Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tasted Like Meths And Probably Was

In his 'All The Wrong Places', James Fenton, in reaction to the nocturnal loosening of tongues amongst the increasingly despondent South Vietnamese soldiery, considers setting up a new school of journalism, crepuscular journalism. Whilst it might not end the sorts of complaints found here, it would at least make a change, and would not quite deprive Chris of his enjoyment of calumny. The simple rule of the school would be to "[b]elieve nothing you are told before dusk". Fenton goes on:

Instead of diplomatic sources, or high-ranking sources, or "usually reliable sources", the crepuscular journalists would refer to "sources interviewed last night," "sources at midnight," or best of all, "sources contacted a few hours before dawn." It would be considered unprofessional to interview the general on the morning of the battle. You would wait till the evening, when he was reviewing the cost. Crepuscular stories would cut out the bravado. Their predominant colourings would be melancholy and gloom. In this they would reflect more accurately the mood of the times.

Indeed.

A Man's Gotta Have A Code

Miller's Crossing, possibly one of my favourite films, begins with a prohibition-era Italian gangster coming to see the head of the Irish mob, who runs the town, to ask whether or not the Irish will lift their protection of a bookie, whom the Italian believes is leaking information about fixed fights. As he explains the situation, Jonny Caspar, the Italian, in a piece of what we are never quite sure is transparent self-justification, describes the problem as a matter of ethics and the bookie's lack of them: fixed fights may be fine, but selling which fight is fixed - that places you beyond the pale, endangers the smooth running of the town by endangering what was previously a sure source of income. The reason we are never quite sure if the description of the issue as an ethical one is totally self-serving is that it looks like Caspar believes it: if you can fake sincerity, then you've got it made, but Caspar, forever looking for an opportunity to be slighted, clearly sincerely thinks the world owes him rather a lot. It is that that he has to think though: the reason that casting rules which benefit you as absolute moral precepts is always suspicious is precisely that they benefit you, and no more; you have to be entitled to the benefits.

That the justification is forever teetering on the edge of becoming an insult to everyone else's intelligence may be why Caspar also casts it in terms of a more general pursuit of rational self-interest, that if fixed fights get sold, then nothing is sacred anymore and everyone loses in the resulting chaos. That doesn't really work either, because although it's not a piece of such naked self-interest, its distance from Caspar himself seems to deprive it of that fierce sense of constantly being wronged, and so the combination of the instrumental with the moral becomes much more difficult to sustain. Regardless, Leo, the Irish boss, refuses to sell out the bookie, and Caspar huffily blusters that he was only doing Leo the courtesy of informing him in advance of the killing, thereby setting the stage for the gang warfare which the rest of the film is punctuated by.

Despite a couple of scenes where the police, under orders from one or other of the mobs, raid speakeasys, and a piece of gloriously self-possessed violence by Albert Finney as Leo in which he is indeed an artist with a Thompson, the film's real interest is in Gabriel Byrne's Tom, a lieutenant to Leo, who half-stumbles, half-glides through the mess of the gang war, all bone-dry, jaded wit and variously conflicted loyalties. Except that loyalties isn't quite the right word for it: they're more fickle than that. For example, he explains his temporary switch over to the other side to Leo as an elaborate double-cross, but his reasons for breaking with Leo were genuine and he only attempts to give this explanation once it is clear that he has broken with Leo forever. Likewise, he is once offered the opportunity to do something when it would be very risky for him not to, and then, later, when doing it is really quite gratuitous and destructive, he carefully engineers the chance to complete a now pointless task. About the only constants are a kind of (an enormously appealing, at least in a character in a film) bitter self-satisfaction, drink, and gambling (debts). As he says, wonderfully, to a lover, getting the response that she'd never met anyone who made being a son of a bitch such a point of pride, "if I'd known we were going to cast our feelings into words, I'd've memorised the Song of Solomon".

Tom is effectively a kind of cipher, a hyper-stylised version of a noir staple. When the lover tells him he's come to see her for the oldest reason there is, he replies that there are friendlier places to drink, and then does more than that anyway, just like he's supposed to. He doesn't really have any hinterland of commitment, just a smart word, a proud manner, various addictions and a handsomely lived-in face, and for the purposes of the film, itself a gloriously hyper-stylised tribute, that works. And it's for that reason that he's able to somehow extricate himself from the betraying his boss, in several different ways, and risking his life for nothing he hasn't already sold: the politics of the gang war eddy around him, and he swims through them, without ever quite being dragged under, because he has no reason to favour one current over another, knows how to let them carry him without taking him down with them. As someone says to him at one point, he sees all the angles: it's just that that's all he does, a kind of cold assessment without any real involvement. In that sense, the anarchy of the gang war does him no harm: although he loses things, we never quite sure why or how much he cared about them, and he just keeps doing what he always was, seeing the angles and world-wearily playing them, forever at a kind of distance.

