Friday, 12 October 2018

darling (d john schlesinger, w frederick raphael)

Darling is a curious movie, almost interesting for those movies that it isn’t than the one that it is. The movies that it isn’t include two vertiginous London portrayals: Repulsion (1965) and Blow Up (1966), as well as Accident (1967). Also Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), not to mention Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962). Indeed, with its Paris and Capri sequences, this is a film that seems to aspire towards a European sensibility, something the occasional freeze frame and ambitious tracking shot reinforces. 

However, there’s an uneasiness to the whole melange, as though the director and screenwriter’s thematic and stylistic ambitions don’t quite marry. In part, one suspects, this is because there’s a timidity surrounding the protagonist, Julie Christie’s Diana. Diana, her erstwhile boyfriend, Robert, (played by Dirk Bogarde with his usual judicious flair), says, is a whore, someone who has slept her way to the top. But Christie is far too homely to really convince in this role. Christie is as luminous as ever, and any moral doubts we might have regarding her behaviour are never given room to flower. She doesn’t have the vulnerability of Deneuve in Repulsion either, we never really worry she’s about to go off the rails.

However, given that this is a flawed film, it’s still fascinating to observe the scope of the movie’s ambition. It’s not hard to see how a script like this would nowadays be shepherded straight off to the TV execs, to turn into a series. Which on one level makes sense: this is a film trying to package a raft of narrative which it doesn’t quite  pull off; but on the other hand it reminds us of cinema’s capacity to investigate not just a sector of society, but the whole raging caboodle. In which sense, one suspects that Schlesinger’s greatest influence might have been Fellini, a filmmaker who successfully used the medium to offer panoramic views of his psycho-sexual-social environment. These kind of films just don’t get made any more in the UK (I can’t think of any). Which seems a pity: we have the stars; we have the technical resources; we have the screenwriters… maybe we don’t have the audiences? Or maybe that kind of overarching remit is no longer relevant to the localised issues that British cinema seeks to address. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

nick cave and the bad seeds at the teatro del verano, montevideo

Jair Bolsonaro won the first round of the Brazilian election on Sunday. I messaged my friend who is following the campaign for the indigenous candidate for the vice-presidency, Sonia Guajajara, as a photographer. He said her campaign HQ was “like a funeral.”
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In 1994, Luis Charamello, a sweet-hearted gay actor, invited my 27 year old self, and my friend Sedley, for supper. We knew fuck all about the Latin American history, really. Isolated in a Western European, Anglo-Saxon bubble. We knew there had been a dictatorship, which had only ended 10 years ago. I think we both commented that, all the same, Montevideo seemed very normal. You’d never have guessed. Yes, Luis told us. But we know they’re still out there, waiting. 
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Twenty five years later, the fascists, the self-avowed fascists, are coming back with a vengeance. Bolsonaro might not have won the presidency in the first round, but he’s going to win the second. Nearly 45% voted for him. The age of social democracy is dying. All over the world. Your right to be the person you choose to be isn’t going to last much longer. You belong to the state. Because fascism, no matter how much it might be dressed up as libertarianism, always comes back to state control and the abolition of individual rights. Bolsonaro has no qualms about taking about indigenous people the same way the white settlers of the the 17th century did. Women do not have equal rights in his world. As for “the minorities” and their right to be different, forget it. Brazil, like the USA, like Russia, like China, like Hungary or Poland, Italy, and my own self-harming country, is heading in one direction and that direction has nothing to do with ‘the rights of man’.
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On Sunday, the street I live on bustles with life. It’s Día del Patrimonio.A day when the Ciudad Vieja gets transformed, a normally sleepy barrio is consumed by the city. We walk down the street. A trombone player catches Claudia’s eye. Mine is caught by a skinny, tall man in a crisp shirt, with long hair, looking like a decadent banker. It’s Nick Cave, going for a stroll through the Old Town, before he plays his gig with The Bad Seeds on the following day, a gig we’re going to. No-one seems to bother Cave. A photo appears on Twitter of him buying something in front of my house. 

