogue, certainly not a novel in anything like the conventional sense. The plot is at most perfunctory and for about 75-80% of the novel’s length not at all the concern of the narrative; certainly the narrator is not guiding the direction of the ship or the story but upon embarkation disappears into anonymity among the crew until the very final moment. The hunt for the whale is subsumed beneath a wider hunt for whales and digressions on cetology in general. It bears resemblance to other modernist texts in this regard and is, indeed, included in the fraternity of American modernist text, a prototypical example. It is a beautifully written ponderous series of digressions, entirely unconcerned with its destination or location and as such marvellously captures in prose the sense of a ship at sea, hewing here and there tracking the untraceable. Absolutely and unquestionably it is a genius of writing.
I do not think it is directionless in its intent as it is in plot. Moby Dick, I would conjecture, was an attempt by Herman Melville to elevate the profession of whaling from obscurity up in to the public consciousness and from there in to a heroic paean. I believe that this is largely the why of Moby Dick’s meandering story arc; Melville is labouring under many masters as he describes the life both every day and mythological aboard the Pequod. The book establishes the desire and act of whaling as complete normalcy, rhetorically asking “why is almost every robust and healthy boy… at some time or other crazy to go to sea?” Each of the chapters on the life and habits of whales, the description and loving fidelity to the craft of the whaleman is to establish in the mind of the reader the physical and material realities of life aboard ship, to give them a sense of it and thereby locate it within a world that the landbound reader can relate to. The writer returns to this rhetorical device to link the reader the story, to involve them by addressing them directly and to make whaling analogous to all life “And what are you, reader, but a Loose-fish and a Fast-fish, too?”
It is important to keep in mind that Melville was asserting a normalcy of his time; an idea of normalcy that we can interrogate, and should. Everything about whaling is connected to masculinity; not healthy but a necessary madness of men. There are almost no female characters, and certainly none once the ship gets underway; a device that might go by as historical fidelity if not for the conventional symbolic deployment of women within the narrative. Women exist purely as a representation of the abstracted civilisation of the land×; consider the moment of shared conscience between Starbuck and Ahab, reflecting on the wives they have left behind.
Yet whaling, ships and normalcy is a distinctly male-exclusive province. Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg is a synecdoche of this, but life aboard the Pequod is a microcosm of homosociality, of the fruitfulness of men among men. Keep in mind that the Nantucketer trade is to harvest spermaceti from whales, then read this section:
“I squeezed the sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands… Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”
There’s an odd sort of textual tolerance within the book, of all men as brothers: “all sorts of men in one kind of world, you see.” Yet on the other hand we have Pip, the black cabin boy who loses his mind when he goes over in a whale boat; textually this is attributed to self-hatred because he is the cabin boy, yet it is only when Stubbs reminds him that he is worth less as a slave than the whale is for that same above sperm that truly breaks him. The racism in Moby Dick was (and is) breath-taking. The narrator explicitly states that it is the white man’s whiteness that empowers him to sovereignty, even as he dwells on the horror of too-pale things. One of the earliest scenes sees Ishmael accidentally stumble in to a church with a black congregation, an experience he finds terrifying. Even aboard the Pequod, where people are alleged to be assigned their value by contribution and skill, while their white fellow Starbuck exists as the voice of sanity and civilisation entreating Ahab to give up his quest€, the non-white Harpooners Tashtego, Daggoo and Queequeg loom large as mythic shadows:
“Relived against the ghostly light, the gigantic jet negro, Daggoo, loomed up to thrice his real statures, and seemed the black cloud from which the thunder had come. The parted mouth of Tashtego revealed his shark-white teeth, which strangely gleamed as if they too had been tipped by corpusants; while lit up by the preternatural light, Queequeg’s tattooing burned like Satanic blue flames on his body.”
It is with the blood of the pagan that Ahab’s harpoon is anointed, to be made ready for the great dragon Moby Dick. The non-white crewmates serve as cyphers to translate Ahab in to the world of myth, to give his vendetta against the whale a greater imprimatur than mere madness. The ‘pagans’, alongside the oracular harpooner Fedellah who is identified as a practicing Zoroastrian, serve to translate Ahab’s quest in to the world of the pre-Christianised myth, to make of the hunt for the whale an epic in the vein of the Ramayana, Gilgamesh and, most appropriately, the Odyssey. Ahab is, like all heroes, semi-divine and set apart from others, “alone among millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbours!”
