Wednesday, September 26, 2018

I See What You Did, There: A Prayer for Owen Meany

I not only saw what author John Irving did there but I loved it. LOVED IT. It was a long road reading this book, I don't mind saying. 617 pages, which isn't the longest thing I've ever read but certainly an investment nonetheless. I started it in July, took it with me to China, and then really, really dug into it when I got back. It took a very long time, but this is a story that takes its time and really cannot be rushed, so it worked. I read The Hotel New Hampshire last year and liked it fine, but this is infinitely more my kind of story. Clever, clever. 

A Prayer For Owen Meany
by John Irving

The back of the book quotes the first chapter's first paragraph, stating, "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice----not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

I've struggled all week with putting together some sort of synopsis for this book, and even a little with my decision to cop out by including the above back-jacket blurb instead of coming up with my own. There are several aspects of the story that are straight-forward and quite easy to talk about but the opening passage identifies them all. There are spoilers, big ones, that I'm not touching because "arriving" at them, however fast or slow a reader you are or how deep you choose to invest yourself into a novel is your own business. The only advice you'll get from me is to pay attention, especially to the chapter titles (which, together with the events they describe elevate this story to, well, a lot more than just a story). There is something very clever, I daresay very LOST-like (well before LOST was created) about all this, which is of course why I'm singing its praises. The overall value of the Owen Meany experience is in its cleverness and its emotion, something we Americans need in our books these days.

Clever, not as in "here are a bunch of long, fancy words and metaphors that prove that I, John Irving, am well above you lowly peasants slogging through my never-ending chapters," but clever as in everything you read about, every character's experience, every current event that gets described, every bit of dialogue matters. EVERYTHING. Why is that clever? You have to get to the end.

And emotion, as in the description of feelings, thoughts, and reactions that are complicated, sad, and sometimes very strange and often quite funny. You spend so much time with the two main characters that you begin to feel for them as only someone who has spent years invested in their lives can (which basically by the end, you have and will). Some recent authors of popular books can do this well, but many cannot. You can read an entire stack of mediocre stories with flimsy characters and cheesy dialogue and have nothing in the end to show for it but a pile of conquered books that don't mean anything (and don't misunderstand, I'm all for reading no matter what the level or topic) but you can also read something that stays with you long after you're done, something that touches your heart and opens up an empathy and appreciation for writing you didn't know was possible. I loved all these characters, I loved every blasted thing that came out of their mouths, and I love John Irving for writing it all. That's emotion. I look at the book, which I keep now among my most treasured, and think of all my favorite moments big and small: the damned armadillo and dress mannequin, the pickle in the champagne, Owen's voice in ALL CAPS, the endless books and films described, Owen's newspaper articles, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Hester always drunk and vomiting, all of it, and I didn't just enjoy it, I believed it.

Listen here: 
"Although it was only two o'clock in the afternoon, Hester had already consumed several rum and Cokes: she was sound asleep in her bedroom---as oblivious to Owen's and my discussion as my mother was. 
'I don't feel like it,' I said.
From Hester's bedroom---even though the door was closed---we could hear her breathing; Hester's breathing, when she'd been drinking, was something between a snore and a moan.
'Why does she drink so much?' I asked Owen.
'What's that mean?' I asked him. 'Do we have a generation of drunks to look forward to?'
'How do you know?' I asked him.
'I DON'T KNOW HOW I KNOW,' said Owen Meany. 'I JUST KNOW THAT I KNOW,' he said.

Even now, looking back over the pages I bookmarked, I'm smiling and enjoying the book all over again. On the strength of this, I cheated on the Great American Read booklist and grabbed myself The Cider House Rules at the library just because I wanted more of this guy (and ended up loving that just as much if not more). Read John Irving. It's a lengthy journey but you're in good hands; he knows exactly what he's doing.

I now believe that Owen remembered everything; a part of knowing everything
is remembering everything.

