‘Existence – they had to call it something': Marilynne Robinson’s Lila

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Each of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy has a different protagonist, but if there is one central character, it would be John Ames. He has spent his life in the town of Gilead, devoting himself as a minister to the people of the town. Robinson has a similar devotion to the town, insisting that in the small lives of the people of this non-descript Iowan town can be found much of what we can hope to know about existence. As well as beautiful literature. Robinson has created a landmark in American literature with this triptych, and it will be remembered in a century’s time.

Lila (2014) is the story of Ames’s eponymous much younger wife, an itinerant woman brought up on the road by an adopted mother, Dolly. She is haunted by her time in a prison-like brothel in St Louis. She is full of shame of her background, her ignorance, and her poverty. She is drawn to the lonely Ames, tending the graves of his wife and child, listening to his sermons, while always on the verge of running. She cannot let go of the shame; her past takes the form of the knife she carries everywhere, Dolly’s knife. Even after she is baptised by Ames and then married to him and carrying his child, the knife sits in the kitchen, and she wonders when she will need it again.

The novel is steeped in the Christian story. Like Gilead, it narrates grace, making plausible a world where a loving Creator can be glimpsed in sacramental moments. If some atheist readers will find this off-putting, it is still amazing that many (judging from reviews) do not.

One of Lila‘s great accomplishments is to sustain a novel so deeply concerned with the meaning of existence solely through the narrative voice of a woman with limited education and a narrow experience of the world.

She knew a little about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America – they had to call it something. The evening and the morning, sleeping and waking. Hunger and loneliness and weariness and still wanting more of it. Existence. Why do I bother? He couldn’t tell her that, either. But he knows, she could see it in him. Why does he want more of it, with his house so empty, his wife and child so long in the ground. The evening and the morning, the singing and the praying. The strangeness of it. (75)

Lila ponders what is life for, and the largely educated, elite readers of her story will find new clues and a new angle on existence for seeing these things through her eyes. And that is something the best fiction does.

 

Film review: The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet

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Watching a great film, or an interesting but flawed film, leaves me feeling excited about the world and about life – even when the mood of the film is bleak. Bad films, on the other hand, leave me feeling depressed – even when their mood is optimistic. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of the delightful Amelie (2001) has now made two dud but sunny films in a row – Micmacs and this year’s The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet. A ten year-old genius sets off across America on his own to receive a prize at the Smithsonian Institute for his perpetual motion machine. It has all the ingredients for a quirky, profound exploration of childhood, genius, and the meaning of America (road movies tend to be about the meaning of the places they pass through, and this one is to some extent). Yet from the beginning, it’s confused in plot and tone. It has trouble establishing its scenario, introducing the characters on the eccentric Montana ranch badly. Its picaresque structure doesn’t work, as TS encounters various characters on his journey to little real effect. The actors – including Helena Bonham-Carter and Judy Davis – are trying to inhabit characters that are two-dimensional with dialogue that just misfires in every scene. The finale has that most doomed of set-ups, a showdown between the protagonists on live television. At this point, the host says, “But there’s still another nine minutes to go!”; watching from Montana, TS’s sister slumps down in her seat groaning, as I did too.  I wanted to like TS Spivet, I really did, but it’s a mess of a film. It feels like a Disney kids’ movie with a few flourishes. But I should also say it’s completely watchable, with a number of charming moments, and I’m sure many will find it a pleasant couple of hours.

Interstellar: in the hands of a clever 15 year old with a $165 million budget

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All the crops are failing on a future Earth when a former astronaut leaves on a secret mission to check inhabitable planets on the other side of a wormhole, knowing if he ever sees his children again it will be decades away. There’s an ambivalence to many of the reviews of Interstellar, and I share it. The plot unfolded like the sort of plot I would expect to read from a talented fifteen year old science-fiction obsessive – clumsy, derivative, refreshingly ambitious, with flashes of excellence. The opening is particularly amateurish, as Cooper the astronaut stumbles on the secret NASA base, only for them to decide he’s really the one they need to lead their mission leaving in a few days. (Granted, we learn later the reason behind all this, but it still feels like a scene from a B-movie.) The most dramatic and interesting section occurs when the team must land on a planet that will cause seven Earth years to pass for every hour they spend on it. The tension of this dilemma is played for all its worth, and it is a truly gripping sequence.