When I first came here, Sedley arrived to visit soon after I’d settled in. He told me he’d been at a party a few weeks ago, and Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss or someone had been there. I told him, somewhat smugly, that part of the reason I liked being here was that no-one had the faintest idea who those people were. The cult of celebrity didn’t appear to hold much sway. It’s changed a bit, but not that much. 
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The day of the gig, the day after the first round of the Brazilian election, is swelteringly hot. We all know that means a storm is going to break in the evening. In the rehearsal with Claudia and Pato, we talk about Cave and about rock ’n roll and whether the good die young and how you keep going, doing the same thing over and over, time after time. At what point does that repetition imply a distillation of value. How do you keep the flame burning, as you move into your fifties, your sixties. 

One of Cave’s songs references Robert Johnson, the original devil-dealing rock ’n roll star. Or the first documented, mythologised one. There have been rock ’n roll stars since the dawn of time. Johnson, who made the pact and sold his soul, but never sold out. 
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The Teatro de Verano fills up. We’re in the expensive seats, in the front. A local band, Buenos Muchachos, opens. They are dark and intense. Claudia’s friend is going out with the long haired guitarist. She thinks the friend is in Spain, working on a theatre tour, and sends her a WA video. It turns out the friend is sitting five rows behind. Everyone knows at least half a dozen people at the gig. If you did even three degrees of Kevin Bacon separation, we’d all be cousins. I go to get beers after the Buenos Muchachos and in the queue, an actor starts speaking to me, and then an actress I don’t know appears and says she’s there with my actor, Pato. Montevideo is one big little village. 
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Nick Cave is a daddy-long-legs. In my mind’s eye he was always a short Tom Thumb figure, but my mind’s eye was all wrong. Nick Cave is a gangly, long-limbed puppet of a man. His limbs splay all over the place. He’s a dancer who convinces through performance rather than grace. In the blink of an eye his body concertinas to the floor, then he’s up, drop-kicking the mike. 

Above all, Cave loves to love and be loved. Pretty soon he’s perched on the barrier separating crowd from stage, held up by nothing more than the strength of a dozen audience members’ hands. His song talks about the heart going ‘boom boom boom’ and he beseeches the audience to place their hands on his open breast and feel his heart going ‘boom boom boom.’ 
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The night is warm but the storm is coming. Cave and the Bad Seeds’ music plunges into the humid air. Elaborate orchestral arrangements, with cowbells, electric violins, swooning endless choruses. Songs made to be re-arranged, songs which are a journey all of their own.

In the Punk book oral history I’ve just read, there are accounts of the ‘1,2,3,4’ songs. Every song starts like that and ends two minutes later. The book tells of the impact of the Ramones, who I saw in Leeds, in 1984, a decade into their reign. And every song was indeed punctuated by that numeration, as though the songs were olympic sprints, over before you knew it. The cumulative effect was bewildering, dramatic: you didn’t know where one song began and another ended, as though all the songs were all part of one great song whose chorus was ‘1,2,3,4’. As though the band would have been happier playing their forty minute set as one long, impenetrable song, but tradition dictated that this one song be broken down, and Joey Ramone paid lip service to this with the religious use of numerology.

Cave’s songs seemed to have skipped the need for lip service. His songs spiral into themselves, blues riffs which could last all night. Every song has secret rooms and loud rooms and an altarpiece and devotees prostrate before the altar, and renegades spitting at the altar, and Cave in the middle, leading the service like the gothic high priest he aspired to be and then became, the short man who became an alien god. 
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And in the night there are demons and devils. Cave sings about them, but they’re out there now, I can sense them. Bolsonaro. The guys who go to Trump rallies with T-shirts saying “Pinochet did nothing wrong.” The liars and the snake-oil merchants. They’re always there in the Manichean struggle but for forty years or more they’ve been kept at bay, pushed back, forced into the shadows. The world appeared to belong to tonight’s audience who have come to listen to an Australian and his band shine their mocking light on authority, the smell of weed in the air; a crowd who glory in their difference, their right not to be who their parents wanted them to be, noses pierced, hair dyed, defiantly searching their id. 

