More Macbeth (because why not)

So now I have seen four (4) productions of Macbeth this year.  This latest one was community theater, and about as good as you can expect from free community theater Shakespeare in a park, but it still managed to be more entertaining to watch than the Cheek by Jowl production I saw, even if it lacked the strange insights into the play CbJ (quite boringly) presented.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some thought there.  This production was set, rather vaguely, in Colonial America at about the time of the Revolutionary War.  The witches, for instance, were Native Americans, and there were lots of bayonets, and so on.  The fact that I watched this production on September 11 probably affected by reception of it a bit, too, but regardless of all of that, it put me into the state of mind in which I consider American (US) literature and what’s important about it.

I don’t talk about US lit a lot, mostly because I find it substantially less interesting than other things, but that doesn’t mean I have Opinions, by god, because if I ever manage to make a name for myself I’ll definitely be a part of the US literary tradition more than, well, whatever-the-hell-else.  So anyway, I think that if there is a Shakespeare play that comes close to being an “American” play, it probably really is Macbeth.

This sounds a bit nutty, I know, but Macbeth in my mind has always seemed like a deeply nuanced reworking of Marlowe’s Faust.  And if there’s any European myth that I think has some special claim on America, it’s Faust.  I am very cagey about people (including me) making sweeping statements about “American” literature or a great “American” novel, but if there is a recurring motif in what we seem to consider great US fiction, it’s this notion of a deal with a devil, a fascination with things that have the power to make us great or destroy us, and the choices we have in relationship to these forces.

Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is the prototype for this in my mind, but I also see it in Moby Dick, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Great Gatsby, All the King’s Men, Beloved, and on and on.  My own Gothic predilections are obvious here, but I think there’s something worthwhile in the notion of our national myth, so to speak, being one of great power and ability bought at a terrible (usually bloody) cost.  I’m kind of a pessimist, too, so there’s that.

give your life for rock’n’roll

As I sit here listening to the new Lordi album, it occurs to me that I had at one point planned to do a blog on grad school.  Not necessarily grad school as an institution, but what it means to me to go to graduate school, being the first person in my family to complete college, and the sort of crazy-ass anxieties I’m subject to when it comes to anything regarding higher education.  I’m normally not vocal about this, mostly because it doesn’t matter in a lot of situations.  It’s also really boring.

But I still feel the weird urge to write about grad school, or at least the application process, sometime — probably in the near future.  Until then I’m scrambling to get application materials together, take my GREs, etc.  This is by no means simple, since I have a pretty full schedule — lots of reading, mostly, like the theory stuff I mentioned last time, but also things for the class I TA, and my normal class reading, and also writing essays and things that are not essays for the creative writing workshop class I’m in.

You, being the bright little star-child you are, probably have figured out that this means shorter and/or infrequent blogs.  Good job!  Just keep an eye here and we’ll see what happens.

How to Read (My Blog) and Why

I have started my fourth year of postsecondary education, my senior year of college.  Since that is really about as interesting as my life gets, that’s about as much as I’ll blog about it.  This space is more for me ranting about pop culture and trying to sound intellectual, anyway.

What I am getting at is that, since this is my senior year, I have a senior seminar, which means I am going to be reading a shit-ton of Theory.  This will probably leak over into my habits here.  I’m not going to, like, give you a crash course in semiotics or anything (unless you really want me to I guess, just ask), but it’s just a warning that I may be doing a lot of rumination about the study of literature in and of itself.

Also I will share stupid links, as they intrigue me.  I’ve already talked about Satoshi Kon and his influence on me, and my feelings about his death, so I feel it is appropriate that I follow that up with his goodbye letter.  The final farewell really makes it for me — sorry to be leaving before you, indeed.  Heh.

A Vicious Spiral: Enchanted Commodities and Cultural Narcissism in Junji Ito’s Uzumaki

I missed last week’s blog because I was out of town for a graduation, and I might miss this week’s because I’ll be working on my current Shakespeare paper (it’s gonna be really cool, I promise).  However, I’ve been trawling through my archives and I’ve found a paper I wrote three whole years ago on the horror manga of one Junji Ito.  I’ve mentioned this before, back when I was singing the praises of Daniel Lau, renegade translator of many an Ito story otherwise unreadable by my paynim eyes.  Incidentally, Lau is currently translating the long overdue Hellstar Remina, Ito’s saga of a Lovecraftian sci-fi apocalypse, and it’s silly as all get-out but very fun to read.  It also makes very, very blatant some of the themes I teased out of Ito’s Uzumaki, which I still hold to be the current purest expression of his style and concerns.

