The Waste Land Project: The Satyricon

Novel Fragment * Petronius * Roman Decay and Corruption * 1st century

This is the third in a series of articles I’m writing about T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” If you’re curious as to how nuts the project is and why I’m a dummy for trying, you can see the first entry here.

Synopsis

If you’re going to write a poem rooted in the existential decay of contemporary society and the accompanying corruption of the modern soul, you are pretty much obligated to consider ancient Rome as your template. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire is the blueprint, the perfect model of expansion and decay that all civilizations follow. This is not to say that Rome was the first – Mesopotamian and Greek civilizations flourished and fell, of course – but boy did the Romans perfect the form. I do not have the time or the education to get real deep about Rome in general. I’m not a Classicist, after all. However, generalities will probably suffice. As this project moves along I think I’ll get better at this stuff, considering that heavyweights like Homer and Virgil are on the docket. In the meantime, I think it would be best to talk about the work itself for a little bit, and then try and figure out why Eliot would use a line from this strange, fragmented, borderline profane document as the epigraph of his masterpiece.

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I get this is supposed to be risque, but it kind of looks like a hobbit sex party, which, no thanks.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Satyricon. As I said, I’m no Classicist, the Greek and Roman being so obscure and dense and dull to my snappy modern sensibilities. My biases were born in classes poorly taught, I suppose, somewhere along the line. I’ve read stuff, who says I haven’t! But then it’s all just togas and columns and pontificating and I have just never been all that interested. I watched the first season of Rome, though, and that was pretty good. This is to say that all of my expectations going into reading this have been borne from being a reasonably educated lit student, and the cultural osmosis attendant to that. In other words, what I know about the Roman Empire is pretty much the same as anyone else. They built their empire through technological innovation, vast, disciplined armies, and the reasoned rule of the Republic. Then things went sideways and the Republic fell and the emperors started going crazy and the barbarians started razing and eventually the whole thing fell down. Also vomitoriums.

 

Therefore, when it turns out that The Satyricon is some kind of delirious, fucked up Roman Naked Lunch, I was only marginally surprised. The work itself is comprised of fragments, so there’s no smooth narrative. Much survived, but there are significant gaps and sometimes all that remains is a single sentence which scholars have tried to put in the right place. So things tend to skip around. The subject matter is the fully decadent, crazytown-Rome of Nero. It’s like one big story of a culture falling apart in its own revelry and debauchery. This is to say there’s lots of drinking and boning and things like that. It’s difficult to follow the thread, and of course since I’m not all that well-versed about the culture itself, many of the references are lost on me. It’s all very strange.

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Yeah, here’s the thing. The Satyricon sounds like it should be hot, but it ends up being the Classical version of HBO’s Real Sex. 

This strangeness is compounded by my particular translation, which is from the 1950’s. Now, The Satyricon is a work told in various modes of language. Unlike Virgil or elevated writers of his kind, Petronius is satirizing the whole of society here, which means he uses both the elevated speech of the elites as well as the lower speech of the rank and file Romans. The translator, in an effort to emulate this, has rendered a good deal of the text into American 50’s slang, and boy is that weird. Understand, Romans got up to some shit. Boy-love and heavy drinking and orgies and ridiculous eating parties and more boy-love and more heavy drinking and the occasional fight or philosophical argument. All of this was rendered in good-old-boy, down-home 1950’s American English. Maybe read a more contemporary translation, is what I’m saying, because I would read these lewd things going down and then add “golly, Beav, these Romans sure were swell” in my mind.

As for the “plot,” there’s not much to hold on to. The protagonist is a dude named Encolpius, who is the Roman version of an English tutor. He travels the countryside with his 16 year old boyfriend named Giton and they have sexy adventures. These adventures consist of visiting dudes like Trimalchio, a disgustingly wealthy freedman who is basically the epitome of the disintegration of Roman culture. He’s an idiot, he’s incontinent, and he’s an egotistical blowhard who spends all his time and money trying to think of new ways to show off how rich and awesome he is. Let’s be clear though, nobody else here is much better. It’s not like Encolpius is out here as a paragon of virtue. He’s just as compromised and corrupt as everyone else.

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Ha, I don’t understand any of that. 

Discussion

When I describe The Satyricon like that, and I do think it’s a fair description, then it seems pretty clear why Eliot chose a line from it to preface his poem about cultural disintegration and individual disaffection in the early 20th century. As I’ve said, Rome is the template when it comes to the cycle of civilization. Eliot was an educated fella, so I don’t think it’s too much of a leap for him to make these connections. He’s looking at London, the “Unreal City” of the poem, and what he’s seeing is the postwar revelry of his peers acting a lot like some of the debauched characters in The Satyricon while Europe is still smoldering from the after-effects of World War I. Eliot has a reputation for being conservative, and while that may or may not be earned (I’m currently reading a new biography which casts him differently, although it’s still early days and Eliot was famously private and anti-biography, so we’ll see where that goes), it’s clear from his work that he suffers the worries and anxieties of an older man. Like, you’ve read “Prufrock,” right? This is to say that while Eliot was a young man when he wrote “The Waste Land,” the themes and overall vibe of the poem is that of a person dismayed at the hollowness of modern civilization and is afraid of the desolation to come.

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“Yo, you headin’ down to The Debauch later? It’s gonna be hype!” “Nah man, I’m just gonna stay home and use my imagination and chill.”

I think it’s high time to take a look at the actual epigraph used. I’m going to use the translation found in the explanatory notes of my edition of “The Waste Land,” because Eliot is a show-off and I don’t read Latin.

“For I myself once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a cage, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sybil, what do you want?’ she answered ‘I want to die.’”

The point of translation contention seems to be what Sybil is actually hanging in. My 50’s translation says “bottle,” which makes sense in context. Real quick-like, for this to make much sense it helps to know what the hell a “Sybil” is. My rough understanding is that she is a priestess and that there is a Sybil for every Apollonian oracle. Also she’s immortal. However, she still ages normally. This is a huge bummer, obviously, so as she continues to age for hundreds of years she continues to get older and older and smaller and smaller until she can fit inside a small jug or bottle, which is where this dipshit Trimalchio claims to have seen her and asked her what she truly wants. Since she’s hundreds of years old and withered with age and lives in a fucking jug, of course she would like to die.

Sybil’s curse is clear, which is that immortality is not all fun and games. We are meant to be mortal, meant to die. If you’re the spiritual type you might even argue that you are meant to die and be reborn, continuing the cycle of life. Civilizations follow this rough pattern. Rome was born, rose to great power, declined, and fell. It was then reborn into something else entirely. Should you visit Rome now, you’ll find yourself in a modern European nation-state which is markedly different than even the Roman Republic. Same place, same ruins, completely different society. Of course, if “The Waste Land” is any indication, Eliot is pretty sure that Western Civilization has run its course and everything that follows in the 20th century and beyond is the same kind of hollow, debauched downslope that we see illustrated in The Satyricon.

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This is by far the most disturbing image I’ve seen of The Satyricon. Oh, Oscar Wilde. Makes sense now.

The Sybil, who has lived too long, wishes for death. As we see throughout “The Waste Land,” modern civilization is in the same throes of having outlived itself. The machinations of living are all there, and citizens go through the motions living out their lives in a played out, unbearable autumn of the soul. The city itself is degraded and decrepit, Sybil in a bottle spread out against the horizon of a modern city. The Satyricon is a book full of decadent hedonism which leads to corruption and decay, which inevitably leads to the final fall of Rome. Eliot looks around cities like Paris and London and sees the same kind of excess and the inherent decline attached to that behavior, and laments the time in which he finds himself. Western Civilization has lost its moorings, eschewed its own past, and as such has lived too long and yearns for death.

Oh what, did you think a poem called “The Waste Land” was going to be an upper?

Posted in Books, Urban Decline, Waste Land Project | Leave a comment

The Full Monty

Film * Peter Cattaneo * English Post-Industrial * 1997

Synopsis

I am a ridiculous Anglophile. It’s to the point where I have to constantly remind myself how to spell “theater” as opposed to “theatre.” And I straight up will not spell the word “grey” with an “ay” like some kind of braying donkey. I tend to prefer English literature as opposed to their American counterparts, although lets be real: America does music better, The Beatles notwithstanding. I’m always going to take The Ramones over the Sex Pistols, and I have arguments to make about the Dead Kennedys and X over The Clash and The Damned. Don’t even get me started on hip-hop. Stormzy? Okay, sure, Britain. That said, I like soccer now, so it’s only so long before I start saying “cheers” to everyone like the sad American poseur I am. Actually, no, pet peeve there. Don’t come at me with a flat American accent saying shit like “cheers, love” and “bollocks.” You sound dumb when you do that. Take it from a professional Anglophile: appreciate the U.K. without trying to emulate them, unless you mean to spell “grey” properly.

This is all to say The Full Monty is one of my favorite movies ever, despite being so unremittingly North English that to this day there’s still bits of dialogue I don’t understand. It’s one of the few movies that I remember seeing in the theatre, mostly because it was the first time I ventured inside my town’s little arthouse theater. San Luis Obispo’s The Palm, to be specific. And do they spell it with a “-re?” You know it! Now, I don’t remember the exact reason I went to see this thing. I was all of 18 and while the seeds of Anglophilia were there in a literary sense, I don’t think I even knew much of Monty Python, let alone some indie flick set in Sheffield. I assume it was some kind of peer-pressure situation. That should let you know what kind of party animal I was (am). Instead of getting pressured to score coke and steal a car I’m over here feeling obligated to go to ramshackle movie theaters and see art films.

Not that The Full Monty is an art film, let’s be real clear about that. It was definitely indie, you can see that in the production and the distribution. However, it did go on to wide release and was received well. It made quite a bit of money, especially considering its budget. The Full Monty is a Comedy with Heart. The humor (note: putting superfluous ‘U’s in things is terrible, like in the word “superfluous”) is in the absurdity of otherwise real, down-to-earth people doing incredibly silly things. None of this works, however, unless you’re vested in the characters. Because this is a great movie, the writing and arc is there for each and every one of these people, who are just a bunch of unemployed steel workers looking to get their lives back on track.

