Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tribes: The Dog Years

Tribes: The Dog Years

Written by Michael Geszel & Peter Spinetta, Art by Inaki Miranda

This thick wedge of a book (landscape-style orientation, that is, pages that are wider than they are tall) made an instant, eye-catching impression. The story is a somewhat familiar one, though given a few new twists and turns. I found it similar in some ways to the chapter of “John Redlantern” I read last year, which took place in the distant future. Humanity had moved on to other planets than Earth, and the tribalism—complete with new speech patterns and vocabulary to reflect the new planets—was youth-oriented. Tribes: Dog Years doesn't take place very far into the future—not much more than 20 years from now, which is rather depressing when you think about it—and posits and Earth that is recovering from environmental devastation. However, a nanovirus has infected the remaining people, making the lifespan no more than twenty-one years. One only has to think about the child-soldiers in Africa—or Lord of the Flies, which Tribes has the grace to reference—to imagine what might happen. “Children raising children” becomes manifest reality, and it gives an interesting, pre-Columbian civilizations meet post-apocalyptic steampunk. I did think after I finished the graphic novel that such a society would give food for thought, as many of the concepts we cling to would be rendered obsolete by such a relatively short lifespan. (This also allows for the artists to extend nature in making impossibly acrobatic and muscular teens and preteens its main characters.)

As in many post-apocalyptic fictions of the future, there is a group of cannibals of whom the other tribes live in terror (they are tiny, spiny-toothed Chucky doll-lookalikes here, the Headhunters). There is a tribe of technological-minded, sun-starved, armored geeks who excel at clockwork. The tribe of the Sky Shadows gives us our hero, Sundog and his girlfriend (purely platonic at this point, they can only be 12!) Fallingstar. Sundog is represented as compassionate, clever, open-minded, brave, and physically accomplished, which is presumably why, with a little luck, he and Fallingstar last out their tribe. Keesha, the last of her tribe, is motherlike and warlike at the same time, adopting a baby Headhunter. Along with Skunktail, the Keylock, and an “Ancient” (the only person over twenty-one in this story, having been isolated from the nanonvirus in an underwater city), they all have their role to play in this story.

The Dog Years is only the first part in what I imagine is an epic story. It seems likely that the Chief of the Headhunters, who was a Keylock for awhile, will be back as the new Omega Tribe goes on its quest to try to eliminate the nanonvirus from the world. However, looking at the Soulcraft Comics website, the sequel(s) have yet to appear, which is a shame.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Big-@$$ Graphic Novels Round Up

I've been re-reading all of my favorite graphic novels which I own and took advantage of some free time recently to read 10 that I had never read before. Here are some mini-reviews of them dashed off quickly:

Foiled written by Jane Yolen with art by Mike Cavallaro
Published by One Second, who were responsible for one of the favorite graphic novels that I own, Journey into Mohawk Country, I had high hopes for Foiled. Also, I have been reading Jane Yolen's books since I was a child. I was impressed at her ability to personify a teenage girl. With dissections, lab partners, teenage angst/love, mysterious possibly dangerous love interests, and high school cliques, Foiled seems superficially to have a lot in common with Twilight. However, there are no vampires and no extended chastity metaphors (that I can find!). Instead, Alia is a New York high schooler whose adopted mother is obsessed with antiques and created histories. Alia lashes out by being preternaturally devoted to fencing, with her only respite being playing RPG with her disabled cousin (and listening to Enya, Ani DiFranco, and Loreena McKennitt, which made me laugh given I have all of their music!). Oh, and she's color-blind. The art by Mike Cavallaro is excellent, stylized but more sophisticated than manga. However, by the time I finished, I felt I had missed something. It wasn't meant to be a two-part story, was it?

The New 52: Wonder Woman Vol 1: Blood by Brian Azzarello with art by Cliff Chang and Tony Akins
I have had decent success rates with the Wonder Woman titles I've read (which may be, to date, only one written by Gail Simone). I thought you could hardly go wrong by going back to basics, which I presume is the whole idea behind the New 52. So into this world I plunged, and I was not disappointed. This was not only highly accessible, the art was superb, and I enjoyed the use of Greek myth (which was probably always there with Wonder Woman but I never understood as she was being advertised as All-American). The narrative made me smile in places, and I think Diana came across as someone with whom to identify, often difficult with larger-than-life superheroes. Cliff Chang's reinterpretation of Greek gods like Apollo, Hera, Zeus, and Hermes was pretty impressive. I definitely wanted to know what happened next.

Gotham City Sirens: Union by Paul Dini and Scott Lobdel with art by Guillem March, David Lopez & Alvaro Lopez
I had read what I think is the third volume in the series, Strange Fruit, which was enjoyable. However, I wish I had started at the beginning, because this first volume is by far the more impressive. The art is strong, but moreover, the writing was superb. I am a big Dini fan, and I thought he quite surpassed himself here. Moreover, Harley Quinn and Catwoman are two of my favorite Batman characters, and if anyone could write Harley going home for Christmas with her in-laws, its her creator, Dini. Poison Ivy has always represented to me a near-miss, because her general shtick makes for a good villainess—yet it really limits her in terms of character growth (and frankly, most of the time she's just an excuse for male artists to get their jollies trying to draw her as near to naked as possible). She doesn't steal the show here, but is better developed than in most other stories about her that I've read. I found the whole “decompressed-we-hate-thought-bubbles-narrative” going into overdrive in this particular volume, though the creative time is strong enough to just about hold it together (love a good Riddler story too, I do).