Yet Melville is at pains to remind the reader that this epic of the hunt is not purely transgressive but takes place within the permitted transgressions of civilised society. Ahab is unusual, exceptional, in both his whaling career – “out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore” – but this tale takes place within a greater context of mythic hunts that establish the foundation of civilised society. Returning to the madness of all healthy boys, it is integral to the civilised world to go out to the frontiers and hunt monsters. Melville asserts that the whale is the prime of these monsters; that St George, and Job, and Jonah all hunted them as Ahab now does. Indeed, Ahab reflects that “Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?” Questioning whether this is his part to play or merely part of a larger cycle of humanity. Later, though, we are assured that it is the man and not the myth who drives on, as “Ahab is for ever Ahab.” The core of the mythology remains human; here the influence of the Romantics in which rather than just be a plaything of gods, Ahab retains a core of the autonomous, unconquerable self. Moby Dick is a myth, but a modern myth. It is his drive to slay the whale that is his self-realisation and in its overawing power contains something of the overman.Ɨ
Of course, to establish the hero, one much establish the monster, which Melville does with all due rigour and certainty. As Ahab is divine, so is Moby Dick: “not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! Did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.” Not merely a brute beast, Moby Dick is a cunning adversary worthy of heroic Ahab, possessed of “malicious intelligence.” There is something of the modern to this struggle; where elder ages passed in conflict with beasts unverifiable, the whale is likened to the locomotive, “the mighty Leviathan of the modern railway.” The Whale is “retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice his whole aspect.” In short, Moby Dick is Ahab reflected. Though the whale, and the hunt for it, is continuation of a story old as man, in this iteration the man and the beast slay each other; the full tilt at modernity, consuming self. Yet Ahab could not, would not turn off, as inevitable as time in his last (and probably most famous words):
“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”
Moby Dick remains an excellent and at times transgressive work. It is a difficult read, not particularly concerned with telling a story so much as opening windows to a world then under-appreciated, now gone. It provides insight to worlds that were outside the bounds of permissible society on land in the tiny, self-sustaining world of the Pequod; yet at the same time it shows us the limits and the limitations of those worlds. Ultimately, its desire is to return to land, to return to civilisation and remind us of what waits outside the borders: glory, immortality, self-destruction, and, of course, the White Whale.
*I have an idea for a story.
×Unusually, though in keeping with this symbolism, the sea is personified as masculine; “and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells… these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinking of the masculine sea.”
€ Starbuck: “never, never wilt though capture him, old man – in Jesus’ name no more of this, that’s worse than devil’s madness.”
ƗConsider Starbuck, voice of reason and personification of civilisation, as he reflects that “I misdoubt me that I disobey my God in obeying him!”
For the longest time I believe I was a bit of a snob about consistent naming styles (and I probably remain so). One of the things that I do while writing, not necessarily as to begin with but certainly before finishing, is to settle on a consistent naming style. Naming conventions are an element of the larger intertextual dialogue that texts take part in. Particular naming styles can be used, alluded to, or subverted in relation to the assumptions of your audience. At least on an initial survey, the tendency to ‘melting pot’ names is a modern one, perhaps art imitating life imitating art. I am drawn to consider the popular 90s TV show ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ The titular character was conceived to place on its head the Hollywood cliché of the blonde damsel; the subversion of naming is right at the heart of the shot. This logic applies to other characters in the show. Consider Alexander, whose name comes from the near-legendary Greek general, asserts an identity as ‘Xander, an intentionally hip alternative to Alex, but that he fails to live up to the expectations of either of these identities. Angel is initially introduced to us as something to be suspicious of, an appropriate direction for a feminist identifying narrative when faced with a linguistic artefact of Christianity; we are reassured that Angel is ‘on the level’ only to have our original suspicion validated when Angel ‘goes evil’ and becomes ‘Angellus.’ The characters of Buffy are fluid in their naming, both in asserting alternative identities, and how those names describe them. We should be as dubious of what their names tell us of them as what the characters identify as. Spike, for example, creates an identity with which to obscure his earlier shame and humiliations, to try and make of himself a monster so that no-one can probe at the man. Interestingly, it is overwhelmingly the male characters who try and assert a variable name for themselves, whereas, along with Buffy, Faith and Willow struggle to live inside the names they are given. However, to have these assumptions to be subverted, they have to exist in a context that is comprehensible, even though Buffy, Faith & Alexander (for example) are all drawn from different conventions even though they share a context in modern, suburban America; we cannot separate them from their pre-modern or modern environments.
