Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.17: Vernoica Schanoes

Art's Emotional Extremes in 2012
by Veronica Schanoes

2012 is drawing to a close and the world has stubbornly and yet again failed to end. I can only be grateful for this persistence on its part, as my godson just had his first birthday at the end of November, and the more time I get with him, the better. But this does leave me with the difficult task of remembering what, if anything, I managed to read, watch, or listen to this year. I know that I have read Pat the Bunny and In the Night Kitchen many, many times over the course of 2012, and I am not complaining; they deserve their status as classics. But they seem to have chased all memory of any other cultural experience from my mind. I can recite large chunks of Maurice Sendak's oeuvre (“Where the bakers who bake until dawn, so we can have milk in the morn, mixed Mickey in batter”) to say nothing of Pat the Bunny (“Here are Paul and Judy. They can do lots of things. You can do lots of things too.”), but I'm having a hard time remembering anything else I may have read this year.

Fortunately, I have some written records. I have the notes I took when I was putting together the syllabi for new courses. I have posts I made to my LJ. And I have the list I started scribbling earlier this year, on the off-chance Timmi asked me again to contribute to “The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening.”

And she did. So here is what I have been able to piece together.

(1) I am going to begin with horror and loathing: this year, for the first time, I watched Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a movie I had wanted to see since I was around 12 and first developed a strong interest in horror movies and their history. It is much parodied, as Bette Davis's turn as the former child star turned resentful alcoholic is often seen as an extravaganza of scenery chewing (“But you are, Blanche! You are in that chair!”). The plot concerns two aging sisters, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who plays a former film star, now (1962) confined to a wheelchair as the result of a car crash intended to be a sisterly homicide, trapped on the second floor of a decaying Hollywood mansion, and completely dependent on her younger sister.

Plenty of people see this film as a melodramatic display of over-acting.

I found it terrifying.

I found it terrifying because Davis is not over-acting. In the role of Jane Hudson, the former vaudeville child star unable to let go of her glory days, drinking herself into oblivion and tormenting her trapped sister, she is perfectly ghastly, evoking terror, pity, and repulsion. I suspect that those who see scenery-chewing in her performance do not have borderline personality disorder in their family.

Well, lucky them.

I do. My mother's mother had borderline personality disorder, and I remember only too well her rages, her cloying endearments, her wildly unpredictable behavior, and her crazed, unkempt appearance. It is very clear to me that Davis's Jane Hudson is in the same condition, and the helplessness of her sister conjures up for me my feelings of rage and helplessness regarding my mother's childhood. This movie is effective enough that I felt physically ill after only half an hour; I knew I should turn it off, but I could not tear my eyes from the screen long enough to do so. Davis's madness, Crawford's helplessness, Davis's murderous cruelty coupled with her sheer bewildered inability to process the world around her, so brilliantly and perfectly evoke what it is to have that kind of madness in one's family—the sadness for the afflicted family member, the doubts regarding one's own sanity, the feeling that one is in a battle for one's very survival. As a psychological horror movie, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is near perfection. Even though I correctly guessed the ending “revelation” twenty minutes in.

Well, it was obvious if you have it in the family.

(2) On to a more light-hearted movie: I found myself in the room while my boyfriend was watching the most recent Man in the Iron Mask, the one with Leonardo di Caprio. I have to admit that I avoided this movie largely because I cannot take di Caprio seriously—as far as I'm concerned, he looks like a somewhat dissipated twelve-year-old girl and the fact that he keeps getting cast as leaders of street gangs and suchlike is an enduring mystery. But this was simply a cracking good yarn. The plot “twists,” such as they are, are telegraphed hours in advance, but that doesn't affect the suspense and adventure of the thing, and I found the plight of D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, at long last on opposing sides, having outlived the swashbuckling world they made, touching. Gabriel Byrne, whom I almost always love, John Malkovich, and Hugh Laurie are excellent, and I was even impressed by di Caprio. Somewhat. At least, when he was playing the debauched and villainous Louis XIV. I was glued to my chair, I was convinced at one point that the Musketeers were dying in a blaze of glory and was heartbroken (I was wrong. Spoiler.), and I was satisfied by the way they made peace with the passing of their glory days. Good flick. I'm glad I handed the remote control over to David that evening.

(3) My field of specialty is children's literature, and in particular, children's fantasy and children's literature of the golden age (the Golden Age of children's literature is generally considered to be 1865-1926, or from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Winnie-the-Pooh). Those years gave us many of what we now know as children's classics: Alice and Dorothy both began their adventures then; Peter Pan lost his shadow, found his mother, and lost her again; Jo sold her hair and refused Laurie's proposal; the Bastables set out to restore their fallen fortunes; Toad escaped from jail and drove rather recklessly. But the Golden Age was a true flowering and many of the writers whose works dominated the field at the time, writers as prolific as they were popular, are now complete strangers to us. Mrs. Molesworth is one such; she died in 1921, and in her obituary, one paper wrote that England had not produced such a master of children's literature since Lewis Carroll. I had read her fantasy novel The Cuckoo Clock, published in 1875 and not thought it anything special, preachy, morally didactic, and a bit precious.

