All entries for February 2009
February 26, 2009
Call It The Dead
A pork-pie sort of place, says the writer, flicking the card menu between his fingers. See anything you like, baby?
Mmm-mm, the writer’s wife replies, fiddling with one of the buttons on her sleeve.
Actually, I’m looking forward to this, says the writer, leaning forward over the table. A ritualised act of intellectual brutality. Jousting for the respect of the ladyfolk.
He fumbles in his pocket for a red-chequered handkerchief and, flourishing it, pushes it across the table to his wife.
Drape it on my lance, he says, grinning.
His wife, after a moment’s thought, pushes it gently back across the table.
The other writer and the other writer’s wife exchange a little smile.
Ready-set-go, the writer says, quickly. You’re cold and you only seem to get colder. You don’t ever analyse your coldness.
If someone’s conscious enough of their condition, the other writer says, to be able to say that they’re dying on the inside, then they’re not really dying on the inside.
Fish ‘n’ chips, please.
Me too, thank you.
Bangers ‘n’ mash.
Fish ‘n’ chips for me too, please.
They keep their silence as the waiter gathers up their menus. The other writer’s wife’s hand slips beneath the tablecloth and into her husband’s.
You write too little, says the writer, sitting back. And when you do it’s all in code. I think, the richness of the language being what it is and the poverty of the rainforests being what it is, it’s our duty to fill up the page as much as you can.
You’ve got it the wrong way round, says the other writer. The rainforests grow back quicker than words, and we’re using words up more rapidly. What we need now is space.
‘Nonsense’, said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox, quotes the writer, beaming.
I’m serious. Imagine a book filled with blank pages- pages which can never be filled. That’s my talisman; just an empty book to hold your thoughts and your fears.
A man who says too much and a man who says too little go into a restaurant, says the writer’s wife.
And what happens then? asks the writer, smiling appreciatively.
I hadn’t thought of a punchline. Christ, Henry, it was only a joke.
Four glasses arrive. The writer’s is a little smoggy and he asks for a replacement.
Probably spit it clean now, he quips. Serves me right for making a fuss. He tastes the wine and finds it agreeable.
Pour me a bigger glass, says the writer’s wife, if you’re going to keep talking.
I’m still waiting for our friend’s riposte. I was saying, Jack, that you write in code.
I do. So do you. So did the menu.
But it’s an aversion. Everything you do seems to be an aversion. Talk about ‘Life is Elsewhere’; I could honestly believe, right now, that you are elsewhere and I’m talking to a mask.
The other writer’s wife, without him noticing, has let go of his hand.
I’m just preparing, he says, for the day that’s coming.
The day when nothing that’s said openly can be trusted. No longer writing in code because the message is dangerous, but writing in code because all plain speaking has been corrupted and it’s become white noise to us. And on that day, generations of repression and irony and the English art of not-saying will stand us in good stead.
You’re justifying your personal psychological defect by creating a philosophy based on it, says the writer. Interesting.
Is he always this infuriating? the other writer asks the writer’s wife.
None of that, the writer calls out. You can’t score points by appealing to my wife. Definite yellow card and I feel happy to return the blow. Jessie, my dear, tell him he should see someone about this.
The other writer’s wife laughs openly, her golden earrings chiming.
I wouldn’t like to, she says.
Afraid to let her speak? the writer says, grinning obscenely. I wonder what she might say about you given room to do so.
Henry, honestly! says the writer’s wife.
Seriously, he continues. You should seek out therapy.
This isn’t therapy enough? says the other writer, smiling.
Seriously? Writing’s therapy- at least, that’s the way I see it. Some men were born to scream or to punch one another in the face. I go home and I fiddle with sentences.
Again an aversion. How you worm yourself out of everything!
Will the food never come? the writer’s wife says.
We only just ordered. She sniffs.
Hm. Seems like it’s been longer, though I can’t think why. She adds confidingly to the other writer’s wife, They just talk, don’t they? Neither of them are prepared to speak honestly. It’s all games. Was he like that when you were going out?
