The Year in Books, January-June: Fiction

The first half of the year has nearly come and gone, and in that span I’ve finished ninety-four books, not counting re-reads. In the past two years of this sort of thing, I’ve reviewed the top five fiction and top five non-fiction books for each six-month period, devoting about 1,000 words to each fiction title and about two thirds of that to nonfiction. This year, however, I wanted to cover a broader swathe of territory. And so, for the fiction section of this half-a-year-in-review, I’ve devoted substantial reviews to nine titles and capsule reviews to twenty-three more. The remaining twenty-four fictional titles that I’ve read this year were either things I didn’t have a lot to say about in spite of their quality, or too mediocre to fall into either the “best” or “worst” pile.

Non-fiction review coming within a few days!

25512857Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, Caitlín R. Kiernan

The divine is always abominable.

I would list the standouts of this collection, but there really aren’t any—the possible exception being “The Steam Dancer”, which may be the only optimistic short story Kiernan has ever written. That’s not to say there aren’t stories I hold as favorites—”The Ammonite Violin” and “Tidal Forces”, both of which I had previously read in Jonathan Strahan’s annual The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, are probably the two I hold the most affection for. Rather it’s to say that there’s such a consistency here, both in quality and in tone, that the tales for the most part blur together into one long fever dream, a hallucinatory experience that leaves the reader unsettled and unsure.

The terror of the beautiful is the best theme I can think of to tie Kiernan’s body of work together. She is a master of juxtaposition, of taking acts that are degrading and perverse and brutal and rendering them in such artful language (she is without question the foremost prose stylist in her field) that the reader is compelled to linger over the prose even as she recoils from what it signifies. Many of the collection’s stories were first published in Sirenia Digest, Kiernan’s journal of erotic fiction, and that underlying concern with transgressive sexuality—its mingled attraction and repulsion, blessing and taboo—is ever-present. Perhaps the most frightening thing about Kiernan’s work is the way she manages to take nightmarish acts (whether that nightmarishness is due to violence or sheer alien-ness) and imbue them with a terrible attraction for the reader. The old adage about a car wreck is apt.

52258The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith

I feel I stand in a desert with my hands outstretched, and you are raining down upon me… I will comb you like music caught in the heads of all the trees in the forest…

The fact that this book was published in the 1950s is staggering to me. It’s a beautifully subtle, nuanced take on the love that dare not speak its name—some readers complain that it leaves them cold, but the characters’ lack of fiery passion for much of the text is a very deliberate choice. For gay couples in this period, outward love was all but impossible to express. Everything became a code, signifiers carefully extended and received—a pair of gloves left on a counter, the briefest flash of hands clutched together, the most transient of shared gazes across a room.

And when passion does come, it is so magnificent a release that it feels transcendent. For a novel that was marketed as pulp romance at the time of its publication to carry such genuine, achingly beautiful feeling is among the rarest of gifts. I went into The Price of Salt expecting to respect it rather than enjoy it, as was the case with Annie on My Mind, another pillar of LGBT literature, last year. Instead, I found myself smiling and joyful for much of it, heartsick for other portions. Were The Price of Salt published today, it would still be an absolutely wonderful novel. Viewing it in its historical context, it’s something of a miracle.

5356476The Red Tree, Caitlín R. Kiernan

I am usually at my most brutally forthright when making shit up. That’s the paradox of me.

A fusion of Mulholland Drive and The Blair Witch Project, The Yellow Wall-Paper and House of Leaves. Alien geometries, the sheer grinding mundane terror of isolation. The prison of your house mirrors the prison of your head. “I can’t get out of it because I can’t get out of it because I can’t get out of it.” How much of us dies when our love dies? Is part of our brain burnt out, a cigarette mark of pink-flecked charcoal meat never again to fire its neurons? Unreliable narrator? Reliable? What the fuck kind of distinction is that, anyway? The story tells itself, and the reader has no choice but to rely upon the teller just as the teller has no choice but to rely upon her own perceptions no matter how fucked they are. You desperately want companionship but you desperately need to be left the hell alone whenever she shows up, she’s like a buzzbuzzbuzzing in your head and won’t just let it be fucking quiet. Not the quiet of isolation, the intense humming of silence that drills into your head, just eyes closed ears closed peace. There’s peace in the basement, no noises there, but you mustn’t go down because it’s bigger on the inside and the damp is everywhere, and what if she were to follow you at any rate? Claustrophobia or agoraphobia, take your pick, the tight black decomposition or the wide carnivorous sky. Your head is stopped up, there’s a vice squeezing on it, and if only you could just get out the goddamn words, but the only worlds your words can shape are your own and its mirrors. You can’t get out. You can’t get out. Nothing is coming and you can’t get out.

(Please excuse the awful cover art. Penguin deserves to be shot.)

333706The Odyssey, Homer (translated from the Greek by Robert Fagles)

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns …/driven time and again off course,once he had plundered/the hallowed heights of Troy . . .

It would be pointless and hopelessly hubris-full for me to even attempt a four-paragraph review of the Odyssey as if it were some recent bestseller, so I won’t bother.

Instead I just want to note the quality that most stood out to me upon my much-too-belated reading of the grand old thing: how cinematic it feels. The opening “We’re getting the band back together” thrill, the constant sense of momentum, the jumps in time, the changes of perspective, the grand imagery—they carry with them the lofty quality of the Iliad, but there’s a constant driving excitement present even in the bare words on the page that simply isn’t present in most of the former epic. The Iliad struggles under the weight of its historical background, so concerned with the Grim Historical Pillar that it depicts that, while there’s plenty of fun and emotion to be had, they’re buried in many places under a brick wall of solemnity.

The Odyssey, by contrast, is an adventure the whole way through without sacrificing emotional resonance or divine grandeur. It helps that (as Julian Jaynes would attribute to the breakdown of the bicameral mind’s divine hallucinations) people are people; in the Iliad it was the gods who had all the fun with things like deception and deliberation, but its sequel is chock-full of them on everyone’s behalf. It was almost inevitable that it would be made into a Coen Brothers film, really. If, as God help us is probably unavoidable, a big-screen Odyssey happens sometime in the next decade, they’d do well to remember that, as staggering an achievement as it is, it’s damn fun too.

(A postscript: between reading both this and Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths this year, Athena has become my favorite character of the ancient world. If ever I become a neopagan of some kind she’s my go-to deity.)

857042Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

As with the book above, there isn’t much I can say about Catch-22 that hasn’t already been said. Suffice to say that few books have ever moved me so much or in so many different ways—moved me to laughter, to frustration, to horrified sadness, to absurd joy. Heller’s novel is simultaneously one of the most cynical and one of the most life-affirming texts I’ve ever read.

I can see why my first attempt at it, at the age of thirteen, didn’t succeed. It’s a novel that’s largely built around the impotent wrath it induces within the reader, and said wrath is dependent upon the grind of absurdity that goes on. And on. And on, constantly running the razor’s edge between effectiveness and tedium (see also: American Psycho). It’s too much for most pre-adolescent minds to handle, my own certainly included. The slog that is the first 400 pages makes the final few mean so much more, though. It’s the sort of release you feel as a physical sensation in your chest.

I’m never, ever reading the sequel. Even if it had gotten a mostly positive reception as opposed to the drubbing it inspired, there are some things you just don’t touch.

1013257

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

We have a name for your disease. We call it a hyper-aesthetic one. You have been encouraged to over-indulge yourself in literature; and have inflamed your organs of fancy.

I hate Charles Dickens, but I’m increasingly coming to love Dickensian fiction. My antipathy for the former is built upon three defects: his incessant moralizing, his violently purple prose, and worst of all his inability to construct a human character. Writing in nothing but caricatures is all well and good for a novella like A Christmas Carol, but stretch it out to the 900 pages of Bleak House and my patience runs tissue-thin. The genre itself, however, holds tremendous promise if executed properly. Take a cast full of eccentrics—the line between eccentrics and caricatures is thin, but it exists—give them a complex bit of business, and pile it with well-earned melodramatic twists and reversals, and it’s hard to picture a more entertaining one, in fact. Pulp Fiction is Dickensian fiction, in a sense. Harry Potter certainly is, when extrapolated to an entire series.

Throw into this mix a touch of lesbian romance? Well, that’s just irresistible.

And rest assured, it’s not nearly as smutty as the above line combined with the no-less-than-quadruple-entendre of a title suggests. This may be a Victorian pulp crime novel whose title is in part a masturbation pun, but it’s classy, by God. A Booker nominee, no less. Like Dickens, it is equal parts romp and tragedy; its central caper puts those of The Sting and Ocean’s Eleven to shame, but Waters’ display of the horrors of being a woman in the 19th century—vivid without falling into didacticism—is utterly skin-crawling. It’s one of the most successful examples of a fusion of highbrow social commentary and lowbrow adventure that I’ve read, as evidenced by its perennial popularity among both critics and the sort of people who contribute their books to Goodwill. Mr. Dickens would be proud.

51506Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson

 Once, somebody asked Robert Schumann to explain the meaning of a certain piece of music he had just played on the piano. What Robert Schumann did was sit back down at the piano and play the piece of music again.

In the beginning, sometimes I left reviews on the internet.

Well, what I mean by that is not that I placed reviews atop the internet, but that I uploaded representations of reviews onto a representation of a piece of paper.

My language is frequently imprecise like that, I have found.

The apocalypse is not the concern in Markson’s novel. Rather, it is mere window-dressing for an emotional and philosophical experience of uncanny power. I am, of course, speaking in metaphor.

When I was mad—for I do know, if I know anything, that I was once quite mad—I read this book from cover to cover, tearing out each page when I had finished its reverse side and depositing it in the fire.

Van Gogh painted a fire once. Or, I should say, he painted a representation of a pile of broken glass, which was in itself a representation of a fire.

That is, I think I remember that Van Gogh painted something like that.

I thought I saw someone move, just now, but it was merely a flicker of light against one of the images on my screen. There is, of course, no one left to move.

The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.

(This is not a novel to be read without at least some background with literature, especially classic literature. If you have the context, however, the unnamed last woman on earth’s rambling mantra is often funny, occasionally devastating, and always unsettling. The overwhelming sense of desolation Markson generates is achieved in tandem with, not in spite of, the narrator’s frequent pauses for analyses of Greek drama and philosophical investigations in the vein of the novel’s namesake—these tangents at once reveal the desperation of the narrator’s plight and attempt to smother it. A haunting experience, to be devoured all at once if possible.)

164154A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.

It would be easy for A Canticle for Leibowitz to slide into a mere, if very good, polemic were it in the hands of a lesser author. The premise—an apocalyptically altered Catholic church attempts to preserve civilization throughout the centuries of rebuilding—is ripe for partisanship, with this hypothetical lesser novel coming down firmly either on the side of self-righteous secularism or pandering, patronizing religious smugness. What makes Canticle a masterpiece is the way Miller weaves a tapestry of ambiguities throughout its text, considering to the fullest extent the mixed benefits and hazards of turning over the keys to human society to a sacred institution.

The three sub-novels that form the book are largely unconnected in terms of plot and character, but tonally are of a piece—equal parts gently humorous and profoundly sad, an uneasy mixture to match the book’s conflicting attitudes toward religion. Ultimately, Canticle can be viewed either as a bleak cautionary tale or a triumphant assertion of the human spirit in face of disaster; neither option is incorrect, just as Christ’s death and resurrection is simultaneously the greatest tragedy and the profoundest comedy ever put to paper. Like the best religious fiction, and for that matter the best religious texts themselves, its lack of answers is unsettling but all the more compelling for it.

18490533Radiance, Catherynne M. Valente

A tale may have exactly three beginnings: one for the audience, one for the artist, and one for the poor bastard who has to live in it.

This novel is a machine designed to push all of my buttons. A decopunk space opera centered around filmmaking, featuring a neo-noir detective as one of its protagonists and an enigmatic female auteur as its MacGuffin?

