Friday, 29 January 2010

A King's Ransom

In Ransom, David Malouf has taken an episode recounted in the Iliad, and investigated it to find its inner workings. It is a moment of suspense and inaction, in which war has petered out because of a failure of mourning, on both sides. A father’s desire to honour his dead son is pitted against a man’s desire to avenge the death of his best friend, and stalemate has ensued.

Hector, King Priam’s son, has been killed by Achilles, the Greek warrior and leader of the Myrmidons. This is in reprisal for Hector’s killing of Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend.

Achilles has dishonoured Hector’s body by dragging it behind a chariot up and down in front of the walls of Troy for twelve days, in front of the horrified Priam and Queen Hecuba. He has refused to return the body for proper burial.

War is suspended while Achilles, maddened by grief, cannot abandon Hector’s body or grieve for Patroclus. Neither side, in fact, can begin the grieving process: on Priam’s side because the symbol of death, the buried body, is missing, and on Achilles’ side because the body is all too present, and cannot be killed again. Achilles is walled up inside his fury, unable to mourn Patroclus because he cannot stop killing Hector. Priam is walled up inside the besieged Troy, powerless to act.

Priam is a king of visions. He converses with the gods:

‘An old, dreamlike passivity in him that he no longer finds it necessary to resist will dissolve the boundary between what is solid and tangible in the world […] and the weightless medium in which is consciousness is adrift, where the gods, in their bodily presence, have the same consistency as his thoughts.’

His ability to suspend his conscious focus on materiality around him is paralleled by his understanding of his own kingship:

‘Holding in his head all the roads that lead out to the distant parts of his kingdom, he feels them at times as ribbons tied at the centre of him, for the most part loose but sometimes stretched taut and pulling a little, according to what is occurring out there — events that his body is aware of as a dim foreboding long before the last in a relay of messengers, who for days have been running down dusty roads, bursts in to deliver it as news.’

Kingship consists of an act of empathetic imagination (in an era lacking instantaneous communication), in which the king intuits through his own body whether his citizens are well or ill.

What Priam learns from his conversation with the Goddess Iris, after Hector’s death, is that events have fallen out not by predetermination, but by chance. And it is this sudden apprehension that chance may determine outcomes that inspires in him a dream or vision of himself going to Achilles not as a king but as an old man, with a cartload of gold, to offer as a symbolic ransom for his son’s body. As a man, not as a king, and yet with a king’s ransom. He realizes that it is only in taking the greatest risk, making himself most vulnerable, appearing as he is without the adornment of his symbolic status, that he stands a chance of retrieving Hector. He must take his chances, and enter the unknown, because the normal protocols of war and diplomacy have failed. Normality has been disordered.

He is determined to take a ransom to Achilles, not because he feels he can put a price on his son’s body, but because he was himself ransomed as a six-year-old boy. Born Podarces, a prince, the son of King Laomedon of Troy, he survived slaughter at the hands of Laomedon’s enemy Heracles only because his sister Hesione chose him as her plaything just before she was sent away as a gift of war. Heracles grants Hesione her wish but renames Podarces:

“Let his name, from now on, be Priam, the price paid, the gift given to buy your brother back from the dead. So that each time he hears himself named, this is what he will recall. That till I allowed you to chose him out of this filthy rabble, he was a slave like any other, a nameless thing.”

Priam has never been able to forget this moment, the forking of the way in his life. He was exposed to chance as a six-year-old, and shown that the gods can play with mortals, that nothing is given. Part of him has lived the life of the slave he so nearly became. He is not a king through and through.

It is because Priam has before crossed over to the other side of his own destiny, and envisioned one completely contrary to the one that has actually played out, that he is able to commune with the gods through visions. It is this metaphysical traversal that also makes it possible for him to understand that he can abandon his king’s trappings, and cross over to the Greeks’ camp as an old man and a father.

The whole of Ransom, then, turns on the idea of crossings, from Troy to the Greek camp, from youth to old age, from son to father, from anger to grief, from life to death. Nothing can reverse death, the dead cannot cross back over to the side of the living, but in the world of the Iliad, and for David Malouf, it seems that the symbolic energy of death can be activated by transferring the body to its rightful place. This is what will enable the fluidity of grief to flow into the space that the physical body once occupied, and also enable time to move forward again.

