Monday, October 25, 2010

Irish Girl meets Italian Boy...nothing ensues

Brooklyn: A Novel (McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2009) by Colm Tóibín, 267 pages

Oh Colm, you suck the fun out of everything... The accolades surrounding this book puzzle me exceedingly.

The plot elements had initially intrigued me: Eilis Lacey, an Irish girl, leaves home (the immigrant experience!) in the post WWII period and finds a brave new world in America (Brooklyn!). She meets Tony, a nice Italian boy (first love!) and makes trips to Manhattan (Manhattan! shopping!). She has a quasi-erotic experience with her work supervisor (sexual tension!). And Colm somehow manages to make it all so...boring.

Eilis is sponsored by a priest, Father Flood, visiting from Brooklyn, who quickly finds her both work and accommodations. She gets a job in a women's wear retail shop owned by an Italian family and lives in an all-female boarding house. Her housemates' worst anxieties are: Eilis' store permits black women to shop in it; Eilis is dating an Italian (and you know how they are) and, thirdly, they are sharing accommodations with, horror of horrors, a woman who makes her living cleaning houses.

The workplace is so dull that the most exciting thing that happens aside from the first black customers are the annual nylon sales which have Eilis' housemates in a tizzy. Oh yes, and Eilis is studying bookkeeping. Are you asleep yet?

Her experience with Tony is equally lackluster. he is devoted, attractive (but not spectacularly so), committed to work and family. Eilis' main concern is that she has trouble telling him that she loves him when he tells her.

The one point of potential drama mid way through the novel slips away with a whimper not a bang. Eilis' supervisor, Miss Fortini, under the guise for assisting Eilis in fitting her in a bathing suit, pretty much uses the exercise to feel her up. Not a murmur of protest nor curiosity nor excitement, and this plot point goes nowhere. What's the point of this episode: to demonstrate that there were repressed lesbians in Brooklyn in the 50s?

A sense of being underwhelmed passes over me. This was the same feeling I had when I read Tóibín's highly touted The Master (2004), a fictionalized interpretation of the life of Henry James and his repressed feelings about men and his homosexuality. Nothing much happened in that novel either.

Okay one major thing happens here: Eilis unexpectedly returns to Ireland in response to a crisis. I'd tell you the rest but you're probably reading this midday and it might have a soporific effect on you!

Come on Colm, for God's sake, get your Irish on...

Friday, October 15, 2010

Something for Sasha

When I met Sasha*, she was moving into a workspace near me. We sat in a four desk configuration and the fourth desk was empty. She wasn't in our dept. but needed a space and we had one. Two things about her came to mind when we met: she was very thin and, seemingly, very angry. And it was not clear to me why. Not at the beginning.

She seemed so unreceptive to friendship, even to basic conversation. We sat across from each other in a sullen silence most days. It seemed that she didn't want to be there and I was indifferent to her. So be it, I thought.

Then she began to appear at work only sporadically. At first I thought it was nothing but then I inquired quietly about her through a mutual colleague. I was told that she was undergoing (unspecified) treatment for cancer.

Talk about thunderstruck. That explained the thin and angry part I thought with humiliated chagrin.

Before Sasha left on an extended sick leave (I didn't have the guts to ask her for the specifics), she asked me to care for her plant. She noticed that I had a couple of plants on my little windowsill that faced west and got full sunlight in the afternoon.

Her plant was big and unwieldy, and, if I had to confess...ugly to look at. Dark green, flowerless leaves which seemed to be stunted in growth. And heavy. It was very heavy and sat in a large cracked plastic planter.

Sasha left; her plant stayed with me.

During her absence, I changed offices. Twice. Each time I thought it would harm the plant especially as the first move was to a gloomy spot with no natural light but I trained my desk lamp on the plant the whole time that I was at work and it seemed to revive a bit. I was terrified that I would harm it and let it die.

And every time I watered it I thought of Sasha, whom I did not really know anything about. Every once in a while I would e-mail our mutual colleague because Sasha had never returned and I didn't know if that was good or bad news. I was afraid to ask because a) I am a coward and b) it felt intrusive.

