SPINES

So this is what I’ve been up to lately. I’m the head writer for SPINES, an upcoming serialized audio drama podcast. Here’s the first teaser; as always, promotion is huge for podcasts, so all the retweeting/sharing/subscribing on Itunes will be greatly appreciated:

Graham Joyce Retrospective, Part V: The Limits of Enchantment

In preparation for this (long overdue) addition to my Graham Joyce retrospective project, I went back to see how many of his adult novels were written in a female first-person voice. I was shocked to find that it was only one: The Limits of Enchantment. It’s not really that odd, except that in my mind Joyce had such a perfect command of female characterization it just made sense that he would have written several novels from a first-person female perspective.

That wonderfully confident ability to write from a female point of view is one of the features that leads me to classify The Limits of Enchantment as one of Joyce’s Three Great Masterpieces (and, yes, I think the caps are entirely justified).

Limits tells the story of Fern Cullen, a young woman adopted and then apprenticed by a midwife nicknamed Mammy. The story unfolds primarily in 1966, as rural England begins to feel the creeping changes of the postwar British order. The National Health Service has been established, the government begins to regulate the practice of midwifery, and the Cullen family finances appear increasingly dire. Despite these economic and social pressures, Mammy and Fern carry on in good spirits until the untimely death of a young woman who had recently sought an abortion from Mammy. Reputation crushed, Mammy begins a precipitous mental decline, and Fern must learn to take charge of her care while also attempting to complete a mandatory midwifery course and hold off the landowner seeking to evict them.

Of course, this being a Graham Joyce novel, there is also a fair amount of subtle magic and spirituality at work. Mammy is one of the few remaining people in the area to believe in and practice forms of magic not quite dramatic enough to resemble witchcraft but certainly going well beyond country superstition. At the center of this loose belief system lies a ritual known as Asking, a harrowing drug-induced spiritual journey only to be undertaken in times of extreme need or crisis.

While the main conflict of the novel centers on Fern’s attempts to avoid eviction, gain her midwifery credential, and shield Mammy from disgrace and possible institutionalization, there are several intertwined subplots. Two of these involve young men instrumental in Fern’s sexual awakening: nice local boy Arthur, and new hippie-commune resident Chas. It would be unfair to spoil the specific role each plays in the story, except to say that their interactions take some unexpected turns. Along with these two quasi-romantic subplots, there are also various comings and goings involving the pregnant women of the village as well as a burgeoning friendship with Judith, a young, witchy true believer of Mammy’s Old Ways.

The climax of the story comes with Fern’s Asking, a trippy sequence involving hallucinations, human-animal transformations, and one shockingly violent and disturbing attack. The literal reality of this entire ordeal is open to debate, but it permanently alters the trajectory of Fern’s character and the way she approaches her dire economic situation.

While this book ticks all the Graham Joyce boxes—a fascination with the power of sexuality, blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality, and the effects of larger social and political shifts on individuals and small communities—it also offers a few unique features that set it above most of his other work. To start with, Fern Cullen is by far his most vividly rendered and sympathetic protagonist. She’s far from perfect; as written by Joyce, in fact, she can be hostile and an overall stick in the mud. She’s also, however, sharply intelligent, independent, and deeply observant about human relationships while also being too young to know entirely what to do with those insights. Not one stray thought or line of dialogue rings false, which is all the more remarkable considering the deeply gendered issues confronted by this male author through the eyes of a female main character.

Beyond the overall strength of Fern’s depiction, though, is the fact that she spends a great deal of time and energy grappling with the magical elements intruding on her orderly world. Fern, you see, is not much of a believer. Yes, she has been raised with knowledge of these older forms of spirituality and systems of magic, but she doesn’t know if she really believes any of it. Listening to news broadcasts about the space race and learning the scientific consensus on fetal development, she isn’t sure she has any time for a culture in which one asks the moon for advice or decides a course of action based on signs and portents. Some of Joyce’s other protagonists ignore the magic around them, and others dive wholeheartedly into it, but only Fern Cullen teeters on the brink, taking a close look at what she believes and wants to believe. The realistically painful and difficult way in which she gradually reconciles these two forms of knowledge forms the core of her emotional journey, and Joyce executes it just perfectly.

One other feature sets this novel apart from Joyce’s other work, and that is in its use of an unreliable narrator as a way of toying with audience expectations. We trust Fern isn’t crazy, exactly, but we can also be sure not everything she describes is happening in the way she says. In approaching the story through this lens, Joyce constantly challenges us to rethink our assumptions about memory, reality, and the construction of narrative. As Fern Cullen warns us on the opening page, “And while I offer you my story unbroken, like the apple peel, it hangs by a fiber at every turn of the knife. When you come to know the nature of the teller of this tale you may have good reason to doubt both. . . Perhaps I once was mad. Briefly.” But as told by Joyce, truth isn’t black and white. There is truth in the madness, and it is this realization that finally allows Fern to reconcile the magical and mundane sides of her life. The rest of us should be so lucky.