So in case you haven’t read Uzumaki and you really want to, turn away now — go buy the books or borrow them or something.  Read it, it’s worth it.  If you have read it, then I’ve reproduced for you below my paper on the manga, which I think holds up surprisingly well.  There are a few things I want to point out, though.  One is that I read Uzumaki back in the day when our manga (if it was officially imported and translated at all) was flipped to read left to right, so all of my references to the comic are to these older editions — as I understand it, non-mirrored editions have since been released.  The second point I’d like to make is that if this paper seems a bit weird and childish and very, very quotey, well, I was a college freshman when I wrote it.  I’ve learned a thing or two since then.

So without further ado I give you…

A Vicious Spiral:

Enchanted Commodities and Cultural Narcissism in Junji Ito’s Uzumaki

Early in the first volume of Junji Ito’s horror manga Uzumaki, its protagonist Kirie Goshima, a high school girl, remarks, “I don’t think it’s that weird to be into spirals. I mean, there are people who collect much stranger things” (21). She is referring to Mr. Sato, the father of her boyfriend Shuichi. By this point the reader is well aware that Mr. Sato has recently become obsessed with collecting anything evoking a spiral pattern — sometimes spending hours staring at snail shells lying on the ground — and Shuichi is very unsettled. Both Kirie and the Sato family live in Kurozu-cho, a typical seaside community in Japan — a nation where “having a hobby or two is a big deal” (Kelts 158).

Fan culture in Japan is a unique beast; for example, until the term was appropriated by American fans of Japanese culture, Japan was the only nation that had otaku, or “people who live for their hobbies or interests” (Kelts 160). The closest equivalents were the American Star Trek fans, or Trekkies, but in Japan the idea was expanded: to be an otaku you do not have to be a fan of a particular television series, you simply have to be a fan. Certainly it may seem strange that Mr. Sato has become a spiral otaku, but in a country where people may develop intense fascinations with anthropomorphic personifications of computer operating systems, is liking a particular pattern or shape really that odd?  Yet Kirie soon learns that Shuichi has every right to be upset. Not only is Mr. Sato’s spiral obsession dangerous, it’s contagious.

The choice of the Japanese word uzumaki is important. Despite being translated as “spiral” for the English release of the film based on the manga (and the manga’s English tagline, “Spiral into Horror”) a closer translation of uzumaki is ‘whirlpool’ (“Uzumaki”). Though whirlpools are often associated with the spiral shape, they have the unique property of actively drawing someone in; they are forces that pull people or things inexorably toward their center to sink or drown. This is integral to what may be seen as Ito’s critique of (to borrow a term from Anne Allison) “enchanted commodities,” a system where “play creatures … are packaged to feed a consumer fetishism that … penetrates the texture of ordinary life in ever more polymorphous ways” (Allison 16). This could easily describe the spiral obsession of Mr. Sato. Allison explains in Millennial Monsters that the polymorphous perverse pleasure “extends over multiple territories” and “can be triggered by any number of stimuli” (10).

This is plainly displayed in the manga’s first volume: when Shuichi explains the extent of his father’s hobby, we see a panel showing Mr. Sato sitting in a room filled with spiral-shaped objects and objects adorned with spiral patterns (22). Mr. Sato’s consumer fetishism is focused on the shape (the spiral), while its actual form (incense coil, kimono fabric pattern, etc.) is irrelevant. The spiral could stand in for any possible quality that makes a commodity “enchanted” in the eyes of the consumer, be it a brand name or association with a particular character or mascot. Reading the manga this way, we see that these enchanted qualities can (drawing on the spiral’s iconographic connotations) disorient, confuse, and enthrall, inexorably drawing the consumer deeper into a frenzy of collection.