When punk kicked off in the grey lowlands of my very youth, the kids recognised that the easiest, quickest ticket to questioning the status quo was to represent yourself as different. Safety pins, plastic clothes, spiked hair. Chains and dog collars. The beauty of ugliness. Once upon a time you could have been shot or lynched for dressing like that. Strapped to a witches’ chair and dunked until you drowned. But the world was so rundown, so down-at-heel, that a chink appeared, a space where the freedom not to be like all the rest opened up, and the punk movement seized that slice of light and used it to prise society open.

Which has lead to this place, here, this night, beneath the stars. Where the threat has been forgotten. Where liberty, in the shape of a six-foot Australian and his demented band, strides the blast, saying, Yeah Yeah Yeah. Telling us to push the night away. 
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I glance over my shoulder. The lightening in the clouds above the great open spaces of the River Plate is constant now. Cave doesn’t speak much to his audience. He has other ways of communicating, song and trance and hypnosis, but now he looks to the sky and tells us that the storm is coming. It’s held off, but it’s coming. He wants the rain. You can sense it. He’ll play until the rain comes. He’s playing for the storm.

Then he surges out into the auditorium. He scales the barrier and climbs the steps. They reach out to touch him. They scream ‘thank you, Nick’ or ‘gracias Nicki’. He reaches the divide, where the cheap seats are perched high in the bowl of the Teatro de Verano. On stage his image is filmed, projected back. The priest with his congregation. He stands there, glorious in the adulation.

The song surges, ebbs, gets lost in time. He’s there with his people for an hour or two or three or four. For a day or two or three or four. For all the years of their lives. 

Then he’s back on stage and the rain comes. Fat dollops of rain, falling like manna. ‘At last,’ he says, ‘the fucking rain’.

And then the band really starts to play. 

We stand there under the rain which falls in sheets now. Is the rain a presage of the flood? Or is it washing away our sins? Or is it all of this and more? 

The stick-man on stage plays the piano, communes with his followers. He wants to be part of the band, he wants to be part of the crowd, he wants to be everything and nothing all at once. 

The rain falls and the night is a blasted heath and we push the darkness away. 

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

tijuana (d. gabino rodríguez, lagartijas tiradas al sol)

A man with a moustache is already on stage as the play opens. He has his back to us. There is a large TV screen on set and a small neat pile of bricks. Behind is a large painted canvas with a representation of Tijuana. The man proceeds to explain that he is an actor who decided to go to Tijuana and work in a maquillardora (a sweatshop factory) near the border for six months as an investigative project. He tells us that he filmed secretly and badly and also recorded audio. This is the story of his time in Tijuana. 

What follows over the course of the next hour or so is his account of his stay, punctuated by a recorded interview of the same actor somewhere else, (DF), giving an interview about his experiences. We, the audience, know that we are part of a theatrical game: the account being given is partial and not particularly trustworthy. In the end the actor says that he had to cut his time short, because he was scared of being found out. In the neighbourhood where he is staying, a poor neighbourhood, he has heard a story of a lynching. There are codes in the barrio, and he doesn’t want to fall awry of them. 

As such, dramatically, not a lot happens. Nevertheless, the piece remains compelling. This is in part because of the dramatic suspense inherent in the set-up, but also because the story offers a window on a world from which few stories have emerged. Pace Humbolt, in an age where the geographical world has been charted, then the uncharted waters are the urban no-go areas where the majority of the world’s population now lives. What is it really like to live in a barrio where the police won’t enter on the California border? The actor makes clear in the play, repeatedly, that he doesn’t want to romanticise poverty. He wants to communicate what it’s like to live there on a subsistence wage, making the goods which the Western world consumes, at the hard end of the neo-liberal machine. 