But these crossings all come at a price. There is a ransom to be paid, whether it is symbolic or actual (and it is always both) in order to effect the crossing. The Romans placed a coin in the mouth of their dead to pay Charon the boatman who would ferry them across the Styx into the Underworld. The custom of burying kings with their treasure, even their slaves and wives, is well known from Egypt to Sussex. To change from one state to another, we must give something up.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

It's to die for

Legend of a Suicide is an astonishing set of short stories and a novella by David Vann (Penguin, 2008). It would be hard to call it a novel, although all the stories revolve around the same theme: suicide (oddly enough).

David Vann comes from Alaska, which is an odd enough country to be from in the first place. It’s a little like coming from Iceland, where it’s practically obligatory to be a craftsman or woman, in some line of creative endeavour, whether making clothes or jewellery or Nordic myths. Seemingly everyone worth their salt in Alaska is a huntsman and carpenter, filling their homes with handmade tables and beds, and covering their floors with furs.

But Vann’s personal history makes simply coming from Alaska pale into insignificance. Here is a man whose father went out and had affairs, divorced his mother, divorced his stepmother, had more affairs, failed as a dentist, a woodsman and a fisherman, and then shot himself.

You can’t trust that all the facts about Vann’s life that seem to be recounted within the stories are true, because they often contradict each other. But the protagonist’s father certainly shot himself. Guns are a recurring theme in the stories, whether the father or the son is mishandling them. There is a scene in which the son breaks into his own home, in the years after his father’s suicide, looking around it through the eyes of an intruder. Later he takes one of his father’s guns and shoots out all the windows of his own home. It turns out that he hopes one of his mother’s better boyfriends, a cop, will turn up at the crime scene. As it happens the cop does appear, but the boy’s very action means that the cop can never become a father to him. He both desperately wants a father, and constantly destroys any possibility of a relationship with one.

There appears at first to be little structure in the collection of tales: they seem to be connected oneirically. By the fourth, Sukkwan Island, however, it becomes clear that there is a palindromic organization, with the shorter episodes, or versions, of the main story circulating in constellation around this novella-length story. Everything points towards Sukkwan Island.

In this story Vann puts his protagonist, Roy, and his father, Jim, on a tiny island, up an Alaskan fjord. They are the only human inhabitants. Jim has sold his dentistry practice to buy a very small A-frame hut, in which he intends to live with his thirteen-year-old son for a year. They are going to hunt and fish for their food, and survive alone.

Very soon, however, Roy, through whose eyes we see the first part of the story, realizes that his father is not well. He cries at night, but pretends that nothing is wrong during the day. He clearly has no idea how to survive in the wilderness and makes elementary mistakes because he has no ability to perceive the consequences of his actions. Once, on a hike, his father appears to step off a cliff, crashing many metres down, and nearly killing himself. He begins to make radio contact with his ex-second wife, hoping to rekindle her affections, but to no avail. Roy broods silently, wishing he could get away, frightened by his father’s unreliability, abandoned and bored. They stockpile an enormous amount of food in a pit, and lock it away, but fail to build a proper shelter for firewood. The winter hits them. At the end of the first part of the story, Roy walks into the hut to find his father playing with a pistol.

Vann’s singular purpose in these stories is to articulate and re-articulate the dynamic that exists between father and son. At many points what is described is the failure of a dynamic, a dialogue that in fact only takes place in the boy’s head, as he desperately tries to understand the clues and signs his father scatters about: in the final story, The Higher Blue, the narrator imagines father and son making zabaglione, using three different recipe books which all contradict one another:

But when he [the boy] looks at the recipe, he sees that it calls for six egg yolks. They have only three eggs. The other recipe called for only three eggs. The boy grapples with his fear of annihilation. Does he dare to point out another flaw ? Won’t it start to look like his own fault ?

The boy grapples with his fear of annihilation, because he can never tell what reaction he will meet if he points out a problem to his father — and there are many problems, because of his father’s essential incompetence and unreliability. Desperate to forgive and condone his father, in order to get him back (or get him at all), the boy tries to short-circuit the adult-child order, and take responsibility for the many, many mistakes, making it his own fault that he can see them so clearly, as though he is a traitor to his father’s self-image. He does not want to be the boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes.