It’s science fiction, if decidedly soft on the science, but the crystalline, lilting magic of Valente’s fantasy writing remains on display. She, along with Caitlín R. Kiernan, is the best prose stylist working in the SF/F field today, her sentences rich and laden with metaphoric imagery without ever becoming overly abstract. A unique joy in Radiance, however, is how she mixes this authorial voice with a kaleidoscope of homage. The neo-noir narrative-within-a-narrative drips Chandler and Hammett without ever losing Valente’s gift for language; certain monologues joyfully ape Ray Bradbury’s mix of the comic and the ecstatic from his Death Is a Lonely Business trilogy, another fantastical romp through the land of the silver screen. References to ’30s and ’40s marketing abound, intertwining seamlessly with the language of the novel’s imagined melding of art deco and a future that includes space whales.

Had the Rabid Puppies and their wretched ilk not commandeered the Hugo Awards for the second year in a row, I’m confident that Radiance would have picked up a nomination for Best Novel. It most certainly deserved one. It’s a symbol of what’s best about speculative fiction—a simultaneous celebration of the past and yearning for the beautiful future, a confidence that we can make a better world without the smugness that says it will be easy. It’s a dazzling display by an author at the height of her powers.

3136287The Music of Chance, Paul Auster

A fusion of Kafka and Beckett—two men, entrapped by a game of cards gone sour, are forced to slave for a massive wall in the middle of a field—that should fall apart due to Auster’s sheer audacity in aping the same, but instead becomes a remarkable creation of its own. No author better captures the terrifying freedom of solitude and dire circumstances.

883217The End of the Affair, Graham Greene

The sheer disgust present here is dizzying. The unfortunate movie tie-in cover art that my copy bears (Little Free Library beggars can’t be choosers) inadvertently suggested weepy, Oscar-bait type fare, and even having read The Quiet American and The Power and the Glory I wasn’t prepared for the brutal cynicism that pervades the text. Not to be read in the midst of a divorce.

17802447Beyond the Rift, Peter Watts

The first story in this collection takes John Carpenter’s The Thing and somehow manages to make it even more horrifying than it already was. This is basically par for the course for the rest of what’s offered. And the truly scary thing is that, as Watts points out in his Afterword, most of these stories are comparatively optimistic versions of posthumanist science fiction.

25614935A Wilderness Station: Selected Stories, 1968-1994 (previously published as Selected Stories), Alice Munro

Maybe it’s something in the water—between Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, Canadian authors seem to have a gift for crystalline, understated prose. None of the stories here is a firecracker of brilliance; rather, they sneak up on you before you’ve realized what’s going on. Quiet, melancholic, gorgeous.

8694389Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente

Oh, Cath. You had me at Stalinist house elves. (And she somehow manages to balance that tone with what is otherwise a fusion of Russian folktales with the aesthetic of Hannibal. This woman must be stopped.)

 

7717708The Ammonite Violin & Others, Caitlín R. Kiernan

Each tale within a perfect, glistening ebony jewel, a fossil dug from deep within the earth that has come alive again. And they’re all hungry.

 

23444482The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson

“This is the truth. You will know because it hurts.”

Yep. Yep. The dark, fantastical alternative to Fingersmith is just as impressive and infinitely more likely to make you want to throw it at the wall. (And it’s only the first in a series. Hoo boy.)

17261183The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

The best children’s series of the decade continues to inspire dread (“Okay, this one can’t possibly be as good as the last two” and awe (“Holy shit, that was as good as the last two!”) in equal measure. I am now biting my nails and hoping that the dismount is not blown with The Boy Who Lost Fairyland and The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, but even if it is we have in September one of the best female protagonists ever written (or just protagonists period, for that matter).

95558Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

Were the rest of the novel to be a complete clunker, the image of a sentient wave covering a planet would be enough to label it a classic. (And, manky translation from Polish to French to English notwithstanding, the rest of the novel is in fact mostly excellent.)

 

12187Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Vladimir Nabokov

As good as Lolita? Nothing is, you fool. But it’s most definitely the best overlong SF/F epic about incest ever penned—GRRM eat your heart out. More than anyone else, Nabokov manages to walk a tightrope between pretension and sheer fun—as you’re reading the novel you’re baffled that he’s getting away with it, and even more baffled that you’re enjoying yourself immensely.

58027Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

The tale of a 19th-century murderess who has perhaps been falsely accused would seem to be a perfect choice for Atwood. This could actually be a weakness rather than a strength, however—it feels at times like she’s resting on her laurels, especially when compared to the immediate followup The Blind Assassin. Nevertheless, she’s incapable of writing anything bad, her clean, clear prose never anything less than a pleasure.

202769The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, Catherynne M. Valente

A 1,001 Nights for the modern age, tales within tales within tales in swirling patterns and currents. Occasionally this dizzying recursion can get out of Valente’s control, but the book is still nothing less than a marvel, especially for an author who was at the time only twenty-eight years old—assured, confident, and full of utterly gorgeous imagery and worldbuilding.

1024661In the Country of Lost Things, Paul Auster

A departure for Auster in terms of its female protagonist, this postmodern dystopia is too slight to be counted among his best work but taken on its own is a riveting little novel. It also forms an intriguing bridge between the cool, cerebral New York Trilogy and the ecstatic, personal Moon Palace, injecting the humanity of the latter into the urban hellscape of the former.

524004Elvissey, Jack Womack

What could have been an off-the-wall romp—time travelers from the future must abduct Elvis from the 1950s and bring him to an awaiting religious cult who worship him as a Messiah—is instead a bleak, terribly sad work with touches of the absurdly comic mixed in. The futurespeak exhibited here and in other Womack novels such as Random Acts of Senseless Violence is on a par with A Clockwork Orange‘s for its subtlety and thoughtfulness.

77773To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

Willis desperately needs an editor—the book could easily be 200 pages shorter—but as opposed to the above time-travel experiment, this novel is a delightfully off-the-wall romp full of madcap energy. It’s also extraordinarily well-plotted, and manages to be endearing in spite of its preponderance of Victorian amateur spiritualists, who are the literal worst.

18310944The Sandman: Overture, Neil Gaiman and J. H. Williams III

Writing a prequel to a universe he’s mostly left the door shut on since its mid-90’s completion was probably a mistake on Gaiman’s part—the mystery of an untold story is almost always better than an explanation. That said, it gave J. H. Williams an excuse to create the most beautiful comics art I’ve ever seen. Seriously. Every single page is this good.

BONUS ROUND: WORST OF THE SEASON

25109947Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

This one breaks my heart because it’s one of the best horror ideas in recent memory—Lovecraft’s monsters haunt the racist hell of the Jim Crow South. How do you possibly screw that up?

By giving it to an author who a.) isn’t black, b.) has never written a horror novel before, and c.) isn’t a good enough stylist to support his own brilliant idea.

889284The Postman, David Brin

“The Postman” was one of the best pieces of short fiction I read last year. It’d be a shame to ruin it by taking what’s already a perfect story arc and adding on 300 pages of mediocre SF that takes a hard left turn into stupid and ends with one of the worse deus ex machinas I’ve had the misfortune of reading.

760961Darwinia, Robert Charles Wilson

One of the most impressive things about Wilson’s Spin, among the best SF novels of the last two decades, was the way it had an insanely good premise and then paid that premise off in a way that wasn’t anticlimactic. Which is why it’s baffling that here, the same author could write such a dismal second half to a first half I was genuinely digging.

1020039The Books of Blood, Clive Barker

There are snatches of brilliance amid the mediocrity—”In the Hills, in the Cities” is one of the more inventive horror concepts I can remember—but on the whole this collection represents the absolute worst of the 80’s horror boom. Namely: gore in place of fear, prose that never rises above serviceable, and the occasional sophomoric attempt at philosophizing that is utterly wince-inducing.

22453035Finders Keepers, Stephen King

Whoever in the marketing department thought it would be a good idea to compare Finders Keepers to Misery deserves digestion by Sarlacc. This turgid, by-the-numbers, airplane-thriller-bad novel is just about as far away from the perfection of Misery as you can get. With Mr. Mercedes King was at least having fun, but here he seems as bored with his novel as the reader is.

7719640Absolute All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison

I just don’t like or understand superheroes. In fact, at this point it’s become an outright antipathy.

No, that word is too kind. I hate them.

Hate, hate, hate.

We’re talking “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” hatred here.

The Dark Knight is still a great movie, though.

6345193Invisible, Paul Auster

What a piece of junk.

It would be a piece of junk coming from anyone, but coming from Auster it’s just unforgivable. It’s like a newspaper caricature of him met a newspaper caricature of Philip Roth and they made a love child out of the worst parts of themselves.

I never feel guilty eating anything (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

cannibalism-evolution-beginning-endKaiseki. A Japanese art form that honors the taste and aesthetic of what we eat.

In 1971, German author Oscar Kiss Maerth published a book of pseudoscience entitled The Beginning Was the End. As an attempted work of science, it’s a complete failure—there is not a single reference or footnote present in the entire text, its argument constructed upon a foundation of anecdotal evidence. It’s also an intensely racist, misogynist piece of work. And yet there’s a profoundly unsettling, resonating aspect to Maerth’s hypothesis. Like any number of other creation myths, from the Garden of Eden to Julian Jaynes’ speculations on a preconscious state in which humanity hallucinated divine commands, it feels true in the act of reading, even if there’s absolutely no reason to believe it is.

Maerth believed that human consciousness came about through cannibalism. According to his hypothesis, apes began to eat the brains of their own kind when they discovered that said depravity had powerful aphrodisiac effects, resulting in a veritable orgy of cannibalism and rape. What the apes did not realize, at least at the time, was that as they consumed the brains of their fellow creatures, their own brains grew. Eventually, consciousness sprang into being; the result has been largely misery, as the discomfort caused by our overlarge brains pressing into our skulls has led to war, death, and isolation from nature.

Preposterous. And yet it lingers in the mind, once one has heard it.

Does Hannibal Lecter’s taste in cuisine explain, at least in part, why he is the way he is? Or does he dine on human flesh because of the way he is? The good doctor, at least in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, has no interest in answering this question of whether his cannibalistic essence preceded existence. “Nothing happened to me,” he tells Bedelia du Maurier when she tries to pry into his childhood. “I happened.”

Out-of-universe, this scene is probably at least partly a rebuke to Thomas Harris’ version of Hannibal in the books following The Silence of the Lambs. The novel Hannibal and its prequel Hannibal Rising went to great lengths to provide a concrete explanation for Hannibal’s existence, in the process crafting one of the worst “origin stories” in the history of fiction—Hannibal, Harris would have us believe, was perfectly normal until he was unwittingly fed, by Nazis no less, a soup made of his sister Mischa. The good doctor as conceived in Fuller’s Hannibal would no doubt sneer at such a clumsily Freudian handwave.

However, just because the line is somewhat of a cheap shot at Harris (who to be fair was contractually obligated to write Hannibal Rising unless he wanted to see it turned over to another author) does not mean it is insignificant. As far as the show is concerned, it is entirely the truth. Mads Mikkelsen, in an interview with the Telegraph, said of the character:

He is in a league of his own, and would probably find most other serial killers banal. Others have reasons to do what they do – their childhood, something their mother did – whatever. Hannibal is not like that. He finds the beauty of life right on the threshold of death. And that is not banal, in his mind . . . He is as close as you can come to the Devil, in the sense that the Devil has no reasons.

Childhood backstory or no, it does seem clear that to Hannibal, cannibalism is not incidental. Where to Todd it’s a tool and to Bateman it’s one of many methods, it is absolutely intrinsic to Hannibal’s identity. If he did not eat people, he would not be who he is.

hannibal-gif-525And who is he? “Superhuman” would not be an inappropriate designation. Indeed, Mikkelsen is far from the only person to refer to his character as the Devil. Out-of-universe, Bryan Fuller has also done so; in-universe, both Will Graham and Abel Gideon come to the conclusion. In the concrete world of Harris’ novels, we could be content to view this as little more than a metaphor. In the world of Hannibal, a magical-realist hell, it seems that both Will and Abel mean it quite literally.