I should probably mention what this movie is for those who may have forgotten the plot or (gasp!) have never seen it. It’s about a laid-off industrial worker with just the perfect blue-collar North English name, Gaz. He’s my second-favorite Gaz in fiction, even! Gaz is a low-key dude, always up for a caper and ready to crack a joke. Also he has a kid, Nathan, who seems to be a little more uptight. Of course he’s like twelve, so he’s allowed to be a little taciturn and easy to embarrass, and happens often when Gaz and his best bro Dave get up to shenanigans. After an encounter with a Chippendale’s show, Gaz gets the light bulb to put on a strip show of his own, with his unemployed buddies. What starts as a lark to make a few quid turns into serious business when it becomes clear that Gaz won’t be able to make child support payments unless he’s able to pull this caper off.

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Well why didn’t you just say so?

Discussion

Look, they do it and it’s great. This is a feel-good-ass feel-good movie. Each member of the Full Monty crew has their own issues to deal with, and the film takes them seriously and somehow, someway, comes up with a reasonable path for that character to find redemption by dancing nude in front of strangers. The emotional heart of the film is Gaz’s strained relationship with his son. Gaz, the unemployed manchild, obviously loves his kid and Robert Carlyle plays it perfect. He’s a goof, but his pain is clear when his son is taken away from him. Beyond this you get Dave’s body-image issues, which strains his relationship with his wife (who, rewatching this for like the fiftieth time, has a fashion sense that never ceases to amaze). There’s Gerald, the former foreman to these gomers, who’s been lying to his wife about being laid off. Even the minor characters, Lomper and Horse, have their hang-ups and issues. The only one who doesn’t is Guy, and that’s okay because he has a big wanger and ends up making Lomper happy.

Hold on, I still can’t get over the fact one of the characters is named Lomper. Hee hee!

All of these flawed, and in most cases failed, characters are tied directly to the setting of the film, which is post-industrial Sheffield, England. The movie starts with a short film, one of these civic promotional shorts designed to drum up interest in a particular locale (Puerto Rico!). The intro is breathlessly optimistic about the future of Sheffield, all based on a strong industrial economy. Well, we all know how that story ends. The industrial economy shifted to places with cheap labor and the bottom fell out of industrial cities across the U.K. and U.S. What, you didn’t think the United States has the only rust belt in the world, did you? Now, obviously, The Full Monty is taking a light approach to the subject of the consequences of neoliberal policies, but at its heart that’s what the movie is. It’s an examination of a group of men with good hearts marginalized by economic forces beyond their reckoning. These good, hard-working men are forced to a life in a strip club because their country failed them.

Wait, hold on, not quite. Relax. First of all, it’s clear that the stripping is a one-time deal. Secondly, this is not a situation where the stripping is a last resort and these poor exploited characters have no other viable option than the sex trade. No, not at all. For these unemployed steel workers, this is an entrepreneurial opportunity. It’s embarrassing, sure, but as Gaz says, “folks don’t laugh so loud when you’ve got a grand in your back pocket.” This is the blue collar making good as best they can. It’s a vindication of English pluck and fortitude. And all that would be kind of gross and exploitative in its own right if everything wasn’t just so dang charming.

All things considered, however, The Full Monty still comes from a place of bleak hopelessness and an oppressive sense of loss. “Job Club” is the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen, just a bunch of sad sacks who once had purpose and vitality and some small amount of personal wealth milling around an austere cafeteria-lookin’ room playing cards and lamenting their past. There are options for these men, but they’re demeaning and kind of dire, which is to say earning three quid an hour being a security guy for British Wal-Mart. That’s a belittling situation for a group of people who made good money doing productive work, to the point where it’s clearly less degrading to live on the dole. Of course there’s a simmering resentment here. Of course over time that resentment, mingled with frustration and jealousy and fear, will grow into a massive lashing-out against the status quo which took it all away. Gaz and Dave and the rest found an outlet. Something which allowed them to feel like the capable men they once were, before the way of the world turned against them. Of course, they may not be any better off after the big show, but then again maybe the getting on stage and showing the full monty was the jump start they needed for a better life.

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Who needs anti-fat-bastard cream anyhow?

I guess I’m saying if more dudes channeled their frustrations into being strippers, Brexit and Trump may not have happened.

Posted in Film, Urban Decline | Leave a comment

The Wind through the Keyhole

Novel * Stephen King * Dark Tower Throwback * 2012

Synopsis

The Dark Tower series has always been something of an enigma. Every entry seems like its own thing, a different style, a different voice, all telling the same epic story. The last three, written in a rush after King’s near-death experience, represent the most stylistically cohesive grouping of novels, but that trio is a long haul from the first iteration of The Gunslinger. Meanwhile, around the edges of King’s fiction, the Tower drifts through narratives like a ghost, showing up in odd places and serving as a reminder to us hardcore Tower people that Roland and his ka-tet are always in the background, always on the move, their quest more important than anything else happening in the worlds created by Stephen King. Even beyond this, the Tower stories continue apace. There’s a whole series of comics and graphic novels dedicated to Roland and Mid-World, most of which I haven’t read. The new movie on the horizon is going to be a whole other thing, which I await with some trepidation. This is all to say, there are endless stories waiting to be told about this world, and some of those are going to be from King himself.

The Wind through the Keyhole is not really a mainline Dark Tower book, even though the introduction refers to it as Dark Tower 4.5. True, the events of the novel take place between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, but the things the ka-tet get up to in this story aren’t of any great importance. That’s because The Wind through the Keyhole is actually three stories, each nested within each other, and the very beginning and the very end consist of the frame in which the other two stories are told. If you’re picking up this book hoping for more adventures with Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy, you’re going to be disappointed. They’re only here to give some context to Roland telling his stories, which, as I said, is actually two stories.

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Ooh, there’s official art! That dragon just looks confused as to why there’s a boy on her head.

It’s an odd structure, but it turns out to be effective. Once I accepted that the book wasn’t some side adventure featuring the last gunslingers, I settled into what is actually here. Once the ka-tet is settled in, Roland begins his tale. The first is a story from Roland’s youth, not long after the horrible, upsetting, tragic events of Wizard and Glass. Young Roland is sent out with another young apprentice gunslinger, Jamie, who didn’t make the ill-fated trip out to Mejis in the fourth book. Jamie doesn’t talk much, so it’s a little hard to get a handle on his personality (not unlike Alain from Wizard and Glass, actually). Roland’s mission here is to travel out to the hinterlands and investigate a series of grisly murders. Locals are claiming that it’s the world of a “skin-man,” which is a shape-shifter situation. Since this is still Stephen King, there is totally a shape-shifter, and he does some messed up stuff, I tell you what.

This story of Young Roland is actually pretty engaging, and the mystery ramps up well, and of course even the minor characters are well drawn because King is a wizard with character building. So it’s a little abrupt when King shifts gears yet again and drops us into a third, entirely different story right as the action is ramping up toward a conclusion. The third story is something of a fairy tale as told to Roland by his mother when he was but a wee gunslinger-to-be. This story is about a child named Tim who lives in the deep, dark woods with his loving mother and father. Then some bad shit goes down and young Tim has to go on a quest. As the story goes on, it turns out to be engaging as well so by the time it wraps up there’s a strange moment where I was satisfied with the story I had just read only to realize that, oh yeah, there’s this other story to wrap up as well. It’s an odd way to structure what amounts to a couple of novellas, but King has never been afraid to experiment with from and structure, and in this case, it works pretty well, even if it’s a little jarring at first.

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Here there be tygers. 

Discussion

This is the space where I usually talk about theme and the larger considerations of the work being discussed. Roland’s world is very old and is clearly in the last stages of decay and decline, and that’s mostly what I’ve focused on with the various Dark Tower books. I’m less inclined to do so with The Wind through the Keyhole, because, well, those themes don’t come up all that much. The first story – the frame which holds the other two – isn’t really a story on its own. We pick up with Roland and his ka-tet in the middle of a journey we kind of skipped before. That’s fine, there’s a lot of time unaccounted for in the grand adventure, and there are probably many stories which haven’t (and won’t) ever be told. In this instance we get a brief episode, a single interesting thing that happens, which is the starkblast. Of course we know the group will escape no worse for wear, so basically it’s a narrative excuse to get Roland to tell his stories.

It’s in this way that the entire novel is an exercise in storytelling, is in fact a book about the value of the act of storytelling. The larger story that the audience presumably cares about, that of Roland and his fellow gunslingers, has been told. I then see this on the shelf some eight years later and my reaction was “the hell is this?” I wasn’t expecting it to exist, so I had nothing to look forward to, no expectations. Obviously I bought it as soon as I saw the thing. That’s probably for the best, since if I had taken to the time to wonder about what The Wind through the Keyhole would be, I would have had expectations of the ka-tet getting up to some adventures. Instead, it’s more Roland storytelling time, which is fine, but maybe not what Tower fans would be clamoring for if they knew King was writing Tower stories again.

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Well, good to see Flagg still being a creep.

So what is King’s intention here? Who’s to say, but it seems clear that he had some Mid-World stories in mind and needed a vehicle in which to tell them. The first is a short story about Roland’s youth. Taken alone, not a whole lot goes down in this particular episode. That is, until the very end, where young Roland receives a small amount of absolution from his actions in Wizard and Glass. The young gunslinger is afforded contact with his mother, who of course died by his own hand, and it seems like she knew what was in the cards for her. And a mother can forgive. In all, it’s a rather grisly horror story with a nice little ending, which marks a closure to young Roland’s emotional arc from the nightmare he suffered in Wizard and Glass. Rancher-munching-skin-monster? No probs. First love getting burned alive and shooting your mom a few days later? Slightly more difficult to parse. Telling the story helps adult Roland assimilate some of these things a bajillion years later.

We see the power of the story to soothe in the middle of young Roland’s story, when he uses the fable of Tim to calm young Bill after his dad gets slaughtered by the monster. The story, of course, not only soothes but teaches. Obviously there’s the whole dead father aspect of Tim’s story that Bill can identify with. There’s also the implicit meaning: be brave. If young Tim can brave a scary forest by night and face a dragon and hang out with a tiger, young Bill can try and identify a were-bear. Stories also pass the time, they bond people over the tale. They offer insight into how others live. Most importantly, stories beget new stories. Like, the Covenant Man is Flagg, right? And like in The Gunslinger he says he was never Maerlyn, and that’s true! But is this a whole Arthuriana thing now? Connections! And really, that’s all I’m getting at here. This is all fun. Aside from Roland’s bit of emotional closure, there’s nothing to worry about here other than enjoying a couple of stories from a world I still love.