The other writer’s wife tells her a funny story about their holiday in the Maldives two years ago and a silent, covert battle with a family who kept leaving washed-up starfish out on the patio to dry out and die.
You don’t care enough about your characters, muses the writer, because you don’t care enough about real people. It’s humiliating, isn’t it, Jack, to be pinned down like this?
The other writer pours himself another glass of wine. A nearby table erupts in laughter and he struggles to make his voice heard above the cacophony.
Stories never say what they mean, he says, and neither do people, and we learn that from birth. What good would it do me to learn to lie a little less and to go around patting myself on the back telling myself that I’m now being clear and open? Every word is pregnant with meaning and at least if I’m writing that code I can avoid as many misunderstandings as possible.
Romantic misunderstandings, says the writer, and laughs. Every shy man’s been there...dear Jack, I want to help you.
That’s very kind of you.
No need to get snappy; such defensiveness!
I’m just wondering, says the other writer, smiling, when the joust turned into your beating me, prone on the floor, to a bloody pulp.
Well, if you want to have a go at me, go ahead- but, see, you won’t. You don’t say enough.
You’ve already said far too much.
Ach, you can’t take criticism. What was it someone said about you...’alluding yourself into nothingness.’
She was afraid my work might go that way. It wasn’t a present criticism.
Quite a while ago now, wasn’t it? Much changed since then? Deteriorated any?
Write your memoirs; confess. Get it all out of your system. Understand what it means to speak and not just to hint at.
The fact that I can’t confess interests me more than confession.
Three fish arrive. The writer sits back, grinning, waiting in cheerful anticipation for the conversation to begin again.
Please, says the other writer’s wife, start without me.
You’re dead, says the writer, like a greyhound flying from the hustings, and the dead can’t write.
They can scrawl messages on the coffin lid. There are worse ways to define yourself.
But no-one can read them! The metaphor holds up. What were you having, Jessie?
Bangers ‘n’ mash.
I might ask- no, they’re bringing it now. I’m almost suffering from diner’s remorse; it looks pretty tasty.
My cousin appeared on a TV show, says the other writer, standing up, and was encouraged to strip naked to gain confidence. Jessie’s parents used to tell her God would get her if she didn’t do her homework. Do you understand me now?
And you could break me down, fiction upon fiction, to my bare ribcage and I might tell you something deep and distressing but I’m damned if that wouldn’t be an aversion too. Do you understand me now?
Listen to these words, these brash, shrieking words and there’s no more fucking meaning in them than there ought to be. The only hope I have in words is that they might, once in a fucking while, pinpoint the places where words can’t reach. Do you understand me now?
Not eating, Jack? asks the writer, glancing up, smiling.
She finds him in the car park afterwards, shaking like a childrens’ rattle.
February 21, 2009
Amy pulls the latch to. The air between the white high turbines is broke with white jet trails. A calm day. The plastic propellers are barely spinning and the thrum is hardly more than a swarm of insects over the hillside.
Freedom, she says aloud, and finds pleasure in the word.
She wakes to an empty mattress.
George, she calls, George, put the kettle on! I’m going to be bloody late.
Ten minutes to shower. Another ten minutes to eat. A limp, used condom is eyeing her from the dresser ledge. She flicks it into the wastepaper basket with one raised hand.
She rises, showers, and totters down to the kitchen, flicking the kettle on and cursing George.
Seven minutes later, the bacon spitting beneath the grill, she jogs back upstairs and reads the white note he’s left her on the white pillow.
WOULD HAVE SAID GOODBYE. YOU WEREN’T UP.
The bathroom window is open and George is lying below in a smatter of red tiles.
Amy crouches and tries to peer along the soil’s horizon. Nothing is showing.
She walks back around the side of the cottage. She never comes here when she can help it; on the north hillside the rain and wind heave down upon the stone and in the distance she can never ignore the eyesore- the burnt-out, rust-coated barn.
She jogs down there one morning over the fields, out of a kind of curiosity, stepping under the great iron struts into a ruined space. Beer cans and carrier bags litter the shaded thorn-bushed floor and she begins to shiver. Without quite knowing why, she steps briskly back into the sunshine and runs and runs until the barn is no longer in sight.