Inevitably, the portrait is partial. As the actor observes, he knows it’s not for life. But there are moments in the play, - the sad disco, the classical music loving political activist, family meals, the social codes - that register on the audience’s consciousness above and beyond the confines of the theatre. For a while, we walk in the actor’s footsteps, through the alleyways of Tijuana. 



ps - There is a more detailed and scholarly debate to be had (which was touched upon in the post-show discussion) about “documentary theatre” as well as the wave of quasi-biographical theatre (“auto-ficcion”) which is sweeping Latin America (Sergio Blanco, Lola Arias etc.). The ethics and the effectiveness of this re-imagining of theatre. However, that debate, discussion could perhaps wait for another moment.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

the invention of nature [alexandra wulf]

If the world is truly going to hell in a handcart, (and who came up with that phrase?), now is a good time to read about punk, about which more anon, but it’s also a good time to read about Alexander von Humboldt. As Wulf notes in her biography, Humboldt is little known now, certainly in Britain. My friend Mr Amato told me about him and I noted a sign commemorating his stay in Mexico City earlier this year. But he has never been on my radar, despite his significance as a key player in the development of the Americas, among his many other achievements.

In 1799 Humboldt embarked on a mission with the unfortunate Bonpland to the Americas, taking in present day Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and the USA. It was a time when ignorance was still rife regarding the new world. Humboldt was a scientist and a writer, and his books not only represented an important scientific account of previously uncharted territories, they also helped to communicate to his vast readership something of the wonder of this new world. Wulf is very good on Humboldt’s influence on figures as diverse as Darwin and Bolivar. She also gives Humboldt credit for being one of the first to recognise the damage that mankind was doing to the natural world and the threat this poses to the planet, even before the industrial revolution has got into full swing. There are also intriguing references to Humboldt’s engagement with the indigenous peoples he met on his travels. Here was a figure, at this key point in modernity, looking both into ancient methods of interpreting the world and the future consequences of the vast changes to the relationship between man and nature that were being put into action on a global scale. 

The Invention of Nature is a fine, diligent biography which does its utmost to not only recount the life of a forgotten intellectual powerhouse, but also place that life within a clearly defined context, one which extends to this day. To that end, the final chapter focuses on John Muir, the founder of the Yellowstone National Park in the US, a park which is now under threat from the retrograde, anti-Humboldtian attitudes of the current US administration. As Wulf’s book makes clear, the explorer and naturalist’s relevance remains pressing to this day. 

Monday, 24 September 2018

la noche de 12 anos (w&d álvaro brechner)

Brechner’s film tells the tale of three political prisoners in the Uruguayan dictatorship. (One of whom subsequently went on to become a celebrated president.) What gives the film its strength is that, save for a few flashback scenes, you’d barely know it. This isn’t so much a film about the dictatorship as a film about the capacity of the human mind to survive, in spite of everything. Astutely, the director, who also wrote the screenplay, sidesteps the impulse to explain or clarify why the three men whose story the film tells, are in prison. Instead it focuses, particularly in the first half, on the sensory experience, something that cinema, more than any other art form, is capable of conveying. The audience enters the labyrinth with the three prisoners and, as far as is possible when compressing twelve years into two hours, experiences their captivity with them.

The title hints at Steve McQueen’s Oscar winner, but far more than that, La Noche de 12 Anos is reminiscent of Hunger, McQueen’s first film. In addition to its cinematic artistry, and in contrast with other dramas about Latin American dictatorships, Brechner does his utmost to eschew sentimentality. Each character is allotted a certain leeway to explore their past and their personal lives, but this is never permitted to distract from the essence of the physical ordeal the men experience. Furthermore, it’s a necessary part of detailing prison life, which is not only that which the prisoner has to endure, but also that which he is deprived of. The love of family, companionship, seeing your children grow up. The acting, in particular the remarkable Alfonso Tort as Huidobro, exercises a similar restraint. These are three nuanced portraits of resilient humanity, in spite of the fact that these are characters who are barely allowed to speak and who have minimal interaction with anyone else. 