Interstellar is a film of big questions; most of all, whether humankind (or as it keeps saying “mankind” – what is wrong with people that they are using such a word in the year 2014?) is capable of acting for the good of the species, or only as individuals seeking the survival of themselves and their direct descendents. I found it moving and frightening; it made me ponder death and space and time, and lose myself in its world. It is also visually and aurally spectacular.

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Some random thoughts:

  • Filmmakers have the perpetual challenge of representing scientists solving some great problem. In this film, as in so many, Nolan resorts to a blackboard filled with chalk. Groan! (But I do appreciate how hard it is.)
  • The star, Matthew McConaughey, became one of my favourite actors after his performance in True Detective; at times, it almost feels like he’s channeling that character, Cole, in the more existential moments of this film. But not enough. I would have been quite happy for him to be fully Cole in this film.
  • Jessica Chastain should be in more films. Maybe she’s the reason I thought of Tree of Life a few times.
  • Just like in Nolan’s previous film, The Dark Knight, one of the central themes is the “noble lie”: we can’t tell people the truth, because it’s not good for them. The sort of thinking which the neo-cons used to justify war on Iraq in 2003.
  • (Spoiler alert for the final point:) Continue reading

Brutal and compassionate: Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North

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Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North has immense scope. Perhaps some readers will avoid it, thinking it a war novel, but it is actually a novel about all of life. At its centre – literally and metaphorically – is a lengthy account of the characters’ lives and deaths on the Burma Railway during World War Two, but it extends before and after that period to show the full impact of war. One of its significant achievements is to show how living and dying in a prisoner of war camp is an intensification of the drives and dilemmas all of us live with.

Appropriately, in telling of torture, starvation and cruelty, it’s a brutal novel. The novel’s brutality means it earns its kindnesses and moments of love so much more than other novels. One particular scene shines with love, and that is the generous hospitality of the Greek fish and chip shop owner; to describe it would give too much away, when I do hope you read it. In the world of this novel, it’s these moments of light which are the best one can hope for in life.

Despite its brutality, it’s also a novel of compassion, and an important source of this are the convincing chapters from the point of view of Japanese officers and a Korean guard who were overseeing the camp. Flanagan performs a remarkable feat of empathy to make their worldview and behaviour explicable, to give us a sense of what it might have been like to have been inside their minds, and in this to re-humanise them and remind us that we may not have been as heroic as we think in the same circumstances.

It is a narrative unusually driven by co-incidence. I think it works; it reinforces the novel’s random universe. While the co-incidences often drive the plot forward, it’s not in a convenient way. Instead, the co-incidences make the characters think there must be some meaning when there is not. Dorrigo happens to run into Amy in the bookshop, before he knows that she’s the new wife of his uncle. It helps draw them into an affair this time, but the next time he runs into her by chance, giving an opportunity to resolve so much, nothing is resolved. Instead, the cruelty of life is reinforced.

It’s a powerful novel, and I found it compulsive, if not brilliant. Why do I feel it falls short of brilliance? Perhaps it takes on more than it can accomplish in its length, and its attempt to convey the whole course of so many characters’ lives means none of them are conveyed fully enough. Even with Dorrigo Evans, I felt I was only beginning to see him fully painted when the novel ended. But that’s an initial judgement – I may need to let the dust settle on this one.

Blue Blades, the song in my head this week

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My song of the week is Lily and Madeleine’s “Blue Blades”. It’s a haunting, slow pulsing thrall,  a patient melancholy voice over beautiful electronic shudders. It sounds like it could be from Air’s soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides, only sung by PJ Harvey or MS MR. “This heavy sleep will never cease to be / The earth is still / The chill does not affect me.” It’s hard to believe it’s the work of two teenagers, and easy to envy. I only wish I liked the rest of the album as much, but perhaps it will grow on me.