It would be overly literal to apply Maerth’s hypothesis to Dr. Lecter at face value—it is not simply through consuming human flesh that Hannibal has attained his superiority over humanity. Rather, it’s through his self-awareness, and his awareness of humanity as a whole. This is the area in which he is completely removed from Todd and Bateman, each of whom only attains brief flashes of realization about his place in the world. Hannibal, by contrast, knows exactly who he is.

Who he is is entirely represented by his aesthetic taste. This is the one aspect of himself that he is incapable of hiding, even in his most desperate hour of need. When he flees to hiding in Europe, he chooses for his locale not a tiny hamlet in an obscure country, but the art museums of Florence. His house is if anything more extravagant than the one he left behind in Maryland. He changes his culinary preferences not one iota. Alana Bloom and Mason Verger believe that this is a mistake on his part, a slip that will allow him to be caught, but Bedelia du Maruier is under no such delusion. “You are drawing them to you,” she says, and in reply Hannibal simply smiles. His inability to betray his aesthetic sensibilities is the height of self-knowledge; he cannot exist contrary the thing that represents nothing more or less than himself. “Whimsy,” Bedelia tells Jack Crawford and Alana Bloom at one point, “is how he will be caught,” but she underestimates just how clearly Hannibal understands who he is and the risks that are attendant to his existence. In Harris’ novels, he is outsmarted and captured by Will Graham; in the television show, he turns himself in, because it’s the only way he could possibly be taken. It would be impossible for anyone to catch him, because to do so would be to understand him better than he does himself.

Nor is self-knowledge the only knowledge Hannibal possesses. It is his knowledge of humanity as meat that also defines him and his cannibalism. This insight has already been repeated at length over the course of the last few entries: there is no such thing as humanity or consciousness as such, only puppets run by nerve impulses, ghosts in the machine.

Others in the series also recognize this truth to various degrees, and it is to them that Hannibal affords most of his respect. Bedelia du Maurier, a person in some ways almost as terrifying as Hannibal himself, has the privilege of serving as his “psychiatrist” primarily due to their mutual philosophical positions as regard humanity. Will Graham, his own fragmented self testament to the nature of consciousness in general, finds himself drawn to Hannibal because “I’ve never known myself as well as I know myself when I’m with him,” and Hannibal in return falls in love with Will. One of his chief aims is to take the limited awareness of these people and raise it to its fullest potential; in this he is entirely a psychiatrist despite his unorthodox methods.

His response to everyone else is based largely on aesthetic merit. If they are mannered and tasteful, they are allowed to live. If they are rude, they are butchered like the swine they are. It is not enough for Hannibal simply to degrade them in this way, however. Rather, he fully displays his superiority by, even in death, helping them to better themselves. He takes their ugly humanity and transforms it into dishes that are utterly beautiful.

This stands in marked contrast to the other cannibal of the series, whose death at the hands of Will Graham begins the latter’s descent into Hannibal’s universe.  Garrett Jacob Hobbs chooses to “honor every part” of his victims much as he does with the deer he and his daughter Abigail hunt. Their flesh is consumed, their body parts made into household items, not as a means of expressing superiority but as an apology for their deaths. Hannibal’s cannibalism, on the other hand, is powerfully degrading, displaying his utter contempt for his victims. Their transformation into something new is not for their benefit, but for that of their killer; they are made into something beautiful not for their glory but for his.

This implicit mirroring of Yahweh is not accidental—a support for Hannibal’s infernal nature comes in his frequent comparisons of himself to God. Of particular note is an early conversation between him and Will:

Hannibal: Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time, and are we not created in his image?

Will: Depends on who you ask.

Hannibal: God’s terrific. He dropped a church roof on thirty-four of his worshipers last Wednesday night in Texas, while they sang a hymn.

Will: Did God feel good about that?

Hannibal: He felt powerful.

He collects these church collapses, he later tells Will. It’s notable that Hannibal passes no particular moral judgment on God when discussing this; he does not use the church collapses as the opening of an antitheistic rant. If anything, these cruelties are God’s right, if he is indeed superior to us. This is the key to Hannibal’s philosophy as regards himself: he recognizes the nature of humanity, and is thus superior to them. He expresses this superiority in a way that is characteristically elegant—as humanity is meat, he treats them as such. Malleable, disposable, dead flesh, to be crafted by its Redeemer into something new. There is no morality involved, simply a desire to bring the universe into line with his view of it.

It would be impossible for Hannibal to exist were he not a cannibal. While there is no one-to-one relationship between himself and his consumption, as Maerth would have it, it is inevitable that, once he came to realize his place among humanity, he would begin to eat them.

Nothing else would be quite as elegant, and elegance is all that matters, in the end.

(to be continued)

 

Pigs in human clothing (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

american-psycho_m_jpg_627x325_crop_upscale_q85-11I tried to make meat loaf out of the girl but it becomes too frustrating a task and instead I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skin I ripped from her body.

Where Sweeney Todd and Hannibal Lecter are defined by their cannibalism, Patrick Bateman’s ingestion of human flesh is largely ignored. No doubt this is at least partly due to the infamously flamboyant brutality of his killings—consuming human flesh is relatively minor compared to the other unspeakable tortures he wreaks upon his prey, replete with nail guns and chainsaws and acid and rats.

Another possible reason is that, while both Todd and Lecter operate outside the social structures of their universes, Bateman is completely defined by his. Todd’s cannibalism is a form of rebellion—he strikes back at the industrial labyrinth that grinds him down through a particularly gruesome metaphor (though in doing so he inadvertently allows himself to become a cog in its machine). Hannibal’s cannibalism is both aesthetic and philosophical—he in his superhumanity is completely superior to the human swine that surround him, and his method of killing perfectly embodies this.

Bateman, however, neither rebels against his surroundings nor attempts to rise above them. His killings are the ultimate expression of the mentality that drives his society. Ironically, while American Psycho is commonly labeled a work of transgressive fiction due to the uproar its publication caused, Bateman’s actions are anything but transgressive. One of the ultimate questions raised by American Psycho is not Why is Patrick Bateman a serial killer? but Why isn’t everyone in Patrick Bateman’s social circle a serial killer?

The cannibalism that Bateman does practice is nasty, brutish, and short, to coin a phrase. There is none of Hannibal’s aesthetic touch present (and even Todd, for all the ugliness of his situation, notes the little details such as the “precious rubies” dripping from the silver of his razor). Rather, as in the excerpt above, we are treated to narration as devoid of personality and beauty as any of the rest of the novel. The attempted human meat loaf is the most involved Patrick ever becomes with the act of consuming human flesh; the rest consists of one-sentence descriptions of chewing on skin and bone, or the occasional phrase such as “the meat of her brain”.

Bateman is circling a truth here—the ultimate lie that is consciousness and humanity—but it’s not until his famous confession toward the end of the novel that he can grasp it. Rather, he struggles to view himself as superior to the life around him, a sort of second-rate Hannibal in his rants on proper attire and music and food. In the midst of the meatloaf killing, as he struggles to prepare meat patties from the flesh of his latest victim he says to the reader, “[T]hough it does sporadically penetrate how unacceptable some of what I’m doing actually is, I just remind myself that this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing, is shit”.  However, this attempt at superiority through cannibalism falls apart, the stripped flesh failing to cohere into a dish. It’s emblematic of Bateman’s ultimate problem: he is no better than anyone around him, and where Hannibal expresses his superhumanity through his consumption and Todd undermines the system through his, Bateman merely furthers the prison he’s trapped in by committing acts of violence. The people he kills are indeed no more than meat, but neither is he, and his corporate sadism continuously fails to hide from the reader the fact that Bateman’s person suit is nothing more than a bundle of rags. Where Hannibal is made whole through his killing, Bateman is simply further fragmented.

Eventually, Patrick realizes his status as a noncontingent human being, but misdiagnoses why this is.

I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.

he says at one point. His error, here, lies in the humanization of his victims via his assumption that he has become dehumanized. Closer to the truth would be a hybrid of this admission of non-personhood with his earlier dismissal of his victims as nothing more than meat.

And indeed, in his final confession we get close to such a synthesis:

I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?

Here, Patrick grasps at the truth that Hannibal Lecter has fully realized: he is not, in any ultimate sense, “evil”, any more than his victims are “good”.  He simply is: a puppet made of meat, a ghost in the machine.

And still, this truth does not set him free:

But even after admitting this—and I have countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed—and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing . . .

Where Todd is a tragic figure and Hannibal a dark Messiah, Bateman is ultimately a pathetic creature. He recognizes the essential truth at the heart of consciousness, but in his weaker moments fobs it off as something unique to him and his echelon due to their societal brainwashing. Even in his more honest moments, when he realizes that society only aids and abets his inhuman nature rather than causing it, there is absolutely nothing he can do. Patrick lacks the drive necessary to rail against his inhuman nature, and lacks the capability to rise above it. His is a self-perpetuating existence, a perpetual motion machine of slaughter; he can’t get out of it because he can’t get out of it because he can’t get out of it. In that sense, all of us are Patrick Bateman.

This is why, ultimately, none of his attempts at cannibalism succeed in any meaningful sense. Unlike Todd, he isn’t delusional enough to utilize it as a tool against oppression. And unlike Hannibal, he isn’t superior enough to deserve it.

(to be continued)

Just for fun: Dante, Don Quixote, Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Petrarch walk into a library . . .

m1176As part of my final for Classic Literature, I was tasked with composing a dialogue amongst five figures of the Renaissance period debating the highest virtue. This rather lamentable farce is the result.

* * * *

Extract Discovered in the Papers of the Late Miguel de Cervantes

The scene: the Berntsen Library, University of Northwestern—St. Paul. If there is an explanation for this anachronism, the papers do not give it.

The players: Don Quixote de La Mancha, an addled knight; Dante Aligheri, a poet and receiver of divine visions; Niccolo Machiavelli, a scoundrel; Francesco Petrarca, a poet of the starry-eyed persuasion; and Michel de Montaigne, a loghorreic essayist.

The dialogue: the highest virtue, its existence, & c.

All enter. Quixote trips on his own feet and collapses.

DQ: Good sir, would you be so kind as to help a noble warrior to his feet?

NM: (disparagingly) The noble warrior should regain his own feet, or he is not fit to go to war.

DA: You villain, do you not know there is a circle of hell reserved for those who commit violence against their neighbors?

NM: I commit no violence, and he is not my neighbor.

DA: Excuses! A sin of omission is still worthy of being boiled in deep, deep blood, as broad flakes of fire shower steadily down upon you.

NM: Aren’t you a cheery fellow.

DQ: Perhaps you, then, court poet, would help a poor knight to resume his quest—

DA: (ignoring him entirely) Cheer! I care not for cheer. Love, love of God, is the only virtue which means anything.

FP: (shrieks and clutches at his chest) Love! Love! O love, tormentor of my soul! Love, highest virtue of all existence, and yet the highest pain!

(all stare)

DQ: I say, he’s not quite right in the head, is he?

DA: You besotted idiot, romantic love is nothing compared to love for the Creator of all the world.

DQ: But dear court poet, what about your Lady Beatrice?

DA: Silence, addlepate.

DQ: Of course, she is nothing next to my Lady Dulcinea, but then—

NM: You fools make me laugh. Has love ever conquered a frontier, unified a nation, shifted the power of one dynasty to another? If love is the highest virtue, it has done a pretty poor job of maintaining its position.

FP: O heartless, soulless wretch! O lizard, o fish, o creature of reptilian mien! You commit blasphemy against my beloved, my Laura, the only pure creature on the face of this earth, the power of amorous hope that sustains me in my bitter life.