That night the thrum is louder, almost, she thinks, gazing up at the darkness of the bedroom, deafening.
She dreams of the thorns in the burnt-out barn.
In the sudden hush of the dormitory, Alison Leigh says,
Imagine the Lord chose you to come down upon like that. Imagine one of us was chosen. Say one of us has to carry His child.
Stop it, Alison, says Maggie. Mrs Baxter said to go to bed-
Imagine He chooses you, says Alison, extending one painted finger from the warmth of the duvet to pick her out. And He swoops down from the sky and the window shatters and He comes for you.
Amy does not speak up. Something flashes beyond the open curtains.
What was that? Jenny asks.
Just a plane, says Maggie.
It’s the Lord, says Alison Leigh. Amy turns her head but she cannot make out Alison’s expression. He’s chosen one of us. His will be done.
Ali-son, Maggie says.
Amy closes her eyes. Beneath the inadequate duvet her legs are trembling. The possibility of this thing, she thinks, this divine everything, and I’m chosen- this is awful, this is really awful, and if He’s here I don’t want to have to look at Him-
Quiet, says Alison Leigh, and then, at periodic intervals until Amy finally falls asleep,
For a single second, passing the only mirror in the entire cottage, Amy thinks she catches a glimpse of something horrid in her own face.
Monstrous, she thinks, and her hands begin to shake as she fills the watering-can. Leather skin and eyes that screamed. Yellow teeth- it was monstrous.
She avoids looking in the direction of the mirror for the rest of the morning.
That afternoon she drives into town to pick up some fertiliser bags and a few cans of chopped tomatoes. Walking, wild-haired and dirt-stained, among the tourists and the OAPS, she has the pleasant sensation of being a savage walking among civilised people.
She wakes the next day to find that the water butt has split. Working to the thrum of the turbines, she cleans up the waterlogged vegetable patch and spends half an hour hunting for a hammer and nails in the old farmer’s toolshed. She slices her thumb open, bloody, nailing up the butt, and mutters to herself,
“Freedom,” and laughs, and laughs.
She only checks her mobile once. Her parents, George’s parents, her brother, her parents, have left her messages; understanding, but hopeful that she might come back to London to stay with family for a few months, as a kind of prelude to returning to an independent working life.
Harold never figured out how to use one of those things, says Miss Angie, puffing out her little chin in dislike.
Amy continues to fiddle with the tea-mugs. Miss Angie comes every day now, at four, for tea, her white head doddering like a mess of briar-caught sheep’s wool up the cottage hillpath.
What was your fiancé called again? asks Miss Angie.
George, Angie repeats, fumbling at the biscuit tin. She gets it open.
I’m so sorry, says Miss Angie. Amy arranges two custard creams and a chocolate digestive on a plate and places it before her guest.
The young grow up so fast, Miss Angie says, watching her. Were you hoping to have children?
We’d been planning for it, Amy repeats. A grey hand strokes her hand.
Our little boy was stillborn, Miss Angie says. Try and find comfort in the fact that sometimes these things just aren’t meant to happen.
Amy sits at the table.
It must be hard for you, Miss Angie continues, and her untended nails scratch at the surface of the chocolate digestive. Up here all by yourself.
No, not at all. The city nearly killed me. It killed George. He couldn’t get a job and his family were making fun of him and it was all far, far too much. I’m just trying to be rid of all that.
Can you hear the wind turbines from your house? Amy asks.
Miss Angie sips her tea and makes a face.
Silly things, aren’t they? she says. They only do what they’re supposed to do every so often. And even then it’s not for very long.
The potato shoots emerge; limp, wasted things, and when she trowels them up the tubers come out as albino malformities that crumble away in her hands. Amy secretly curses the broken water butt and the tide of ancient, bracken water that must have contaminated the soil.
She strides round to the north side of the cottage. The wind turbines begin to spin backwards.