The Escapists by Brian K. Vaughn with art by Jason Shawn Alexander, Steve Rolston, Philip Bond, and Eduardo Bando
This was probably the best of the ten graphic novels I read. It played with the form, it was funny, incisive, creative, and, yes, full of escapist fun. The ripples of influence stretched far and wide, from “The Grey Ghost” of Batman: The Animated Series to Kick-Ass. Like The Master and Margarita (the graphic novel version), it employed the different styles of different artists to good effect. The workaday, almost web-comic-like stylings that told the story of Max Roth, a Jewish kid from Cleveland, Ohio, who loses both parents and then decides to pump new life into his father's secret passion, The Escapist comic, a superhero whose tiny Lone Ranger-like mask signals associations and nostalgias of days long gone by (he reminded me of The Spirit). You might think that the Escapist's exploits had seen their day, but Max has the help of his friend Denny and recently discovered artist/inker Case Weaver (who is the epitome of cute geek girl—seriously, she looks like she belongs in Chicks Dig Comics—it would have been nice to see a fat girl or a plain girl who can draw, because, believe me, we can). Nevertheless, I loved the “heart-to-heart” confessional feel of The Escapists, and because of that, I could follow it anywhere. Furthermore, “Case”'s art for the revamped Escapist is amazing. If I'd been Max, I would have hired her, too. I have not read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Chabon upon which this is based.

American Vampire Vol 1 by Scott Snyder and Stephen King with art by Rafael Albuquerque
I thought I would give this a try, and though it (surprisingly) has a bit in common with last year's Dracula TV series, for the most part I had to admit it was well-written enough to keep me reading. I was a bit annoyed at some of the lack of historical accuracy (if you're going to set in the 1920s, do some radio research for God's sake) which seemed to matter less during the sections set in the Wild West. However, in the end the story and conceit lent themselves quite easily to the chosen historical settings. I enjoyed seeing a bedazzled Hollywood of the 1920s, I like the heroine, Pearl, and I enjoy the ambiguity of the vampire anti-hero Skinner Sweet (dude, a vampire who loves candy!). He reminds me of Jack of Fables. Anyway, the “bad” European vampires are a bit weak as adversaries, but I imagine they will improve. And for the record, Stephen King's first graphic novel writing is good but not great, but I'm sure that, too, improved. It's all solipsist-ically well-told, which is nice to see when encountering vampires for the umpteenth time (and it looks like there are 5 more volumes to come).

Fatale Vol 1: Death Chases Me by Ed Brubaker with art by Sean Phillips
This was disappointing. I've highly rated all of Ed Brubaker's DC writing. Mood and atmosphere were key in this noir offering, both of which it abounds in. Despite the fact that as an ongoing series, it was going to leave more questions unanswered than solved, I felt rather in the dark by the time it had ended and not all that tempted to read on to find out what was happening. I suppose it's unfair on the volume itself, but I've had quite enough of cults and groups of aristocratic white men summoning up the Devil while making human sacrifice, etc (see The Five Fists of Science). I was bored with that years ago. It would have helped had Josephine herself been a more interesting character, but like the majority of Steven Moffat's females, she was just a mystery wrapped in an enigma waiting for a man to explain her. So, the first volume was well-plotted, well-paced, and well-drawn, but not for me.

King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel by Timothy Truman with art by Tomás Giorello & José Villarrubia
A rather unusual choice for me; I have never known anything Conan the Barbarian other than I remember in first grade someone at school had a record player that played some Conan adventure or other. What is immediately obvious about this story (and probably the majority of Conan stories) was the absence of women. Fair enough. Adventure series of yesteryear seem to believe, with Frederick Faust, that a good horse is more important than a woman. Timothy Truman has put his heart on his sleeve to demonstrate that he is invested in the source material and wanted to recapture that 1930s style of Bardic, fantastic imaginings. This is a weird and dreamlike, though warlike, world. I let the art carry me along. As a story, I found it satisfying.

The Five Fists of Science by Matt Fraction with art by Steven Sanders
I had real mixed feelings about this one. It is all about the Steampunk, though rooted in reality, of course. Mark Twain seems to be a surprising fixture in alternate history comics, and nutty Nikola Tesla is a natural for Steampunk-y, science-y plots. However, this Twain is a lot less depressed than the one who wrote The Diary of Adam and Eve, which was the last thing of his I read. The victim of genteel poverty, Twain is out to sue for world peace using some of Tesla's inventions—on a quite impressive scale. For some reason, they need a woman, who is yet so incidental to the plot that I cannot remember her name nor does it appear on any of the Amazon reviews. I had mixed feelings about the dramatis personae provided at the beginning of the volume. It helpfully told us that most of the characters were based on real-life historical personages, but also revealed that the creators had made some rather arbitrary changes to the characters in order for the story to work. For example, making J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and and Thomas Edison evil cult members (see Fatale) and Marconi into a buffoon (a Fascist he may have been, as the creators note themselves, but a buffoon—I think not). The story is, naturally, on a big scale, and a lot of fun. Twain (seemingly by default) makes a great comics protagonist, and Tesla is interesting, too.