DQ: There I must object. My Lady Dulcinea—

DA: And what is the highest virtue, then, you devilspawn?

NM: Now, now. If you’re going to call names I just won’t play.

DQ: If I may speak, my saucy tactician—

NM: You may not.

DQ: It seems clear to me that all three of you miss the mark. It is clear that valor is the highest of the virtues by a goodly margin. For well I know the meaning of valor: namely, a virtue that lies between the two extremes of cowardice on the one hand and temerity on the other. If I had to choose one image that best sums up the best of mankind, it would be the knight-errant who, traversing deserts and solitudes, crossroads, forests, and mountains, goes seeking dangerous adventures only for the purpose of eternal glory. It is valor that gives us the courage to do the impossible, to dream the unthinkable. It is valor that gives me the courage to rescue maidens from lions or wizards, that allows me without a second thought to tilt at the giants who would otherwise overwhelm the countryside of Spain. What I would be without my valor, I do not like to think.

NM: It seems to me you would be standing upright.

DQ: Let me be upright in heart rather than in stance.

DA: My clumsy friend, you have it all backwards. It is not our glory but God’s that must win the day. The Love that moves the sun and other stars must by necessity be that which draws the bulk of our adoration, else how can we call ourselves moral creatures? And after all, Satan himself has valor—one must be courageous to face the prospect of being buried with only half his chest above the ice, the frozen water burning all the same.

DQ: This Satan would make a fine knight.

DA: O blasphemer, get thee hence!

(DA kicks DQ in his armored ribs; DA grabs his foot and hops about, bellowing, while DQ moans and attempts to shift himself to a more comfortable position)

NM: For shame, my friend. Do you not know there is a circle of hell reserved for those who commit violence against their neighbors?

(DA makes a highly worldly gesture)

FP: Such is the unhappy fate of one whose heart is cold.

DQ: Precisely, my afflicted friend! One’s heart must burn with valor if he is to truly live a virtuous life. I say, would you mind giving me a hand—

FP: No, no, no, simpleton! I spit on your valor, I give not a fig for your valor.

DQ: Why should I want a fig?

FP: My Laura’s eyes are like figs, you know. Dry and shriveled and capable of producing a highly edible paste—(frowns)—that simile doesn’t work, does it?

DA: (still clutching at his injured foot) It certainly doesn’t scan, either. Amateur.

FP: It isn’t my fault you wouldn’t recognize good art if it were to drag you through hell.

DA: (affronted) If that is an insinuation against the great Virgil—

DQ: Lady Virgil? I thought it was Lady Beatrice.

FP: Virgil was a heartless bastard. To force Aeneas to leave Dido a suicide, all for the dream of some distant empire which fell to barbarians anyway! How could he have sailed, blown by winds of grief from the course he ought to steer? I could never use my Laura so, even if I were offered a thousand empires. Had Aeneas remained with Dido, perhaps no epic would have been written about him, but he truly would have seen what a virtue love is.

NM: (chortles) I was prepared to simply sit back and observe, as does our dear Montaigne, but this is really too much. Aeneas give up Rome for a woman! The mind boggles.

DA: Perhaps it’s the size of the mind in question that’s the cause.

NM: Flattery will get you nowhere, my dear Dante.

DA: You still have not answered my challenge, heathen. What is the greatest virtue, then, if not love of God?

FP: Or love of one’s beloved?

DQ: (muffled, as in endeavoring to rise he has fallen on his face) Really, I still feel that valor—

FP: No one asked your opinion, Spaniard.

NM: You are all equally correct, which is to say you are all entirely wrong. You operate from the wrong premises. There is no virtue.

(DA and FP gasp, horrified; DQ spasms, his armor rattling)

DA: Good knight, slay this demonspawn.

DQ: Oh dear, my sword seems to have fallen out of reach. Perhaps if you could help me to my feet—

NM: The good Don was almost correct in one thing, at least. I don’t know how good a knight Satan would make, but he’d be a first-rate prince.

DA: A prince of darkness, yes! A prince of villainy, of damnation, of—

NM: Virtue exists insofar as others around the prince believe it to exist. It is necessary that he be prudent enough to understand how to avoid getting a bad name because he is given to those vices that will deprive him of his position, of course, because to be deprived of rule is to fail; but were the virtues he held believed to be vices and the vices believed to be virtues, he would have to reorient his apparent moral compass lest it interfere with his image. Moreover, he should not be troubled if he gets a bad name because of vices without which it will be difficult for him to preserve his position. For the survival of the nation, unity must be achieved; I don’t much care how it is achieved.

DQ: Villain, I would smite you across the head if I had the use of my legs!

NM: Imagine yourself a new pair, why don’t you. Or blast me from across the room with your valor.

DA: Even for you, scoundrel, this is absurd. How is the populace to be kept under control if there is no virtue to guide them?

FP: How should I live without the virtue of my love to sustain me?

DQ: How should I win glory without virtuous deeds to perform?

NM: Hard to worship your beloved God if there are no churches being built for him due to a lack of government donations. Hard to write poetry about your beloved Laura if you both are part of separate, squabbling sub-provinces. Hard to be a knight if you have no lord for whom to fight. Hard to be an essayist (he inclines his head to MM) if . . . well, on second thought, Montaigne, I don’t believe that any circumstances could force you to put down your pen.

FP: Well, here’s a fellow we haven’t asked yet! And it’s said the French are beginning to do truly great things with deduction and science. Surely he’ll know!

DA: I do not think that is such a good idea.

FP: (to MM) My good man, which of us is correct? What is the virtue that rests above all others—(glares at NM)—assuming, of course, that virtue exists in the first place?

MM: I thought you’d never ask.

It seems to me that all of you fellows’ philosophies, each admirable in its own way, operate from the wrong premises. The question is not “What is the chief virtue?” but “What way of life is most conducive to virtue?”

FP: That’s really venturing outside the scope—

MM: (overriding) It is no mistake, good Dante, that your own Virgil wrote: “These manners nature first ordained.” If we would only follow the example of the cannibals in the New World, our society would instantly revert to a primitive stage in which the absolute best in us is allowed to flourish. You, good Machiavelli, claim that virtue must subordinate itself for the good of unity, of order, so that society may be preserved, churches raised, love experienced, knights provided for, etc. I counter that you, along with our poets here, could not imagine a naturalness so pure and simple as we see by experience; nor could you believe that our society could be maintained with so little artifice and human solder.

NM: You’re right, I cannot.

MM: (as if NM has not spoken) It is simply that the windows of your perception are too small! If we were to strip ourselves naked—

DA: Horrors! Damnation!

MM: (see previous descriptions) —and transplant ourselves to the jungles of the New World, how much better off we would be! Never would we grow sick and die, or find ourselves bent in old age. Resources would be plentiful, and with no industry there would be no need to squabble over such things as money or property or women.

In fact, this reminds me of a coach I once rode through the streets of Paris, an experience which left me profoundly sickened. If only I’d not had the opportunity to travel on a coach, I never would have been sick! And if I had not been sick and home abed, who knows what multitude of good deeds I could have performed!

DA: I do not see how this is particularly relevant—

FP: (simultaneously) I would fight for my Laura regardless of whether or not she were considered property—

MM: (overriding) I must emphasize to you all the importance of this. Take boating, for example . . .

Lights fade down over the course of several seconds as MM continues speaking.

Several hours later, the lights fades back in, dimmer. Night has fallen outside the library. DA, NM, and FP have slipped away in pursuit of a more taciturn moderator. MM has not noticed. DQ twitches every so often; he has somehow become trapped beneath a chair. His entangled position has not improved.

MM: . . . and this incident with the squirrels clearly demonstrates the essential frailty of the human condition! It is a perfectly logical progression. Wouldn’t you say so, Machiavelli?

(silence)

MM: . . . Machiavelli?

(silence)

MM: Alas, it seems I have worked myself into a trance and they have vanished. A pity; Francesco in particular would have appreciated my metaphor about the viaduct and the blood libel, I think. (sighs) Well, I must be getting home.

DQ: (faintly) Excuse me, my good man . . .

MM: Good heavens! Is this to say you’ve been lying here all this time?

DQ: Indeed, and I’m not at all sure what will become of my Lady Dulcinea without my lance to protect her from the giants. Or Sancho, for that matter.

MM: My dear fellow, I completely sympathize. This situation reminds me of the meat-vendor who I once encountered while walking down the street on a Tuesday evening . . .

DQ: (to himself, as MM continues to speak) And just think. The entire time the highest virtue was that of cannibalism, and now I’ve no one to tell. I suppose I shall have to start eating my enemies once I’ve dispatched them, in order for my valor to increase. (considering) A giant should make enough to feed the entire castle. I shall have to tell Sancho at once.

(he attempts to rise, groaning, and collapses once more)

DQ: Essayist? Essayist?

Fade to black.

Hope I die before I get old: The Who at 52

1401x788-gettyimages-5136150802016

The entrance to the Target Center. The air reeks of secondhand smoke built up over the decades, even in the absence of any active cigarette-wielders. I stand behind a pillar, hands in my pockets to ensure no one takes my phone or my wallet, occasionally tugging at the neck of my t-shirt. The shirt bears the likenesses of Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon, all in their prime. A sort of monument to days gone by, under the circumstances.

As I wait for Heather, I people-watch. The usual scalpers amble up and down the street, demanding for someone, anyone, to sell them their extra tickets. Security, made up of mingled Target Center officials and actual police officers, makes sure they don’t get too close to us. Every time someone ducks inside the building, I glance in their direction to make sure Heather isn’t slipping in past me by mistake—in five minutes, three girls who can’t be over ten years old pass by and rush inside, which drags a smile out of me.

Just before Heather shows, a very Midwestern man wearing a tractor cap strikes up a conversation with me, asking if I know anyone who needs a free ticket—his buddy, who was supposed to be here, threw his back out yesterday. I decline, but we talk for the next ten minutes anyway. The Who, he tells me, were his very first concert, all the way back in ’82. Even then, in the midst of what was generally considered to be their personal and professional nadir—it would be the year that saw the first of their many farewell tours—they played what he says is still the greatest show he’s ever been to, though he admits the weed he smoked for the first time that night may have influenced his taste. He invites me to share a bowl with him later in the evening, just as Heather shows up. I decline to decline, rather just shake his hand and tell him I hope he enjoys the show.

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I stumble onto “Pinball Wizard” completely by accident. It’s in the “Related Videos” sidebar on YouTube, next to the Green Day song I’m listening to; I have just discovered them, and they’re the first Real Band I’ve ever loved. I’ve heard the name The Who (always in the company of The Beatles and The Stones, those other members of the holy trinity), and maybe I’m curious, or maybe I just want a break from Green Day for a while. Regardless, I click the link.

It’s the 1970 Isle of Wight concert, Pete already growing the beard that would remain with him throughout the next decade, John dressed in a skintight skeleton suit—not that I know their names. “The guitarist”, then, begins strumming a progression, strangely quiet and timid-sounding against the vast crowd. Gradually, though, his tempo increases, the strumming gaining in apparent confidence. I’m mildly enjoying this, I think, but it doesn’t seem particularly similar to Green Day.

Then the bassist strikes his strings, blaring forth a lead-guitar line that has been delegated to him for lack of studio overdubs. Even at fourteen, with next to no musical experience, I know there’s no way that instrument should be playing that loud. This could get interesting.

The singer comes in, his voice ragged and worn but crackling with power, never mind the nonsense lyrics he’s spitting. And then the drummer enters, spraying his sticks all over the place, and I’m thoroughly entertained.

It isn’t a big eureka moment. The heavens don’t open, my world doesn’t change right then and there. But it is a pretty damn good song.