Twenty years of practice can make a difference, as this year, I read her novel The Carved Lions (1895), and found it both fascinating and moving. It is told in the first person by an older woman, now a grandmother, recounting her childhood, and an idyllic childhood it was, as she grew in the bosom of a warm, loving, and respectable-though-in-straitened-circumstances family. But her father is given a posting in South America, and she is separated from her beloved brother and sent to school. What follows is an account of the internal suffering of a child deprived of love and emotional support, surrounded by adults who, through no fault of their own, cannot understand her. You will not find here the villainy of Miss Minchin in Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. Nobody starves Geraldine, or exiles her, or forces her to slave for her supper. She is just shy, sensitive, lonely, missing her parents and her brother. And eventually, unable to endure any more unhappiness, she runs away into a rainstorm.

Molesworth writes beautifully, not only showing a deep understanding of her protagonist's psyche, but also demonstrating a conscious consideration of how narrative is constructed, as her narrator repeatedly draws attention to what she is skipping, or what she doesn't remember very well. Too, the nature of time and its relationship to identity and memory is called into question. It was a deeply touching book, with none of the heavy-handed, simplistic moral didacticism of The Cuckoo Clock. The Carved Lions is out of print, but available on Google books. It's well worth tracking down a copy.

(4) This fall, I taught a course on historical novels set in New York City. Most of the ones I'd recommend I'd read before, but Kevin Baker's Paradise Alley was new to me. A simple summary would be that through the perspectives of a variety of characters, Baker tells the story of the New York City Draft Riots, which took place in July 1863, the same year that, over in Oxford, Reverend Charles Dodgson began telling the three Liddell sisters the story of a girl named Alice, who fell down a rabbit hole. Baker tells us a very different kind of story. He tells the story of Seneca Village, the black community that occupied the land appropriated by the city for Central Park, which was displaced and dispersed. He tells the story of the Great Famine in Ireland, and of the massive waves of Irish immigrants that took New York by storm. He writes about male violence against and abuse of women. And mainly, as the writer of any historically accurate tale set against the Draft Riots must do, he tells a story of a few days in the history of New York City when the essential ugliness of racism rose to the fore, and a rolling lynch mob of white men and women tortured black New Yorkers to death in the street, not even sparing children.

In July 1863, the city began to enact the first draft; the Union needed men with which to continue the war. They refused to open their ranks to black men, many of whom deeply desired to enlist. But they considered the Irish immigrants swelling New York City's population white enough to draft. All white men of age were entered into the draft lottery, but any man had the option of paying $300 instead of enlisting. Any man who could afford it, that is. As the Irish names began rolling off the tongue of the announcer, the flint of working-class resentment hit the steel of racism and the city literally burned. The mob, consisting mostly of Irish laborers, destroyed the draft office, attacked and burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum (the orphans had been allowed to evacuate before their only home was sacked), and lynched any black people unfortunate enough to be caught, including children. The rioters also attacked abolitionists and interracial couples.

Baker's novel follows the fortunes of a panoply of characters, particularly Ruth Dove, an Irish immigrant married to a black man, as she struggles to protect their children (her husband had been at work when the riots began, and his determination to get back home to them is another focus of the novel) and her neighborhood grows more and more hostile. Meanwhile, her sociopathic ex-husband has returned to the city after fourteen years and is determined to settle scores, a wealthy journalist finds himself witnessing the worst of the Riots, and the Irish brigade of volunteers is called back from the war in order to restore order to the city.

Reading Paradise Alley is harrowing. For the first and only time in my life, I felt ashamed to be a New Yorker. The power of this novel provides the only kind of justice left to the 119 people killed during the riots, the power of memory.

(5) Time after time, I pick up children's books or YA novels that look cool, but end up being disappointing. They have been beautifully produced, with amazing illustrations or extremely peculiar and fascinating photographs, and rag-edge pages or embossed covers or some such extravagance, and they are a pleasure to touch and hold and look at. But when it comes to the actual reading, my mind wanders, I flip to the next picture, I look out the window of the subway at the passing dark tunnel, I find myself not caring much about the protagonist or what happens to him/her, I misplace the book for a few days and don't much care, I am, in a word, bored.

And then there's The Replacement, by Brenna Yovanoff. It has kind of a cheesy design. The cover is done in silvers, and there's an Addams Family baby carriage with a mobile of sharp metal things (knives, scissors, etc.) hanging over it. It's meant to look ominous or menacing, I suppose, and it does succeed, but it also looks a bit cheap. But something about the book kept drawing me back to it, until I finally bought it.

I'm glad I did, because the production ain't much, but the book is amazing. It's about a town called Gentry, which, at first, seems to be much like any generic suburban town in America. Except it's an accepted part of life there that babies disappear, every so often. They disappear, and they are replaced by...things. Sickly, ugly, unpleasant beings that scream at the smell of iron, even the iron in blood, small creatures that usually die in short order, and are buried by grieving parents and neighbors, all intent on pretending that the corpse in the coffin is that of their beloved child, not the replacement, all knowing it to be a lie. The Replacement is told by Mackie Doyle, a sixteen-year-old boy grappling with the essential hypocrisy of the town, a town that ties scissors and knives to its babies' cribs to keep them safe, and never discusses why, while trying to keep his own secret, that he is not human after all, but a replacement who was cared for and nurtured, and has managed to grow to adolescence...but not might make it to adulthood if anybody should find out what he really is.