Monday, September 17, 2018

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, episode 11, All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues

All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues

Events: Jack learns of Claire and Charlie's disappearance, which he takes personally as he had blown off Claire's stories of being attacked as pregnancy stress and paranoia in the previous episode (Raised by Another). A search group sets out but there are more disagreements about where to look and whether or not the camp can spare Jack, the survivors' only doctor. In one direction, Boone observes Locke's abilities as a gifted outdoorsman; in the other direction, Jack and Kate find Charlie's finger bandages, a threatening Ethan, and later, Charlie hanging unconscious from a tree, whom Jack revives. As Boone and Locke attempt to return to the camp, they stumble upon a strange metal structure in the jungle.

"That's how you shape a soft metal into steel."
Through flashbacks we learn that Christian and Jack worked at the same hospital and that there was an issue during a procedure where Jack was ordered, by Christian, to stop heroic measures to save a patient. After the woman dies, Jack confronts Christian about his drinking, which led to the error that then caused the death, but Christian convinces Jack to back him up with a pat on the shoulder. Later, Jack sees Christian use the same gesture with the patient's husband, who is threatening to sue the hospital over what happened. When a board member reveals that the patient had been pregnant, Jack refuses to lie about what happened and exposes his father's responsibility for her death.

Greater meaning: Jack continues to be stubborn when it comes to problem-solving, needing resolution immediately while putting his own health and safety at risk. Jack and Locke are at odds with each other as Locke seems more comfortable on the island and better able to appreciate Jack's worth as a healer. In many ways this echos the father/son dynamic observed in the flashback sequences---Christian, more experienced and who often thinks he knows better, tries to change Jack's mind but cannot just as Lock, also older and more experienced tries to get through to Jack and cannot. We can assume that Jack's bombshell admission had negative consequences for Christian (although we can't be sure that the comment in White Rabbit by Jack's mother was in response to this act---"You don't get to say, 'I can't,' not after what you did,"), we know that Christian died in Sydney just before Flight 815 crashed, and we know Jack seems to have unresolved issues about his father's death. Going after Claire and refusing to give up on reviving Charlie speak to Jack's unwillingness to give up and his constant need to be the savior. Out of guilt? Out of desperation? His role as a doctor fits with the needs to fix and save, but we also see that Jack is a very different doctor than his own father, Christian and that the issues he's faced with on the island are very different than those of a typical medical professional.

Further questions: 

1. Is Claire safe?
2. Did Christian Shephard get fired after Jack ratted him out?
3. Was Christian's death caused by this issue?
4. How does Locke know the island so well?
5. What is the metal structure that Locke and Boone found?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Black Mirror, Season 1

This is 100% my kind of television. It's like The Twilight Zone but different. Edgier. And, to be honest, examples of the exact kinds of situations I envisioned back in 2007 when everyone started getting all OMG so into Apple Phones and Ipads and YouTube and Facebook. Yes, I am writing this from a computer and sharing it on social media, so I guess that means that I'm self-aware enough to be able to discuss the destruction of humanity while actively participating in its downfall (but I'm also the one who's been telling everyone "IT'S A COOKBOOK!" too, so lay on, haters). Anyway, full disclosure warning, this show is disturbing (psychologically on the level with the Saw films but not quite reaching The Human Centipede); these stories are not likely to be everyone's cup of tea, but they're still important stories.

Episode 1, The National Anthem, takes on YouTube and social media by exposing just how easy it is to ruin someone's life: a member of the royal family is kidnapped and will only be released if the prime minister has relations with a pig on live television. Yes, A PIG. Our initial reactions as viewers echo those of the PM's---this has got to be a joke (it isn't), and there has to be a way to keep this private (there isn't). Nothing is containable anymore, especially where American news media and Facebook users are concerned! An early version of this idea may have been presented by Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and the conversation about the telephone ransom in Pulp Fiction back in 1994, what's to stop some random person from robbing/blackmailing/harming someone else? These days people are not only more ruthless and righteous in their sabotage of others, the sabotage, the ridicule, the dehumanization are all completely public and broadcasted everywhere for the world to see. The motivation for it is simply to destroy a public figure in the most humiliating way possible, and it works.

yeah, this is us.
This narrative is different than the by-comparison tame Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, or even X-Files episodes that explored unexplained phenomena or the evil men do. In the first place, the self-reflexivity used here is significant (and I think, the point of it all). Cleverly, the camera lingers many times on the horrified reactions of citizens during the main event, as it were, and we, the audience, are also implicated as watchers of this disturbing act as we have also chosen to participate and are just as guilty. It's a strange, unpleasant viewing and again, definitely not for everyone, but the experience of watching speaks very effectively to the real-life horrors made possible through technology. We don't like to think about it, but this sort of thing is possible. Second, the unflinching way this dark material is presented, straight up, head-on, and without frilly editing or ceremony seems to thrust the realization at us that THIS IS THE WAY THINGS ARE NOW. It's accepted----dissected and dealt with I suppose, but accepted. Yikes.