In Roland Kelts’ book Japanamerica, he claims that one of the reasons Japanese pop culture is so successful both in its native country and abroad is that “fandom is participatory, and communal” — what Kelts calls “the do-it-yourself (DIY) factor” (147). Fans of a particular anime or manga, for example, will fashion their own costumes after the outfits of their favorite characters (‘costume play’ or cosplay), while other fans may write and draw their own doujinshi — fan-made manga using characters from the amateur artist’s own favorite series.

The fans that make the most accurate costumes or most entertaining doujinshi gain a favorable reputation among other fans and garner interest in the original anime or manga, expanding the consumer base and at the same time producing more fans, who will create their own content and continue the cycle. Uzumaki has its own sardonic take on this DIY factor in the first volume: when Shuichi’s mother, concerned because her husband has stopped going to work, throws away the entire spiral collection, Mr. Sato is at first furious, then smug. “I don’t care,” he utters, before screaming: “I don’t need to collect spirals anymore! I finally realized that you can make spirals yourself! You’ll see! You can express the spiral through your own body!” (29, my italics in both cases).

Almost immediately after this outburst Mr. Sato removes his glasses and begins to roll his eyes — each moving in opposite directions. The body horror escalates: in a second encounter, Mr. Sato shows Kirie that he can now extend his tongue inhumanly far and curl it into a spiral shape and, following the man’s death, Shuichi reveals that his father committed suicide by crawling into a round barrel and contorting himself into a spiral, breaking every bone in his body. In a darkly humorous fashion, Mr. Sato’s death might be considered the ultimate form of cosplay: he truly becomes his obsession, rather than simply dressing up as it. Even when his body is cremated, the smoke of Mr. Sato’s ashes forms a spiral cloud in the sky.

But, as Kelts says, Japanese fandom is communal — and so is Ito’s analogue for it, the spiral obsession. Shuichi’s mother, following her husband’s death, develops an intense fear of spirals; every time she sees one, she only sees her husband’s grotesque body and hears his voice begging her to “join [him] in the spiral” (Ito, Volume One 53). She removes all spirals from her body by shaving off her hair, cutting off the tips of her fingers to remove the prints, and finally stabbing herself to remove the spiral-shaped cochlea of her inner ear. She dies soon thereafter, having destroyed her sense of balance and, for the short remainder of her life, experiencing a permanent sense of spinning vertigo — “I don’t want to become a spiral!” she protests (Volume One 74). Following cremation, her body’s ashes also form a spiral cloud. With her death it seems the floodgates are thrown open and the spiral obsession is loosed upon Kurozu-cho in full force. Soon, Kirie and Shuichi are forced to deal with multiple bizarre situations where people “become” spirals or “express” the spiral through their bodies.

The strange way in which the spirals themselves seem to be alive and in which people seem to become spirals is informed by two particular facets of the Japanese mindset. The first, drawing on a history of Shintoist animism, is “a tendency to see the world as animated by a variety of beings, both worldly and otherworldly, that are complex, (inter)changeable, and not graspable by so-called rational (or visible) means alone” (Allison 12). In Ito’s world, the spirals are an ancient, incomprehensible force; roughly halfway through the third volume, Kirie finds an ancient map in an equally old Japanese-style row house. Drawn in the place of Kurozu-cho is an immense spiral, implying that the spiral obsession has its roots in the distant past and is, in fact, part of the city’s very foundation or the environment itself.

Similarly, the act of “becoming” a spiral reflects a Japanese predilection for morphing and transformation in media, fostered in the wake of the country’s defeat in World War II and the appearance of “unstable and shifting worlds where characters, monstrously wounded by violence and collapse of authority, reemerge with reconstituted selves” (Allison 12). In recent times this morphing has become a positive attribute with such franchises as the Super Sentai series, but in Uzumaki Ito utilizes transformation in a much more negative way, reminiscent of the post-war Gojira: the people of Kurozu-cho appear to mutate into destructive, mindless beasts. These concepts of animism and mutability come together in Uzumaki’s gloomy finale.