Posted in Books, Dark Tower | Leave a comment

Bioshock

Game * Irrational Games * Objectivism Dystopia * 2007

Synopsis

This game is totally ten years old and who feels old now? Everyone does. Hooray! Bioshock is one of the few games that I can associate with a distinct time and place. First of all, the game was a revelation when it came out, and still holds up pretty well. However, playing this also coincides with an important life moment. My wife and I had moved from the relatively sleepy, small town-oriented Central Coast of California the year prior. This involved a brief period of living with my parents, which is of course not ideal when you’re in your mid-20s. Whatever, though, because we eventually found an apartment in what amounts to the closest thing Portland has to a ghetto, which is to say the grimy no-man’s-land between Portland and Gresham, otherwise known as Rockwood. We lived right on the MAX line and there was occasional gunfire! Still, come on, it’s Portland. Not exactly The Wire over here. Anyway, we stuck it out for the duration of the lease before we found a much better place in Portland’s other kinda ghetto, the Boise-Eliot neighborhood in Northeast Portland. The house was a split-level situation and we rented the top, which had two small bedrooms. Downstairs, a group of young Christian woman lived quietly and all in all, the neighborhood was legit. Now, of course, it’s been gentrified beyond recognition and you probably have to put a ‘1’ in front of the $730 we were paying a month for that place. When Bioshock came out I was beyond excited for it. I don’t read too much in the way of preview material, but I knew this was going to be exactly for me. Since we had just moved in, the not-bedroom was a mess of boxes and nonsense. Whatever, though, because I hooked up my Xbox 360 and set up a TV on the single flat surface I could find.

And it was great. For like four hours, and then my 360 red-ringed on me. Motherfucker. Like, I had never been blue-balled by a console before and I was upset. Here’s my most anticipated game of the year, I get just far enough in to be super intrigued and eager to press on, and then pfft. RROD. Fine, fine! I’m an adult, I can deal with this. So I called Microsoft up, and as anyone who dealt with customer service during these dark days knows, they were pretty on the ball. They sent my little cardboard coffin and I sent the dead console back. Like a week or so later my new 360 shows up. We’re back! I load up my save and okay, this game is still fucking great. For another six hours, and then the new machine red-rings. I’ve never been prone to temper tantrums, but I was close to one that day. I eventually finished, and the 360 breaking my heart made the experience of playing Bioshock one I doubt I’ll forget. So, thanks Microsoft? Oh, and for the record, I ended up with seven different Xbox 360’s over the first year or so. The seventh one still works. And, to Microsoft’s credit, I only ever paid the first.

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It’s a dramatic, iconic opening for sure.

I should probably talk about the actual game, although I feel like pretty much anyone with an interest in video games knows what’s up with Bioshock. The game begins with a plane crash which leaves you thrashing around a dark ocean with the tail of the plane slowly sinking into the sea and the rest of the wreckage slowly burning itself out on the surface. Nearby is an unlikely lighthouse, its Art Deco façade jutting into the moonlit sky. The moment is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as when you make your way inside and find a little round submarine. You get in and descend and oh, huh, okay. Someone built a massive city beneath the ocean. A city called Rapture. Oh, and there’s the delayed title card. Awesome.

As the game progresses, we come to understand just what the hell is going on. Once upon a time, a man named Andrew Ryan read Atlas Shrugged one too many times and decided he was going to secede from the world and build a libertarian utopia beneath the sea. Job creators are real humans, everyone else is a parasite. For a while, Ryan’s vision worked a treat. Rapture is a clear achievement, and those who lived there managed to create great things and push science and technology forward in great leaps. Then, somewhere along the line, rot and decay set in and Rapture declined and is now teetering on total collapse. The ways and hows of that decline are uncovered as you move through the game, but right away it’s apparent that Rapture is a hellhole. Everything is in ruin, and the city seems inhabited solely of crazy people who try to kill you on sight. The atmosphere is oppressive and claustrophobic, but the art direction is some of the best in games. Bioshock has a vision and executes extremely well. But then you knew that.

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I know in my heart it’s just underwater New York, but Rapture is still a brilliant design.

Discussion

I don’t want to just unceremoniously declare Bioshock the greatest game to exist across space and time throughout the multiverse, because there are some flaws. Of course there are. From a storytelling standpoint, there are issues with the structure. First, the game relies far too heavily on audio logs which are littered all over hell and gone. The logical disconnect with these should be clear. Rapture – a city built beneath the ocean – is falling apart from the inside out. There is literally nowhere to escape the effects of decay and decline and things are turning violent. Hold on, let me record my thoughts on a sixties-ass tape recorder and leave them in random places around the city. Fine, it’s an imperfect approach which I guess is a better use of player time than a raft of cut scenes. However, the other problem with this method of storytelling is more practical, which is the fact that the player probably isn’t going to find them all. So you better make sure you find the ones which make the story make sense. The other structural issue is another use of the old silent protagonist trope. Of course, this time out Irrational at least makes this a valid choice. I’ll circle back to this.

Bioshock’s story is about the inevitability of social decline and the decay that is built into every human endeavor. We build, we destroy. It’s what we have always done, and every current trend indicate it’s what we’ll always do. This is a very pessimistic view of human nature, but it fits the data. On the optimistic side of the equation, the rise of a civilization can be a breathtaking achievement, and we are capable of great and beautiful things. That these achievements are doomed to decline and fall are almost beside the point when they’re being built. Rapture is an example of the rise and collapse of a civilization in an enclosed space. Sealed off under the ocean, Andrew Ryan’s vision of a society begins with a flourish and ends with a damp thud in a comparatively small amount of time. From beginning to end, Rapture lasts about a decade. If you listen to the audio logs – I got 93% of them according to the achievement tracker – you can trace where and why things went wrong. Turns out, it’s the same kind of shit that undermines every civilization, time and time again.

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The art direction of the game, as seen in the Arcadia level here, is forever on point.

Andrew Ryan is an adherent to Objectivism, although not necessarily in name. Atlas Shrugged doesn’t exist in the world of Bioshock, but the worldview does. Also, “Andrew Ryan” is an unsubtle allusion to Ayn Rand, so, I mean, yeah. Rapture is a self-contained society comprised entirely of lassiez-faire, libertarian Objectivists. If you’re not familiar, allow me to define some terms real quick. Essentially, the core belief is that society should be founded in absolute freedom. This means the economy should be entirely governed by a market totally free of regulation. Further, government is inherently evil, in that it is a structure which people create to use violence to compel other people to follow regulations. This violates the rule of absolute individual freedom, therefore it should not exist. A less extreme form of this view is that government should be incredibly limited to a very few, nominal functions. Ideally, though, no government. Objectivism is the name applied to Rand’s worldview, which she illustrated in her novels. Founded on the above principles, Objectivism basically states that a person is the sum of their own effort, ingenuity, intelligence, and tenacity. Anyone claiming that outside factors affect an individual’s lot in life is a subhuman parasite.

Okay, so I tried my best to retain a neutral tone up there. I may have slipped a little in the end, but to be fair that kind of rhetoric is used by Rand (and in the game, Ryan) all the time. True Objectivists have nothing but contempt for people who suggest that there other possible factors which contribute to the state of a society, or to an individual’s place in said society. Anyway, that is my understanding of the ideas on which Rapture was built. Here’s my commentary: those ideas are all fatally flawed. This is obvious in the fictional world of Rapture, that’s one of the things Bioshock is saying. However, the concept of absolute individual freedom is fatally flawed in the real world too, and unlike Bioshock, it’s a problem of scale.

Look, have you met people? Most of them are totally fine, a few are truly great, but some of them really, really suck. In what universe do we want to leave those in the latter category to just do whatever they want? Because what they want to do is steal your shit and murder you. If you’re an Andrew Ryan type, someone who can be considered truly great by virtue of intelligence and hard work, what are you going to do when someone rolls in with a gun with no other motive than to wreck your shit? If you build your operation out big enough, now you have other people working in harmony with your vision, and you don’t necessarily want them robbed or dead either, if only because you need their ideas and labor. Also! Even if you’re Captain of Industry, you can’t do every damn thing yourself. You ain’t got time to grow your own food or do your own plumbing. Well shit, other people will do that for a price, and that’s a free market and that’s well and good, until one of the baddies uses violence to usurp the market. You could hire someone to protect your assets, unless you’re lower on the chain and now you’ve got to choose between paying rent, buying materials, or hiring a security force to protect your ass.

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I mean, Bioshock isn’t always subtle.

Gets complicated fast, doesn’t it? You also need infrastructure and utilities and protection and every other damn thing you can think of that a government does. Rapture is small. It’s self-contained and is pretty much an ideal test case for the desire for absolute individual freedom, and already it’s doomed to fail because the society gets too big. Multiply that out to over 300 million and now you’ve got the United States. I don’t know about you, but I have zero desire to keep track of every single service the government provides so I can pay for them piecemeal, according to need. I have enough bills, thank you. Every road is a toll road paid to a different company? Every city park is a different fee paid to a recreation company? The cops only come if I remember to pay my bill? This all falls apart from a convenience standpoint alone.

Let’s get away from the macro and return to the micro, in this case Rapture. I could go on about the need for civilization to use neutral abstract constructs (governments, corporations) to organize high-level social interactions, but that’s kind of beyond the scope of Bioshock’s self-contained world. Rapture falls apart because competing human interests tear it apart from within. Ryan is trying to prove the validity of his beliefs through achievement. Rapture attracts like-minded people in various fields, and they all succeed together for a time. One builds a forest under the sea to create sweeping parklands that also make necessary oxygen (and my favorite level in the game), another creates an entertainment wonderland. A brilliant scientist unlocks the secrets of the human genome and creates a system of psychic superpowers based on a system of goo called Adam and Eve. Rapture also attracts another kind of self-made man. A con man named Fontaine.