But the boy himself is not always so reliable. Vann is a master of leading the narrative tone in one direction, and then disrupting it out of nowhere, so that our conclusions about the boy’s own mental stability are constantly called into question. In Ketchikan, the boy, now aged 30, goes back to his childhood village, to try to lay his father’s ghost to rest. He works on a fish farm:

Late night, I wandered. At the gates of the hatchery, I spun the lock, slipped inside. I took hundreds of little fingerlings by net, dumped handfuls in my pockets, walked along cliffs above the roadway, bare rock cut in grooves, and held out the fish one by one in an open palm. The miniature salmon leaped each of their own accord, a tail flash into the night, glint of silver, sixty feet of twisting, and an inaudible slap to the pavement below. Waiting then. For water, for some new rule, new possibility, that could make pavement not pavement, air not air, a fall not a fall.

The reader believes the boy to be a victim of his father’s suicide and mental illness. The obvious sense in which the miniature salmon are standing in for Roy cannot, however, cancel out the way in which he abuses them, transmitting his abandonment to other living creatures in the form of torture. When we realize his sadism towards the fish, and couple it with other moments, like the shooting of the windows, a more frightening abyss opens, in which Roy has inherited his father’s mental absences and lapses, and we wonder what his future will bring.

Vann’s style is often still and simple, with a high degree of repetition. When Roy and his father are alone together on Sukkwan Island, they do an awful lot of sleeping, reading, eating, chopping, fishing and digging, and it rains or snows almost constantly. The narrative unfolds line by line: it is impossible to see further ahead than the next sentence, as though the words were shrouded in the same mist as the island itself. Patient and persistent, a terrible foreboding stomps along, and builds itself into a mountain of anticipation: when will things change? What is the outcome going to be? It is going to be terrible — but how terrible?

But at moments this linearity and simplicity is forsaken for an intense lyricism that recalls Lautréamont. In Ketchikan, the adult Roy decides to take a rowing boat out of harbour at night:

A warm, strong breeze, carrying all but the water, no ripple but its hold strong on everything else, making distance impossible. I rowed unnoticed beneath masts and sonar, bells and spotlights, rowed, I fancied, with the seamless propulsion of jellyfish in the one element, rowed past jagged rocks onto a sea nostalgic and opaque, swelling slowly, as if considering spilling over until the rim of the world lifted inevitably, slipped, and I was in a rowboat, wet from mist and shivering […].

He is suspended in a dreamlike state until the consequences of the ocean’s reality spill over him, and he comes to, aware of the risk he has taken, and his littleness in the face of the sea’s cold power.

In Legend of a Suicide, nature is an adversary, a killer, from which bounty may be ripped at great personal cost. Man is an ignorant, foolish weakling in nature, for the most part screened from his true nullity by city life, habit, and the common sense of women. “I don’t have to be angry any more,” says Roy’s mother. “I can feel sorry for him now and do the old-woman-rich-with-memories-and-longing routine. Though occasionally I give it a rest.”

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Millionaire Shortbread

Isn't it amazing what you can get even out of trashy films?

Exhausted last night after a full day spent doing nothing very much, I curled up with the television, and surfed till I hit paydirt: Ice Princess.

Picture the scene (but don't ask why I secretly love teenage slush like this). A young girl wants to follow her dream and become an ice dancer. Her mother is a dowdy academic, and dreams of her daughter going to Harvard to study physics. Our heroine practises by herself, out on the frozen pond behind her house, and hopes and prays quietly.

Another mother, blonde-haired ex-ice dancer, trains her own daughter to compete at the highest level. She is the original ice queen, glamorous and beautiful, ruthless in her competitiveness, and determined that her daughter will win... at any price. She carries a dark secret from her own competing days.... Of course she does.

Eventually this opposition comes into conflict: the two mothers go head to head for their daughters' achievements, and our heroine, naturally, wins the hearts of everyone who watches her skate. The mothers learn that they must let their daughters go, and that they cannot fulfil their dreams and hopes by making their own children surrogates. Fly free, little one!