Kurozu-cho has been decimated, leaving the old row houses as the only shelters, and in visuals the landscape mimics a war zone.  In the wake of this pseudo-atomic bomb blast, the people of the city begin rebuilding their lives, just as the Japanese attempted to rebuild following WWII.  However, the survivors have begun a process of expansion, linking the old buildings as one superstructure in — of course — the form of a giant spiral, beginning at the edge of town and stopping at a pond in Kurozu-cho’s center. As Kirie and Shuichi soon discover, the people living in these row houses are no longer human in the strictest sense of the word: they still speak like human beings, yes, but a combination of living in close quarters and malign supernatural influences have transformed them into slimy, genderless, boneless creatures whose limbs have twined and looped together in a seemingly infinite mass.

When Kurozu-cho’s pond drains (in a clear echo of the uzumaki or whirlpool of the title), it reveals a strange spiral staircase leading down into the earth, and the massive interconnected swirl of former humans gleefully slides out of their row house en masse. Kirie and Shuichi follow and discover, miles beneath Kurozu-cho, an eldritch city of stone spiral towers. Shuichi remarks that it feels as if the ruins are alive and watching him: “It’s like it’s cursing us for being underground, hidden from all the eyes up there” (Volume Three 214).

The countless people from Kurozu-cho who litter the ground stare blankly into the spiral city, and Kirie notes that they seem to be turning to stone. Shuichi continues: “I don’t know who… or what built it here, or why… but every so often, every few hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousand years, it can reach the people above ground. And even though its builders are gone… maybe it’s still building itself” (Volume Three 214). The petrified half-humans with their distended, looping, spiraling bodies appear to be the living city’s latest additions, new building blocks to fuel its infinite growth. Shuichi, who has been injured in a fall, orders Kirie to leave him and escape to the surface. She refuses, choosing instead to embrace Shuichi, and as they lay together on the stones that used to be their neighbors, the couple’s arms and legs begin to twist together. The animate stone city draws people to it and morphs them into an extension of itself: every citizen of Kurozu-cho has had his or her obsession satisfied and has finally become part of the spiral.

But in Japan, where it is not at all uncommon to see in fiction “a universe where the borders between thing and life continually cross and intermesh” (Allison 13), why is Uzumaki horrifying? Why is its morphing scary and unsettling, while the morphing of the Super Sentai series is one of the largest parts of the program’s appeal? I believe the answer may lie in the horrific themes of narcissism. The old horror story is generally a tale of punishment for unexpiated sin, but as American critic John G. Parks observed in 1978, “Nearly all characters [of the modern horror story] are narcissistic.” In 1979, cultural historian Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism, in which he argued that late-capitalist society had bred a generation of Americans suffering from pathological narcissism.

Contrary to egotistical narcissists, pathological narcissists have a weak sense of self and attempt to establish it in any way possible (thus appearing, in many ways, akin to typical narcissists); Lasch insists that this type of narcissism “has more in common with self-hatred than with self-admiration” (31). He also lists the signs indicating a pathologically narcissistic personality; of particular importance for this paper is his tenth: “fascination with celebrity.” Though both Parks and Lasch are Americans writing about American issues, their observations may ring true for Japanese society, as well.

Currently the Japanese people are becoming increasingly individualistic, increasingly atomized; as Allison says, when describing what she calls “solitarism” and its relation to enchanted commodities, “people seek out companionship, but ironically (or not), the form this often takes is …. a machine or toy purchased with money that is wired into the (individual) self” (14). By the end of Uzumaki, the people of Kurozu-cho are glad to become part of the spiral, something larger than themselves, even though the thing they have become a part of is monstrous. Lasch draws links between pathological narcissism and extremist cult activity in the US (98); one may compare this with the 1995 Sarin gas subway attacks carried out by the sizeable Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo.

Japan is also a culture of celebrities, with music idols and seiyuu becoming objects of fixation for thousands of fans. A criticism of this culture is palpable in almost all of Ito’s work, and we find it reflected slyly in Uzumaki: in the first volume, a girl’s hair becomes animate and demands attention from those around her, hypnotizing them and displaying its curls for hours, but it also drains her strength and kills her, becoming more or less an independent entity. In the second volume, a black lighthouse with a strange spiraling beacon entrances all those who look see it; in the third volume, the reason Shuichi hypothesizes for the spiral city’s evil is its anger at being hidden away from all those who would see it. The spirals (that is, the enchanted commodities) are living creatures that demand attention; the pathologically narcissistic people of Kurozu-cho can provide this attention, but also crave it for themselves. Collecting is no longer enough, so they sacrifice themselves to the spirals — they become the spirals — in the maximum display of devotion and in hopes of receiving attention from others.