Fontaine is a piece of shit, and is the avatar of the bad human I mentioned above. He’s the wildcard who uses his individual talent not to create, but to destroy and steal. He’s subtle, and when Rapture inevitably creates a society of haves and have-nots, he creates a populist persona to capitalize on the anger of the have-nots. Atlas sows discontent not in an effort to make things better, but to enrich himself. That said, that discontent is very real and is there to be exploited. Again, all very human reactions which again and again undermine a civilization to the point of collapse. Usually this takes a long time, but again, Rapture is self-contained. Throw in the weird genetic mutations, and when the end comes Rapture falls hard.

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Red Big Daddy: He is mess you up.

Enter Jack, the nonspeaking player. Now, I don’t like silent protagonists. I’m never going to feel like “oh hey, it’s me shooting all these fucked up mutants under the sea!” I don’t really want to immerse myself like that. I prefer if the player character is an actual character most of the time (even if I prefer to retain the right to decide what that character looks like or how they generally act – like in Mass Effect). However, there’s a reason Jack doesn’t speak throughout the deeply fucked up proceedings of Bioshock, and that’s so the game can enjoy its twist. Turns out, you were brainwashed and programmed to do the bidding of Fontaine the entire time. When you finally find Andrew Ryan, the game takes away all player control and all you can do is watch while you murder Ryan with a golf club. This moment wouldn’t work is Jack were chatting it up the entire game, so I guess the silent protagonist thing gets a pass. The twist is a bit of meta-commentary that questions the actual player’s assumptions about choice in games, but also ties in with the larger themes of individual choice, how those choices affect the entire society, and the inevitability of that society collapsing.

Damn, this is getting too long and I haven’t even touched on a few important elements. The Art Deco styling of Rapture and the art direction as a whole are perfect for the game. They line up exactly with the industrial foundation of Rapture and Objectivism in general. Every room is crafted with care and things make sense as you move through the space. I also realize I haven’t mentioned the Little Sisters or Big Daddies yet, which is a major part of the experience. Bioshock is personally important because it’s one of the first times a game made me feel actively uncomfortable. That scene where you first encounter a Little Sister? And you approach her and you’re huge and she’s tiny and freaking out and you just scoop her up and she’s all “No! No no no!” I’m sitting here trying to visualize the human monster who “harvests” the child. To this day I’ve never seen the animation in which the player does this. Not even out of morbid curiosity. And I don’t even like kids that much!

The sudden shifts in scale are important here. You’re this big hulking dude with a gun lurking over this tiny little girl who is terrified of you. Really? You’re going to hurt her? You’re a goddamn pyschopath?

There’s more to talk about, of course, because this is one of those few video games with a strong point of view, and something to say about it. The moment-to-moment gameplay is fine, but isn’t really the point. The player is here to discover the world of Rapture, to figure out what went wrong and why. To this end, Bioshock succeeds as much as Rapture itself failed.

Posted in Dystopia, Games, Post Modernity, Urban Decline | Leave a comment

It Can’t Happen Here

Novel * Sinclair Lewis * OR CAN IT?! * 1935

Synopsis

Fascism. That’s what can’t happen here. “Here” being the United States. The title should probably be Fascism Can’t Happen in the United States for ultimate clarity, but that’s not quite as snappy. Clickbait was a thing in 1935, it seems. That’s it! Throw this book in the trash, fake news. I can tell already that this does not conform to my always-already worldview, which is the only true and proper way to assimilate and disseminate information, and therefore I am correct and right to dismiss this novel out of hand without a second thought. Fake. Fucking. News.

Okay, that was gross. Sorry, but if you’re going to read this book get ready to feel all squiggly like that a lot. There’s “oh, that’s a bit on the nose” and then there’s something like It Can’t Happen Here, which is uncomfortable and upsetting in that the first act of the novel might as well take place in 2016. The story, written by a pissed-off Sinclair Lewis in 1934, documents the career of the first American dictator, who has just the best, most perfect name ever: Buzz Windrip. Buzz is the most American. It’s his brand. He appeals directly to the those marginalized by corporate hegemony and localized economic despair and rallies their support by having huge grandstanding rallies where he spews folksy, relatable rhetoric that disparages minorities and props up a flawed worldview while making wild, grandiose promises that he clearly has no intention of keeping.

Right?

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Workers of the world maybe don’t unite because Fascists hate that.

Most of the story is told from the viewpoint of a guy named Doremus Jessup. He’s a small-town newspaper editor who is watching all this hot fascist bullshit unfold in front of him and can’t even believe it. Doremus is an older man and isn’t really down to fight the power. He just wants to chill with his family and maybe his side-piece every once in a while. Okay, that sounds gross but in the context of the story Doremus’ long-time affair is a less a mark against his character than it is an acceptance of changing social mores. Look, whatever, the point is Doremus eventually realizing that he needs to #resist, and while the rest of his family is down to clown, his wife is absolutely not. One nice surprise is that there is a wealth of strong female characters here. The girlfriend, Lorinda, is a rebel and ends up running an underground railroad for political refugees. Sissy, one of two daughters, is a sassy young woman who likes to drive fast and take chances. She’s down for whatever. There’s also an older daughter who straight-up assassinates a dude, so she’s pretty badass herself.

It Can’t Happen Here is, then, a story about a fascist dictator who ascends to power in the United States and those who would fight against him. The pattern follows very closely that which unfolded in Germany and Italy, because obviously that’s what was happening in the mid-1930’s over in Europe. The title of the book is simply what many Americans would tell themselves while watching Hitler clamping down in real-time. Most of what happens in the novel occured in reality in Germany. Windrip wins power democratically before assuming direct control over the government. He maintains power by amassing a large militia group to protect him and his nascent dictatorship. He assumes control of the press and purges anyone with a dissenting voice. Eventually there’s concentration camps and checkpoints and executions and all the other nice things one associates with an authoritarian dystopia.

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I still can’t get over the fact the evil dictator’s name is Buzz Windrip.

Discussion

Once It Can’t Happen Here moves past the actual election of Buzz Windrip, it gets easier to read. I mean, there’s no getting past the fact that the character of Windrip is Trumpy as hell, and it can be uncomfortable. There are many alarming/unbelievable/terminally embarrassing things happening in our country right now, but there are some key things which are not happening. Most importantly, Trump does not have an organized militia at his beck and call. Further, Trump has not managed to disband the Supreme Court and Congress. Oh, he clearly wants to, but he’s nowhere near the kind of popularity he would need to pull that shit off. That kind of near-universal popularity is incredibly hard to come by, and lucky for us here in 2017 there’s a key ingredient missing.

Most people don’t want a fascist dictator. They don’t really want a king, or a czar, or an emperor. Most people just want to live their lives in peace and safety and ease. However, sometimes the world can be dangerous and threatening, and when that happens people will turn to someone who will promise peace, and safety, and ease. Of course, the price for those promises is quite high, constituting the complete and total surrender of personal freedom. Usually, the dangerous threat must be extremely severe to convince most people to appeal to the strong authority figure to ‘save’ them, at the price of utter loyalty. In the case of Hitler and Mussolini, it was the chaos and ruin left over from World War I that drove the populations of those countries to choose them over personal freedom.

The dangerous threat in the United States during the mid-1930’s was, of course, the Great Depression. The U.S. had the good fortune to not have an apocalyptic war on their own soil, and so the industrial infrastructure was spared decimation. While the U.S. lost many good soldiers during the war, the casualties suffered were nowhere near those of the European combatants. However, the Depression wrecked shit all the way up. The fear was that the Depression would never end, that capitalism just ate the country and the vast majority of Americans would never again know prosperity. Conditions were far riper for an American Hitler to sweep in and make promises, and then take over. The “great recession” of 2008 was a big deal, and the slow recovery has been painful for many, but it still lacks the immediate threat to a majority of citizens to truly usher in another era of totalitarians.

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A true thing: There was a film version made in the 30’s which was cancelled because the studio didn’t want to alienate German audiences. Gross, huh? They wrote a stage adaptation instead.

I hope. What It Can’t Happen Here does best is illustrate how people react to certain situations. As Windrip’s campaign gains popularity, you see the type of person he attracts in the form of Shad Ledue. This fuckin’ guy is Doremus Jessup’s handyman, and he sucks. He’s dumb, vindictive, and petty. He also represents a great swath of the population that Lewis is rather ruthlessly making fun of. You know, a real basket of deplorables. Guess what happens when Windrip sweeps into power? All the smarty smart-asses who ran the government are run out on rails, their positions given to dudes like Shad who make excellent toadies. Guys who are all about being a petty tyrant in their local area and who know how to really get down and lick boot when it comes to the bigger fish. And meanwhile the general population keeps repeating “well let’s just see how this all plays out, after all, it can’t happen here.”

For all the easily made correlations to the current political situation in the United States, It Can’t Happen Here is a direct product of its time. Lewis was writing a topical satire, and it was meant to be consumed and thought about in the mid 1930’s. Buzz Windrip is based on a Louisiana Senator who was apparently assassinated before the publication of the novel. Many of the characters within are either real people of the time or are based on them. Other than F.D.R. and William Randolph Hearst, I don’t know my political history well enough to recognize them. This is all to the good, because otherwise it would be really easy to read It Can’t Happen Here and panic, like the thing fell through a temporal wormhole and delivered an alternate-reality United States into 2017. But relax. While it totally can happen here, it hasn’t. Yet.

Posted in Books, Historical, Totalitarian | Leave a comment

Last Post (Parade’s End, Pt. 4)

Novel * Ford Madox Ford * The End of the Whole Mess * 1928

Synopsis

Welcome to the final installment of Parade’s End. The previous novels in this four-part series were Some Do Not…, No More Parades, and A Man Could Stand Up. If you’re down with Modernism and literature, I cannot possibly recommend these books highly enough. If Modernism ain’t your thing, which I totally understand, then I also recommend the BBC miniseries featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s the same story told in a more linear, conventional fashion and is cast exceptionally well.

After finishing the previous volume, A Man Could Stand Up, I thought the overall story of Parade’s End was pretty much complete. Turns out I was right. Last Post is the shortest of the four novels, takes place over a single afternoon, does not feature Christopher Tietjens directly, and all in all acts as a denouement rather than a climatic finish. The third novel ends with Christopher and Valentine finally casting off social expectations and embracing each other and in effect the new world order. As it happens, this touching final scene was but the first moment in a long, arduous, rather terrible evening that we only learn about as we work through Last Post.