On “The Lobster”

*Warning: Spoilers Ahead

I just saw Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, and overall I thought it was a brilliantly weird, disturbing gem. The ending, however, left me cold, and it got me thinking about how many movies I’ve seen lately that employ the dangling ending as opposed to the ambiguous ending. I love ambiguous endings. I love dissecting the final scenes of a book or movie, focusing on dialogue and cues delivered as subtext. Ambiguous endings by their very nature offer a few possible options, and it is left to the reader or viewer to figure out the most likely one.

The dangling ending is a different thing entirely. The dangling ending, rather than offering a couple of possibilities, ends too early. It ends without giving the viewer enough information to even understand what endings are within the range of possibilities. The dangling ending isn’t ambiguity. It isn’t the writer or director bravely refusing to spell things out. The dangling ending is what happens when directors/writers can’t figure out how to offer enough information to point to some possibilities, but not enough to spell it out, so they just end in a place that circumvents the problem.

Let’s take two movies with very similar plots: The stellar Picnic at Hanging Rock and the crappy Strangerland. Both involve children vanishing into the Australian outback, some never to return. Setting aside the many problems of the latter movie, let’s look at how the endings differ. In Picnic, we are left uncertain about what happened to the girls. We are, however, given enough glimpses and flashbacks to have a vague sense of the events surrounding the disappearances, which provides us with enough information to understand the possibilities. Strangerland, in contrast, simply ends without providing any information at all about the nature of the girl’s disappearance. Since we know nothing, there can’t be any tension surrounding what could or could not have happened.

Which brings me back to The Lobster. The film ends with Rachael Weisz’s character waiting to see if her lover will blind himself so that they can be together. I’m not saying the viewers needed a conclusive answer to this question. The problem is that it ends in such a way that we can’t possibly derive the answer ourselves. Imagine if, instead of ending with her sitting at a table waiting, it had ended with him in the bathroom, holding the knife. He looks into the mirror. We see the expression on his face, and it ends. In this scenario, the viewer has what they need to decode his expression and body language and decide for themselves how it ended. As it stands, though, there isn’t even enough there for it to qualify as an ambiguous ending. It just ends.

I propose the following test: If the story could have ended one scene earlier or one scene later without changing the nature of the ending, you picked the wrong place to end it. The ending needs to feel like the only logical stopping point for the story instead of the result of a coin toss.

Tropes That Must Die: The Convenient Visual Metaphor

Have you ever looked at water pouring from a pitcher into a glass, and suddenly thought about how life’s problems feel like a deluge, a nearly Biblical flood of water drowning you and leaving you kicking desperately up through the water and toward the light? No? Congratulations, you’re a human with human thoughts.

Tortured analogies like the (barely) fictionalized one above are more commonly found in works on the literary end of the spectrum, but they pop up in fantasy now and then. This type of scene is lazy, and it’s stupid. I have an exceptionally fantastical way of viewing the world, and not once have I stared at a quotidian event and waxed philosophical about how it reflects some bigger issue I’m facing. Except that one time I was entertaining a dreaded relative and the cat vomited on the carpet in a moment of exquisite comic timing.

The point is, real people are not as poetic and insightful as we would like. Yes, it would be much easier if characters could realistically stumble upon the perfect visual metaphor to sum up the themes of the story. Realistically, though, people generally look at a glass of water and think, “That’s a glass of water.” Find a better way to introduce your brilliant analogy.

In Praise of Bitch Planet

BitchPlanet_vol1-1

This isn’t a review, partly because I don’t have time and partly because it’s an ongoing series still in its first seven issues. But, seriously, people of Earth: Read Bitch Planet. Even if you don’t read comics, even if you have no interest in a feminist reappropriation of women-in-prison sexploitation films, even if sci-fi isn’t exactly your thing. Just read it. You’ll see why.

 

Graham Joyce Retrospective, Part IV: House of Lost Dreams

Part IV of this retrospective focuses on Graham Joyce’s “lost” novel, House of Lost Dreams. His least-read book went out of print quickly and remains hard to find; the cheesy cover on the paperback edition goes a long way toward explaining its lack of appeal, while the $40 used copy price speaks to the tiny number of copies in circulation.