Northlanders Vol 3 by Brian Wood with art by Vasilis Losos and Danijel Zezelsj
This is my favorite volume of Northlanders so far. I was way underwhelmed by The Cross + The Hammer. Although the first two stories (“Lindisfarne” and “The Viking Art of Single Combat”) were enjoyable (well, perhaps enjoyable is not the right word for this brutal and bloody series—satisfying is perhaps more apt), “The Shield-Maidens” was excellent. What perhaps makes this treatment of female Vikings different is its lack of idealistic backdrop. The three Danish women are not on a quest when they bear arms—different, then, from the other shield-maiden who springs to mind, Eowyn in Lord of the Rings—but have lost their husbands and protectors and are fighting to survive. They use cunning, brute strength, pagan feminine mystique (!), and hardiness to fight against their Christian Saxon adversaries. And, not to spoil anything, but . . . they survive!! “Sven the Immortal” was a nice conclusion (?) to the story from Sven the Returned.

Fables Vol 6: Homelands by Bill Willingham with art by Mark Buckingham
It's such a shame I've read these out of order, because the big reveal in this volume—of the real Adversary in the Homelands—would have packed a punch had I read them chronologically. Nevertheless, Boy Blue's heroism and daring are enjoyable and impressive.

Finally, I hate to be that old Victrola playing the same old broken record, but out of ten graphic novels, only one of them had a female author or artist. You might think titles like Wonder Woman or Gotham Sirens might attract women writers at least. Are mainstream comics becoming more girl-friendly? I see contradictory evidence.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

American Insurgents, American Patriots

American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People

Troubled times demanded commitment” (73).

One of T.H. Breen's objectives in this book was to show how the commoners of English colonies who rebelled or asserted their independence, depending on how you look at it, made and carried out the decisions that were so unprecedented and led to the formation of the United States of America. Instead of focusing on military battles or the stand-out leaders with whom we are familiar (the Founding Fathers and others), Breen has chosen to look primarily at the Committees of Safety1 that ordinary Americans (he looks primarily at New England but other places, too) formed to police themselves, as it were. So far, so good—that's what I wanted the book for. Breen also notes that people have a habit of glossing over the complexities of the American Revolution—as it says on the cover of my Eyewitness American Revolution book, “Discover how a few brave patriots battled a mighty empire.” If you've read Redcoats and Rebels2 or The Spy, you know it's more complicated than that. John Adams famously said that 1/3 of Americans at the time were active revolutionaries, the others being roughly 1/3 Loyalists and one 1/3 neutral. While Breen gives good reasons for being skeptical about Adams' figures, it is a very tempting assertion—one-third stuck in the middle, waiting to see which way the wind was going to blow.

Breen has no time for either neutrals or Loyalists (in fact, I think he is a bit too critical of the actions of the latter). He also has no time for the Founding Fathers. American Insurgents, American Patriots is probably the closest we'll ever come to a Marxist reading of the American Revolution3. So it's a shame that it only seems to cover until about 1776, as I was interested to follow what this same body of people that Breen highlighted did once fighting actually began in earnest. Despite using the word “insurgents,” Breen mocks the Loyalists who wrote at the time they feared rule by the mob; I find his explanations for why the American Revolution didn't spiral out of control like it did in France some 15 years later, or the more recent examples Breen gives (as he seems to be something of a specialist on insurgency and counter-insurgency), to be not completely satisfactory. He seems to argue against a theory of exceptionalism but then does not explain why, not to my satisfaction anyway4. He feels that “taxation without representation” has been overemphasized as motivation.

He has mined a strong and interesting selection of primary sources and got me closer to the mindset of the average participant in the conflict than I was before, which is what I wanted in the first place. One question he has set out to answer—and which he does answer—is why an ordinary farmer like Matthew Patten-- “like other farmers, he did not welcome disruptions that took him and his sons away from normal chores”--would participate in “extralegal militant activities” (6,7). Breen feels that, instead of a favored view that Revolutionary/Enlightenment principles appealed to the cogitating intellectual class (I feel a dig at Jefferson here), the Revolution hit ordinary people's gut emotions. “Grief served to reaffirm a commitment to the American cause; anger fueled a sense of political self-righteousness . . . fear, fury, and resentment” (9-11). So who were these people? They were generally from white farm families. “Half of the total number of colonists” at this stage “were under the age of sixteen” (26). A population boom + new widespread availability of high-quality manufactured goods from Great Britain + high standards of literacy5 + social equality within communities + pride in agrarian life + evangelical Christianity + newspapers + effective communication networks = the kind of people Breen is profiling. These people had been, until the Stamp Acts, proud of being British citizens; “they served a vital economic role within the empire” (38). However, part of the problem was that this feeling was shared by the rulers over in Europe. As Breen has it, “The British learned a little late in the day that punishing insurgency—especially by attacking innocent people—is usually counterproductive, turning moderates into radicals and enhancing the reputation of the local resistance forces”6 (50). Unlike the sympathetic portrait we get of George III in David McCullough's 1776, Breen has contempt for the British and their lackeys in the colonies. “The defense of order and property in far-off colonies apparently justified authoritarian schemes” (63). Breen sees that Lord North's punishment after the Boston Tea Party “fell disproportionately on the poor,” but the cause-and-effect was such that colonists reacted in solidarity with the people of Massachusetts.