So what did I learn? Well, this morning, I yelled at my daughter again for not doing up her coat in as organized a way as I would have liked, and for crying because I said she couldn't take her scooter to school.

So essentially, nothing.

Did my mother want to fulfil her own dreams through my educational success? Am I doing the same for Beauty? It's both, isn't it? I certainly want the best for my child, and for me this means that she has to learn, whether she likes it or not, that others judge her on her appearance, her manners, her ability to organize herself, her grades, her accomplishments, and all the rest. Yet in my zeal to protect her from the judgement of others by arming her with what others look for, I have of course fallen straight into the trap myself -- I end up judging her for what she is not yet able to do, or willing to do (because it is so boring). I align myself with the bores and the judges.

At the same time, I hold my breath at the amazing power of her mind, her imagination, her creativity, her love of language, and play with language, her psychological insight, so acute that it hurts, her natural understanding of how drama works. I don't want to damage that in any way. But I am so scared that it will not be harnessed, will float and dissipate, will not result in anything tangible. Is that my attempt to live my dreams out through her? Probably -- because aren't her gifts the very thing I hope for in myself? And isn't dissipation what I most fear for myself? Uh-huh.

The evening's viewing went on, straight into Danny Boyle's Millions. The parallels with his later Slumdog Millionaire are more than striking. It is clear that Millions functions as an English version of the Indian parable about the meaning of rags to riches.

In Millions, two brothers lose their mother, and their father moves them to a brand new house on a characterless estate. The youngest boy is a dreamer, who takes the packing cases and builds himself a house by the railway at the bottom of the field. He sees saints, who give him messages -- he hopes that his mother is one of their number.

One day a heavy bag bounces out of a passing train, and lands flat on his cardboard house. It contains £200,000. He tells his brother, and they decide to hide the loot. His older brother is full of ideas of investing in property, and loves the material power the wealth gives him. He uses it to become top dog. The younger child uses the money to try to help the poor, giving away as much as he can.

A deadline is looming, as the British head towards joining the Eurozone, and are being warned to spend or exchange their pounds. A sinister figure appears, looking for money, and the older boy works out that the bag is linked to an audacious train robbery. The film becomes a race against time, to spend or convert the cash either before the Eurozone or the train robber close in on the boys. And there is even a moment when the boys and their father watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Eventually the little boy burns what is left of the money, and his mother appears to him. He asks her if she is a saint, and she tells him that she is in with a chance. To become a saint you have to perform a miracle. "What's your miracle?" asks her child. "Don't you know? It's you," she whispers.

In Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle has done away with the father as well as the mother, and leaves only the orphaned brothers. Each character arc is tauter and clearer, more extreme, and thus more like a fairytale. The youngest boy does not see Christian saints but Muslim and Hindu sacred figures. He does not quest for his mother, but for the love of his life. He is thus oriented towards the future rather than the past. He actually competes on a gameshow, rather than having millions land in his lap: his prayers are not so directly answered as they are in Millions. He must fight for his dreams against chance, and evil. His older brother nearly goes over to the dark side, broken by his attempt to protect his younger brother's innocence. He aims for realism and pragmatism over idealism and dreaming, and it is nearly his undoing (it certainly costs him his life).

Boyle has exaggerated every element of Millions. He abandons the realistic setting of Northern Britain for the irreality of extreme poverty coupled with frenetic capitalism that characterizes contemporary urban India. By restaging his story in modern-day India, he exploits two kinds of exotic myth that both titillate and scare the West: the mysterious East together with the waking economic Tiger. Setting aside the very rapid camerawork, saturated colours, and soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire, it is the elements of Millions that give Boyle the armature for his Indian movie.

These are tales of becoming a man: how to be good, how to protect those for whom one is responsible without foregoing one's dreams, how to win the love of an ideal woman, how to overcome weakness and uphold loyalty to one's brothers.