2016

The opening act, a blues-rock band with the dubious name of Slydigs, is thoroughly decent, but they feel perfunctory. Joan Jett was intended to open this concert, but due to Roger’s coming down with a case of viral meningitis the band had to postpone the date to seven months later than planned. Losing an artist of her stature and instead recruiting a bunch of (comparative) nobodies seems like it could be a bad omen.

After all, it’s not as if the band hasn’t had bad tours before. From 1967 to 1978 they wore the title of Greatest Live Band in the World, bestowed upon them by critics and fans alike, as a badge of honor, but even toward the end of that run Keith Moon’s deteriorating health resulted in occasionally erratic evenings. After Keith’s death came a demoralized and unhealthy few years; Kenny Jones should have been a perfectly serviceable replacement, but replacing Keith with someone perfectly serviceable was a disastrously wrong approach. And then, the reunion tours. The 1980s saw the tenure of a bloated, embarrassing incarnation of The Who; brass bands and far too many backing musicians took all that gave the band their fire and crushed it. Sure, they’ve recovered from that black hole, but they’re old now. Who knows? What if it’s not good? What if it disappoints you?

Slydigs takes their leave, and half an hour passes. Heather and I talk, and browse on our phones, and wait. The crowd, relatively thin during the opener, swells until empty seats are nearly invisible. The giant screen behind the stage plays a slideshow of Who history. The lights remain stubbornly bright.

Finally, the Target Center is plunged into near-darkness. Figures start making their way onstage, lit by spotlights, but from this distance it’s hard to tell who’s who. Do I cheer yet? Is that Pete or a backing member? It looks like Pete, but I know his brother is on guitar as well…

Then, an explosion. I’ve been told they open every show of this tour with “I Can’t Explain”, so “Who Are You” takes me entirely by surprise. The synths shake the house, Zak Starkey’s drums rattle in my teeth, and then one of the old men on stage leans toward his mic. High backing vocals come in. Who are you, hoo hoo, hoo hoo.

I grin. It’s Pete, all right.

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I mention to my youth pastor, Nick, that I listened to a Who song I liked pretty okay the other day. “Dude,” he says, “check out ‘Teenage Wasteland’.”

On YouTube, again. It takes me a few minutes of searching to find what I’m looking for, but eventually I realize that calling “Baba O’Riley” by “Teenage Wasteland” is a mistake that’s existed since the song was first played in 1971. That settled, I open one of the thousands of uploads of the song and hit “play”.

The opening synth line will never be anything but magical. Pete commented on that in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, in a decidedly more sentimental mood than is usual for the old cynic:

One of our best songs is “Baba O’Riley.” I spent three or four weeks in the studio cutting bits of tape up of this synthesizer-y, synth-processed organ, turning it into what felt like a replication of the electronic music of the future. When I took the tape to Glyn Johns, who was one of the finest sonic engineers at the time, he said, “Pete, we can’t improve on this, it’s fantastic.”

The guitar doesn’t come in until about maybe two and a half minutes into the song. So when I’m onstage with the Who, out comes the recording that I made in my home studio. There is this moment of standing there just listening to this music and looking out to the audience and just thinking, “I fucking did that. I wrote that.”

Everything about the song is perfect. The echoing crash of the piano chords coming down over the liquid synth riff, Roger’s roaring, defiant voice contrasting with Pete’s soft, high, wistful one, the entire band accelerating to a frenzy as Nick Arbus plays his violin for all it’s worth in the jam-session coda. Listening to it, I can’t believe it’s the same band. That’s not to say that “Pinball Wizard” was incredibly inferior to “Baba O’Riley”, just that the latter is so different. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before.

From there, I find another song. And another. And I’m hooked.

2016

The band is certainly bigger than the four-person juggernaut that existed prior to the death of Keith Moon—in addition to drums, bass, Pete’s guitar, and Roger’s vocals, there’s an additional guitarist (Pete’s brother Simon) and three keyboardists. But the song isn’t horribly bloated, swollen with horns and strings and god knows what else, like in the 80s. The band sounds lean, powerful. And loud.

Roger’s voice is audibly deeper, more strained—an old man’s voice—but he’s learned how to use it. Pete’s guitar playing is as fluid as ever, and halfway through the song he throws a windmill like the old days and the whole place cheers. I was worried that when this moment came it would feel cheap, as if we were applauding for a fragment of past glory, but this feels right. This feels real.

They transition to “The Seeker”, and then Roger says a few words about how great it is to be in Minneapolis again. He jokes that the hotel windows still won’t open, and Pete, acerbic as ever, grumbles that it’s probably so some twisted old fuck wouldn’t throw himself out the window.

The next few songs are all from their pop singles days in the ’60s. “My Generation” is the only one that falls a little flat. Pino Palladino’s competent bass playing can’t hide the fact that it’s not John Entwistle playing that thunderous bass solo—indeed, it’s hard to even hear it, where Thunderfingers would’ve had it blasting louder than anything else in the hall. And the inescapable irony of a 72-year-old man growling that he hopes he dies before he gets old is ever-present. But they rescue it—at the end of the number Roger smiles sheepishly and says, “My generation. What happened?! We failed!”

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Keith Moon is the first person to really make me sit back and pay attention to a single instrument’s part in a song. There are no superlatives I can add here that haven’t already been used elsewhere a thousand times; he claimed he trained himself to play the drums by listening to guitar riffs rather than other drummers, and no one else has said it better. He is the lead instrument in nearly every great Who song; everyone else simply follows him. John Bonham’s rock-solid beat is often rated the more impressive of the two, but while Bonham has probably influenced more drummers, no single drummer is more distinctive or more exciting to listen to than Keith.

John Entwistle is the first person to demonstrate to me why the bassist matters. It’s easy not to notice his playing in much of the group’s studio stuff—he always complained about being too low in the mix, and on Tommy especially it’s a crime against humanity that he’s practically inaudible—but once your ear picks up on it it’s impossible to unhear. Melodic, nimble, eccentric, a complete contrast to the man onstage. And live, it’s the sound of a rampaging locomotive, matching Pete’s guitar for power and volume.

Roger is a paradox—the frontman who’s almost always overlooked in discussions of the band due to his proximity to three of the greatest rock musicians ever to play. But the sheer fire in his voice, especially in the band’s recordings of ’71-’73, can take your breath away. In a sense, he could be seen as the most easily replaceable of the band, but thank god we never had to come to that point.

Pete is their greatest strength and their weakest link. His ambition in songwriting reaches dizzying heights at its best and comes off as pompous and affected at its worst. His introspection is incredibly powerful, or incredibly navel-gazing, depending on the album. His spiritual ideals can be quietly beautiful, as in “Bargain”, or nonsensical and pseudo-profound, as in most of Tommy. There’s no question, even with the bad days considered, that he’s one of the four or five greatest songwriters of all time. And while everyone praises his guitar playing primarily for his rhythm, he’s one of the criminally underrated great lead guitarists.

Put them all together, and you get a four-man army. Listening to Live at Leeds, you would believe that they were all possessed by the devil.

2016

One of my biggest worries going in to the concert was that it would be a mere greatest hits rehash with no real personality. The setlist is indeed mostly comprised of singles, but the band refuses to let it turn into a re-run of past glories. “My Generation” ends with an extended jam session, Pete’s windmills morphing from a perfunctory whirl every now and then to really meaning it. And after his solo rendition of “I’m One”, the band launches into a blistering rendition of “The Rock” from Quadrophenia that ascends and ascends in scope. The screen behind them hints at Pete’s more unfortunate pretensions—a montage of world events up to and including 9/11 scrolls across the background, and I’m not at all sure how an instrumental about a teenage boy fleeing to the sea is supposed to relate to such global events—but it doesn’t matter, the guitar playing overwhelms it. The jam is similar to the studio version, but it’s not a note-for-note copy; all the musicians are improvising, Pete flailing away at his guitar and Zak Starkey pounding for all he’s worth. And then we transition to “Love, Reign o’er Me”, and Roger stuns us all by screaming the final chorus as if he’s young again, and all is right with the world.

The mini-Quadrophenia set gives way to “Eminence Front”, and then the inevitable Tommy run begins. “Sparks”, as ever, is ferocious, barely controlled chaos. “Pinball Wizard” is great fun.

And then the lights go down, and Roger begs us “See Me, Feel Me”. There’s a group of teenagers directly in front of me and Heather, and one of them has her arms raised to the sky, in the grip of seeming religious mania. The moment is pure Tommy, a sort of over-the-top pseudo-spirituality that’s completely absurd, but I think back to all the teenagers who did the exact same thing in front of this group in 1969 and all of a sudden I’m almost choked up.

2011

First Baptist School does not like rock music. Thinks it’s literally of the devil, in fact. I’m one of the lucky students; my parents have no rules about the stuff at home, and my mother is quite fond of The Who herself, so I’m in the clear. But nevertheless attending school there makes me love the band in a new way. There are people out there who would love to kill their art, who have had rock music burnings in the past, and that makes the music so much more important to me.

One day, apropos of nothing, one of the sophomore students asks me how many Beatles albums I have. Not many, I reply, Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul and that’s it. She asks if I’d like to borrow the rest of them and burn them to my computer, and I accept. At the time I’ve no idea just how cool this makes her, a.) because The Beatles are virtually tied with The Who in terms of The Greatest Thing Ever, b.) because her father is not someone who takes kindly to rock music, and so in addition to smuggling the CDs into First Baptist she’s been hiding them in her closet as well.

I want to return the favor, and so I find some discs and burn as much Who stuff as I can onto them. I ignore everything past Keith Moon’s death save The Kids Are Alright, and there are other sacrifices I have to make. “Drowned” is slashed from Quadrophenia simply so it can all fit on one disc. The Who By Numbers and Who Are You have to share one. And most of the albums aren’t proper recordings either, but mp3 rips of YouTube videos; the idea of simply borrowing the CDs from the library hasn’t occurred to me at this point in time. In a way, that makes it more special, for me at least—the albums are homemade patchworks constructed with the help of other music fans, and there’s something charming about the shitty quality; it’s the equivalent of watching a bootleg concert on VHS. (This is largely nostalgia talking; I wouldn’t trade in my proper Who albums for those YouTube rips for anything these days.)

Thus, inauspiciously, begins a friendship that continues all the way to this stage, five years later. I’d say we turned out okay.

2016

Throughout the show, Pete has been in a better mood than usual, smiling and cracking jokes and being generally expansive. Before the final run, he looks into the audience and says, “You know, we’re really far too fucking old to be doing this. And most of you are far too fucking young! Shouldn’t you be listening to—” he drops his voice— “Justin Bieber or something?”

The boos are immediate, and he smirks. “Oh, he’s not that bad. ‘No, Pete, no, I’m informed, I know all about good rock music!’ No you fucking don’t.”

There’s a deluge of laughter, and he himself chortles, but I almost hope he’s genuinely mocking us. It’d be perfectly in character.

“Baba O’Riley” is—well, there’s not much I can say. It’s transcendent, always will be. I almost tear up again here, because when Pete comes in on his guitar I’m reminded of another quote from his recent Rolling Stone interview:

It plays, and then I deliver myself this amazing moment of being able to play this guitar. You talk about it as though it’s a song from CSI [laughs]. For me, the interesting thing is that it’s entirely mine — much more mine than anybody else’s.

I just hope that on my deathbed I don’t embarrass myself by asking someone, “Can you pass me my guitar? And will you run the backing tape of ‘Baba O’Riley’? I just want to do it one more time.”

I find myself wondering how far off that day is, and am so grateful I got to see this, the last chance I’ll probably ever get.

Two full hours have passed, and all of us know the evening is drawing to a close. When “Won’t Get Fooled Again” starts up, I’m excited but a little crestfallen—what about “I Can’t Explain”? “Slip Kid”? “5:15”? “Magic Bus”? There are still so many left to do!

But the subsequent ten minutes are absolutely stunning—this rendition of the song is fiercer, harder, louder than anything else they’ve done this evening—and when Roger nails the final scream everyone roars.