Then, a few days ago, I saw her! She had returned for a colleague's farewell party - a fancy do involving hundreds of attendees at the university faculty club. 

She had filled out and had let her long blonde hair be styled into a flattering, darker bob. Her face was fuller and prettier. She looked terrific - so terrific that, shamefully,  I failed to recognize her initially. We had not seen each other in two years.

She told me that she had one more treatment to go before she was finished. The word "finished" hung in the air between us. We did not use the "c" word. I thought it but I did not say it. I come from a primitive people where words have enormous power and must be handled carefully.

But I could see that she had turned a corner. I could see the return of good health, of hope and youth in her face and in her physique.

And her plant? Still there, on my desk, in my new space. It's not much to look at right now ... but it's getting a little prettier and stronger every day.

*To protect her privacy, please note that Sasha is not her real name.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Not your kid's vampire movie ...

Daybreakers (U.S., 2010) directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig 98 minutes

I was pleasantly surprised by this film, expecting the usual cheesy gore and bad acting. But I saw a subtle undercurrent of intelligence and political awareness here which alluded to the way we deal with disease and with otherness and which could apply to race, sexual orientation or religion. The film is beautifully shot, a cross between the futuristic look of Blade Runner and a 40s film noir. I think it no coincidence that both films are set in 2019. This film seemed to have slipped under the radar with many audiences but it offers a brave and intriguing look at the persecution of humans who have become a minority in a society and serves as a metaphor for the persecution of all minorities or creatures under the heels of the more powerful.

The year is 2019, and a pandemic disease has resulted in the human population mostly turning into vampires, only five percent remain human. Those humans serves as a blood sources for the vampires but their numbers are dwindling. Combat troops (who are suspiciously attired like American troops in Iraq) capture humans who then are "harvested" much in the way a cow or a chicken is farmed - confined in high-tech pens and hooked up with tubes to dispense milk (in this case blood for vampire consumption). This scene struck me more forcibly than a hundred vegetarian diatribes about the exploitation of animals.

When the vampires are deprived of blood for long periods of time, they degenerate into violent, repulsive bat-like creatures called "subsiders" who exist primarily underground which we see brief glimpses of. So many associations come to mind: the manner in which we first treated AIDS patients and the calls by an extreme minority to isolate and quarantine them. The way we treat animals - capturing them, brutally killing them and/or exploiting them cruelly for food and sustenance in horrendous physical circumstances. The way aboriginal people have had their culture destroyed and has forced many of them on to the street. 

Scientists Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) and Chris Caruso (Vince Colosimo) are hematologists who work for the pharmaceutical company Bromley Marks, the largest supplier of blood substitutes. They are feverishly trying to discover a synthetic blood substitute to sustain the vampires as the human population is dying out. The company is run by Charles Bromley (played by the delightfully sinister Sam Neill).

Edward refuses to drink human blood, feeding only on animal blood. He is at odds with his younger brother Frankie (Michael Dorman), a soldier who zealously captures humans for farming. Frankie was also the one who turned Edward. This world is a frightening futuristic nightmare where soldiers are retained by Bromley Marks, the largest pharmaceutical company in the U.S., which has a vested interest in capturing humans for harvesting.

When Edward accidentally encounters a covert group of humans led by Audrey (Claudia Karvan) who rescue and hide humans from vampire patrols he begins to respond to his already burgeoning guilt and resistance to the harvesting of humans. He enables the group to evade detection. Later Audrey contacts Edward and connects him with Elvis (Willem Dafoe). Elvis claims that he cured himself of vampirism by a process in which he exposed himself to sunlight while being thrown into water. And he wants to share this with other vampires who wish to turn themselves back.

Audrey (Claudia Karvan) & Ethan Hawke (Edward)
Edward is persuaded to join Audrey’s group which includes the still human Alison Bromley (Isabel Lucas), daughter of Charles Bromley, head of the pharmaceutical company.