It takes some time before we begin learning any details about the time which has passed since the end of A Man Could Stand Up and the beginning of Last Post, because ol’ Ford Ford is up to some serious Modern nonsense in this final book. As I mentioned, the entire novel takes place over a single afternoon, and while it begins with the viewpoint of a Tietjens, it is not Christopher whose mind we occupy. Rather, it is his brother Mark, who is unable to talk or move much, and seems to be getting ready to die. We’ve never been exposed to Mark’s point of view before, and up until now he has been an ancillary character. Even here he literally can’t speak to people. So when Christopher’s son rolls up with some American lady in tow, he can’t answer their frivolous nonsense with words. It’s all pretty funny, really. Last Post is basically a comic dirge.

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Jazzy!

We also get to spend some time with Mark’s longtime live-in girlfriend, who is French. She’s a very sensible woman and is happy to speak endlessly to Mark, who rarely speaks even when he is able. Ford commits to a very long bit early on, in which Marie indulges in an extremely long monologue but – and here’s the bit – she always comes back to the subject from which she began. In this case it is Parisian turnips. It’s a like a ten page long joke, which, you know, I respect. Anyway, once it becomes apparent that Mark is going to die, Christopher insists he marries the woman who has been living with him pretty much his whole life. Mark, despite being stringently anti-marriage, agrees. If only to keep Groby out of the hands of “that bitch Sylvia.” Mark really, really hates Sylvia.

Speaking of my now-favorite villain, she’s still terrible and amazing. Remember how nicely A Man Could Stand Up ended? Christopher coming back from the front to find his house stripped of furniture and his wife seemingly, finally, and at long last, gone. Then Valentine shows up and it’s almost too much, so he bails, excusing this breach of decorum because he needs some cash to begin his new life. Eventually both of these goofs realize that they’re free to love each other now and that’s nice. Well, there’s more to it. After Christopher and Valentine get their nice moment of realization, Tietjens’ army buddies insist on an Armistice Day party, after which Christopher’s ex-colonel keels over and dies. The loving couple finally deals with the unpleasant mess this presents, and end up back at Christopher’s house late at night. And guess who’s there? Why, Sylvia, of course. She announces she has cancer, and falls down the stairs, spraining her ankle. Valentine, who has quite clearly had enough of this bullshit, insists Christopher just leave her there and go. Which he does, because Valentine isn’t the only one sick of Sylvia’s narcissistic insistence of being the center of Christopher’s world. Their long-deferred union was a mess, but it’s all the more iron-clad for that.

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Oh, I don’t know. This last book isn’t as bleak as all that. It’s comparatively light in tone, actually.

Discussion

Last Post does not deliver a “happily ever after” ending, because this is still Modernism and that’s not how they roll. Ford does, however, offer a “they live” ending, which is as much as anyone could hope for in a post-apocalyptic world. World War I happened and knocked civilization crooked. The foundation of civil society in Europe was permanently unmoored and as a result the rather staid and concrete code of ethics and morality were forever altered. For those who survived the war, it took a while for this new reality to sink in. We see this as Christopher and Valentine’s situation becomes clear toward the end of Parade’s End.

The four novels of Parade’s End together form a nice cross-section of World War I as a catalyst for drastic change. The war is the apocalyptic event, the revelation, after which definite change is the only possible outcome. Some Do Not… provides the background, and depicts a society on the cusp of change, the eve of war. In Christopher Tietjens, Ford introduces the most conservative personality he can conceive of. At the beginning of the tetralogy, Tietjens is the last Tory, the last True Believer in the English Aristocratic Tradition, the upholder of the 18th century. However, we quickly see that his worldview is under considerable attack, even before the outbreak of war. The social standards by which Tietjens lives are coming undone, and the more he digs his heels in to uphold his standards, the more society casts him in shameful shadow. By doing things the right way, he sets himself up to be perceived as a hypocrite and a liar.

When the apocalypse arrives in No More Parades and is concluded in A Man Could Stand Up, Tietjens is utterly debased in social terms. His reputation is completely destroyed because Tietjens was determined to be the ideal Tory instead of managing his image. The corruption of the decaying social structure was set in direct opposition to how Christopher was determined to conduct himself as a gentleman, and in the end this determination to be loyal to his ideals unmade him. World War I was a violent disaster that killed millions and destroyed vast swaths of land, but it was also a social disaster for those who lived according to an outmoded code. The war was abjectly amoral. Things blew up and people died and those involved in the war (such as General Campion and the shadowy beings mentioned in the various government ministries) treated the apocalypse as an abstract game to be won. Those in charge lost sight of the scope of the war, and vastly underestimated the repercussions such willful negligence for the society they were destroying sowed in the populace.

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MAKE ALL THE VALENTINE BABIES! ❤ ❤ ❤

As a result of these apocalyptic conditions, Christopher Tietjens was absolutely and irrevocably disillusioned. He has been upholding these archaic Tory standards alone and to his detriment. No more. He loves Valentine Wannop and fuck every other thing in the world. He’s done. He’s done with Toryism, he’s done with being a Tietjens of Groby, he’s done with his terrible wife, he’s done with the 18th century. All that said, simply being able to have and hold the true love of his life will not and could never be enough to exist in a post-apocalyptic world. Much of the social order may have knocked off its foundation, but there are still certain truths to living in a civilization. In other words, Tietjens still needs a job.

Since Christopher Tietjens is so goddamn inflexible when it comes to taking money from his brother and/or staking his claim on his ancestral holdings – which are still quite valuable – he finds himself making a meager living as an antique furniture salesman. This occupation, while totally respectable, is further hampered by Christopher’s inability to say no to people, and so he’s ruthlessly taken advantage of and is therefore generally short on money and reputation. Meanwhile, he’s still being attacked by Sylvia because she’s all the more pushed to distraction by the mere thought of her husband being anything but miserable. Toward the end of Last Post, we discover that she’s finally pulled the right trigger, and has Groby Great Tree cut down. Burn it all, motherfuckers.

If anything in Parade’s End is a true literary symbol, it’s that tree. It represents the final destruction of the 18th century, you see. It’s the last post. Oh, and you know Ford continues to use his title throughout the text of his novel. It’s a fun game at this point. Anyway, the felling of that damn tree is the final nail in the coffin of the old social order. Christopher – who again is totally absent from this final novel – is hurt by its destruction, but at the same time it’s understood that this was inevitable. He willingly gives up his ancestral birthright in order to pursue happiness in the name of Valentine Wannop.

My feelings about Valentine Wannop are clear. Tietjens made the right choice, and he should have made it three books ago. That might have mitigated the impact of Parade’s End somewhat, but then I come from a very different society than Christopher. In the end, Valentine is well and truly pregnant with Christopher’s child, and it’s this revelation that causes Sylvia to finally lay the fuck off. It seems apparent that what she’s been doing this entire time was violently fighting against the changing of the social world. That social structure is the only reason she’s of any note, by virtue of her own upbringing and more importantly, the status of her aristocrat husband. Now that he’s cast all that aside and is determined to make his life his own, she has no real reason to continue her personal war. Instead it’s assumed that she’ll move to India, where Sylvia can at least entertain the notion that the 18th century has never ended.

Posted in Books, Modernity | Leave a comment

The Empire Strikes Back

 

Film * Irvin Kershner * Mystic Space Nazis * 1980

Synopsis

Before I start, we all agree that this is the best Star Wars movie, and that it’s not even close, right? I understand that it’s impossible to separate this from the rest of the original trilogy, because you need A New Hope to set all this up, and you need Jedi to close the deal out. Yet all the best stuff happens here, in this Dark Middle Chapter™, so even if it probably can’t stand alone as a story, it’s still the reason to show up in the first place. The first chapter of the trilogy is dull in places because, well, it’s unfiltered George Lucas and ugh. However, it’s also a slower burn because it’s the story responsible for setting up the epic. It’s a Fellowship of the Ring situation. There’s a lot of world-building that needs to happen up front which can put a damper on the action. Empire has no need to do any of that legwork. The universe is established, so let’s get on with it already.

Here are some iconic Star Wars things which were cool then, are still cool now, and will pretty much remain cool for all time.

  1. Lightsabers, obviously.
  2. Darth Vader is a fucking boss. Goddamn.
  3. Princess Leia is fierce and hot.
  4. Yoda is a fucked-up wizard Muppet and I love him.
  5. The following ship designs: X-Wings, TIE Fighters. That is all.
  6. Han Solo, even though his alpha shtick wears a little thin after a while.
  7. The soundtrack and the sound design.
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I’ve always enjoyed this bit. Like, pssh, get that weak shit outta my face.

Probably other things, I don’t know. What I do know is that Luke is still an obnoxious little bitch, so that apple doesn’t fall too far from the old tree. Now, most of those things were introduced in the first movie. However, Empire doubles down on everything A New Hope introduced and made them better. Light sabers? Obi-Wan v. Vader is dull and wooden. Luke v. Vader is dynamic and brilliantly shot and iconic. Darth Vader? In the first film he’s menacing and cool-looking, but doesn’t do all that much. In Empire? He keeps choking dudes out and starts getting obsessive about chasing Luke down. Then he fucks his own kid up because he’s so dark.

Meanwhile we get a few more Star Wars elements that are introduced and some that just get worse as time goes by. Boba Fett shows up and sure, the helmet looks cool but he doesn’t actually do anything except whine to the far superior badass Darth Vader about his prize. C3PO is the actual worst, and just gets more and more grating. Beyond these things, the only thing Empire lacks is a big fuck-off space battle. Okay, sure, you get the Millennium Falcon doing loopey-loops while dodging vast albino space Doritos and that’s all right. Also the Battle of Hoth makes up for a lot by itself. Why does the Empire build a bunch of robot dinosaurs with laser-mouths? Because if you had the limitless resources of an entire galaxy at your whim, you absolutely would too.

Well shit. I guess I still like this movie.

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I don’t even think I need to see this movie again. This image pretty much sums it all up.