Even though Parks and Lasch are Americans, they both managed to describe certain cultural facets that fit almost perfectly into Uzumaki, leading me to believe that, in the era of globalization, our horror stories are also becoming globalized. A lot can be deduced about a culture from its monsters, and the fact that American and Japanese monsters are becoming more similar (the influence of Japanese horror cinema is notable in today’s American film market) implies a greater closeness of culture than ever before, perhaps brought about by both countries’ late-stage capitalism and aided, as Kelts fancies, by a similar sense of tragedy felt by the Japanese over the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and by Americans over the September 11 attacks (37).

However, despite its growing numbers of “otaku,” despite its own enchanted commodities, despite its acceptance of morphing characters, the US apparently lacks the animist context of Japanese culture that helps completely decipher Ito’s bizarre plot. Americans are also, perhaps, still too insistent on happy endings and solid resolution; the mono no aware of Ito’s ending is definitely not suited to American tastes. Uzumaki isdefinitely a Japanese work, made from a Japanese viewpoint and with Japanese readers in mind; nevertheless, its warning against the possible dangers of asserting one’s own weak personality by consuming supposed enchanted commodities, or by becoming the center of attention, or by becoming something bigger than oneself, rings true in a way that may speak to both Japanese and American readers.

In our current climates of aging capitalism, both nations travel on increasingly similar paths: paths of consumerism and narcissism that, as Ito might have it, curve inexorably inward toward a center, toward a single point — a dead end.

List of Works Cited

Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

Ito, Junji. Uzumaki, Volume One. Trans. Yuji Oniki. 2001. San Francisco: Viz Communications, Inc, 2003.

—. Uzumaki, Volume Two. Trans. Yuji Onki. San Francisco: Viz Communications, Inc, 2002.

—. Uzumaki, Volume Three. Trans. Yuji Onki. San Francisco: Viz Communications, Inc, 2002.

Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Culture Has Invaded the US. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Experience. 1979. New York: Norton, 1991.

Parks, John G. “Waiting for the End: Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial.” Critique, Vol. XIX, No. 3, 1978.

“Uzumaki.” Random House Japanese-English English-Japanese Dictionary. 1995. New York: Random House. 1997.

He Who Made the Lamb

If everything worked out, you wouldn’t be reading this.

You may know what’s happened.  It may already be obvious — maybe you’ve seen it on TV or something.  But if it happens in the way I think it’s going to happen, I half-suspect people won’t be spending their time reading blogs.  But maybe it will be quiet to begin with, and no one will notice.  At least for a while.  With as crazy and things have been lately, I wouldn’t be surprised.

This is an auto-update.  I could have stopped it.  If I’m safe, you wouldn’t be reading this.

I  was supposed to leave London today.  Or at least, I was scheduled to.

I looked out the window earlier, just to check.  Camilla wasn’t there, like I expected her to be — maybe like I’d hoped she’d be — but there was the bum.  I recognized him immediately.  I don’t live in an area of London where you see a lot of beggars.  They tend to stick to the tourist and financial districts, not the residential suburbs.  But I knew it was him, even as easily as I would have recognized him if I saw him back in Kensington.  I recognized him without seeing his face: The same old green bomber jacket, the same fleece hood, and the rags of shirts and pants or skirts looped around him.  It’s fairly warm here right now, and he should be sweltering.  I don’t think he is.

He’s waiting.

Terror has a human form, someone once said.  And Secrecy the human dress.

So okay.  The beginning.

Ignacio Muez Ajedra.

Born in Barcelona in 1868, the son of a wealthy and fashionable couple.  He was well educated, spoke Italian, French, German, and English, and could read Greek.  He developed an interest in poetry at a young age and his class and parents’ own interest in the arts assured its encouragement.  After a time he grew bored of Spain and desired to see the world; he traveled in Europe.

He came to London in 1889.

He stayed.