The shock of the change of motion, the ranks of great haloed ghosts saluting her, in a ripple, makes her flinch.
Fresh rain has filled the water butt; a pond skater flickers on the surface. She refuses to turn her head to acknowledge the rusted-out barn in the fields below.
Lock your door at night, says Miss Angie, there’s a man in the fields.
A man? asks Amy. She fingers her new packet of Hobnobs and splits them open onto the little plate.
I saw him lurking out by the windmills.
Windmills- Amy begins, and then understands the old woman’s mistake.
An engineer, she suggests. For the turbines.
Fog drifts from the iron kettle spout and over the stove.
Up to no good, says Miss Angie. Harold knew how to deal with them. He comes in a white van and he stands in the fields as if he’s looking for something. Lock your door at night.
The next day, constructing a wire mesh for the chicken coop, Amy keeps an eye out, but the fields below remain lifeless. The turbines hum like bees.
Unblocking the sink, she finds a neatly folded slip of white paper tucked behind the piping.
SKIN TO SAND
She falls asleep wondering idly considering which household implements a lonelier woman might use to satisfy herself. She wakes with the vague memory of having seen a curly-haired girl standing at the foot of her bed.
This was Harold’s favourite, says Miss Angie. She draws the coin from its casing and slides it across the table. An old silver shilling. I want you to have it.
I really couldn’t, Amy says, without touching the coin, unwilling to let Harold into her cottage.
Harold loved coins, says Miss Angie. You can buy ‘em and sell ‘em, just let me line ‘em up and arrange ‘em into rows and I’ll be happy. That’s what he used to say.
When Miss Angie leaves she leaves the coin behind her, and the next day Amy finds the second note floating merrily in the water butt, the corners tucked upwards like an origami sail.
BONE TO BREAK
She passes in front of the mirror that afternoon and for a second she believes that her arm is splitting from its foundations, like a hunk of rotten flesh that is no longer hers to control.
You know, Alison Leigh says, when the Lord chooses you, you can’t even move. You have to stay quite still, trapped inside, and your body does whatever He wants it to.
You can still think but He controls what thoughts you’re allowed to have. That’s how Mary didn’t remember getting pregnant. So if He wants to, you’ll think less and less and eventually there’ll be nothing there at all and you won’t belong to you any more.
The young grow up so fast, Miss Angie says. I mean, you must be, what, dear, if you don’t mind me asking? Forty?
Thirty-eight, says Amy. I’m thirty-eight.
The third piece of paper has been left in full view on the dresser, trembling to the thrum of the turbines.
SHAME TO SPREAD
In the middle of the night she wets herself, and has to dash the sheets from the bed and into the kitchen in waking revulsion. The damp is deep, and rather than spoil another sheet she sleeps on the far side of the bare mattress like someone lying beside a lover.
The fourth note has been placed on the toilet seat.
She unearths the fifth from the vegetable patch, caught in the prongs of her trowel.
The sixth note is waiting for her on the passenger seat of her car.
Miss Angie grins at her, and beyond that pudgy, jowled face stands pickled skin; unseeing eyes. As she yawns black teeth rippled outward.
Amy gets up and goes to the toilet without explaining herself.
The young grow up so fast, says Miss Angie, smacking her lips, then,
What was your fiancé’s name again?
George, Amy repeats, you old witch, his name was George, George, George, and she swings the iron kettle against the old woman’s head, and screams at her.
You old witch, just die, you old witch, just die-
She lifts Miss Angie, as light as a newborn child, and carries her through the open front door and out onto the hillside.
She steps through the vegetable patch, over the rotten potatoes and over the bare soil where she’s planted leeks and carrots and cabbages.
The turbines and Miss Angie are groaning.
Amy drops Miss Angie into the still water butt and presses her palm against that woollen hair as it thrashes in the water.
She walks back to the south-facing hillside and sits on the grass. The fields are unspoilt and the wind turbines stop.