Alison is soon captured by Bromley's soldiers during a raid and she is turned by Frankie at the request of her father Charles. She refuses to drink human blood but instead feeds on her own blood (as some vampires do) which turns her into a subsider. She becomes the crazed, degraded creature that all other subsiders become and eventually she is included in a round up and executed (much as many concentration camp victims have been in the past).

The scenes are so deftly constructed that they immediately remind you, subconsciously, of the worst excesses of human and animal slaughter - the killing of the Jews during the Holocaust, the ravages on the human body of the AIDS epidemic, the historical slaughter of indigenous peoples on every continent, the brutal slaughter of animals in the food industry.

Frankie, who was part of the round up, is traumatized by the killing of Alison and seeks out his brother.

Edward, Elvis, and Audrey meet with Edward's fellow scientist Chris Caruso asking for his assistance in spreading the cure but he has developed a more sophisticated blood substitute that could garner huge profits for himself and the company and turns on the group calling in the vampire patrol.
However, Chris has finally discovered a viable blood substitute and does not want a cure to become widespread. He calls in a vampire patrol which captures Audrey. Elvis and Edward are found by Frankie; Frankie wants to help his brother but he is slowly becoming a subsider and attacks Elvis. During the attack, they discover that the act of feeding on a former vampire is another cure for vampirism.

Edward goads Charles Bromley into attacking him - this cures Charles and then Edward uses Charles to cure a group of soldiers. When Edward and Audrey are trapped by more soldiers, Frankie sacrifices himself to the soldiers sparking a vampire frenzy which leaves the mass of soldiers dead or cured of vampirism.

I would not say that there is a happy ending...but there is resolution and a sense that those who have transgressed less have won.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Exquisite Bracelets for Manacles

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905; republished by Simon & Schuster, 1995) 462 pages

Lily Bart. Still, her life haunts me as a lover of Edith Wharton's fiction. Not for me Countess Ellen Olenska (The Age of Innocence) or Mattie (Ethan Frome) or Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country). They all pale before Lily Bart. As I turn the pages of the novel once again, I still hope, fruitlessly, that she eludes her unhappy fate.

As the novel begins Lily is now 29 and has missed (or avoided) a few opportunities to marry "well" in her aristocratic circle during the Gilded Age of New York. She is captive to her materialistic desires and to the expectations of the repressive upper crust amongst which she moves.Wharton recognizes the type too well:
She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.
Lily's dispirited father lost his fortune then slowly died (much to the disdain of his wife and daughter) leaving the Bart women at the mercy of rich relatives. Then Mrs. Bart too succumbs and Mrs. Peniston, Lily's paternal aunt, reluctantly agrees to take Lily on. She likes seeing Lily well dressed (as it reflected well on her aunt) and so would pay for her dressmaking needs but the young woman remained largely dependent on the charity or largess of her rich friends. And she develops expensive habits like playing bridge with her wealthy friends and wagering too much.

From the opening pages we meet the two men who will have the most influence on Lily Bart's life: Lawrence Selden, a fellow aristocrat living in more modest circumstances who admires Lily and Simon Rosedale, who is depicted as a nouveau riche interloper into high society who has his eye on Lily as pretty trophy wife with an entree into the best society.

When Lily visits Selden at his bachelor flat at the Benedick building she is being indiscreet by the standards of the day; a young unmarried woman visiting the home of a bachelor even though it is only to rest before her train trip to visit friends in the country. The seeds of her demise are sown here. Someone else has seen her at the building and means to take advantage of this information. They do. They assume that there is some sort of covert relationship between Lily and Lawrence.

There is an obvious attraction between Lawrence and Lily. He is drawn to her great beauty and wit; she values his honesty, intelligence and integrity. But there is an impediment. Lawrence cannot provide the wealth and security that Lily seeks in a husband as he well knows. He sees through her charms too well, sees all her manipulations and coquetry toward the male sex and the great hypocritical machinery of the aristocracy into which they were both born.