In 1900 he published a book of English prose and verse called The Chameleon.  It was a collection of various short stories and poems he’d written during his travels, though he translated them all almost entirely once he’d settled in London.  He loved England; he loved London most of all.  The city entranced him.  Despite his parents’ pleas, he never returned to Spain.  During World War I he evidently served in some low bureaucratic capacity in the War Propaganda Bureau, most likely a position procured for him by his circle of writerly contacts — for he maintained friendly if tenuous ties with London writing communities despite never publishing a piece of fiction after The Chameleon.

At some point, he married.

At some point, he had a daughter.

He died in 1941 during the Blitz, at his home in Golders Green, just northwest of where I am right now.

Those are the basic facts.  Those are the things that would appear in his encyclopedia article if he had one, and if they were verifiable — which they largely are not.  Even more unverifiable are certain claims, conjectures, propositions, theories, whatever you want to call them, certain possibilities about Ignacio Muez Ajedra and his private dealings that may very well have damned us all.  Or maybe just me.

For instance, for the last four decades of his life, he worked tirelessly on an unfinished novel called He Who Made the Lamb.

And that novel was largely an attempt transcribe not his own thoughts, but the things whispered to him by the disembodied voices he heard in the empty tunnels of the London Underground.

*

It might be complete chance that I found Muez’s book The Chameleon in a shop off Leicester Square.  The again, it might not.  But in the end that’s unimportant, because I did find it, I did read it, and what has happened, has happened.

You’ll recall the strangest thing about Muez at the time I discovered him was that I couldn’t find anything on him — even Google failed to turn up anything worthwhile.  So despite the title story of the collection and the ending poem being especially intriguing, I was more or less resigned to letting the book remain something of an oddity.  It would be a conversation piece, something to pull off the shelf and show to people, even though there was nothing particularly valuable to say about it.

Then I started my job.

You probably remember me complaining about my internship.  Hell, at the time I wrote up those entries I thought working on data entry was the worst thing that could possibly happen to me.  And I guess, in a way, it was.

I worked for a poetry organization, a group whose goal is (as they put it) to “create a central position for poetry in the arts and continue to build new avenues to promote poets and poetry in Britain today.”  They’ve been active for about a century now, as it happens, and during that time they’ve had more than a few competitions.  Part of my work was to type up poems from the past hundred years for digital archival, with the eventual goal being free access to all award-winning poems on the organization’s website.  It was boring work, but better than updating databases, so I was glad to have it.

A few weeks into the job, when I was archiving the winners of a small contest in 1985, I discovered that one of the commended poets was a man named C.L. Klein.  His poem was called “Good Friday” and in general was very unremarkable — it was written as if the speaker were questioning another person, apparently an older man, a father or grandfather who had apparently died in some grave accident.  I remember clearly only the last two lines: “Did you know when you walked out the door? / Did the streets around you roar?”

The poem, just under the title, had an additional, smaller line: i.m. Ignacio Muez Ajedra.  In memoriam.

The organization keeps files not only on winners but every contest entrant, going back to the 70s, when they moved offices.  When I took my internship I signed a contract promising I wouldn’t use these archives to procure and/or release contact details of anyone.  But I couldn’t help it — I hated my job, of course, and felt no real obligation to honor the contracts I’d signed, and besides that, I’d found my first mention of Muez outside of his own book.  Someone else knew he existed.

So I looked up C(ameron) L(ee) Klein.  He had a Hammersmith address and a phone number that, like all UK phone numbers, appeared to me to be a random string of digits with no discernible pattern.

I called it on my lunch break, anyway.  A woman answered: “Hello?”

Hello, I said.  I was wondering if this was the number of the poet N.E. Klein?

A pause.  He’s dead, the woman told me.

I wasn’t expecting that and immediately realized how ridiculous I was being.  I apologized as best as I could, making up some story about how I was an aspiring poet and I’d found some work by him that I really admired, and again I was so sorry, I really was–

The woman didn’t buy it.  Klein was her father, he wrote only one poem that she knew of, and yes, it was “Good Friday”, and she didn’t think it was good enough by far for me to seek him out over it.

I expected her to hang up then, but she didn’t.  I can’t really say why, but I decided to tell her the truth — I told her about Ignacio Muez Ajedra.  I told her I had read his book.  “You found his book?” she asked quietly.  “In America?”  She’d picked up on my accent.