Of course, if he wasn't outside politics, above commitment, with no vested interests, then he wouldn't be able to see all the angles. The fact that he is all surface means that being "back in the jungle", as Caspar puts it, is just another version of the game, another, although in general less productive, set of rules to work out and manipulate. Other people still have their commitments, and you just have to play them right. In this, and in his lack of a hinterland, he is like Heath Ledger's Joker: both exploit the way the predictability of other people by having no interests in particular to bind them to anything in particular. Neither, for example, really have a fixed past: just as the Joker re-tells, differently each time, the story of his grotesquely extended smile, Tom Regan is constantly correcting people, showing them that they've not got him quite right.

Where they differ, contra what Michael Wood said about The Dark Knight in the most recent LRB, is that Tom is not political at all, whereas the Joker's distinctly political aim is the end of politics, to make any rules at all an impossibility. Anton Chigurh, of No Country For Old Men, whom Wood compares with the Joker, is much more like Tom Regan than the crazed maniac who burns a pile of money: Chigurh, like Regan, is unreadable, a kind of force of nature, although of course a quite different sort of force of nature, but similarly quite uninterested in anyone else other than for his own quite private, in both sense, ends. The Joker would never flip a coin to decide whether he kills you or not: he would have you flip it to see who else he kills. Chaos is not a self-regarding aim; other people need to be involved. That's why Wood is also wrong about the film's labelling of the Joker as a terrorist: the Joker is in fact the archetypal terrorist, since he seeks the destruction of the basic, ordering, elements, of a social order. Or at least, that's what I argue in my article on the topic (I'm allowed to be pleased with myself, alright). In that sense, then, we should not be so cruel to the second of Johnny Caspar's attempts to give his self-interested requests a moral appeal: the problem with it is not the good it appeals to, since we do have a deep interest in the maintenance of social order, but rather the causal connection between the good and what Caspar wants to do; one bookie selling out your fix does not unleash a Hobbesian Sate of Nature, although a gang war may well do.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Carrying On Regardless

No-one has tagged me with this, but I'm going to do it anyway.

The Big Read reckons that the average adult has only read 6 of the top 100 books they’ve printed.
1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you love.
4) Strike out the books you have no intention of ever reading, or for whatever reason loathe (like Phil, I see no reason to confine my self to books my education's left me hating, not least because there aren't any on this list: the only thing I read at school on this list is To Kill a Mockingbird, which I liked; I stopped doing Eng. Lit. at 16).
5) Reprint this list in your own blog so we can try and track down these people who’ve only read 6 and force books upon them.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 The Harry Potter Series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis

37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

33, by my count, but about half of that I read when I was a kid. I've only actually crossed out things I am pretty certain I am never going to voluntarily read, if I haven't already read them. The Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare go on grounds of length, for example. My underlinings are also a bit haphazard: I'm not really sure that I definitely like A Handmaid's Tale more than Cloud Atlas for example (and I'm not sure that I like Cloud Atlas more than Number9dream or A Handmaid's Tale more than Cat's Eyes, either). More interestingly, perhaps, allthough there are plenty of things on the list I think people should read, just because they're parts of the cultural furniture, I wouldn't press anything I've read on this list into people's hands, even the things I've underlined. That's partly a function of having read most of the stuff I have read on it a fair while ago, and so their charms having faded, but partly because even the stuff I read relatively recently - Cloud Atlas, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Atonement, A Confederacy of Dunces, A Fine Balance, His Dark Materials - I feel is either over-rated, enormously so in the case of Mistry, or doing quite well by itself, thank you very much.

The two things I really noticed when doing this, though, are how heavily biased in favour of the classics of 19th century literature the whole thing is - Dickens and Austen are the two most popular authors, even though almost two-thirds of the list was written after WWI - and how few of these apparently central parts of the canon I have read. I did once start a Dickens novel - I think it may have been 'Our Mutual Friend' - but found it very hard going. On the other hand, I have enjoyed Austen adaptations on television. I realise this doesn't count. Other things: only a quarter of the writers are women, with that proportion dropping after World War I; excluding Victorian classics, there's almost nothing in translation; Douglas Adams, (f*cking) Tolkein, and Frank Herbert seem to be your lot as far as sci-fi or fantasy goes, so no Pratchett - whom I'm a bit meh about, but is very popular - Dick, or Asimov; none of that leftist-ish world-weariness typical of Cold War thriller - no Greene or Le Carre, for example; Kerouac and Heller is as far as any beat-ish post-war stylistic experimentation goes, so no Pynchon, (early) Roth, or Vonnegut; only one non-fiction work.