Teenagers are not my favorite characters—I have little to no tolerance for angst or young romance, and teenage boys in particular can be quite unpleasant for me to read about. But I cared about Mackie. I sympathized with Mackie. He was a fully fleshed-out person, with complex relationships to the people around him, a kid with friends and parents who love him and about whom he cares; a young man seriously turned on by Alice, an extremely popular girl who favors miniskirts and explicit flirtation, but drawn to Tate, an outcast girl whose misery equals his own because, you see, her little sister has disappeared. Or died, depending on which story you believe. And though Mackie tries to keep himself alive and as human as possible while sorting out his romantic feelings, the most important relationship in his life is with his older sister, Emma, who sat up one night when she was four and watched him be put in the crib in place of the baby who had been her brother, and stayed up all night playing with and soothing the replacement Mackie. And then, one day, Mackie meets the Morrigan...

Yovanoff's writing is brilliant and evocative, and her use of fairy lore is quietly intelligent and gripping to those of us who are well-versed in the literature as well as accessible to the reader who knows next to nothing on the subject. Humanity and monstrosity, and the difficulty in telling them apart are the themes that run through this book, and Yovanoff portrays them beautifully.

(6) I had the single best theatrical experience of my life this year. And when I went back, it was equally magical. I choose that word advisedly.

Then She Fell is an immersive, interactive performance based on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass and What Alice Found There. I have long been fascinated by Alice, ever since I too was about ten years old, and so I have read, watched, and played all kinds of Alice-based material, and most of it, I am sorry to say, is dreadful. Most theater in particular based on Alice operates on one of two emotional registers; either it is painfully whimsical and delightful!, or it is cloyingly, self-consciously, naughtily sexual. Neither one of these captures the emotional brilliance of the original piece, which is not delightful, but carries wonder and darkness, dream and nightmare, inseparable from each other. The dominant emotion Alice carries through Wonderland is frustration, until she grows angry enough to finally break out of the bizarre world of her own subconscious. Then She Fell, put on by Third Rail Projects in what was formerly the Greenpoint Hospital in Brooklyn, is the only piece I have ever seen to recreate that mixture as poignantly as Carroll's work itself.

In Then She Fell, the viewer/participant is led through a series of rooms on an individual track, sometimes meeting with other participants, sometimes alone with the actors, and sometimes simply alone. I was given a set of keys, some of which fit into locks I encountered along the way. I read carefully recreated letters, written with a dip pen on aged paper, from the Reverend Dodgson to Alice Liddell; I painted a white rose red; I took dictation from the Hatter and was measured for a hat; I sipped cordial with the Red Queen, who spoke tightly and seriously of the importance of protecting one's daughter. And I brushed Alice's hair while she told me about her dolls and asked me about being in love.

The joy of this piece is exploration and play; we have been trained to be entertained, to sit back and watch while other people tell us stories or perform. Then She Fell requires us to play, like we did when we were kids, or at least like I did. You can't, as a child, just sit and watch the other kids play house, or Star Wars. You have to be something yourself, whether that's the family dog or Han Solo, and join in. So I gave the Hatter advice about how best to approach Dodgson (“He's...idiosyncratic,” I said. “Idiosyncratic,” she repeated. “Yes. That's the word,” she agreed after a moment's thought.), gave her my hat size, and told her I liked fedoras. Because you've got to play if you want to be part of the story.

When I was a little girl, I kept a weather eye out for doors to magical lands, or magical talismans I might find on the street. I waited and waited, and never did I find my way to Oz or find half of an Egyptian amulet. I never made it down a rabbit hole, and no mirror ever blurred and melted away at my touch, allowing me through. As I grew older, I gradually gave up hope of finding that magical adventure. Then She Fell is as close as I will ever come, I think. And perhaps that is good enough. Then She Fell brought me to tears in places, and when I left the various scenes blurred and swam in my mind, and my memory of the specific incidents and interactions began to dissipate like mist, or like a dream. Like Wonderland.

I meant to write more—there were other movies I saw, other books I read. But I think this list, though only of six items, covers the extremes of emotion that art gave me this year—horror, wonder, excitement, sympathy. I think that is enough, at least for one year.

 Veronica Schanoes is a writer and assistant professor in the department of English at Queens College - CUNY. Her work has appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Strange Horizons, Interfictions, and Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 21. She lives in New York City and does not like cats. Her first book, Fairy Tales, Myth, and Psychoanalysis: Feminism and Re-telling the Tale, about tropes common to both feminist revisions of fairy tales and myth and feminist psychoanalytic theory from 1973-2001, will be appearing from Ashgate Publishing in the near future. She currently lives in New York City.

1 comment:

Mary said...

The problem with that Man in the Iron Mask for me is that first I watched the one starring Richard Chamberlain, which is better. Much better.