At Bellomont, the country home of her friends the Trenors where she was heading before she met Lawrence, Lily braces herself to try and tempt the very rich, very boring Percy Gryce. She cannot steel herself to it although she makes a few coy attempts to entrap him, posing as a modest, non-smoking, non-bridge playing, simple sort of girl. Some nobler element in her psyche won't permit Lily to subject herself to the degradation of marrying purely for money even though that is what is expected of her, what she even expects of herself. As her friend casually notes:
That's Lily all over...she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.

She misses her chance with Percy Gryce who has been poisoned by the well-placed,inscreet mutterings of Bertha Dorset who also has eyes for Lawrence and resents his interest in Lily. It will not be her only act of vengeance.

Simon Rosedale is a sinister new phenomenon for the old New York families of affluent Anglo and Dutch-Anglo aristocrats. As a Jew he represents a foreign element which is encroaching upon the effete and often defenseless members of Lily's class (defenseless in that they are seemingly no longer capable of hard work which they now view with contempt). Rosedale has drive, ambition, increasing wealth. His character is treated unsympathetically by Wharton, with overt racial disdain, even as he prospers and climbs ahead of the circle he wishes to join. He is perceived as vulgar and grasping, conforming to well worn and unpleasant stereotypes surrounding Jews.

Lawrence becomes more enraptured with Lily when she poses in a tableau vivant as Mrs. Lloyd in Joshua Reynolds' portrait Mrs. Richard Bennett Lloyd (1775) (detail of the painting to the right). This was an upper crust entertainment where the members of the party dressed and posed as famous individuals in celebrated paintings. Lily causes somewhat of a scandalized twitter amongst her friends with her beauty and the form fitting attire she dons for the tableau.

Despite some of Lily's societal successes, as she is widely admired for her social grace and beauty, Lily falters when she tries to alleviate her financial woes by asking Gus Trenor, the husband of her good friend Judy, for assistance in investments. He takes her small pittance and returns it to her handsomely and Lily, naively, suspects nothing. Lily thinks some harmlessly flirtatious remarks will be enough to reward and pacify Gus.

She is mistaken. He expects a great deal more.

It was part of the game to make [Gus] feel her appeal had been an uncalculated impulse, provoked by the liking he inspired; and the renewed sense of power in handling men, while it consoled her wounded vanity, helped also to obscure the thought of the claim at which his manner hinted.

One night, Gus tricks Lily into coming to the Trenor home. He wants payback for his generosity. Once Lily understands this she quickly leaves and to her great misfortune Lawrence inadvertently sees her late night departure and misconstrues the relationship between the two.

Lily spends a dreadful night tortured by what she sees as her future...she has become a toy of the powerful, malicious elements in her crowd - to be used by both the men and women whom she presumed to be her friends. The men now see her as vulnerable, perhaps desperate, due to her financial insecurities. The women see her a tool to be used in social situations because she is beautiful, relatively young and pliable.

The scene, set dead centre in the novel and representing a personal climax for Lily and the reader, is written in a somewhat overwrought manner as Lily pictures her worries as furies which pursue her right to the door of her friend Gerty Farish but the threat is real enough. Lily is unfortunately establishing a reputation as a young female who is preying on the married men in her circle because of her financial woes. As such her prospects for a reputable marriage dwindle, her circle of protective allies shrinks. The first priority is the protection of wealth, when an outsider (or an insider) threatens that, it is he or she who is expelled, not the wrongdoer.

That episode with Trenor, and the newly malicious chatter surrounding Lily, persuades Lawrence to not keep an appointment the next day where he was to profess his love to Lily. Instead he leaves for the Riviera on last minute business without a word to Lily.

Lily, in desperation, requests financial assistance from her aunt to remove herself from the obligations to Trenor; Mrs. Peniston indignantly refuses. The subject is closed. Money, and the lack of it, is one of many things which may not be discussed.