It seems, from one night's viewing, that girls and boys are to do this very differently. For girls, it is a process of getting out from under the suffocating smothering of their mothers' thwarted ambitions. For boys it is a matter of navigating a passage towards a desired prize without succumbing to evil or chance along the way.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Let Them Eat Brioche

In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan (Penguin, 2008), is a book I bought for my foodie ex-chef husband for Christmas, but in fact he was too preoccupied with The Wire, and The Road (apparently only able to digest manly nominalized materials, where I need that feminized genitive connection). So I read it.

Pollan's argument is that we (for 'we', he means Americans, but it's the 'we' of the Western diet) are being fed an enormous amount of calories deriving from a small group of less than nutritious things -- soy, corn, wheat -- all dressed up as an Aladdin's cave of food-like products.

We should, so his antidote goes, be hunting and gathering a vast array of plant foods that have a deeply simple relationship with the land they grew on. We are, thus, to invert the relationship between mono- and multicultural that has been foisted upon us, and are ourselves to seek out diversity from origins that are simple, rather than consuming what is frighteningly simplified, but packaged to look like variety.

I read it, dutifully, to the end, but feel somehow cheated, or underfed. Perhaps because the writing is rich but only composed of a few ingredients, such as the phrase 'reductive nutritionism', or 'industrial agriculture'. There is more than a whiff of conspiracy theory here, I was mildly surprised not to see the phrase 'military-industrial complex carbohydrates' in the mix.

The trouble with this book is that it preaches to the converted. I read it smugly ticking off all the ways in which I've changed my and my children's diet to avoid processed foods, to use farmers' markets, to eat as a family, to enjoy cooking, to live slow, to grow food in the garden... and I bought all the science, though I have no idea if he's right or not, since he himself argues that he has to tap into the very nutritionist science he wants to rubbish.

I also buy all the stuff about food as a dynamic set of relationships between the earth and our eating culture, with symbiosis and synergy accounting for some of the ways in which groups of food are good for us, which we destroy if we take them out of context. This is terroir territory. Of course I love it, I'm an ex-critic of French literature -- you can't get more Romantic than this argument, suffused with nostalgia for a lost past that seems to extend not only back to when we ate more plants, but when we lived up trees.

So what is my niggling doubt? There is a part of me that suspects he is having his cake and eating it.

Although he makes the argument that 'Mom' used to be the educative link which passed down commonsense knowledge about nutrition, food hygiene, cultural practices around food, manners, portion control etc etc, he does not explain how women are supposed to combine working lives, with raising families, and making time to cook this wonderful food.

And although he concedes that sourcing food from markets comes at a premium, he does not seem to understand that in this country, Jamie Oliver himself cannot make a depressed mother on benefits buy more healthy but more expensive produce. He talks blithely about culture, while I think about class. What Pollan can't export from America is a politically-sensitive analysis of why we eat the way we do in the UK.

When we returned to the UK from Australia, in 2006, a revolution seemed to have taken place. We had left with everyone complaining about how crap British food was. We returned to a whirlwind of River Cottage chicken maltreatment outrage; personally-delivered vegetable boxes; and the rise of Waitrose as the premium supermarket (had I just not noticed before?). If your food was not blaring its ecological credentials, and proclaiming its organic origin, you were poisoning your children.

The scales fell from my eyes -- and unless they were wild-fished scales, I was persona non grata. Yet after a few months of squeezing past ladies with very pointy elbows in Waitrose, the scales had to go back on again. I fell sadly back on Sainsburys and Tescos. I just couldn't keep up. I missed the boutiques of Sydney, and the open air markets that happened everywhere, in a city in which food is hallowed, but fully integrated into everyone's lives, not just the privileged few.

After a while of buying organic, I forgot what was better about it, and started to notice how far the stuff flew. I went back to trying to remember what my mother grew in her enormous vegetable garden and when it was in season. And I stopped talking about food with posh friends. It was too upsetting.

We did discover an excellent farmers' market close by, and regularly empty our pockets of cash in a matter of minutes. Actually veg are very good value in a farmers' market. But going to such markets is also, and essentially, a matter of class. They are entirely populated by the upper middle rather than the middle or any other class. I routinely feel like an interloper, wearing the wrong kind of coat.

In other words, I already, and literally, buy everything Pollan is arguing so vociferously for, but as I do so, I don't so much feel healthier as snobbish.