Discussion

So how are those space Nazis holding up after their Death Star blew up? Pretty okay, as it happens. Striking back, even! They revel in exerting their clear technological and numerical supremacy over their Rebel enemies. The entire first act is a show of force. The Rebels cannot run, cannot hide. The Empire’s reach is limitless. As soon as you think you’ve hidden and are safe, the clean white ships of oppression show up and wreck your whole shit. I mean, what is a Star Destroyer other than a mobile manifestation of the Ministry of Love? One of those parks in your orbit and goodbye personal and economic freedom. Yet the Rebels are a canny lot, and are willing and able to sacrifice troops and equipment to get their leadership to yet another temporary hidey-hole. The Empire is vast and strong beyond knowing, but like any large structure, the Empire is not nimble.

We have to wait until the next movie to watch the Empire fall. If you think that’s a spoiler, I don’t know what to tell you other than be less dense. What, you think this is a story in which the heroic Rebel Alliance is finally and ultimately crushed by the galactic Empire run by a couple of black-robed space warlocks? No, c’mon. The Empire will fall, we know that as soon as we find out there is such a thing. The question is how. In both films we’ve seen that the Empire is beyond strength, beyond power. Sure, they kind of fucked up the engineering on the old Death Star, but not before they managed to toast an entire planet. Besides, they don’t even need that thing to fully oppress and dominate entire star systems. They have all the infrastructure to churn out the machinery needed to continue repressing everything and everyone, not to mention a raft of ready and willing Stormtroopers to man the war machine. The Empire, under direct control of the evil Emperor and his loyal minion, is strong beyond strength.

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Yoda wins me over right away because he makes Luke his bitch instantaneously. “Wear me as a backpack, like a cute little Hello Kitty backpack, you precious little thing.”

I’m not going to get into Return of the Jedi territory here, because that would be cheating. However, the blueprint of failure is all right here. After all, the dark side is about power at the expense of balance and morality. As soon as something undermines that power, it all falls down. Vader is obsessed with Luke beyond reason. Yeah, yeah, he believes in some mystic ‘chosen one’ destiny nonsense, but in actuality Luke is not worth the expense. Vader is probably responsible for a good deal of important administrative work that is clearly not a priority to him due to his obsession. He should be tearing around the galaxy keeping the proletariat in line, blowing shit up and dropping Stormtroopers off on random planets to remind them who’s in charge. Yet here he is, on some frozen backwater bullshit planet chasing his personal obsession. The more the Rebels slip away, the more Vader throws at catching one or two people.

The main problem with an autocracy of any size is that if the guy in charge fails, the whole system fails. Now, the man in charge is the Emperor. We know very little about him at this point. He’s a spook in a hood and is the only creature in the universe who can get Darth fucking Vader to kneel. The Emperor is also on board with Vader’s Luke obsession. Of course we know this is because Luke is the destiny-boy who blah blah whatever. The point is both of the autocrats, the space dictators, have lost focus. They’re getting wiggy around the edges and are needlessly freaking out about this teen-boy who blew up their space station. Meanwhile, they tighten the yoke on their own people, which does not exactly sow employee appreciation. There’s the running joke throughout the film of various admiral lackeys failing and sequentially getting Force-choked by Darth Vader. Yes, it’s cold-blooded and awesome, but it’s also evidence of a strongman losing his grip.

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A thing that is true: Lando’s mustache is cooler than Boba Fett’s entire fucking existence.

The Empire might be striking back, but the rot is clearly setting in, and it’s targeting the head. This tends to be how totalitarian regimes go. The dictator loses focus, gets distracted by an obsession, and everything falls apart. Since this is a space opera, there’s no land war in Russia to act as the Empire’s undoing, but there is a one-track obsession with a single dude who by himself poses exactly zero threat. As the story moves to its conclusion, it’s clear how this Empire is going to end. The autocrats will overreach in their folly, and their war machine will be picked apart by the opposing forces.

Posted in Film, Star Wars, Totalitarian | Leave a comment

Watership Down

Novel * Richard Adams * Wabbits * 1972

Synopsis

Watership Down is a story about rabbits. English rabbits, in particular, though to be honest I don’t really get a sense of rabbity nationalism here. These rabbits are sentient, in that they have conversations and an autonomous sense of self. To be perfectly clear right out the gate, these are not anthropomorphic rabbits. This is not a furry situation. No, these are perfectly ordinary rabbits doing perfectly ordinary rabbity things like hopping around and nibbling grass and pooping and gettin’ it on. While that might sound quite dull, I assure you that Watership Down is in fact an outstanding story of adventure, perseverance, horror, and heroism. This novel is remarkable not just because it’s an excellent story, but because Adams elicits real emotions and creates relatable characters out of a bunch of fucking rabbits. It’s a weird yet noteworthy achievement.

A rabbit named Hazel is our protagonist. He’s a young buck, by which I mean he’s a young male rabbit. The ladies are does, and the young rabbits are kittens. Like any other fantasy novel you’ve ever read, there are some made-up words here and there, but it’s nothing overwhelming. Anyway, Hazel’s our boy. He’s a plucky young rabbit with ambitions. He has a bro named Fiver, who is kind of runty but is blessed with mystical wabbit power which grants him a preternatural sense of foreboding greater than knowing if a fox is around. The novel opens with Fiver having a vision of a terrible rabbit apocalypse. Hazel and Fiver are hopping around like adorable little bun-buns looking for the real fancy plants when they come across a notice board near their warren. Fiver flips all the way out: dark times are coming.

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Left to right: Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver. Probably.

Rabbits are kind of dumb. That should be apparent to anyone who’s ever met a rabbit. These rabbits, despite having self-awareness and an organized society, are also kind of dumb. They can count to four, which is impressive, but anything past that is simply “a lot.” They can talk to each other and various other woodland creatures, but mostly they just eat and poop and fuck and hide. They’re rabbits. So when Fiver and Hazel recognize that the warren is going to be destroyed by men, obviously the rabbits in charge ignore them. However, occasionally warrens get overcrowded and there aren’t enough does to go around (and I will tell you right now that there is no such thing as feminism with rabbits, so the lady rabbits dig and breed litters and that’s pretty much it and that’s why the bucks have all the actual adventures) so the lowest bucks on the, uh, rabbit ladder, take off to seek their fortune elsewhere.

Fiver figures out the apocalypse is coming, like right now, and convinces his more persuasive brother to gather up a ragtag group of rabbits to get out of Dodge. It’s lucky they do because Fiver is right. Men arrive in short order and kill all the rabbits and dig up the warren and basically rain incomprehensible fire down from the heavens to smite all the complacent rabbits. In other words, men show up and want to build some townhouses or something.  Meanwhile, it’s on Hazel to lead his charges to somewhere else that’s suitable for building a new warren. The entire rest of the novel is about Hazel and his crew establishing a new, functional home. In order to do this they must not only secure a safe haven to live, but also find some lady rabbits to propagate the community. Both of these activities are met with significant resistance. However, between Fiver’s prognostic gift, Hazel’s leadership, Bigwig’s size and aggression, Dandelion’s storytelling, and Blackberry’s ingenuity, they have a fighting chance. Oh, and yes, all the rabbits have the most precious bunny names.

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Cats are not depicted very well in Watership Down, which is bullshit because everyone knows Bunny and Kitty are best friends.

Discussion

I have this wonderful live-action film version of Watership Down firmly in my head now. Basically, it’s just actual rabbits doing all the things the characters in the story do, except without any dialogue. The whole movie is rabbits running around doing improbable things. Plus lots of eating and pooping. Because they’re rabbits. Okay, on second thought that would be a terrible movie. However, that’s still the image in my head, and it’s a testament to the skilled realism Adams brings to the story. These are rabbits what act like rabbits. That said, you can’t actually tell a compelling story about literal rabbits. This is why Adams spices it up with both an apocalypse and a fascist rabbit dystopia. Just because it is on a vastly smaller scale than humans are used to doesn’t make the situation any less dire or devastating.

Humans are not given a particularly sympathetic depiction in Watership Down. We are actually terrible. We’re gross, and everyone smokes, and we build roads everywhere to splat innocent woodland creatures, and we shoot everything, oh, and we propagate rabbit genocide and wreck their whole shit up. We suck. It also doesn’t help that every human described in the story is a total fucking bumpkin. Just the worst kind of “yee-haw Geech, Imma done kill that rabbit good I tell you what” except, you know, British. Anyway, it’s clear that Adams is working from a place of great distrust in human nature. I mean, listen to this.

“’There’s a terrible evil in the world.’

‘It comes from men,’ said Holly. ‘All other elil [predators] do what they have to do and Frith [Bunny Sun-God] moves them as he moves us. They live on the earth and they need food. Men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.’”

Pretty much! What Holly here is describing is the human practice of domesticating wilderness, or the devastation of natural habitat. It’s the heedless churning up of huge tracts of land (heh) in order to spread out humanity to all the wild corners of the earth. This is not to say that the Midlands of England are in any way ‘the wilderness,’ but what Watership Down does is illustrate the smaller scale of life humans are not accustomed to consider when doing human stuff. And Holly has a point. Since when is humanity content with simply using what they need to survive? Hell no, we’ll drive entire species to extinction for funsies (when we’re not inadvertently doing it to clear millions of acres of forest and the like). We have little to no interest in living alongside the natural world. We must dominate it.

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General Woundwort is not to be fucked with.

Perhaps more insidious than simply inflicting the apocalypse on Hazel’s old home is the way humanity’s worst tendencies have found a home among other rabbits. On their journey to Watership Down (which is the place where Fiver has decreed is ideal for a new warren), Hazel’s crew comes across another warren of rabbits. They’re weird and spooky and unsettling. These rabbits are clearly well-fed and content, but they do not act like natural rabbits. Their warren is massive but mostly empty, and they have the odd habit of collecting food to keep underground. Also sometimes rabbits disappear and these vanished individuals are not to be talked about. Most of Hazel’s crew seems okay with the weird shit because the food is good and the ladies are smokin’ and it’s free from foxes and owls and cats. Only Fiver is upset and refuses to go underground. Turns out, Fiver is right, which everyone else figures out when Bigwig gets his big dumb head stuck in a snare.