* * * *

the_who_umgIn a 1980 interview with Greil Marcus, Pete commented on the future of his band.

But always, always, there is a very, very strong grab—a deep, instant grab—which lasts… forever. It’s not like a fad. People who get into The Who when they’re thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, never stop being fans. The Who don’t necessarily captivate the whole teenage generation—as each batch comes up every year—but we certainly hit a percentage of them, and we hold them.

There have been greater artists than The Who. My favorite album is not Who’s Next but Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator), and just below that is Abbey Road. And it’s true that what I watched that night was really only half a band, albeit with very competent replacements for missing faces. And yes, songs like “My Generation” and “Pictures of Lily” just can’t be sung by old men and keep their power.

But all that fell away that night. Even if the show hadn’t been the best concert I’ve personally been to—and it was—it would still be the most powerful.

In 2010, at the age of fourteen, I discovered The Who by watching a video of a live performance recorded forty years prior. They inspired me to get into music the exact same way they inspired countless teenagers in the 1960s and the 1970s. I met one of my absolute best friends by passing their music back and forth, the same thing fans would do with bootlegs decades before I was born. And a few nights ago, I and thousands of others sang every word along with Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend just like they did at Leeds, or Hull, or the Isle of Wight, or Woodstock. There aren’t words for that.

I expected to be overcome with a feeling of awe or magic when I saw Roger and Pete take the stage. Instead, there was a wonderful sort of familiar delight: “Oh, look, it’s Pete! Hey there!” Because the band aren’t gods to me in some great towering sense. They’re better than that. Through reading their interviews, and watching them perform, and learning about them in books and websites and documentaries, and most important listening to their music over and over and over again, they’ve come to be more familiar to me than many people in my personal life. They’re my friends in a very true sense. Of course if I were to encounter Pete Townshend on the street I wouldn’t be able to do anything but babble, and he’d probably tell me to fuck off and go back to whatever it is he’d be doing. But on that stage, he was someone I’d known for years and years.

In several years, Pete and Roger will both be dead. But their music will endure and will change lives, just as it still does more than fifty years after “I Can’t Explain” first hit the record stores. And I’ll be able to say that, for just one night, I took part in the mythos that’s built up around them. I am an infinitesimal part of the history of my favorite band. That’s all a music fan can ever really ask for.

Those crunching noises pervading the air (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

mrs-lovett-s-meat-pies-sweeney-todd-27715526-457-700Meat. There’s something off-putting about the word, even in isolation. Even for those of us whose diet consists largely of that fibrous, succulent substance, the monosyllable carries with it a faint connotation of revulsion. It bears a host of sensory associations: the dull thud of a freshly-cut hunk of flesh connecting with the butcher’s table. The smell of burning fat. The unyielding, spongy texture, the feeling of resistance to being ground apart by our teeth.

What’s even worse is when the word is juxtaposed with connotations of consciousness. Human meat. Meat-puppets. The meat of the brain. And so on and so forth. Shivers.

The realization that all we ultimately are is thinking meat, a mass of living tissue that just happened to stumble upon consciousness or the illusion of consciousness, is an intensely disquieting one. (Indeed, horror author Thomas Ligotti went so far as to base a book upon the subject; those of you who see the phrase “thinking meat” and feel the urge to read on, I encourage you to buy The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror.) So disquieting, in fact, that only one of our resident killers really addresses it in his myth. Sweeney Todd uses the political as a way of shifting the horror of cannibalism up a level—in its universe, the horrific thing is that humans have made other humans into meat due to the nature of the society in which they find themselves trapped. American Psycho is more willing to address the fact that humanity is nothing but a bundle of reactions and routines rather than a unified self, but again passes this off on a societal cause. In the world of Hannibal, however, the horror is philosophical—we are all thinking meat, and we are all on the menu.

* * * * *

For what’s the sound of the world out there? Those crunching noises pervading the air? It’s man devouring man, my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?

spring_gala_sweeney_invite-9-25x5-75-v51The cannibalistic orgy that forms the second act of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street begins as a nihilst’s alternative to Marxism. Todd, in his initial attempt to murder Judge Turpin, is a one-man proletariat rising up against a microcosm of the bourgeoisie, wreaking just revenge for the indignities and injustices wrought upon him. Even once the mark has escaped and the barber’s “Epiphany” has begun, he phrases his outpourings in Marxist language:

They all deserve to die,

Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why?

Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett,

There are two kinds of men and only two—

There’s the one staying put in his proper place

And the one with his foot in the other one’s face,

Look at me, Mrs. Lovett, look at you!

At this moment, the framing of Burton’s film adaptation is particularly interesting. Todd, as the final lines of this verse are sung, stares at himself in a shattered mirror, smiles, and then turns on his heel, catching Mrs. Lovett’s eye. He has seen something in his own image, and it’s sparked a change in his thinking:

No, we all deserve to die,

Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I!

Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief,

For the rest of us death will be a relief,

We all deserve to die!

The third-person “they” has become the first-person “we”, and in a rhetorical flourish not present in the 1979 cast recording—Sondheim, who originally simply repeated “Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why,” had altered the lyric by the time of the 2005 Broadway revival, and the change remains in the film—Todd numbers himself and his companion among the damned. In the film, he goes so far as to seize her throat, thrust her into his barber’s chair, and bring his razor to her neck.

Looking into his own reflection has given Todd his true epiphany, though it’s one that his Benjamin Barker person-suit tries to shove down throughout the rest of Act II: he is beyond repair, the jagged fragments of his glass-face reflecting the irredeemable pieces of his soul. In a world where so much damage has been inflicted upon the lower classes by the upper class, there is no such thing as a chance at redemption, a rising of the proletariat and an abolition of injustice. All he can hope to achieve is to drag his oppressors screaming into hell along with him, putting his fellow sufferers out of their misery on the way.

It’s immediately after this that the central metaphor of Sondheim’s incarnation of Todd makes its appearance: hide the evidence of Todd’s various revenges and mercy killings by grinding them into Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies. Notably, it’s not Todd who has the idea, but Lovett herself. She’s the businessperson of the two, the practical mind that brings Todd’s grand schemes down to earth; she’s also, despite her suffering condition, a cog in the vast mechanical beast that is Industry, a victim who is unable to escape turning to her oppressors’ methods in order to survive. Thus it’s an avatar of capitalism, lower class notwithstanding, who spawns the notion of a very literal symbol for society’s horror: humans ground from thinking beings into meat, providing sustenance for the humans who will themselves undergo the same process. Only this time, it will be the poor rather than the privileged who dictate who gets eaten when.

Magnanimously, Todd and Lovett conclude the jewel of black comedy that is “A Little Priest”, a grocery list of sorts that covers the various professions the pie shop will prepare, with these lines:

Todd: Have charity toward the world, my pet!

Lovett: Yes, yes, I know, my love!

Todd: We’ll take the customers that we can get!

Lovett: Highborn and low, my love!

Todd: We’ll not discriminate great from small,

No, we’ll serve anyone, meaning anyone,

And to anyone at all!

Equal-opportunity cannibalism. Rich and poor alike will be butchered, rich and poor alike will eat.

However, Mrs. Lovett isn’t on board with Todd’s nihilistic vision. In many ways, she’s the ultimate villain of the play. Rather than bringing down the upper class, she dreams of joining it, regaling the barber with her visions of the two of them living well-to-do in a cottage by the sea and having rich friends over for dinner. Chopping up the rich and poor alike is not a way for her to prove some ideological point; it’s a means of advancement, a way for her to rise from the ranks of the lower classes and replace the members of the upper class with whom she and Todd dispose. She’s representative of the self-perpetuating lie of what we would call the American Dream were the play to take place on Yankee soil; there are no poor, merely temporarily embarrassed millionaires, as the quote attributed to Steinbeck goes. Mrs. Lovett sees all the oppression and suffering wrought upon the poor by an unjust system, and rather than bringing the system down by any means necessary merely wishes to advance far enough up its ladder that she can’t be hurt by it anymore. Fittingly, she suffers perhaps the ultimate poetic death of the musical—burned to death, a shrieking pile of raw sinew and bone, by her own oven.

As horrific as Sondheim’s vision of industrial hell is, it doesn’t descend to the posthumanist depths that Hannibal takes us to. Nowhere does it attempt to grapple with the philosophical question of whether human beings are actually thinking meat, fit for the grinder even in our most idyllic state. Rather, it presents us with a universe in which the reduction of humanity to stuffing for a greasy crust is exactly what it seems like: conscious intelligences being ground into flesh and sinew by the injustices of an industrial, class-based society. The horror is that selves are becoming nothing but the flesh they inhabit, not that there never were any selves to begin with. American Psycho takes us one step further: we have become soulless bags of meat, but societal causes are still to blame.

(to be continued)

Person suits (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

5278ee98-a27a-4cd1-83a0-9118c7521324One of the more striking book covers of the last twenty-five years is the original Vintage paperback of American Psycho. It depicts a Patrick Bateman who’s a nightmarish fusion of man and object, his suit-clad body and pointed chin fused with a skull-socketed mask that brings to mind Jason and Leatherface and a thousand other bad dreams. One wonders, reading the novel, if Bateman in fact looks like this demon, but has his appearance ignored just as his frequent confessions of his depravity go unnoticed.

Bedelia du Maurier, in season two of Hannibal, tells the good doctor: “I’ve had to draw a conclusion based on what I glimpse through the stitching of the person-suit that you wear, and the conclusion that I’ve drawn is that you are dangerous.” Whether an intentional reference to the above cover art or not, the phrase encapsulates a concept in much the same way: like the Thing or the Body Snatchers, the serial killer may be able to perfectly imitate us, but he is alien.

In keeping with their different drives and social climates, each of our killers wears a very different kind of person suit. Sweeney Todd’s is woven largely for his own benefit rather than outsiders’, and is little concerned with appearances. Patrick Bateman’s is a poorly constructed patchwork of trends, all surface and possessed of only the barest hints of humanity. Hannibal Lecter’s is ultimately not so different from his true self, a tightly stitched melding of aesthetic, moral, and philosophical concerns that is an echo of the Platonic ideal of the good doctor.

sweeney-todd-broadway-poster-1979“Not Barker. That man is dead.”

The one great mistake of Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was the prettification of its characters. In the musical’s original stage production, the only beautiful people in sight are the doomed lovers Anthony and Johanna, whose purity both outer and inner is brutally shown for the joke it is as events run their course. Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, by contrast, are depicted on the play’s promotional art as shrieking messes of skull and gristle. In the show itself, Len Cariou and George Hearn’s Sweeney is rendered a death’s head by liberal application of white foundation to his cheeks and dark raccoon’s bruises around his eyes. Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett bears a similar, almost repulsive mottling of black and white, along with smeared red lipstick and a bizarre hairstyle. Lansbury can be said to appear pretty outside of this makeup, but Cariou and Hearn, if not ugly, are neither handsome. These incarnations of Todd and Lovett are faithful to the world that has twisted their souls and spurred their misdeeds; they’re the product of the filth and squalor that infested industrial London, and if Mrs. Lovett at least dreams of one day living beautifully, Todd has given up any similar wish.

There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit,

And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit,

And the vermin of the world inhabit it

he sings on more than one occasion, and he does not separate himself from the vermin that populate this London. He does not hope to rise above them, only to become their avenging angel.

sweeney-todd-and-mrs-lovett-sweeney-todd-28458970-1916-1080Burton’s film, while otherwise highly successful in its depiction of the industrial hell that plays host to Sondheim’s melodrama, is hamstrung from the start by the fact that the film’s chief players, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, are extraordinarily beautiful people. With the right application of makeup, this beauty could be hidden—witness Depp’s transformation into the fishbelly-tinged Whitey Bulger in last year’s Black Mass—but instead, Burton chooses to simply dress them in the Gothic chic trappings that are the hallmark of his visual style. Thus, while his Todd and Lovett bear the same high-contrast light and dark makeup as their stage counterparts, accentuated by the desaturation applied to the film’s image via digital intermediate, it is not makeup designed to render faces squalid but to accentuate eyes and cheekbones. Their clothing, as opposed to the spartan, frayed dress of the stage Todd and Lovett, seems far too, well, cool to be attached to a pair of miserable citydwellers. Depp’s Todd bears a streak of white through his hair, presumably due to the hardship of his time in prison, but the streak is so sharp-edged, so pure white rather than yellowed and greasy, that it looks more like a fashion statement than an affliction.