“Colonists reading about events in Boston persuaded themselves that ordinary people who lived there were suffering for all Americans” (101). The Boston Committee of Donations is an extraordinary body, something that should not have been written out of the history books: they organized the distribution of gifts of food, money, livestock, and random stuff out to the suffering poor of Boston. “The committee translated many contributions into cash, which in turn underwrote ambitious public works projects” (114). Why does no one teach us this in school? “And perhaps the most surprising gift came from 'the Aboriginal Natives of Christian-Town on Martha's Vineyard.' The Indians collected more than two pounds sterling for people who might not have been so generous had the situation been reversed” (118). Furthermore, being generous could sometimes save your life. Breen shows at least one case of an American being put on trial in suspicion of being against the Cause and being redeemed because the records showed that he sent an offering to the suffering Bostonians.

I was interested to learn about the Association, a sort of honor-system code against buying British products and therefore displaying modesty in dress and not doing fun stuff like going to the theatre and/or gaming. Long before the Declaration of Independence, “Some colonists stopped drinking tea; others joined vigilante groups roaming the New England countryside” (81). The vigilante groups differed in their approach, but they often made a show of intimidation against those they perceived as tools of an oppressive regime. One question I had to ask myself was what made a veteran of the French and Indian War a rebel/patriot or a Loyalist. Joshua Loring, for example, had served on campaigns on Lakes Champlain and Ontario, and his family was harassed in August 1774 by “a mob.” Meanwhile, Israel Putnam, who was also a hero of the French and Indian War, became a Revolutionary firebrand. Few of these intimidations (at least the ones cited by Breen) ended in something so violent as tarring and feathering (though anyone who has seen HBO's John Adams will not be able to think of that punishment as anything but brutal)--but true to The Spy, recent arrivals and small-time merchants (any outsiders in the community) were targeted for reprisals. Furthermore, a false report of Boston being destroyed by the British in September 1774-- “it is noteworthy that no one seems to have expressed the slightest skepticism about the intelligence” (138).

One of the chapters is called “Appeal to Heaven,” and I very much enjoyed learning about the origin of this phrase, which has filtered in and out of my learning about the Revolution since as long as I can remember. But I never knew quite what it meant before (it's from Locke). Breen uses this as the basis for the chapter explaining how Christianity helped fuel the Revolution—it's one of the best parts of the book. I also learned about The Crisis, an incendiary piece of writing from a crusty British misanthrope that had influence way out of proportion once it got to the colonies. Reprinted in the New-Hampshire Gazette, the headline was “BLOOD calls for BLOOD” (270).

Breen's book had me questioning how I (and James Fenimore Cooper, for that matter!) had lightly passed judgement on the Skinners in The Spy. Despised by all the other characters, they are considered the lowest of the low and are meted out with harsh punishment, which seemed to me deserved. The extralegal committees of 1774 “when pressed to justify their proceedings, they claimed to be acting in the name of the people, or the public” (162). However, the differene is that those who put their neighbors on trial, by and large, were lenient and patient—and did not advocate violence, unlike the Skinners who of course rob people and burn down houses. “Thousands of Americans who had never before held office—indeed, who never even imagined that it was their right to do so—flooded into positions of leadership” in the years after 1774, which I guess is what the Skinners would have done if, in the novel's voice, they were morally worthwhile (12). Besides, “no one else had a right to seize the property of another person,” thus the Skinners are reprehensible (250).

However, what I will most take away from Breen's book is his agonizing description of what could and did happen to people who upset the Revolutionary status quo. Two men in Camden, New Hampshire in 1774 attacked a man named John Taylor,“ ‘beat & kicked [him] with Fists & Feet. The ride lasted fifteen minutes, leaving Taylor, according to later court testimony, ‘very much bruised.’ Before his neighbors grew tired, the ordeal took a particularly ugly turn—whether by accident or design, we shall never know—for a sharp edge of the fence rail cut deeply into Taylor’s groin, leaving ‘a mortal wound on the private parts of his body of the length of six inches [and] of the breadth of four inches.’ The precision of the measurement seems in itself curiously gruesome. With a short time, Taylor bled to death. . . . John Steele, Moses Jewell, Robert Blood Jr, and Jane Steele appeared before a New Hampshire court for killing a man who apparently had not supported the American resistance to parliamentary taxation with sufficient enthusiasm” (Breen 15). Taylor's tormentors escaped punishment.