House could be considered part of a loose trilogy of Joyce novels—along with Smoking Poppy and Requiem–in which Brits journey to an exotic locale and encounter the dark supernatural forces that live there. In this case, that exotic locale is a remote village on a volcanic Greek island. The book’s married protagonists, Kim and Mike, journey to the sleepy little town in order to paint, swim, fuck, and generally escape the drudgery of their old lives. A third central character, Manoussos, remains nameless for much of the story but gradually begins to act as a spiritual guide/guardian angel for the pair.

Joyce wastes no time in getting to the horror of the story. The titular house where Kim and Mike stay is a scorpion-infested shithole without indoor plumbing or electricity, instantly leading the reader wonder why Kim and Mike don’t just camp on the beach. This question keeps popping up, particularly when it becomes clear that the scorpions are the least of their problems; far more alarming is the fact that the house has a tendency to manifest anything spoken of in its vicinity, ranging from dolphins to snakes. Kim and Mike stick with it, though, perhaps because they begin to realize that the rest of the island is just as dangerous as the house.

None of Joyce’s works have less of a plot than House of Lost Dreams. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, the meandering storyline nicely reflects the relaxed lifestyle of a small Greek village that still considers the seasons a far more important marker of time than a clock could ever be. The loose style also keeps the reader guessing, as it is never possible to predict where things are going. Still, compared to the tension of Stormwatcher or the incredibly high stakes of Smoking Poppy, House of Lost Dreams can feel a little aimless at times.

The plot, such as it is, involves Kim’s discovery of Mike’s infidelity with her best friend Nikkie. This revelation leads to a fracture in their relationship, which may in fact be worsened by some type of malignant spirit identified by hermit sheepherder Manoussos. Mike’s conflict with this spirit involves everything from symbolic nightmares to being beaten by a metal-shoe-wearing saint. As Mike sinks deeper into alcoholic depression and Kim drifts farther and farther away, it’s up to Manoussos to help Mike do battle with his literal demons.

As always, Joyce is at his best here when meditating on relationships, gender, and sexuality. The speed at which Mike’ and Kim’s marriage collapses is both shocking and terribly realistic; Joyce was all too aware that even loving and successful relationships are built upon unspoken compromises and necessary moments of willful ignorance, all of which can be destroyed in an instant of too much truth. Joyce foregoes the loud fights and shouting matches one might expect of this situation, opting instead to illustrate a decaying marriage through excruciating descriptions of long silences and stiff body language.

Graham Joyce’s talent for describing a setting is also on display here. Whether writing of a bucolic English village, the streets of Chiang Mai, or a Greek island, Joyce always managed to immerse the reader in the little details of the characters’ surroundings (I challenge you to read this book and not immediately seek out some dolmades and moussaka).

One unusual and surprising problem with this book involves the way in which Kim gets sidelined for much of the third act. If anything, Joyce usually erred on the side of his female characters, granting them more than their fair share of growth and discovery. Here, though, Mike must undertake a spiritual quest with Manoussos, battling his demons while Kim stays at home and engages in a far less interesting battle with her temptation to sleep with young Greek men from the village. While all too common in literature as a whole, this dangling female character is an unusual lapse for Joyce.

Some readers might complain that the spooky house of the title isn’t sufficiently integrated into the main storyline, but I see it as a deliberate and strong choice on Joyce’s part. Manoussos and other characters in the story make it clear that there are many, many strange things about this island, of which the house is only one. It would make no sense for Kim and Mike to be presented with a comprehensible explanation of the house and its mysteries considering that it is only one small part of a millennia-old puzzle. Beyond this, any disappointments surrounding the house’s mysteries are silenced by the revelation of what happened to Manoussos there. This incident, the most literal representation of Joyce’s obsession with the dark power of sex, somehow manages to represent the sexual abuse and torture of two young men by a horde of sexually bewitched village women with sensitivity and tact, a major achievement considering that it could easily have turned into a cartoonish mess straight out of an exploitation flick.

House of Lost Dreams is an odd book, even for Joyce. Neither his spookiest nor his most surreal, it is nevertheless striking for the ways in which it defies normal rules of plotting and structure. One gets the sense that it wasn’t quite what Joyce was aiming for, as though there was pressure to cut or merge subplots or alter some aspects of character interaction. Regardless, House of Lost Dreams offers us Joyce’s first foray into stories about people sent on a mental and spiritual journey by their new surroundings, a theme that Joyce revisited to stunning effect in Smoking Poppy. If you find yourself looking for a good beach book for a Greek vacation, however, you might want to give this one a pass.