The result of the director’s restraint is a film of slow-building power. To watch this film in a full house in Montevideo is, inevitably, an emotional experience, one that illustrates the capacity that art offers to re-live and also to re-think the past of a given society. One would refrain from using the word ‘cathartic’: for some watching this film will be a bitter reminder of time and friends lost. As the audience drifted out I spoke to one veteran actor, a man a long way from the mainstream, who stood and watched the credits roll to the end, clearly deeply moved. However, this is a film which sets out to articulate the anguish of political prisoners on more than just a localised level, meaning that it triggers thoughts about those still held in Guantanamo, or living in limbo in refugee camps. For the film’s three subjects, there was, after twelve years, what might almost be called a happy ending, but again it is to the film’s credit that it does little more than hint at this. The film succeeds because it articulates the universal in the local; because in describing the three men’s ordeal with such vivid, cinematic precision, it compels an audience to confront inhuman political realities which continue to exist and which should never be allowed to occur in any decent civil society, (a concept that is increasingly under threat as ghosts of dictatorships past return to haunt us).


Thursday, 20 September 2018

second-hand time [svetlana alexievich, tr bela shayevich]

This is a monster of a book. So much so that I read it in two phases, roughly half and half. It’s not that it’s hard to read: the prose of reported speech flows like a smooth stream, words piling up on each other, short, brutal words which compose, amassed, a remarkable testimony. It’s more that the density of meaning underpinning these simple words is so potent that I needed, at one point, to take a breather, which I did for a few months, before returning to it.

The book recounts, in the words of people who lived through it, the break up of the USSR, the transition from a homogenous communist state to a brand of oligarcho-capitalism. The book describes the termination of an empire, a termination which was not, like the British Empire, a gradual process, but a seismic one, which happened over the course of less than a decade. People who had lived with values and a belief-system set in stone suddenly found that that belief-system, and those values, crumbling. Alexievich talks to those people, and their children, and details what it’s like to live though this process, in their own words.

As such the book is both a castigation and a lament for the Soviet Union. The book doesn’t spare details of the crimes of a totalitarian regime. There are many accounts from the camps, of lives torn in half, destinies shattered and desperate hardship. At the same time, the first half of the book details with pathos the way in which the intellectual values changed. How under the Soviet model, the greatest currency was ideas, books; under the post-Soviet the greatest currency reverted to being that which it ever was. The accounts of people huddling in Soviet kitchens, the safest place to speak, to talk about ideas, are bewilderingly touching. These accounts never suggest a vindication of the Soviet system, (far from it), but they do suggest that a society with a different set of values, one not predicated on material gain, might be a feasible concept. Perhaps in these moments, the book comes closest to suggesting how a Marxist dream might have worked, if it wasn’t for all the reasons that it didn’t. (Which the book details unsparingly). 

At the same time, Second-Hand Time also succeeds in placing the USSR within the narrative of Russian dream-history and expansionism. This is something, as the book makes clear, which will never change. Russia in itself is such an unwieldy, mysterious geographical entity that it has always and will always generate a particular geo-political perspective. It perhaps requires a certain mysticism to knit the country together, one that goes hand-in-hand with neo-fascist dreams of empire. Something which helps to explain the effectiveness of the current political regime, one which clearly follows in the footsteps of the Communist autocracy. In the end, as Alexievich’s book clearly observes, for so many, the difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’ is marginal at most. The standard of living remains the same, the stultifying nature of regional life remains the same; the consumption of vodka remains the same. 