Don’t worry, Bigwig doesn’t die. However, Hazel’s rabbits learn a valuable lesson about unnatural rabbit organization. Turns out, the fat-fat bun-buns were being harvested. They were given an unnaturally safe environment by men, who were keeping the warren alive by shooting all the elil who would come skulking about. Then they’d leave out carrots and lettuce and fancy food like that so the rabbits would get nice and fat, but not gross and docile like your typical hutch rabbit. The only mitigating factor of living in such a situation is that every once in a while a rabbit would disappear. Because he’s now dinner. Once Hazel figured all this out, his much more sensible group of rabbits got the hell up out of there, because rabbits who have been corrupted by men are creepy.

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‘Sup.

Eventually, Hazel and company get to Watership Down, which is a dope place for a warren. Our heroes start digging tunnels and spreading out and feeling good about life. Hazel, who is a cool guy, makes some strange friends, like a field mouse (who the other rabbits like to look down on cuz they’re racist) and a sea gull. Turns out these unnatural buddies come in handy later on. Meanwhile, there’s a problem. There’s all these dudes and no ladies, so while the new warren is great it’s also short-lived. Lucky for them, their sea gull friend discovered a large warren some distance away from Watership Down that very well may have an excess of ‘mudders.’ Turns out they’re a bunch of fascists.

No, for real. These other rabbits live in a dystopian nightmare society which prioritizes safety and organization over personal freedom. This place is led by a fellow with the not-nearly-as-precious name General Woundwort. He’s a dick. He also hates men with a fiery passion not usually associated with rabbits. However, because he is so blinded by his own all-encompassing rage against humanity, General Woundwort does his best human impression when creating his terrible warren, Efrafa. It’s basically a police state where ordinary rabbits are only allowed outside at certain times and nobody can leave, ever. Anyone who tries is either killed or punished. It doesn’t even matter that the warren is dangerously overcrowded, because Woundwort is a crazy person obsessed with total control. So when Bigwig shows up and starts talking about freedom and eating outside whenever and pooping wherever one pleases, well, he starts a ruckus.

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Enjoying the spoils of war.

Eventually, Hazel and company figure out a way to break a bunch of does out of prison and escape the wrath of Woundwort and Efrafa. They do this using their friendship with the sea gull and the ingenuity of Blackberry, who basically steals a boat to float away from the scene of the crime. The boat thing is confusing to everyone except the smartest rabbits because it is unnatural. Bunnies are like hobbits in that they don’t understand boats. However, there is a marked difference between the unnatural activities of Hazel’s crew and Efrafa. Hazel is simply a good leader. He listens to everyone and utilizes cleverness when he sees it. His only goal is for his rabbits to live happily and naturally and do normal rabbit stuff. Woundwort, on the other hand, is driven to unnatural acts by his goal, which is total control. In order to do this, he turns to the tactics of his most hated enemies, humanity.

In the end, Hazel wins. Nature reigns supreme and all the hoppity, floppity, huggity bunny-buns live happily ever after. This does not mean they’re free from danger, far from it. They’re rabbits, after all. However, because they live according to their nature, they’re okay with running from the occasional stoat. It’s more important for them to live like Frith intended instead of trying to either accommodate human interests or co-opt their fucked-up government systems. And I still can’t believe I got this worked up over a bunch of damn rabbits.

Posted in Books, Dystopia, Environment, Wabbits | Leave a comment

Watch_Dogs 2

Game * Ubisoft Montreal Studios * Bay Area Pre-Dystopia * 2016

Synopsis

I feel kinda bad for this game, because from what I can tell it got buried in the holiday releases of 2016 and it didn’t deserve to be overlooked. This is a definitely a case of the sequel pretty much fixing the problems of the first game. Here’s the thing about the first Watch_Dogs: it had a neat premise for an open world whatever-game, but it was just offensively mediocre. The systems were almost but not quite there, and the protagonist and story were just straight up awful. The biggest issue with the first game was the city itself. That version of Chicago was dull and devoid of character. I’ve never been to Chicago, but I get the feeling there’s more to it than just another video game city. There were cars and buildings and gang members and cops and sometimes things blew up. Actually, that kind of sums up the entire first game, but with “hacking.” Luckily, Ubisoft Montreal figured their shit out.

Pretty much everything story-wise from the first game is gone. Good riddance. The generic angsty white man from the first game shows up exactly once and doesn’t speak. Even that’s a little too much. The only hold-over from Watch_Dogs are the fake company names and the super-secret hacking club, Dedsec. The protagonist of Watch_Dogs 2 is a cool dude named Marcus. This time out, the man character is actually a character. Now, I’m not saying he’s a fully developed, layered character with a full arc or anything, but he’s got a goddamned personality. A fun one, at that. In fact, that’s the biggest and best change the sequel has delivered. Watch_Dogs 2 has a personality, it stopped taking itself so seriously and is willing to have fun.

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Not gonna lie, I really enjoyed roaming the fake-Google campus with a paintball gun, menacing millennials in my fly-ass pants 

This tactic could have gone wrong. The promotional materials were a little on the cringy, try-hard side of things. After all, the story is about a group of twenty-something “hacktivists” who make internet videos in order to, like, save the world. Some of the clothing designs are a little much, and the personalities of the ancillary characters threaten to be obnoxiously over-the-top. However, the line is successfully walked. I suppose your tolerance for abject silliness may vary, but if you can appreciate occasional bit of goofy nonsense then you should be all right. The interactions between these people – who are lighthearted nerds – are generally easy going and rooted in dumb banter. The game rarely veers into embarrassing internet meme humor and with the exception of one or two missions, the tone stays light throughout.

On the gameplay side of things, well, it’s an open world, GTA-lite kind of thing. You drive disposable cars around and wreck shit up and do missions and whatnot. This time out, the game is set in the actual Bay Area (which includes San Francisco, Oakland, Marin, and Silicon Valley). There are plenty of recognizable landmarks, and the rest of the map reads like a scaled-down version of the real thing. I don’t know San Francisco that well (I would rather live on the surface of the sun), but Watch_Dogs 2 pretty much nails the feel of the city, and that’s important. Of course, the game uses fake names for places like Google and Facebook and the like, but the corporate campuses are a vital part of the environment. Visually, the game looks great. Something about the lighting in particular properly evokes that part of California so there were times in the game where I’d be driving at sunset past a grove of eucalyptus trees and flash back to my youth growing up on the Central Coast. It’s really well done.

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Your hacker crew is fun, even if they look all corny and dumb.

Discussion

The story of Watch_Dogs 2 is, put succinctly, really on the nose. Like, almost too much. This is a 2016-ass game, and it’s clear the team at Ubisoft keeps up on the news. Also, thank god the development cycles of big games like this are so long I didn’t have to deal with an in-game Trump analogue. There are a few side missions that absolutely borrow heavily from relatively recent headlines. Just a for-instance there’s a point where you use your hacking magic to fuck with a CEO of a pharmaceutical company. This guy is a profiteer who jacks up prices on life-saving drugs in order to clear absurd profits for himself. He then uses his money to do things like pay a famous hip-hop artist to make an album just for him. If all that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a thing which happened in real life. Except without the part of the miracle hacker who managed to tap into the CEO’s system to mess with him. So that’s what this game is doing.

The overall story is a little corny, but it’s okay. Sometimes a little cornball feels all right. Your hacker buddies are out to Do The Right Thing. Because, you know, they’re the good guys. The bad guy is some New Corporate, man-bunned jackass. He runs a company called Blume. Blume has a system called ctos, which is basically an interconnected, fully networked city infrastructure. In order to properly run this system, they need all the bandwidth and all the metadata. So they steal it. They leech on social media companies, and the Google analogue (Nudle, which, heh), there are robots and rockets and sometimes things get a little silly. The game seems to think some hacker group putting out lame, earnest videos professing “the truth” on YouTube would actually influence the public, so that’s rather charming. I’d like to live in a world where people cared.

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I also got to live out my fantasy of driving a scissor lift around industrial Oakland. What? You never dreamed of doing that? Weirdo.

Instead, I live in a world where Donald fucking Trump is president and over half the voting public couldn’t be bothered to show up and vote. No amount of sassy videos were likely to change that outcome, especially when the odiousness of the campaign was out in the open for all to see. One of the main missions in Watch_Dogs 2 actually deals with a compromised politician who’s embroiled in a voter fraud situation. Of course Blume and the not-Facebook are manipulating data and feeding people fake news in order to sway polls to benefit their guy (like I said, it’s all pretty on the nose). Marcus and Dedsec save the day, of course, by anonymously leaking proof of the fraud and the crooked politician bites the big one. How I would love to believe such things were possible. It’s comforting to play in a world where the general public is sensitive to objective truth, and not beholden to the entrenched tribalism of contemporary politics.

Watch_Dogs 2 is endearingly optimistic about humanity, which is in tune with the overall colorful look and feel of the game. All of the various plots and subplots of evil tech companies are realistic enough to be uncomfortable (to the point where I’m glad I didn’t play this upon release, which was the week after the election), but in the end it’s okay because our friendly, goofy super-hackers save the day. We live in strange times, teetering on the edge of a history that looks like it wants to repeat itself in the worst ways. Watch_Dogs 2 seems to be concerned with the vast concentration of data, wealth, and power in the hands of a very few massive tech corporations (which is funny considering the game is made by one of the biggest game companies, Ubisoft). Income inequality is the fertile ground that grows dystopian nightmares, and the Bay Area of this game seems like a city existing right before the cyberpunk future descends upon it. I don’t know where we’re headed as a country, but I can only wish I were as confident in the inherent goodness of humanity as Watch_Dogs 2 is.

Posted in Conspiracy, Games, Post Modernity | Leave a comment

A Man Could Stand Up

Novel * Ford Madox Ford * Post-War Malaise * 1926

Synopsis

Once, long ago, I was an undergraduate student. I had the fortune of attending an excellent university with a strong liberal arts college, and as such most of my professors were very good at their jobs. Of course, not all of them could be superstars. I had one whose name I honestly don’t recall because the only memorable thing that happened in his class was, after reading the Henry James novella “Daisy Miller,” this dude started roaming the aisles like a maniac asking everyone if we were in love with Daisy. In retrospect, I’m a little surprised he didn’t ask us to stand on our desks. Anyway, I was emphatically not in love with Daisy Miller because I do not believe Henry James is very good. Yes, yes, he’s an important canonical writer but I just don’t care about anything he ever wrote since he is just so ass-achingly dull. Make a new paragraph, Hank, goddammit. So no, I was not ever in love with Daisy Miller.