At exactly 300 pages, American Insurgents, American Patriots is succinct and easy to read.

1Despite the fact I now know that the American versions came first, I always think of the French Revolution when I read “Committees for Safety.”
2Which I read last year but didn't have time to review.
3Feel free to suggest alternate titles if you can think of any.
4“They [the Americans] surely would have burned houses and murdered neighbors if the situation had invited a continuous purging of ideological dissenters. . . . Wealthy Americans—great planters in the South or leading merchants in northern ports, for example—certainly harbored doubts about resistance to British rule, but when push came to shove, they depended more upon the goodwill of their neighbors than upon representatives of an imperial establishment” (163).
5I have read in various places that literacy among white male New Englanders was as high as 90%, with certain definitions of literacy for white women not all that much lower.
6Isn't that the whole thrust of the Mel Gibson Patriot?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Moonstone

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

I wonder whether the gentlemen who make a business and a living out of writing books, ever find their own selves getting in the way of their subjects, like me?

As I said in my review of the Peter Ackroyd book, I feel a bit false describing myself as a Wilkie Collins fan, as though I loved The Woman in White and what short stories of Collins' that I'd read, I hadn't yet read any of his other novels. Well, I bit the bullet and picked up The Moonstone, mainly because it was the one about which I had heard the most, but also because it was the only one available from the library at the time. It was a very enjoyable read and a page-turning mystery. I had also forgotten how genuinely funny Collins can be. However, I have to say I did not feel it measured up to The Woman in White.


I doubt I have anything original to say about it, as the introduction by Sandra Kemp (which I read after I finished the book to avoid spoilers) has pretty much said it all. However, I will briefly add my 2 cents.

The story is one of the first detective novels; Sergeant Cuff pulls out all the stops when he examines with a magnifying glass, to be sure. All joking aside, it's interesting to see all the steps we take for granted—checking for clues, questioning people—are in their infancy here. Cuff has to work a lot harder than some modern-day detectives. It's a bit disturbing how easily Rachel is able to disrupt the investigation just as being a gentlewoman with the prerogative to do so. In both this case and in North and South, it was good girls lying for good reasons, but it's still pretty iffy that Rachel and Margaret both confound the law and use their social status to do so.

I think it's safe to say, however, that with The Woman in White, The Moonstone is also a sensation novel. There are many excellent cliffhangers, but none more so than when a character finds himself implicated-- “I found the mark, and read--
MY OWN NAME” (314)--in the robbery of the Moonstone. Even though I confess from having watched the TV show Wishbone (all you need to know about classic literature can be learned from Wishbone!) that I knew more or less what had happened. I still didn't know HOW, and Collins takes his sweet time in getting us there, through a variety of narrators in a delicious Victorian melange.

I told you before that I objected to Ackroyd saying that Collins' characters were secondary to his plots. That may be so, but that implies that his characters are not interesting, which is not true. As Kemp suggests in her introduction, Collins was one of the few Victorian novelists to treat women with unconventionality and to make servants living, breathing people rather than plot devices. In fact, it could easily be said that very few of the upper class characters of The Moonstone are more interesting and more realistic than their social “inferiors.” As Kemp suggests, the splendidly-named Rachel Verinder is, despite the author's best efforts, not worthy of heroine status1. Her courage, fortitude, and love for Franklin Blake cannot be doubted, but the constant admonishing that she is different from other girls of her age by the likes of Gabriel Betteredge get repetitive and annoying. Show me, don't tell me! Franklin Blake, while not unsympathetic or lacking charm, is also a bit wooden and dull. Perhaps, as Betteredge suggests in his discussion of gentlefolk with no occupations, it's their lot in life to be dull.

If ever there was a Victorian triple-decker crying out to be reworked by post-Sarah Waters NeoVictorians, surely it's The Moonstone! Rosanna Spearman, a wonderful character, should probably have a revised version of the novel written from her perspective, and perhaps we would find that the truth has actually been manipulated by Franklin Blake, Gabriel Betteredge, and even Sergeant Cuff, the white males in positions of authority, and those whose voices we get to hear first-hand (I'm thinking in terms of Dracula now, which some have subversively argued could be told differently with Dracula as the victim and the Crew of Light as patriarchal fanatics, as only they possess the means of reaching the reader and could be unreliable narrators). Rosanna is wonderful because she was a thief, sent a Reformatory, then lives a content but unhappy life as a respectable domestic servant in a grand house in Yorkshire, her life disturbed irreparably when she falls in love with the aristocratic gentleman Franklin Blake. Not only has Collins suggested that thieves can be good people and that felonious women can reform (which seems pretty impressive in 1868), Rosanna represents herself as deserving of love, to the point that she tries several times to declare her love to Franklin. I would have loved to have seen a further cat-and-mouse between Rosanna and Cuff. Cuff, despite being her adversary, has a lot of sympathy for her and understands her far better than the other characters. “Hadn't you better say she's mad enough to be an ugly girl and only a servant? . . . The falling in love with a gentleman of Mr Franklin Blake's manner and appearance doesn't seem to me to be the maddest part of her conduct by any means” (123). Rosanna is also bold enough to admit she hates Rachel and is jealous of her; she even suspects, when she finds evidence that Franklin was in Rachel's bedroom after midnight, what would at that time be considered “the worst.” Furthermore, a NeoVictorian could easily see a suggestion of the Sapphic in Rosanna's relationship with “Limping” Lucy, who would have saved Rosanna and taken her to a better life far away from Franklin Blake.