I'm not really sure whether it's an odd list, or whether it's entirely unsurprising. Enid Blyton, for example, is surely really weird, but you'd have bet your life on a grindingly middlebrow author like Mistry being in there (I'd put money on the two authors I didn't know, Zafon and Albom, being of that sort too, for example). It's not an accident that there's nothing on there italicized: I'm genuinely not that bothered about reading any of it, although of course I'm open to persuasion. What I feel like reading is maybe a little more Le Carre, certainly Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay, another Pamuk perhaps, David Peace's Red Riding forerunners to GB84, even Raphael Samuel maybe, whose essays on Britishness I really enjoyed. Big nineteenth century realist novels you can beat a man to death with and oh-so-heavily-freighted with significance beach reads; thank you, but no.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Man Who Is Sleeping, That's Your Murderer

A lot of play has been made of The Dark Knight being some kind of political morality tale, supposed to offer us thoughts on the limits of publicly accountable institutions, on how much we might need men - and they are always men, at least in drama - prepared to do awful things to keep us safe in our beds at night. A lot of the film's narrative tension depends on what sorts of answers to those questions the main characters will decide upon, how far Batman and Harvey Dent are prepared to bend the rules in order to save the meaningful existence of those self-same rules. The problem, apart from the length and the failure to give anyone the kind of backstory against which their character can develop and their dilemmas acquire significance, is that those questions are kind of unintelligible in a world in which a single criminal, apparently without organisation or much money, can poison officials, kidnap policemen, rig boats and hospitals to blow, infilitrate various mafias, and the like at will, more or less by sheer force of personality. The rules the precise structure of whose value we're supposed to be wondering about are obviously inappropriate when you're confronted with an apparently omnipotent madman. Aristotle observed that gods and monsters live outside the polis: monstrous gods make a mockery of the idea of it.

The Light Before We Land

In my first year as an undergraduate, I lent a friend Iain M. Banks' The Use Of Weapons, which is I think my favourite of his novels, science fiction or otherwise. I suppose in lots of ways, it's just a well-written space-opera, despite all its quite carefully imagined worlds its pleasures unashamedly adolescent: there's a gag, the details of which I can't quite remember and have no copy to hand to find, about the technical-sounding acronym of a spacesuit turning out to stand for a joyfully expletive-ridden two fingers to those on the receiving end of its capabilities. For all that though, for all the men with big guns and a problem with authority figures and the svelte, available women, the fantasies of a world of limitless technological potential, the vast expanses of space conquered by macho buddy-buddy partnerships of men and calculating yet insouciant machine - which is not to do that down: it's done well; it's just to observe that's what it is - the book really is a narrative of redemption.

It's about what someone will do to live down, to make good, what they have already done, about how we are to understand what they are doing now in light of what they have done. It's a novel about how the past bears down on you, about how time's arrow runs only one way, and how we can neither avoid nor be too careful about interpreting the present in the light of the past. Given the dual narratives, of operative trying too hard to do good, and a family bitterly divided by civil war, it could hardly avoid telling a story about how the terrible things you've seen and done mark you. It makes its point about being careful interpreting how those things mark you, though, through a twist, which, as it's intended to, alters the structure of the narrative quite completely: the sacrifices which are supposed to be redeeemed by the acts of the main character are cast in suddenly quite a different light. Clearly, that changes the nature of the redemption that is being aimed at: having been drawn into one understanding of what rectification was being aimed for, we are instead jerked sharply to some radically different alternative. The friend I lent it to couldn't cope with that: the space opera stuff he lapped up - I think I may remember the spacesuit gag because he mentioned it when I asked him whether he liked it - but the grating shift of sympathy, of what we might try and redeem, of what can be redeemed, he couldn't stand.

I've always been a sucker for the horror of things that can't be undone, are as they are, beyond our powers any more. To find that the world is intransigent, uncooperative in our attempts to remake it, is, I feel at least, to locate the core of our moral predicament. There's a scene in Hotel Rwanda, perhaps particularly poignant for me because of whom I watched it with, where European nuns are flown out, saved, by the UN peacekeepers, and the orphans they were looking after left behind to the tender care of the Interhamwe, despite Don Cheadle's desperate pleas. That, more than the massacres themselves, the scene where they drive over bodies of people who've been hacked to death, cut me up: the impossibility of doing anything about it, the tragedy, in the proper fatalistic sense of the term, of it, is nigh-on unbearable. I watched the repeat of Boy A tonight on More4. That carried that terrible charge too. I wonder what the man I lent The Use Of Weapons to would have thought of it.