I bring this up because I am absolutely in love with Valentine Wannop. She’s the best character in the whole of Ford Madox Ford’s four-part Parade’s End, and her absence was sorely felt in the previous volume, No More Parades. That’s okay, though, because A Man Could Stand Up begins on Armistice Day, with Valentine receiving a telephone call. Like the rest of Parade’s End, the third novel features a few scenes that skip and jump all over the place. The first part of this volume catches us up with what Valentine’s been up to, which is mostly trying to forget about Tietjens and engaging in something called “Physical Jerks.” It is clear by context that such a thing is something British people did in the early 20th century. Essentially, Valentine makes a modest living by being a P.E. teacher to young ladies. When the book begins, her day is interrupted by two things. The first is the war ending, and the general public hoopla that surrounds the news. The second is an upsetting phone call from her old frenemy Edith Ethel.

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The alternate cover situation is rather dire. Why are the soldiers doing laundry? Who knows!

This phone call is just the most ridiculously passive aggressive attack. Lady Macmaster, upon learning that Tietjens was vexingly not dead and returned from the war, is freaked out that he’s going to call in Macmaster’s sizable debts. Tietjens he is broke and his wife has taken all the furniture and left. Also maybe he is crazy now. Valentine, who is rad, absorbs this news while firing a few shots of her own. In the aftermath of this, she has to assimilate the news of the return of Tietjens, her forcibly repressed feelings for him, and her life in general now that the war is finally over. It is difficult to demonstrate my affection for Valentine Wannop by directly quoting the text, largely because Ford’s stylistic choices make short, pithy quotes damn near impossible. That said, here’s one, as she slowly comes to terms with the difficulty of pursing a life with Tietjens:

“But if I let him kiss me now I should be… She would be a, what was it… a fornicatress? … trix! Fornicatrix is preferable. Very preferable.”

That’s my new favorite word. And actually, the rambly, semi-stream-of-conscious structure is the main source of Wannop’s appeal. Her viewpoint chapters are almost entirely self-contained, taking place in a very constricted time (like maybe half an hour), and consisting almost completely of her own thoughts. Mixed into her thoughts are conversations with people she doesn’t like very much, and it can be a challenge at times to discern what she is saying out loud to actual people and what she is saying in her brain to herself. This blurring of external and internal is at times a mystery to Valentine herself, and she occasionally says things that probably should be kept inside. However, she’s so earnest and forthcoming, and is of such a strong, independent spirit that it’s impossible for me to not be completely smitten.

In less personal terms (although why else read fiction if you’re not going to take it personally?) Valentine Wannop’s chapters provide insight into the rapidly changing social structures of the time. As noted in Some Do Not… Valentine is a young suffragette. She has a job and doesn’t seem to be terribly interested in chasing husbands. She certainly has no time for mindless socializing. Yes, she’s hopelessly in love with Christopher Tietjens, but since he hasn’t bothered to write her while he’s been at war she’s trained her brain to not even think of his name. It should be noted that this is a mental trick, something that Valentine is quite adept at, and her unconscious mind has a habit of protruding onto reality during moments of stress. For instance, after receiving an upsetting phone call from Edith Ethel which almost reminds her of a certain someone’s name, Valentine composes herself and thinks about a good many things that aren’t Christopher Tietjens. Also she breaks the damn phone while saying out loud to no one in particular “Steady the Buffs!” Goddammit, she’s the best.

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I’m not sure the sassy soldier is what Ford was going for but okay.

Discussion

Ford Madox Ford has an odd habit with these books in which he repeatedly breaks an unwritten rule of writing: don’t conspicuously use your damn title in the text. The vast majority of the time it’s a hack move. Ford clearly didn’t get this memo, because using the title in the text is like his favorite thing to do. I didn’t count, but I’m pretty sure a character thought or said the phrase “a man could stand up” about fifty times throughout. The same could be said about the previous two novels. Actually, the title is a truncated version of the repeated line: “a man could stand up on a hill.” While that sounds vaguely literary, what it actually refers to is the war. The phrase is first said by a wistful soldier who is exhausted of life in the trenches. In this life of mud and blood and death from above, anyone foolhardy enough to stand up would immediately be cut down. Once the war is over, well, a man could stand up on a hill and not die. Luxury!

After our delightful Valentine introduction, we are taken back in time and back in perspective to Christopher Tietjens in the waning months of the war. Since the last book dealt entirely with Tietjens coping with is role in the middle of the maelstrom, I’m not going to spend much time with this aspect of A Man Could Stand Up. This is not to say the middle bit of the novel is not important or engaging, but it thematically reiterates what happened in No More Parades. Tietjens finds himself in command of a unit after being second-in-command for some time. This is a problem because he’s been kept at a distance by the unit commander, so he has little idea of what’s actually happening on the ground. These problems are of course confounded by his ongoing mental wrestling with the Valentine Problem. Unlike Miss Wannop, Tietjens has no problem thinking about her name. While it seemed at the end of No More Parades that Christopher has accepted the new world order, it actually takes him some time to come to terms with what all that means.

Two important things happen to Tietjens before the end of the war. One is that his unit is attacked while he is off touring the trenches, something a commanding officer doesn’t usually do. When this happens, he saves the life of some of his men at great risk to himself, which is pretty much the definition of a war hero. Tietjens, being Tietjens, just does this without thinking about it much. However, while he’s off being heroic, General Campion is out for his head. Seems our friend is annoyed that Tietjens has managed to not die, which rather puts a damper on his plans to live in his house and marry his wife. The General is kind of gross. The war-heoring has fully messed with the General’s plans to efficiently remove him from service and thus out of his way. Of course, the General manages to “promote” Tietjens to an unsexy and thankless position away from the front.

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Two things: 1. The BBC made a miniseries, and it’s great. 2. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been so hopelessly in love with a fictional character before. Sorry, Princess Bubblegum.

But whatever. By the time we catch back up in time with Valentine, the war is over and Tietjens is home. In her own roundabout, meandering way, Valentine finally comes to the decision to throw caution into the wind and seek out Christopher in his furnitureless, wifeless home. Tietjens may or may not be suffering from shell shock, but he is absolutely ready to bury the social expectations which are keeping him miserable. Still, he’s so awkward and clumsy and yes, affected by his war experience, that when the moment of his reunion with Valentine arrives, he just leaves. Like, he doesn’t even look at her, just bang. Out the door. Poor Valentine is then just standing in this empty house waiting for Tietjens to return, trying not to freak herself out over the thought that maybe he went nuts and is going to return to murder her. Instead of leaving, she calls her mom. Eventually, Tietjens returns and doesn’t murder Valentine. Instead, he takes the phone from her and talks to Mrs. Wannop, his old friend, about his intentions going forward.

Okay, I’m going to drop a couple of quotes on you to illustrate where these two characters are at, and where they’re going, within a society that is falling apart. When I say “falling apart,” I do not mean riots and civil unrest. The world war, which is now over, was the apocalyptic catalyst. The rigid Edwardian social constraints – straight up leftovers of feudal, medieval society – are what are falling down. All the arcane, hypocritical constraints that have worked to make Tietjens so unhappy are quickly becoming irrelevant. Beyond this, women can do things now. Since so many young men either perished or became grievously wounded during the war, women had to step up and fill many of those niches left vacant. As such, they now have real political capital and a voice. Valentine, of course, is on the forefront of this movement.

“No more respect… For the Equator! For the Metric System. For Sir Walter Scott! Or George Washington! Or Abraham Lincoln! Or the Seventh Commandment!!!!!! [That’s the adultery one, just by the way] And she had a blushing vision of fair, shy, square-elbowed Miss Wanostrocht – the head! – succumbing to some specious-tongued beguiler! … That was where the shoe really pinched! You had to keep them – the girls, the populace, everybody! – in hand now, for once you let go there was no knowing where They, unlike waters parted from the seas, mightn’t carry You. Goodness knew! You might arrive anywhere – at county families taking to trade, gentlefolk selling for profit! All the unthinkable sorts of things!”

Valentine has a predilection toward exclamation points, as you no doubt noticed. Despite that, what this rather hurried and frantic stream of thought means is that the old social order is forever changing, and Valentine knows it. This is a part of her realization about what this means not only for her as an individual, but what it means for women in general as well as the previously entrenched social classes. Indeed, her entire rant here is a celebration of the new world order. From her impassioned viewpoint, no longer will people be locked down by social constructs such as measurement, or history, or science, or religion. Now of course we all know that this isn’t the case. But in this moment, Valentine is struck by the magnitude of the social shift, and specifically what it means for her. That’s why the concept of disregarding the adultery commandment gets six exclamation points.

Meanwhile, in Tietjens’ head, we get a similar enthusiastic rejection of the entrenched social order.

“The war had made a man of him! It had coarsened him and hardened him. There was no other way to look at it. It had made him reach a point at which he would no longer stand unbearable things. At any rate from his equals! He counted Campion as his equal; few other people, of course. And what he wanted he was prepared to take… What he had been before, God alone knew. A Younger Son? A Perpetual Second-In-Command? Who knew. But today the world changed. Feudalism was finished; its last vestiges were gone. It held no place for him. He was going – he was damn well going! – to make a place in it for… A man could now stand up on a hill, so he and she could surely get into some hole together!”

Fuckin’ A, Tietjens! Tell Campion to go to hell, get your lady and do what you want. Burn it all down and to hell with the consequences. I actually don’t have much to add to the above passage, as it pretty clearly speaks for itself. By the end of A Man Could Stand Up, Christopher Tietjens and Valentine Wannop have independently come to the same conclusion. Together, finally, the two would-be lovers are joined in a burgeoning new society. Joined by veterans from Christopher’s unit, the new couple share a dance while they have a party celebrating not only the end of the apocalypse, but the new and terrifying new world. The series could probably end here, but there’s a last novel to get through. I suspect the new life isn’t going to be particularly easy for the newly joined lovers.

Posted in Books, Modernity | Leave a comment