Thus Burton’s Todd, like Bateman and Lecter, wears an aesthetic person suit in addition to a moral one, while the Todd of 1979 has no such outer concerns. It is this moral person suit that is the core of Todd, and it is the thing that does the most to render him separate from his counterparts. Bateman and Lecter have spun person suits out of whole cloth; there is never to our knowledge a time when they were not wholly other from the rest of humanity. Todd, in sharp contrast, was a person while he bore the name Benjamin Barker, and while he has already cast that name aside by the time the play begins, he has kept its motivations.

Todd does not, to start with, kill for its own sake, at least to his own mind; his Barker-self provides a rational justification for each of his initially planned murders. He plans to murder Judge Turpin to exact justice for Barker’s false imprisonment, his wife’s rape and suicide, and his child’s abduction. He slits the throat of Adolfo Pirelli because the barber knows of Barker’s identity. Mrs. Lovett urges him to kill Anthony in order that Barker may be reunited with his daughter Johanna after all these years, with no other men around to interfere. Thus we see that, again unlike Bateman and Lecter, Todd does not wear his person suit primarily to keep up appearances. He wears it in order to lie to himself, to convince himself that he is still a human being operating in a moral or at least pragmatic fashion.

Even after he snaps in the midst of “Epiphany”, beginning an indiscriminate crusade of slaughter against the wicked and the downtrodden alike, Todd continues to retreat to his person suit. “The lives of the wicked should be made brief/for the rest of us death will be a relief” he tells Mrs. Lovett, attempting to lend his increasing bloodlust a moral framework, but even as he insists on this his Barker-self unravels. As he slits the throats of customers and sings to Johanna, he realizes his burning desire to free her has slipped away:

And though I’ll think of you, I guess, until the day I die,

I think I miss you less and less as every day goes by, Johanna.

And you’d be beautiful and pale and look too much like her [. . .]

Wake up, Johanna, another bright red day!

We learn, Johanna, to say good-bye.

And when Mrs. Lovett asks him what his wife Lucy looked like, he can remember nothing more than her yellow hair.

By the time that Turpin arrives at the Tonsorial Parlour for the final time, Todd’s self-justifying person suit has been completely dropped. He shrieks the name of Benjamin Barker as he rips open the judge’s throat, but this comes after he has deliberately put Johanna in harm’s way in order to lure Turpin to his door. By the time the final sequence comes to its close, Todd has accidentally murdered Lucy and nearly done the same to Johanna, his words to the latter symbolic of the final destruction of Benjamin Barker: “Forget my face.”

One is tempted to place Todd in a separate category altogether from his counterparts due to the nature of his person suit. One of the defining characteristics that Patrick Bateman and Hannibal Lecter have in common is their self-awareness; Bateman knows and despises exactly what he is, while Hannibal knows it and revels in it. Their person suits are purely for the benefit of the world, a means of convincing the lesser beings who surround them that they share a common humanity. Todd, on the other hand, bears a profound lack of self-awareness. Over and over throughout the musical, speaking to himself or to Mrs. Lovett, he puts on his Barker-self in order to convince himself that he is still human, though what that humanity entails besides revenge isn’t something that seems to have occurred to him. His person suit is stitched in order to hide himself from himself, not from the suspicious masses. In this, while he ultimately does lose his humanity to the “precious rubies” of blood upon his razor, he can nevertheless be labeled the most human of this triptych.

a-complete-guide-to-the-mens-fashion-in-american-psychoA noncontingent human being

Where Sweeney Todd, Burton’s beautification of the character notwithstanding, can be seen as wearing a purely moral person suit, Patrick Bateman’s is an almost purely aesthetic one. Aesthetic, in this case, is perhaps not the right word. Where Hannibal does nearly everything he does out of a commitment to beauty for beauty’s sake, Bateman follows trends, weaving into his person suit not what he considers beautiful but what he knows his colleagues will consider stylish. Indeed, it’s questionable if Bateman even has a sense of aesthetics—this is a topic that will be discussed in depth later on in this series, but it’s worth noting even now that the only points in American Psycho at which he ever gives his considered opinion about a work of art are the three post-murder interludes in which he reviews the careers of Genesis, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News. And even there, were Bateman’s opinions on each of these musical acts not so wildly wrongheaded I would wonder if Ellis simply stripped sections from music publications’ reviews and pasted them together into a collage to write these sections.

This slavish adherence to trends and brands as a substitute for aesthetic taste is most clearly seen in the endless deadening monologues that Bateman devotes to narrating the clothing choices of himself and his colleagues. The fashion-casual reader won’t be able to visualize in his or her head what, exactly, any of the numerous brands looks like, but informed readers tell us, and I will defer to their knowledge, that Ellis’ slavishly detailed ensembles are deliberately conceived to look as ridiculous as possible. There is no better representation of how Bateman forms his outer self—not through a coherent philosophy or taste, but simply by popular demand. Were he to have been born to a member of the lower classes, his person suit would probably have been forced to depend less on possessions, but the results of whatever he turned to instead would be largely the same fragmented jumble.

There appears to be no moral aspect to Bateman’s camouflage. His secretary, Jean, bewilders him toward the novel’s close by commenting on his kindness and gentleness, but she’s so infatuated with her boss that it’s very likely that she’s completely imagined any displays of these characteristics; we certainly never see Bateman demonstrate them toward her in the text. Indeed, it’s part of the horror of American Psycho that Bateman doesn’t need a moral person suit—in their own way, his colleagues and contemporaries are all just as empty and soulless as he is, his confessions to murders and executions misheard as “mergers and acquisitions” and his public misdeeds hailed as riotous jokes. Bateman’s own recognition of this utter lack of inner or outer moral coherence is worth quoting at length:

There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy, and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My consciousness, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever existed. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused, and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed.

Much like his literal suits, Bateman’s person suit is a patchwork, incoherent and paper-thin. The true nightmare of his world is that he isn’t special in this regard—everyone is dressed in precisely the same fashion.

giphyIn his image

There is a unity of self to Hannibal Lecter that stands at complete odds with the fragmented, illusory nature of Patrick Bateman’s identity (though there’s room for both of them in the world of Hannibal—Lecter strongly considers himself to be a unified being, but then he also considers himself superhuman; were he aware of American Psycho he would say Bateman can’t grasp his self because, being merely human, he really doesn’t have one). This applies even to the false self he wears to fool the world. His person suit is not so much a secret identity as a lesser identity; Hannibal is his person suit, only moreso.

It is worth noting that Hannibal almost never passes moral judgment on anyone while in the guise of his person suit, even the killers whom he and Will help the FBI to catch. It would be easy to do so—a few comments here and there about the brutality and evil of the minds that could wreak such depravities on the world—but Hannibal is too honest about himself and his worldview, even in a time of hiding, to allow himself such an easy way into the FBI’s good graces. Rather, he actively risks exposing his lack of humanity almost constantly, commenting on his fellow killers and their victims in ways that are morally disinterested to the point of callousness. “I’m your friend, Will,” he says at one point. “I don’t care about the lives you save; I care about your life.”

This line brings up another way in which Hannibal’s person suit is a reflection of his true self: he does not lie when he says he cares. Hannibal is a psychiatrist. As Phil Sandifer has pointed out in the past, this detail is of no major import in Thomas Harris’ original novels—the author simply needed a convincing excuse to give Hannibal an uncanny sense for human behavior in order for him to assist Will and Clarice in their manhunts. In Hannibal, however, it’s one of the absolute defining traits of his character. There are those humans who are too beneath the good doctor to warrant attention; they are pigs, and they will end up at his table. But then there are those like Will, or Francis Dolarhyde, or Margot Verger, people whom Hannibal genuinely wants to see become their best selves. He cannot openly admit, whilst wearing his person suit, what he considers these best selves to be, but his compassion for certain friends and patients is not simply manufactured. It is part of who he is.

Aesthetics are the chief concern of both Hannibal the man and Hannibal the person suit. It could not be any other way. There is no way for him to hide this aspect of his personality; his taste for human flesh is simply part of his devotion to beauty, but his devotion to beauty makes up the whole of his life. However, this near-sameness between Hannibal’s outward self and the self of the Chesapeake Ripper does not mean that he becomes easier to identify. Indeed, if anything his being so blatantly obsessed with beauty in clothing, in art, in food, in decor, is a stroke of genius; it is the ultimate obfuscation. It does not occur to the majority of human minds that consuming human flesh, making sculptures and paintings out of the leftover meat, could be anything but ugly. Hannibal is so cultured within the “normal” portion of his aesthetic taste that, to most minds, it would be unimaginable to extend that taste to something that appears to be the antithesis of beauty. Of course, the closer one gets to Hannibal, the more likely one is to begin to appreciate the aesthetics of the perverse, but once one’s fallen under the good doctor’s influence it really won’t matter if his person suit is seen through, as evidenced so chillingly in the case of Bedelia du Maurier.

Hannibal does change once he’s forced to strip his person suit from his body. The captured Hannibal of the Great Red Dragon arc is more obviously contemptuous of those he considers beneath him, openly gleeful about other killers’ atrocities rather than bearing a guise of professional curiosity. But while these changes are noticeable, nothing about his essential being has been transformed by the revelation of his true self. Where Sweeney Todd finds his self slowly disintegrating, and Patrick Bateman has never truly had one behind his person suit, Hannibal has always been himself, merely to greater or lesser degrees.

(to be continued)

A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych (introduction)

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If there is an archetype wholly original to the 20th and now 21st centuries (if anything can ever claim to be wholly original), it’s that of the sympathetic serial killer. The serial killer himself (and occasionally herself) has existed in the popular imagination since time immemorial in the supernatural forms of bloodthirsty spirits or monsters or witches, and in human form for the last several hundred years at least. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that serial killer chic truly clawed its way into the public consciousness. It hasn’t shown any signs of leaving since.

Serial killers are attractive, even if we claim their deeds are not (and in the cases of particularly compelling killers, even that moral caveat tends to grow thinner and thinner). With some comes the allure of the sensual—they’re suave, they’re beautiful, they’re cultured, as if nature has decided it must compensate for these outer dwellers’ deficiency of manners in that one vital area by granting them impeccable taste elsewhere. With others comes the allure of understanding—we are attracted to them because we think we know their plight and their emotions, because we view these killers themselves as victims of larger forces, the great black hand of Social Injustice or Abusive Parents or Past Trauma forcing them to walk a presdestinate path of mayhem.

And there’s a subtler, ultimately more primal and powerful force at work behind each of these variants on a theme, the same force that’s at work in any piece of art but especially the art of the fantastic and the horrific. We’re attracted to these killers because we are, in a sense, the killers. Each serial murderer represents at some level the anxieties of his (or her) age, the demons and discontents and deadly flaws made manifest in a wash of crimson fluid. The artistic serial killer is society writ large, the avatar of what we wish to do but cannot find the strength to carry out or of what we do not wish to do but are too weak to avoid. The metaphors of mutilated bodies and the perverse consumption of flesh are, for their sheer visceral power, perhaps the best way we have of expressing the effects of society upon our art and upon ourselves. Just ask Christ.