There’s something almost Campbellian in the way we deal with names and mythologies; the particular allusions in names become inscribed and reinscribed upon the cultural consensus so that a name becomes almost an act of cultural exchange from prior cultures. In Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, many of the major characters are drawn from the traditional cultures of pre-modern societies. Wednesday is a prime example of this, the deployment of archaic notions in a modern idiom. Wednesday is an ‘Americanised’ Odin, the Norse god of wisdom, the sky and self-harm. Yet we are also tipped off by the peculiarities of his name that this fellow is not quite Odin; this alludes to the long con that he is playing. This is not restricted to just Wednesday. Consider Shadow, who begins as a man on the outside, fresh out of prison, with no ties. A former criminal, he exists in the shadows of one world before translating to another set of shadows. Yet as the books, we come to see that his vary existence is a ploy of Wednesday’s, shadow puppetry to distract from Wednesday and Lye Smith’s actual game. American Gods uses a magpie aesthetic, drawing together mythic figures and urban legendry into a compelling narrative, each player hinted at but never fully revealed as some figure from myth or legend – ‘Mr Nancy’ ‘Easter’ and other figures named and collated from around the world. In addition to being a textual representation of the American ‘melting-pot’, this is very much in the spirit of ‘free-play’ that Derrida describes as a postmodern characteristic.
While names used can come from & reconstitute a mythology, the characters nor subject have to be mythical. I am currently (still?) reading Moby Dick, a name that itself has entered common usage as a sort of ponderous beast of Victoriana. The book is identified as a foundational text of the American Modernist style, a seminal Great American novel, meditating on the mundane and the extraordinary side by side. The narrator Ishmael and Captain Ahab, along with Elijah & the two captains both evoke a Biblical tone, recalling us implicitly as the text explicitly refers to the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale; the story is itself almost the revelation of a whaling man, taking us out to a world of strange, earthly wonder. Yet away from the shore, from the familiarities of an order that is bound up in familiar frameworks, the other characters – Tashtego & Queequeg alongside Pip & Stubb – imbue the vessel with an otherworldly character, a foreigner even to its home, inhabited by the occupiers of liminal spaces. As with America in American Gods, the Pequod is a melting pot that, at times, is near boiling. Contrast the sensual, loving affection between Ishmael and Queequeg and the reminder of Pip’s status in Stubb’s eyes. The characters are bound in hierarchies that are informed and reinforced by their names; Pip is part of the ship but valueless, Fedallah is hated for his ‘fire-worshipping’ but untouchable for all his otherness. Even though we can assume that readers might not be able to identify the origin of the ‘foreign’ names in Moby Dick, it is the use early on of those sometimes Judeo-Christian names that allows the sometimes fictional (in Queequeg’s case) characters to signify the strangeness of the world aboard the Pequod. The existence of the characters as people acts as a negation of the ‘normalcy’ offered by Ishmael.
Turn to the titular character of Dracula, whose name evokes Victorian fears of the foreigner, the lascivious easterner of ravenous and dubious sexual appetite across from the Jonathans, Lucys and Minas. Then consider the position of Abraham Van Helsing, the redoubtable (Protestant) Dutchman come to restore sanity and rationality in the face of exotic eastern mysticism. It might be easy to consider that this name-play is a post/modern affectation, something novel in execution and kind, and indeed post-modernism does lay came (I think incorrectly) to the juxtaposition of sources and knowing transgression of the text/reader boundary. This sort of hybridity in texts goes back to the earliest texts; consider the henotheistic syncretism of the Roman Empire whereby local Gods would be associated with the greater Roman pantheon; a habit they picked up from the Greek’s & earlier traditions. Greek literature frequently appropriated characters by other writers & from mythological sources to lend it greater weight with the audience. In Medea, the story of the titular character as well as Jason from the Argonika is examined. It has been argued that Euripides intention was to present a sympathetic telling of Medea and her fate, and by extension the position of women in Athens; using the names of characters the audience would be familiar with allows the assertion and subversion of the classical Heroic figure of Jason. As the audience could be assumed to already know Jason, his name allows for certain expectations that can be played upon; in this case that of an irresponsible man in contrast to Medea’s foreign godliness. Interestingly, Creon of Corinth shares a name (though not an identity) with Creon of Thebes, from Sophocles work. Whether historical or not, Creon the name comes to be associated with kingship that later writers like Chaucer in The Knight’s Tale would play on it to tell stories in their own idiom.