Graham Joyce Retrospective, Part III: The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit

Now I’d like to discuss Graham Joyce’s last and weakest book, The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit. Released in the UK with the much better title of Year of the Ladybird, Joyce’s final published adult novel follows a young college student during his summer working at a decaying seaside resort. This student, David, deals with a number of odd occurrences over the course of the summer. In addition to being torn between two beautiful women (poor bastard), he finds himself courted by the local National Front chapter, subjected to terrible pay and work conditions, and bombarded by a plague of ladybugs. On a more mysterious note, David has visions of the titular ghost and a small boy, which the reader will immediately understand have something to do with the fact that David’s father died at the resort twenty years earlier.

It’s hard to say exactly why Ghost doesn’t work as well as Joyce’s other efforts. On the surface, it seems to share striking similarities to his very best books. Like The Facts of Life, it intertwines a small-scale story with much larger political and social processes of postwar British life. Like The Limits of Enchantment, it deals with the long-term repercussions of choices from one generation to the next. And, like every single one of Joyce’s works, it explores sexuality and the complicated terrain of male-female relationships. Yet, somehow, these themes never seem to gel in the same way they do in Joyce’s other fiction.

Part of the issue seems to be that the relationship between the quotidian and fantastical is far less elegant than it should be. Joyce was always skilled at mixing fantasy and daily life into a sort of British magical realism, but here the two parts rarely intersect. That isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself; the fact that the protagonist constantly sees demons in Memoirs of a Master Forger had little direct bearing on the plotline for much of the story, yet it worked. The big difference seems to lie in how magical experiences affect the character. Protagonists like Forger’s William Heaney and Smoking Poppy’s Danny Innes may try to set aside their magical experiences in order to deal with more real-world issues, but these visions and dreams nonetheless become integral to their characters. Here, David seems almost unchanged by his interactions with the ghost. A last-minute reveal as to its nature is an emotional blow, but there isn’t a sense of the magic reflecting anything in particular about his character.

The romantic subplots also don’t ring as true as those of other Joyce works. In nearly every other case, Joyce avoided anything as simplistic as a “bad” or “good” woman. Many of the relationships he wrote ended in failure, but for believably complicated reasons. Here, David has a choice between two women so clearly unevenly matched that there is absolutely zero suspense about the outcome. One is Terri, a repressed wife of a vicious racist. Any sympathy for her victimization is canceled out by the fact that she is also quickly revealed as manipulative and petty. The other woman is gorgeous, witty dancer Nikki, who offers David all the fun and companionship he can’t have with Terri.

The preordained outcome of this romantic triangle is complicated somewhat by Terri’s disappearance. This serves as the greatest source of suspense within the story, as David becomes convinced that her brute of a husband has murdered her. When the reader discovers that the murder never occurred, it isn’t so much a relief as a source of new questions. Numerous acts by the husband, Colin, don’t make any sense if in fact he didn’t kill his wife. Why is he throwing bags of meat down a mineshaft? Why is he lurking around in a way calculated to frighten David? By what miracle could he have seen his wife kissing someone but not be able to identify that person? It almost seems as though Joyce had originally planned a different outcome for this story and changed course at the last minute. That new ending, unfortunately, serves as one of Joyce’s only examples of an artificially happy conclusion. The love between David and Nikki survives, Terri finds happiness with a new lover, and David enjoys a tidy revelation about his father that seems to come off as more cathartic than it really should be. This all’s well that ends well close to the book offers a surprising contrast with so many of Joyce’s other works, which almost fixate on lost opportunities and scars left by past relationships.

While disappointing by Joyce’s standards, it should be noted that Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit is still head and shoulders above most of the competition. A disappointing Joyce book still gives you outstanding imagery, rich dialogue, and frightening visions of worlds beyond our own. For another writer, Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit would be the masterpiece they built up to over the course of a career. Only for someone of Joyce’s caliber could it instead be a disappointing finale.

My Brain on Bates Motel

Wow, Vera Farmiga is one outstanding actress. Look at how she turns what could have been a cartoon into a real, complicated character. Bravo.

Hm, this script is a bit uneven.

But Vera Farmiga just had a great scene.

Woman’s rape as vehicle for male character development. Icky.

But Vera brought some humanity to it.

Teen love triangle. Snore.

But look at how splendidly Vera combines dysfunction and maternal love as she struggles to cope with said boring teen love triangle.

That is one pretty sheriff.

He and Vera’s character would have pretty, batshit crazy babies.

Where the fuck is this interminable weed-growing subplot going?

No! Vera’s in danger from that implausibly violent weed grower!

Did you guys seriously just make a deadend subplot vanish by having a principle supporting character just kind of walk away for some contrived reason?

Good, more time for Vera’s scenes.

In what universe would the DEA not have raided this town by now?