By a stroke of luck (to Lily's fevered mind) she is invited to spend some weeks on a Mediterranean cruise on the yacht of George and Bertha Dorset. The usually unfriendly Bertha (who still harbors ill feelings towards Lily) has a motive for this - she wants Lily to entertain her husband while she continues her fairly open dalliance with a young poet named Ned Silverton. But that, too, backfires for Lily when the scales fall from George's eyes and he realizes that Bertha is having an affair with said poet and leans on Lily for emotional support.

Bertha's behavior serves as a telling contrast to Lily - her extramarital behavior is notorious but she remains protected under the mantle of her marriage and her great wealth. Lily's supposed transgressions, which are minor to non-existent, elicit ostracization and snickering contempt from her "friends".

Bertha contrives to create a fictitious controversy around Lily and forbids her to return to the Dorset yacht. Even Lily's relations who are vacationing nearby are reluctant to associate with her so Lily must shamefacedly leave. She returns to New York to find that her aunt has died and disinherited her - leaving her a small sum which will only cover her debt to Trenor. But the legacy, ten thousand - almost the exact sum to be repaid to Trenor - shall not be paid for many months.

Lily also finds that, due to her extended travel, Bertha's poison has preceded her and members of her circle have swallowed Bertha's lie whole that Lily was trying to come between Bertha and George. So Lily is further removed from her small rarefied group. Bertha is more wealthy, more powerful, and people are afraid to alienate her. Lily drifts into a circle which is considered to be more déclassé - the Gormers, the newly rich, the scheming-to-be-richer rich, those who aspire to be the Bertha Dorsets of Lily's world. In this crowd, Lily merely serves as a flunky, a social secretary to one Norma Hatch, as she is in dire need of money now.

Gillian Anderson as Lily in The House of Mirth (2000). The choice of Anderson 
was intriguing as she so physically resembles the portraits of John Singer Sargent, the 
painter of "Mrs. Astors' Four Hundred". See the portraits of "Mrs. John D. 
Chapman", "Mrs. Waldorf Astor", "Alice Vanderbilt" and others in the slide show.

Selden is horrified by this turn of events. A young boy in their old circle, heir to a large fortune, has become involved with an older woman in the Gormer set who means to marry him. There is speculation that Lily is colluding with this new group to entice the boy into this relationship. At Lawrence's urging Lily leaves her position lest she be implicated in the brewing scandal but the damage is done.

Lily even seriously considers marrying Rosedale but he has risen too far now and she has sunk too low in his estimation, even for the still smitten Rosedale. He urges her to destroy Bertha's reputation as Berttha has destroyed hers. If she does, and Lily is reinstated with her old group of friends, Rosedale will marry her.

She lives in even more degraded circumstances, finally moving from her aunt's house to various hotels to a dreaded boardinghouse and taking up a position as a milliner making hats, a job she neither really masters nor loves. Lily who fears and dislikes dinginess, who gravitates towards beauty, is compelled to endure both her impoverished circumstances and the company of working girls who disdain her for her fall from grace.

Lily, who still harbors a secret about Bertha's past relationship with Lawrence, cannot bring herself to topple her enemy if it means Lawrence will be harmed. With the final payment of her legacy and her dismissal from the milliner's, Lily makes some fateful choices. She will pay her debt to Trenor and others and she will end her misery.

Edith Wharton
I understand that the Victorian pathos of the plot may be difficult to swallow for the modern reader. As Lily's situation degenerates, the pathos heightens as does the purple prose. Lily's choices sometimes seem inexplicable, the melodrama is perhaps cranked too high but Lily still pulls at one's heart. As Wharton repeatedly underlines, she is a victim of her circumstances and the society into which she was born. She was born only to please, to adorn, never taught skills or self-sufficiency. When her material world crumbles so does she - as admirable as she may appear in many ways, as admirable as she truly is.

Wharton's bravery still moves me. She could easily have remained in the rarefied circles of the very rich with no real obligations or responsibilities but perhaps her own marital troubles and the difficulty of extricating herself from them made her more sensitive to the gilded cages that women in her class belonged to.

Lily remains close to my heart, close to my secret desires and failures.