February 13, 2009
Don't Look Now, Donnie Darko, and unconscious symbolism
Symbolism may have the potential to be ultimately more affecting onscreen than in written literature, because visualised it draws closer to the real unconscious. If I write “Emma Bovary walked past a shelf stacked with paint, arsenic, and toothbrushes”, you can be damn sure you know what I’m doing. But if we watch such a detail, even though the filmmaker assuredly knows what he or she is doing, there’s always the element of doubt. Did I see that right? Am I interpreting that correctly?
Don’t Look Now is, as far as I know, alone among films as one which both uses this doubt and possibility of an unconscious thread, and toys with Jungian association. John Baxter does not really believe that he is chasing his red mac-wearing, drowned daughter through the streets of Venice; he’s chasing the symbol of the mac, and everything it represents to him. He believes, quite instinctively, that he can save his daughter through her image- and one of the many terrifying aspects about the film’s climax is the realisation that most of us would react in the same way.
He did have ample warning; symbols are constantly lifted from the unconscious waters recalling the dead Christine. A murdered girl, pale and in virginal underwear, is lifted from the canal. A naked doll is lying on the dockside; when John lifts it, water streams from its pores and its eyes blink in imitation of life. What John fails to realise, because of, not in spite of, an unconscious belief in the congruity of these symbols, is that none of these images are echoes or reflections of Christine; they are mockeries of her, and pre-echoes of the final, monstrous mockery of the ‘child’ symbol.
Tears turn out to have been mocking laughter, and at the centre of his labyrinth John does not transubstantiate; instead, he meets a monster. When the villain shakes her head, we witness perhaps the most horrific moment in film history, because she is not simply, mutely, saying ‘No’ to John, but also to us.
It must have been bizarre for the first audiences who watched Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man back to back as a double-bill. Both involve a man moving towards his own fatal, ironic destiny, but we’re always a little removed from Sergeant Neil Howie, a little amused by the pranks the pagan islanders play on him; and the burning wicker man is just the last, climactic prank in a series. But here the trickster is human; in Don’t Look Now, we see the trickster as Fate itself, not anthropomorphised in a cheap Loki-ish kind of way, but faceless, horrifying, and unstoppable.
Compare this to Donnie Darko, a film which clearly follows in Don’t Look Now’s footsteps. In the later film, however, the pattern is reversed into a more conventional effort. The symbols leading Donnie into his own labyrinth are not devils clad in angels’ raiments, but saintly future-beings disguised (for dubious reasons) as monsters. Like G.K. Chesterton’s Sunday, who, seen from behind is an animal, and from in front, a god, Frank the demonic rabbit is just a human being in a Hallowe’en costume, and in dying, Donnie seems to reach the divine. This is a film that believes in a Jungian centre.
In both cases, a shock climax is broken by shots of minor characters waking in horror from bad dreams. (I suspect Richard Kelly’s is a homage to Roeg’s). In the Roegian universe, a bishop wakes in terror, having had a glimpse of the malevolent superstructure John has seen full-face, and glances, as if for comfort’s sake, to a small red candle glowing by his bedside. In the Kellyian universe, the characters are horrified by echoes of their behaviour in the forgotten time strand. “When the Manipulated awaken from their Journey into the Tangent Universe, they are often haunted by the experience in their dreams. Many of them will not remember. Those who do remember the Journey are often overcome with profound remorse for the regretful actions buried within their Dreams”, as the Director’s Cut puts it. In other words, Donnie’s journey into the heart of the labyrinth has not simply saved him, but also the world around him.
Donnie Darko features, explicitly, the deus ex machina; Don’t Look Now a devil from the firmament. Both break down layers of visual symbolism until all that remains is the final great image of cinema: the eye- or, in the case of poor Frank, the eye socket. The play is on a question of visual symbolism and a terrifying existential doubt- what if we do witness these signs but we cannot interpret them correctly?
(Interestingly, both films, each totally inappropriate for the medium, have been made into plays. Donnie Darko is odd mainly for its reliance on CGI and cinematic setpieces- tracking shot, anyone?- and Don’t Look Now for its understanding of the unique relationship between the camera and the crowded space of Venice, a world in which nothing can be seen but a narrow box of space.)