If Collins' sympathetic treatment of servants and the disabled is surprising, then the way he treats the evangelical Christians in the book, those who purport to serve the poor and the helpless (as well as the spiritually bereft) is downright shocking for a mid-Victorian. Despite the fact that he gets a lot of humorous mileage out of Miss Drusilla2 Clack and Godfrey Ablewhite, I would think at least some of his audience would shrink from these quite critical portraits of people engaged, at least some of the time, in virtuous activity. Yes, I know Collins' work was read by all classes (though perhaps not by the Bible-bashers who he is depicting here), but the way he pokes fun at Miss Clack seems all out of proportion for the fact that he had some of her ilk harassing him for having two mistresses (as is suggested in one of the footnotes). I'm actually rather fond of Miss Clack, despite it all, for, like Miss Bates in Emma, it's all too easy to make her the object of fun rather than seeing her situation for what it is. I think she copes with it in the best way she can; I'm not sure she can help being ridiculous. You may argue the point3. It is enjoyable, I think, for Miss Clack to get the upper hand over Mr Bruff, the family lawyer, admirable as he is.

Cuff, too, is a splendidly idiosyncratic character, based on the now-famous Mr Whicher, whose brusque exterior conceals a love for roses. Betteredge, although occasionally annoying, and very fixed in his conventional (chauvinist) opinions, is actually rather adorable by the end of the novel and hilarious in his obsession with Robinson Crusoe. I expect Defoe would have been rather flattered. But Ezra Jennings is yet another very odd and distinctively Collinsian character; I would be very interested to see what Dickens would have done with him. Physically striking—Eurasian in background, it would seem—damned by opium, bad luck, money problems, and lost love, Jennings is a figure of great, almost Phantom-esque pathos who lends much momentum to the final act of The Moonstone. (Revisionists would also find a goldmine of Franklin/Ezra slash if they wanted.) I also confess to being quite hard-hit by the depiction of dementia in the character of the doomed doctor Mr Candy. It's a bit too close to the bone for my comfort. Mr Murthwhite, the English explorer of Asia, is more of a type than a character, but would do well to be fleshed out more.

Greater minds than mine have picked up on Collins' unusual treatment of India, which to me is particularly sensitive in the Prologue, the Storming of Seringapatam (1799), which floods the mind's eye like a sequence from Sharpe and which more learned critics have compared to the British Imperialist rape of India. Despite the Brahmins' ruthlessness, one is almost happy at the end of their success in retrieving their sacred stone. However, let's not get carried away: Collins took liberties in making the Hindu principal god that of the moon rather than the sun, which to me sounds a bit like making Mary Jesus' aunt rather than mother—not really that excusable by artistic license. Though The Moonstone is credited with indirectly inspiring Conan Doyle, it has to be said that Collins is less racist than the creator of the Great Detective4.

All of this made for an enjoyable read, though inevitably disappointing after my expectations being built up so high by The Woman in White. Nevertheless, I will definitely read more Collins before too long. 

1Though, to be fair, she is a better judge of character than this reader. Consider the way she resists her cousin, Ablewhite: “You are a very good fellow in your own way, Godfrey . . . But I am quite sure you are not great; I don't believe you possess any extraordinary courage; and I am firmly persuaded—if you ever had any modesty—that your lady-worshippers relieved you of that virtue a good many years since” (213).
2Yes, Drusilla.
3Surely it's from genuine loneliness that Miss Clack tries to get the orphaned Rachel to live with her: “ 'You are very kind, Drusilla . . . I shall hope to visit you whenever I happen to be in London. But I have accepted Mr Bruff's invitation, and I think it will be best, for the present, if I remain under Mr Bruff's care.' 'Oh, don't say so!' I pleaded. 'I can't part with you, Rachel—I can't part with you!'” (269). Though I suppose it could be avarice—Rachel is now an heiress.
4It is interesting to me that when people are theorizing that the Brahmins could have gotten into the sleeping manor house to steal Rachel's diamond from her room, no one thinks through the full horror of having any stranger “under the sofa while my aunt and Rachel were talking about where the Diamond was to be put for the night. He would only have to wait till the house was quiet, and there it would be in the cabinet, to be had for the taking” (92).

Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive

Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive by Liz Wride

This wonderfully fresh one-act play, as presented as part of On the Edge, Michael Kelligan's script-held performances of new drama from Welsh and Wales-based writers, was given a fantastic interpretation by the Welsh Fargo Stage Company. I saw it (appropriately) at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, directed by D.J. Britton. Despite a distinct lack of cooperation from the weather, the actors did justice to a very funny and very original script which must be one of the highlights of 2014, the centenary year of the birth of Dylan Thomas. We've had innumerable biopics on Dylan Thomas, innumerable reworkings of his dramas, verse, and aspects of his life; Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive is a witty and affectionate look at his influence on people.

Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive is a play about Dylan Thomas fans, but not exclusively for Dylan Thomas fans. I stress the word “fans” rather than scholars, for the triumvirate at the centre—Mam, Dad, and the long-suffering Tom Dylan—are a warm, humorous, and humane depiction of real people. Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive is a comedy, but it doesn't offer easy answers. It interrogates the admittedly odd but pervasive cult of location—as if essence de Thomas could be absorbed by a night's stay at his birthplace and childhood home, 5 Cwmdonkin Drive in the Uplands in Swansea. Most any Swansea resident will know that you can stay at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, returned to its 1914 facilities, as Mam (Lynn Hunter), Dad (Anthony Leader), and Tom (Sam Harding) do, and one supposes that the mystique of literary tourism draws us there.

However, as Tom Dylan makes clear, he isn't Dylan Thomas—he's an ordinary Welsh 18-year-old, though perhaps driven a bit neurotic by his well-meaning but overenthusiastic parents. Like Dylan Thomas and Swansea, Tom enacts the dichotomous—in one of many familiar, cleverly invoked lines in the play, Swansea is “an ugly, lovely town.” Dylan Thomas' legacy on Tom's life is also ugly and lovely, but it's the loveliness that comes to life with a rather Dickensian magic—a visitation. Pentre Ifan, the Neolithic dolmen in the Preseli Hills of south Wales, is said by local lore to show you your future mate if you walk around it three times clockwise, but I can't remember which sacred Welsh stone bestows madness or poetic genius on whoever sleeps by it. In Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, the birthplace has an equal gift (or curse) embedded in its walls. Dylan Thomas, of course, is not completely absent from the work—but as ever, a facet, an aspect of the poet, just as some of his most famous poems are embodied in the play—but the fact that Tom Dylan is the focus is quite refreshing.

The cast were all great in the script-held reading (Charlotte Griffiths and Christopher Morgan play other parts), and the audience responded wonderfully to the humour and clever knowingness of the piece. I had read beforehand that Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive is about Dylan Thomas' birthday party, and that is one way to sum up this play, a perfect introduction for those who know nothing about Dylan Thomas, and an equally enjoyable fantasy for those who know him well (or think they do).

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Beyond Black - Hilary Mantel

Most people don't want to know about the future. They just want to know about the present. They want to be told they're doing all right.”

I've reflected a few times since reading Wolf Hall that Hilary Mantel's back catalogue is of particular interest to me, with novels about Robespierre, an Irish giant of the 18th century, and Beyond Black, about mediums, though it was completely different from what I expected. Indeed, I could find almost no stylistic similarities between Beyond Black and Wolf Hall; smarting from my experience with Affinity, I was expecting the rug to be pulled out from under me unto the last page. Instead, Mantel played it straight, which was a bold choice. The point of Beyond Black is to imagine that not only do the dead still exist on Earth, they are mundane, banal, nasty, and anything but spiritually-minded. Whoopi Goldberg's medium in Ghost being harassed and haranged is but the tip of the iceberg.

Despite what may seem a bleak premise, I found Beyond Black for the most part un-put-down-able. Its non-linear chronology and unconventional use of tenses makes for confusing reading at first but does not negatively impact the book because the premise and the two main characters are pretty solid pillars around which to weave a web. Describing Alison Hart, the main character and the medium, as a pillar seems pretty accurate. Despite the fact that I found some of the later revelations about Alison's childhood to be far-fetched, even for such a novel as this, in general I found her to be a great and sympathetic character. Alison is a large but, we sense, not unattractive woman. But it is her physical size—in part caused by, and in part excused by, her career—that defines her, especially in relation to the other main character, Colette, her business partner/live-in help. I appreciated the fact that Colette, as a very thin person, has a physical revulsion to Alison for being fat. In my experience, this is a very accurate depiction of very thin people, regardless of their other moral qualities; there is an impossibility in putting themselves in someone else's shoes. It's that old Victorian adage, to help those that help themselves. It's some kind of failing of will, on Alison's part, in Colette's mind, that she's fat.

Are Alison and Colette friends? As the book shows, they were once. But by the time of the book's main action, they are barely amicable. Alison can read Colette's thoughts, though. Colette, however, has no idea of the nastiness of Alison's “spirit guide,” Morris, one of her mother's old boyfriends who is frightening enough left to the imagination, bandy-legged, perverted, shallow, single-minded. Mantel has the audacity to suggest that the fiend paid another fiend one hundred pounds to be “reborn” physically as the son of Mandy, one of Alison's closest medium friends. The idea is enough to make one sick.