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It’s always a loser’s game to declare anything The Most or The Best and so on and so forth, but it’s undeniable that, of the multitude of murderers the past century’s art has given us, three of the most compelling and widely known are Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter  (and yes, I’m aware that the former has actually been around since the mid-19th century; I’m coming to that). The members of this triptych are fairly representative of the serial killer archetype’s numerous facets, each formed under wildly different sorts of pressures and operating for unique personal and societal reasons. And each of these facets is in turn made up of further facets, different portrayals and interpretations ranging, in at least one case, across the centuries.

  • Sweeney Todd has been the antagonist and dubious protagonist of penny dreadful novels, black-and-white horror films, comics, and stage plays since 1846; the most famous of his selves, the face I’ll be devoting the most attention to over the course of this series, is the one forged by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim in his 1979 magnum opus of musical theatre, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and its 2007 film adaptation by Tim Burton.
  • Patrick Bateman has been the subject of a novel, a film, and a stage musical; these variants are closer together in spirit and theme than the veritable sea of demon barbers, but I’ll still be focusing largely on a single one of them, the original Bateman of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho.
  • And the good Dr. Hannibal Lecter, himself a patron of the arts, has been featured in four novels, five films, a television series, and a fan parody musical. Of these, Anthony Hopkins’ take on the character in the film version of The Silence of the Lambs is the most immediately compelling and certainly the most famous, and has the distinction of having influenced most serial killers on the screen since its 1991 release date. However, it’s neither this famous depiction nor Thomas Harris’ literary creation that is the most fulfilling portrait of Lecter. Rather, it’s Hannibal‘s Bryan Fuller-penned and Mads Mikkelsen-performed incarnation of the Doctor, in all his alien glory, that I’ll be examining throughout the course of this series.

Each of the killers is of a piece with his brothers in at least one notable way. Both Sweeney Todd and Patrick Bateman are themselves victims as much as their hapless targets. Bateman and Lecter are both responsible for increasingly intricate murder tableaux as a means of fulfillment. Both Lecter and Todd are obsessed at some level with the idea of a hungry deity. Lecter ultimately stands apart from his companions in depravity for a number of reasons which will be explored, but each of the three can be seen as a stage in a progression.

Todd represents the violence of justice run amok. Bateman represents violence as a means of escape. Lecter represents violence for its own sake, or for the sake of aesthetics—two alternatives which, as Oscar Wilde so memorably points out in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, are largely the same thing.

And each of the three can be seen as society’s diagnosing its own ills, whether the ill is classism, capitalism, or posthumanism.

If we can be so bold as to even slap such labels on the problem. It is perhaps the supreme horror of Hannibal Lecter that he maintains no such diagnosis will ever solve the ultimate problem.

Nothing happened to me.

I happened.

(to be continued)

I see everything: “10 Cloverfield Lane” review

10c_oversized-1-sht_imax-700x1020 ✦ ½ of five

Cloverfield is perhaps the ur-example of a wonderful idea executed in disappointing fashion. There have been few movie concepts as immediately compelling as “Blair Witch during a kaiju attack”, and the movie gets a lot of mileage from that phrase, but in the end its characters and acting fall short, and both its beginning and ending shouldn’t be part of the story it’s telling. Couple this with the fact that we’re never given a proper justification for why the hell the cameraman is lugging around a heavy rig to film the chaos surrounding him and it’s a movie that, while effective, is ultimately unsuccessful.

The out-of-nowhere spin-off (or not) 10 Cloverfield Lane, by contrast, presents us with nearly no expectations—no buildup, no gripping high concept pitch, no real information apart from its title—and excels at what it does. Its ending has the same problems as that of its predecessor, but on the whole it’s a better movie than anyone had any right to expect from a loose Cloverfield sequel, and indeed one of the best movies of the year so far.

The biggest of Cloverfield‘s flaws that 10 Cloverfield Lane corrects is its characters. The fresh-faced yuppies that populate the former film are shallow and poorly acted, and unlike the trio of The Blair Witch Project, who are helpless and ineffectual but very much real people, we never get the sense that these characters had lives of their own before the events of the movie destroyed them. 10 Cloverfield Lane, on the other hand, runs on its players. All three are performed impressively, but John Goodman’s Howard, a paranoid survivalist who drags the other two down into his bunker due to what he claims is a biological attack up above, is far and away the reason to see the film. The plot revolves around him—is he crazy? Is he right about what’s happened? Or even worse, is he both? The depths Goodman imbues the character with render it nail-bitingly hard to tell—he’s sweet one minute, terrifying the next, and it grows increasingly difficult to determine if he’s simply emotionally unstable or genuinely unhinged. It’s unlikely he’ll be recognized at the Oscars once they roll around, but the performance more than merits a nomination, and is yet another reminder that Goodman is one of our finest character actors.

Howard’s possible abductee and definite obsession, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle follows Mad Max‘s Furiosa and Star Wars‘ Rey as yet another excellent female protagonist in recent genre filmmaking. She’s terrified, paranoid, and out of her depth, but incredibly resourceful and intelligent despite her circumstances. The film is intensely aware of her femininity—she is the only woman in a small space otherwise populated by Howard and his young assistant Emmett, and this dynamic quickly becomes unsettling. Howard vacillates between understanding and tenderness and a frightening possessiveness and desire for power, while Emmett finds himself falling for this beautiful newcomer. The clashes that inevitably result from this are deeply disquieting, taking an already latent fear of being watched to new heights. Michelle attempts to turn this tension to her advantage, and never becomes an object in the eyes of the film despite the male gaze that surrounds her. While the film’s scenario doesn’t allow it to pass the Bechdel test with particular flair, its protagonist is the latest in a string of strong feminist heroes, and it’s beautiful to behold.

There’s political subtext hard at work throughout the first Cloverfield—it’s basically 9/11: The Movie with an amphibious monster thrown in, and as a look at Ground Zero from an on-the-scene perspective it’s undeniably powerful. 10 Cloverfield Lane follows up on that taking of the nation’s pulse in as nuanced a look at conspiracy culture as is reasonable in a franchise that opens with said amphibious monster attacking New York. Howard, with all his X-Files rambling about government conspiracies and possible alien invasions, could easily be seen as a broad critique of Glenn Beck and his survivalist ilk, but the film refuses to allow us to take a smug moral or intellectual high ground over its most interesting character. After all, something is out there, and whether or not Howard is crazy doesn’t particularly alter that. The film’s final ten minutes, which show us more of the outside than I’m very happy with, puncture this ambiguity, but the political zeitgeist of today’s paranoiac society is still excellently captured in Howard and his bunker. Which is scarier, ultimately: the fact that fascists like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz are running for office, or the possibility that their insane screeds are in fact correct? And can we really blame those who don’t trust the government when it’s now common knowledge that the NSA has run roughshod over America’s civil liberties? As a fan of Occam’s Razor and an opponent of bigotry, I don’t particularly entertain the latter possibility in most cases, but the fact is that distrust of the government simply can’t be written off as the clearer absurdity that it once was.

In the moment, though, 10 Cloverfield Lane never feels political. It’s a tightly written, excellently directed character-based suspense potboiler, one that improves on its predecessor in nearly every area while maintaining its overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. I’d rather see a dozen more small-budget, well-crafted flicks like this than another tentpole in the same vein, and hopefully Bad Robot will ensure that we get them in the years to come. Its tenuous franchise ties notwithstanding (it was an original script that got the Cloverfield label slapped onto it), the film is a highly impressive work of science fiction, especially as Dan Trachtenberg’s directorial debut. If this is any indication, Bad Robot’s future Portal movie is in good hands.

Fear always works: “Zootopia” review

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I wish I could still love Frozen.

When I saw it in the theatre, I was so excited. To have such a strong feminist ending to a Disney Princess movie of all things was beyond wonderful, and whether you like it or not “Let It Go” is the dictionary example for catchy tune. But the more I thought about it, and the more it exploded across the globe, the less pleased with it I was. Its worst offense has to be its lyrics—especially when compared to the work of  previous Disney stalwarts such as Howard Ashman and Stephen Schwartz, the wordplay of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez is cringingly substandard. Beyond that, the movie is the bearer of decidedly mixed messages. Elsa finally chooses to abandon responsibilities and repressed guilt thrust upon her and…this is a bad thing? The movie is undeniably a huge leap forward for Disney princess films, but as a piece of art it’s left me feeling wanting.

It was with this mindset that I walked into the theatre to see Zootopia, and the result was pleasant surprise. Here is a movie that engages with a nuanced sociopolitical issue at far greater length and with far greater coherency than Frozen does, and while it doesn’t pack a whole lot of surprises, it’s certainly a less flawed film than its predecessor. It’s by no means one of the great films of 2016, but it’s fun and engaging and packs a powerful moral lesson, which I’ll take from mainstream children’s entertainment.

The setup is simple enough—in this universe, the world is populated entirely by animals, and while predators and prey have ostensibly long since settled their differences, there’s still an underlying fear and mistrust present on both sides. Enter Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit who spent the entirety of her childhood being cajoled by her nervous parents into staying on the carrot farm. She finally attends the city of Zootopia’s police academy and is made the first rabbit police officer in history, but is crestfallen to be assigned to the position of meter-maid rather than given any serious duties. Things take a turn when she encounters a fox hustler called Nick Wilde, who seems to confirm all the prejudices against foxes Judy’s parents have long held despite her best intentions. When multiple predators are kidnapped and Judy is assigned to the case at the last minute, she and Nick are forced to work together to find answers. A friendship ensues, but will societal pressures crush it?zootopia_nickwilde_and_judy_hopps_4_by_jd1680a-d9n0jt1

If there’s one thing Zootopia isn’t, it’s subtle, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s an incredibly deft handling of racial issues, especially for a children’s film (and, for all its cartoonishness, somehow less absurd than Spike Lee’s recent Chi-Raq). This is a movie that passes beyond simple moral trusims such as “racism is bad” and chooses to focus very firmly on white (prey) privilege and the moral bankruptcy of color-blindness. Judy views herself as perfectly free of prejudice, and certainly appears more enlightened than her family in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, but ultimately has to come to terms with the fact that she still, at some level, harbors deep-seated discriminatory tendencies against predators in general and Nick in particular. Nick himself is initially presented as matching Judy’s negative stereotype—he’s a conman, a “thug”—but not only does he prove to be far more complex than his character would at first suggest, he rightly points out to Judy that when all of society views you as a criminal, it’s hard not to end up going along.

Spoilers from here on out, but you’ll see them coming.

There are flaws in the movie’s socioplitical outlook, and they’re present largely in how it deals with sexism. Judy is an obvious analogy for a woman who finds it impossible to advance due to sexist stereotypes and misogynistic co-workers, and this bit of metaphor is, again, unsubtle but well-executed. The problem comes with the reveal of the film’s ultimate villain: an obfuscatingly meek sheep assistant mayor who is using predators as a common enemy to unite the workers of the world. There’s a bit of feminism and a bit of Marxism mixed in here, but they just don’t gel, first because so little time is given to the assistant mayor’s character and her position and second because, well, in a movie that’s so pleasingly progressive, this bit of apparent anti-feminist backlash is bizarre. One could read it as a critique of first-wave feminism specifically, along with its lack of intersectionality, but not enough time is devoted to the subject for any coherent position to emerge. It’s also the only twist in a movie that’s otherwise incredibly predictable in terms of story; this didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the flick, but it is one aspect in which Frozen is undeniably superior.

Also dismaying are the times the movie sinks into indulgent pop-culture references. There’s a Godfather homage about midway through that, while funny, diverts the film’s pacing and calls too much attention to itself; more obnoxious, if far more subtle, are the movie’s references to Frozen, which again pull the viewer out of the film. It’s not by any means a crippling tactic, but it’s used just enough that it grows tiresome.

These problems notwithstanding, Zootopia is easily the best Disney Animation film in years, and unfortunately its political message won’t fade into irrelevance anytime soon. Take your kids to it and start a conversation, go see it yourself for the lush animation and the excellent vocal performances. And if any foxes approach you on the way into the theatre, give ’em a wave.