Finally, and perhaps the element of the book which has helped to lead the author to the Nobel Prize, among other plaudits, Second-Hand Time revindicates the force of oral history. There’s something Homeric about the great rain of words which fall on the page. Somewhere in this deluge, the reader knows, lies the absolute truth of the time the book describes. A historian or a novelist can aspire to the truth, but the reader knows that truth will always pass through the prism of their consciousness. Here, refracted through then prism of a hundred consciousnesses or more, shards of extreme truth glint like precious metals underground. This is what it was like and what it is like now. There is no argument. These voices have no agenda, beyond the desire that what they have known in their brief time upon this world has a value which can live on after them. Which is all any of us, perhaps, really aspire to. 

Friday, 14 September 2018

paterson (w&d jarmusch)

For my money, Jarmusch is always happier working with a limited palette, maximising the recourses he has been allocated. Down by Law, Coffee and Cigarettes, of those I know, are lovely, self-contained films, which thrive on their chosen minimalism. Paterson, with its clear homages to the art of poetry, and more specifically, William Carlos Williams, is an addition to that club.

Poetry, of all the narrative art forms, is perhaps the greatest antithesis to film. Film is a team game. It requires equipment, specialisation, budget. Poetry is a one-man band, which requires nothing more than a pen and paper. (Or in this day and age a smartphone, something Paterson might reject.) Poetry thrives on formal rules: metre, scan, rhyme. Not to mention the rhetorical devices, (alliteration, onomatopoeia etc). Perhaps Jarmusch has always embraced the poetic possibilities of the cinematic form, but never more knowingly so than in Paterson. A clearly defined structure of seven stanzas, one for each day of Paterson’s working week. A recurrent use of image, character and trope. The adoption of stylistic flourishes (the composition of overlapping images to accompany the poems, as well as the use of ‘writing’ to illustrate them.) Even in the narrative construction, there would appear to be a nod to the art of the narrative, with what appears to be one significant incident per stanza. 

The net result is a languid, understated film, which is rich in detail, where every marginal moment has a resonance. In that sense, weirdly, it also seems to be faithful to those scriptwriting gurus who state that every scene should reinforce your film’s theme. Perhaps, the film suggests, the connection between film and poetry is closer than one imagines: in the art of the screenplay, which seeks to contain a precision to rival poetry’s precision and economy; and also, one imagines, the storyboard, where the formal visual elements are mapped out and composed with as much rigour as a poet seeking to construct the perfect line. 

Saturday, 8 September 2018

le grand meaulnes [alain fournier]

Never go back…. Reading this novel, in itself steeped in nostalgia, was an entirely nostalgic enterprise. I was about fifteen when I first read it, for school. I recollect sitting in a Victorian classroom, high windows lending a gloomy, ecclesiastical light. A member of staff walks past outside, over cobbles, whistling Jerusalem. Boys look around, bored. The teacher, probably an earnest young man, who has made the Faustian pact of a healthy salary in exchange for a life of tedium in the provinces, talks about Alain Fournier. 

Why this book should have been chosen for us to read, I don’t know. It seems too much like something out of a novel. The wistful novel within a wistful world. Yet it was well chosen, because it resonated. It has stayed with me, the distant bell of youth.

This is a novel all about being young, the romantic dreams of youth. A coming-of-age tale, if you like. Seurel, the narrator, recollects the impact that the stranger, Meaulnes had on his life as a teenager, and then the impact of Meaulnes’ doomed dreams. He does so, conjuring a lost world of ruined estates, gypsy boys, and wan maidens. To an English reader, it felt and still feels quintessentially French, a marriage of beauty and melancholia, the well-behaved step-child of the poets maudits. Meaulnes discovers a lost estate, or domain, which has been taken over by children, and later goes to ruin, before being sold off. This lost domain is also, of course, childhood itself, a land of dreams which will be gradually disassembled as adulthood encroaches. 