There is a lot of satire in this book, and I wouldn't encourage any budging Anglophiles to read it: it examines the worst of the UK from every angle. Colette is described on the back blurb as a “flint-hearted sidekick,” and I acknowledge that it's a challenge to make a character as close to Naturalism as Colette is interesting and sympathetic. Mantel just about succeeds, but (I think) the message she is trying to get across is that Colette is sadder in every way than Alison, despite Alison's insane career and extremely unorthodox childhood. Colette survives on “vitamin pills and ginseng” and surveys people's personal appearances like a hawk, but she has drifted into an unfulfilling and blah marriage with motor-car-obsessed Gavin before she has a “spiritual” experience (it's never clear whether she has imagined it, but it seems unlikely given it's Colette). This is what brings her into Alison's path. The challenge is in making us believe that a person like Colette would pay for supernatural guidance (tarot card reading, palmistry, crystal balls, etc) and then pragmatically throw in her lot with Alison to the point of mortgaging a house together. I think Mantel succeeds in this.

There is also an interesting creation of the sub-culture of real mediums. Their spats, their genuine sincere ability do their work against their adherence to New Age fads and kit, gender wars and the difference between old-fashioned practioners like Mrs Etchells (Alison's grandmother, possibly) and Maddy, for example. The satire on the death of Princess Diana in 1997—which is when Alison and Colette first start working together—is acid in the extreme, but also very funny. (I can understand now why Mantel made such cutting remarks about Kate Middleton.)

The master stroke in what Philip Pullman has called (on the cover) “one of the greatest ghost stories in the English language” is the unconventional way in which it's told, as I have already alluded. Unusually in prose form, Mantel has captured the ether by aural means, which means we often have to follow a script which signifies a tape recording of (usually) Alison and Colette talking. Sometimes Alison's spirits intrude. All of this is very entertaining and very sly. It's another way for conveying the mystery of Alison's past in a drawn-out and teasing way. Who is Alison's father? What did her mother's boyfriends do to her in her teens and which ones did what? What did she do to them as revenge? Can anything Morris says be trusted? Is the fearsome figure of Nick who we think it is? (SPOILER: Yes.)

One thing against which I have always struggled as a writer, and struggled with as a reader, is the ending. Unfortunately, I came away from Beyond Black with a sour feeling because the ending was disappointing. The more I thought about the book afterwards, I had to ask myself whether it wasn't all an excuse just to satirize British society. Which I suppose is a good enough aim, but I would prefer to believe there was more to it than that.

Like many readers, I suspect, I read through the pages waiting for Colette's man starting with an “M” to show up. I'm not convinced that he did, and in one sense I think the contract with the reader has been broken. If you're expecting me to believe that it's Mart, the gormless youth who hangs himself in Alison and Colette's shed, then that's a cop-out. That whole storyline piddled out in a disappointing fashion. There was such foreboding after Morris left and knowing that he'd return. Though the revelations were somewhat impressive, they felt a little muddled and anti-climactic, even after the death of Mrs Etchells. Furthermore, I'm not sure I understood the intent of the book at all if Colette was going to be allowed to slink back to Gavin. I'm glad that Alison ended the book with a new spirit guide and seemed to be enjoying herself for once, but resolving the Colette thread in such a way seemed wrong. However, when Morris started sobbing because Alison didn't want him to be her spirit guide anymore, that felt totally earned.

The Great God Pan – Arthur Machen

'It's a curious thing, Austin, to be alone in London at night, the gas-lamps stretching away in perspective, and the dead silence, and then perhaps the rush and clatter of a hansom on the stones, and the fire starting up under the horse's hoofs' (38).

Any student of Gothic horror—which I happen to be—will have heard of Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan, one of the lesser works that sprung up in the 1890s Gothic that produced Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It has more in common with the latter, being novella-length and interested in the overreaching hand of science, upsetting the balance of the natural order. It is a deeply unsettling story, definitely a case of bona fide male Gothic in its anxiety about evil women and the titled, respectable upper crust men they prey on (unlike in Jekyll & Hyde, these men seem to have no secret sins, and unlike in Dracula, we get no hint that they might be gender non-conforming, which is my reading of Jonathan Harker). Though I've read precious little MR James and even less HP Lovecraft, the pagan background of The Great God Pan seems to hearken to, or anticipate, them.

The mysterious mode of telling this story—which Fred Botting likens to a “mythological and occult frame”--reminds me of the slightly later machinations of Gaston Leroux's narrators, but far more sinister than Leroux's Shade. The male protagonists, from Mr Clarke with his self-indulgent file on “Memoirs to prove the Existence of the Devil,” to the investigative Villiers, all start to blend together, united in their fear at ending up another motiveless society suicide.

By far the scariest part of the book is a second-hand narrative of a weird girl summoning satyrs and devils as playmates in the Welsh countryside. The novella also occasionally makes some very evocative and cryptic remarks.

'We all know what happened to those who chanced to meet the Great God Pan, and those who are wise know that all symbols are symbols of something, not of nothing. It was, indeed, an exquisite symbol beneath which men long ago veiled their knowledge of the most awful, most secret forces which lie at the heart of all things; forces before which the souls of men must wither and die and blacken, as their bodies blacken under the electric current' (44).

May I just say that while it was nice of Kessinger Publishing to reprint this novella, theirs is a terrible press, without any design or graphic sense and a host of irritating typos.