Episode 2, 15 Million Merits explores a contained civilization where young citizens pedal on stationary bikes to presumably provide a sort of fuel for life. Reality television is everywhere: it surrounds each individual living space, it's in the bathrooms and on display in front of the bikes, it even serves as a source of redemption or a threat, depending on how the cyclists perform (the good ones can get out by becoming famous, the bad ones become the targets for a hunting program). Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) has managed to accumulate over fifteen million merits but is bored with his life until he hears Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) sing in the bathroom. He uses his merits to gift her a ticket for a talent show, Hot Shot, explaining, "I want something real to happen." Something real does happen, something really terrible.

This is really just an updated, re-telling of Orwell's 1984 where everyone looks good and already loves Big Brother. Fittingly, everything is wrapped up in the television screens. A single look away brings about a flashing red warning (with the threat of more punishment to come); pornography is offered up constantly based on each cyclist's inner emotions, reactions, and vital signs. Violence and rage are encouraged while objectification is not only accepted, it's the only thing that can save the cyclists from a life of pedaling. Bing's fate eventually speaks to the cleverness of those who have created this civilization----even when someone exposes the evil inherent in such a system, the powers that be know exactly what they're doing and the system continues to work.

Episode 3, The Entire History of You, provides a look at a future where implanted memory grain devices allow everyone to rewind and review anything that's ever happened to them with the touch of a remote button. Memories can be played back within (inside) one's own vision or shared with others on a screen, and this is what serves as entertainment and underscores all interactions. This open access to the past isn't all it's cracked up to be though, a young married couple (Toby Kebbell and Jodie Whittaker) learns that there are some pretty serious consequences to hitting life's "rewind" button.

Is this us?
In 2011, the year this program debuted, it may have seemed like more of a reach--- a future where everyone is wrapped up in themselves, their memories, or the sharing of memories with others, but in today's world this kind of absorption barely garners a reaction. We see it happening on the regular, not with grains but with our phones (note the glassy, removed effects in the watchers' eyes when they "dial in"). Miraculously, one of the story's characters willingly chooses to have her grain removed ("I've never felt better!") but is shunned by the others who are confused as to why anyone would want to live this way.

Obviously not everyone is going to like these negative takes on technology and the hazards of our connected world; technology and being connected have made a lot of positive things possible after all. But has social media improved our lives? Are reality television programs positive experiences for the participants and those who watch? How is all this knowing affecting our physical and mental health? How are the children dealing with it? The series' title is a roundabout way of getting at these questions and the answers don't seem very reassuring.

Monday, September 10, 2018

From my Netflix Queue: 4 Films, Quickly

1. Notes on a Scandal (2006)
directed by Richard Eyre, starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench

Blanchett is a hot MILF art teacher having an affair with a student; Dench, a fellow teacher and grade A stalker, decides she wants some of that. Worth seeing for two amazing actors at the top of their respective games but story is disturbing. As in, extremely disturbing.

2. Elizabeth (1998)
directed by Shekhar Kapur, starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes

So being queen is a lot more difficult than one would imagine, but isn't everyone so pretty? Wonderfully sad story, well acted and aesthetic.

3. The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
directed by Kevin Reynolds, starring Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, Richard Harris

Condensed adaptation of the novel, screenplay a little clunky but still impressive and adventurous. Revenge stories to end all revenge stories in which Dumbledore (Harris) teaches Jesus (Caviezel) everything he knows!

4. The Queen (2006)
directed by Stephen Frears, starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen

My favorite of this royal collection! Queen Elizabeth gets berated for refusing to have a public mental breakdown over the death of Princess Diana, whom she couldn't stand. So many rules! So many dogs!