Vera just made yet another absurd scene work.

Oh, for. . . ANOTHER teen romantic subplot? I somehow care even less about this one than the last.

But at least it gives Vera more opportunities to showcase this delightfully unlikable yet magnetic mother figure.

Note to producers: You seem to be misunderstanding what everyone liked about Twin Peaks.

Sorry, Vera, you tried. Not even your magical powers can save this pile of shit. But you did somehow keep me watching a terrible show for two goddamn seasons, so. . . Well done, I guess?

Graham Joyce Retrospective, Part II: Dreamside

Now for Graham Joyce’s first novel: Dreamside. Dreamside is the story of four estranged friends in their early thirties who must reunite to face a threat from their past. As college students, the four friends participated in a lucid-dreaming study that granted them immense control over their dreams, yet also introduced mysterious dangers into their lives. The culmination of the study fractured the group of friends for reasons that do not become clear until well into the story, and they are far from happy at having to work together again.

Much of the story is written as flashback, with each protagonist changing over the years. Lee begins the story as a lovestruck college student and grows into a lonely and rather dull professional adult. Ella, Lee’s college lover, is a dynamic, confident young seeker who grows into a wiser and less guarded woman. Honora begins as a sweet, loveable good-girl type; as a grown woman, she is so burdened by past trauma that she can scarcely leave the house. Brad, finally, makes the least amount of progress as a character, morphing from smarmy asshole to smarmy asshole with a drinking problem and a ton of dark secrets.

As young students, these four characters are brought together by the charmingly eccentric Professor Burns. Lonely after the death of his wife, Burns seeks out volunteers to explore forms of lucid dreaming that he is unable to achieve. While he provides crucial guidance, his students quickly move beyond his expertise. They are able not only to meet each other in shared dreams, but also learn to manipulate their surroundings. When the professor suddenly dies, the students lose all semblance of control and the dreams begin to infect their waking lives.

The imagery of Dreamside is where Joyce really shines. He avoids the kind of excess one might expect of a story taking place in dreams, where literally any imaginable thing can happen. Instead, he makes magic out of a few well-chosen settings. The horrifying elements are restrained but thoroughly unsettling. The most effective of these is “the repeater”, an exhausting dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream that operates like a less intense version of the intense repeating dream used in the Sandman series. The dreamers also discover “elementals”, sentient bits of the dreamside that can meld into or absorb flesh. These horrors become progressively more invasive as the adult dreamers try to discover why the dreams have returned to them and what dreamside wants.

Nothing about Dreamside screams “first novel”, and it is overall extremely assured. Many of the themes Joyce would later explore in more depth are on display here. Like many of Joyce’s protagonists, Lee is haunted by the memory of sexual passion so overwhelming that no woman can ever measure up to his great love. In addition, we see the same fascination with group dynamics that marks Joyce’s later work, and he revels in exploring the multiple relationships that form even in a group as small as four people.
Yet there are elements of the writing that fall short of the work Joyce would produce later in his career. Most notably, the four characters of Dreamside (five if you count Professor Burns) lack the richly detailed networks of friend and family relationships that Joyce perfected in later books. The reader learns absolutely nothing of any of the protagonists’ friends or relatives, and even their jobs remain only sketchily outlined. This is all the more baffling considering that Ella shares a surname with the hero of Smoking Poppy, a detail that implies that they may have a connection but which is never explored.

Joyce’s use of ambiguity is also noticeably weaker here. In all of his other books, Joyce displayed an uncanny sense for exactly how much to explain and how much to leave open for readers to interpret. Here, the rules and practices of dreamside are perhaps too clearly delineated, while the nature of the malevolent being and the actions that neutralize her at the end remain far too obscure. Joyce publicly acknowledged that the ending was unsatisfactory, and he apparently rewrote it in his later years.

Oddly enough, the other noticeable deficiency of this book compared to Joyce’s other novels is the depiction of male characters. Ella and Honora are utterly convincing, and Joyce clearly had no problems writing female characters even in the earliest stage of his writing career. Lee and Brad, on the other hand, seem to be sketched in only the broadest strokes. Brad is a douchebag, Lee is a nice guy, and that is essentially the extent of their inner lives. Both periodically come into focus, but only through the eyes of Ella or Honora.

These issues aside, however, Dreamside should have signaled to anyone paying any kind of attention that Joyce was a major talent. Characterization and plotting problems notwithstanding, the book communicates visceral dread and wonder on truly remarkable level. Dreamside might not be on a par with The Facts of Life, The Limits of Enchantment, or Smoking Poppy, but it contains the same deep emotional core found in all of Joyce’s work.