Film review: Pride

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Pride, in cinemas now, tells the story of a small group of gay and lesbian activists who raise money for striking miners in Thatcher’s 1984 Britain and in their solidarity with a Welsh coalmining village, develop unlikely life-changing friendships. The previews play up the comedy, which is there, but this is actually drama first and foremost. Indeed, it is an example of the power of well-made drama, as it balances the individual challenges of the characters (coming out, developing confidence, seeking love) against the bigger scale political conflict. The universal acclaim for the film reflects its accomplished filmmaking. Each character is complex and interesting. The tone is just right, managing to inspire and move, while knowing when to pull back and avoid seeming over-earnest. One thing which isn’t even exactly a criticism, but an observation: it recreates the eighties so well that it would be easy to miss the way the film brings the contemporary near consensus on sexuality to that period, and makes the characters on the wrong side of history seem merely mean or stupid.  Perhaps related to that, the process of growing acceptance and eventual embrace among the Welsh villagers for the homosexuals is a microcosm of the same process among broader society over the the period since the film. This is a film which will inspire and challenge while audiences laugh and cry.

Imagining dispossession: Kate Grenville’s The Secret River

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Spoiler alert

I’ve come late to Kate Grenville’s acclaimed 2006 novel, The Secret River, but just ahead of the renewed attention which will accompany the screening of ABC’s two-part mini-series adaptation next year.

William Thornhill, the protagonist, struggles in grinding poverty in the London at the turn of the nineteenth century, working as a boatman on the Thames and sometimes stealing cargo to make ends meet. Transported as a convict to New South Wales with his wife Sal, he gains his freedom and carves out a new life, obsessed with owning and cultivating his own patch of land on the Hawkesbury River. His desire for that land contends against Sal’s competing desire to return to England and the presence of the Aborigines, semi-dispossessed, but refusing to leave.  The logic of plot demands that if he is to get what he wants, he must pay a price. The tension with the Aborigines culminates in a massacre by the whites of the men, women and children of the Aboriginal camp. One white pays with his life, but the price for Thornhill is different. His price is the nagging guilt he must live with for the rest of his life, and the loss of relationship with his son, his old friend, and the surviving Aborigine he once had an uneasy understanding with. He becomes a rich, successful man in the aftermath of the massacre and builds a great house over the cave paintings. “Sometimes, sitting in the parlour in the red velvet armchair, Thornhill thought of it underneath him, clear and sharp on the rock. He knew it was there, and his children might remember, but his children’s children would walk about on the floorboards and never know what was beneath their feet.” (316)

Of course, the irony is that even though his children’s children became good at forgetting, we who are several more generations down the line are finally remembering the price, the secret history of our colonisation, our acts of dispossessing and murder. The Secret River is a very intentional act of remembering, or imagining where there are gaps in memory. It made me see colonisation in a newly vivid light, no longer in abstractions or statistics. It is a worthy, important novel for that reason, but perhaps it’s also part of what prevents it from being a masterpiece, it being too consciously a moral novel, constrained by what it is trying to say.

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

  • The early section in London had me feeling the desired sympathy for the terrible of the working class in that time; but later a nagging question as to whether it was as unrelentingly impossible for most people as that – in this case, there are a Dickensian number of tragedies which befall them.
  • A compelling aspect of the novel is the way the Thornhills, having been oppressed, seize the opportunity to become oppressors, lording it over convict labourers and, ultimately, being willing to kill Aborigines.
  • There are patches of startling, beautiful prose, and yet only patches; from (my hazy, nine-year old) memory her earlier novel Idea of Perfection, was more consistently beautifully written.
  • The showdown between Sal’s desire to return to London and Thornhill’s desire to stay is built up expertly, yet its resolution is unconvincing. She just drops it, in the end, after hearing the Aborigines “won’t be a problem” any longer – yet the presence of Aborigines wasn’t the driving force.