It makes one think that those who stay truest to the noble ideals of childhood are those least suited to the world of adults. Meaulnes’ sweetheart doesn’t make it, and Meaulnes himself becomes a wanderer, forever exiled from his kingdom, which was the kingdom of childhood. The more one ages, the further removed one becomes from that fairy land. It’s a beautiful tale, constructed on a universally tragic truth. 

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

le petit soldat (w&d godard)

More Godard. In the highly appropriate surroundings of Cine Universitario, a cinema that feels as though it continues to exist in a mid 70’s timewarp. (20 pesos for a cup of tea, something that reminded me of pre-Picture House carrot cake at the Ritzy in Brixton.) 

Le Petit Soldat is a strange, frenetic film. People are always running everywhere. They run to their cars, they run away from their cars, they’re constantly in a hurry, never getting anywhere. The camera indulges in sudden, swinging pans, from one character to another, or up the side of a building. The restless energy suggests a director chasing something down, without knowing exactly what. All the classic Godard tropes are there: moody boys, pretty girls, metaphysical conversation, outlandish US automobiles, slapstick gun-play, pretension, misogyny, but all of this is allied to an unwieldy political consciousness. It’s a bit like watching the natural history footage of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, that frantic struggle which ends in a brilliant fluttering of wings, only in reverse. This is a film that gets dirtier, less funny, uglier, as it unfolds. The torture scenes in the last fifteen minutes, whilst perhaps soft fare compared to what we are permitted to see now, nevertheless still pack a punch, especially the waterboarding. The film documents techniques of cruelty which will be repeated ad nauseam over the coming decades. Images which had never been shown before with such vivid, manic clarity. A man with a wet T-shirt over his head, explaining how the air is being sucked out of his lungs, an image of grotesque beauty, stuff to make a CIA or KGB agent weep with joy, whilst the resistance screams with anger.

There’s nothing new about torture, but there was something new in presenting it so pornographically, like a Bataille novel brought to life. The director himself seems caught in the paradox of the seductive power of his camera to create images beyond the pale. How does he react? He pans, he cuts, he runs, he desperately seeks the seriousness that might be permitted in his crazy world of make-believe. 

Saturday, 1 September 2018

my year of rest and relaxation [ottessa moshfegh]

New York, fin de siècle. An, unnamed, feckless young woman stares the 21st century in the face and decides the only way to deal with it is to try and blot it out. So she embarks on a project dedicated to sleeping as much as she possibly can. 

There’s something of a Roman Candle effect to Moshfegh’s novel. in the opening chapters it blazes brilliantly. The protagonist’s sardonic voice and the beauty of the idea, (the rational beauty), are engrossing. Why wouldn’t you?, one can’t help thinking. How much better it would have been to have slept through the last two decades. The privileged narrator, who lives on the smart side of New York, previously working in a brilliantly described modern art gallery, exists at the supposed apex of civilisation, mixing with the brightest crowd in the most ostensibly sophisticated city on Earth. Yet she retains an outsider status, deliberately thwarting her own capacity to fit it, or to be ensnared, by this seemingly brilliant world, whose shallowness she’s only too aware of. Hence, she decides to embark on her project. 

The problem, perhaps, is that this is a fiercely anti-dramatic project. The sleeping beauty without a prince is a narrative dead end. So the author introduces various tricks and ticks to keep the idea bubbling. Under the influence of a certain drug, the narrator has black-outs, where she wakes up aware that her drugged sleep has masked somnambulant adventures, of which only traces, like her credit card bills and random purchases, remain. The focus switches to her relationship with her doomed friend, Reva, the anti-cool to the narrator’s über-cool. 

The narrative starts to fray at the edges as it tries to sustain the brilliance of the opening chapters. Nevertheless, Moshfegh’s novel lucidly captures the uneasy, proto-digital age that dawned with the 21st century, the onset of a time that has lead to the increasing interiorization of communal space, steering us towards a world where no-one needs to leave their bedroom ever again.