I told her no, I’d found the book in London.

“Good,” she said, and it struck me as strange at the time she would say that, and that she would sound so relieved, but I didn’t ask why.  Not then or any time afterward.

Instead I told her that I was actually intrigued by Muez’s book and had been hoping her father would be able to tell me something about him.  She laughed at that, saying her father would have been happy to tell me everything.  As it was, she would have to do the job.

After all, Muez was her great-grandfather.

But it was a long story, not one to be told over the phone.  Could we meet sometime?

How about that weekend?  At the Hammersmith Underground Station?

Sure.

And so that was how I met Camilla.

*

There’s a statue at the Hammersmith Underground.  I’ve seen it a few times and still don’t know what to make of it: three human figures, all standing together on a plinth.  They’re posed as if they might be dancers.  I’d seen the statue probably three or four times before I realized that none of these figures have faces; instead of discernible features, each one has a jumbled mass of planes and ridges, as if the sculptor got as far as chiseling them out and then snapped, chipping away their faces piece by piece.

I didn’t notice this the first time I met Camilla.  Nor the second, nor the third, nor the fourth.

The fifth time we met in Kensington, not Hammersmith.

The sixth time, when we met once again at Hammersmith, I finally noticed the statues.  I noticed them because they reminded me of what was left of the bum when Camilla and I had finished with him.  I tried explaining that to Camilla, I tried to explain that I wanted out, that I didn’t believe, that I never really believed.  It was nonsense, it had always been nonsense.

“Yes,” she said, “of course it is.”

We didn’t go back to her flat that day.  I haven’t seen her since.

I saw the bum again for the first time the day after, though.  Wearing the same hoodie, the same old jacket.  Leaning against the Waitrose outside the building where I go to classes — where I’d first seen him, in fact, my first week in this country.  The place I’d told Camilla we’d find him (there was a small alley behind the Waitrose where I’d noticed he slept).  At first I didn’t believe it, of course; I thought it was a coincidence.  But still, every day, I saw the bum, the vagrant, wearing those same clothes, that same jacket.  I never saw his face.

I’d been hearing the voices on the tube for some time by then, but I’d been ignoring them, turning my iPod up as high as it could go.  They’d been much louder after the Kensington thing, when we killed the bum and I thought I heard something… roar, is the only way I can describe it.  Something roared, unquestionably it did, when we finished with the bum and buried his body in the four corners of this city.  I know it was a roar.

At the time, though, I thought it sounded like the low rumbling noise a train makes on the Underground as it pulls up to the station.

When this sort of thing happens in novels or movies, they always make a big deal out of how the protagonist is affected psychologically.  Why, of all people, should this happen to me?  What does this mean for me?  How does this change my place in the world?

I don’t have time for that.  As it turns out, in real situations like this, these questions are remarkably unimportant.  It doesn’t matter why this has happened to me, only that it’s happened.  The only way its changed my place in the world is that the world may not be around much longer.  I’ve awakened this City, or something in the City — Camilla told me about her grandfather, the things he believed, the visions he received.  He believed he was a prophet.

Apparently, so am I.

But I am a reluctant prophet.  When I was seduced by the gospel of the City, when Camilla told me what we needed to do and I agreed, I wasn’t truly thinking, or truly believing.  I was overcome by something else, something I regret now, and something I want to destroy.  I imagine London, sometimes, being destroyed in an airstrike — in the Blitz, perhaps, or melting to glass under a mushroom cloud, and I am happy.  I smile.  I am trapped here now; such an end would be a release.

Then I look out the window and I see the black skies, the lightning.  I hear the screams and the gunfire.  I wonder if my fantasies of destruction would truly end the terror, or if it would instead play into some larger plan, as I did.  Is destruction of the City itself what that thing underneath, within, behind the City desires?  Is that what it needs?

Soon I’ll go outside to meet the bum.  Or the thing that looks like it, anyway.  I’m afraid, naturally.  What will I see if it pulls back its hood?  The warped, chipped faces of those statues in Hammersmith, the face of the vagrant after I killed him, before Camilla and I said the words to wake whatever holds this City in its grip now?

I’ve come to suspect that I know this force, this thing, better than I originally thought.  Thanks to Camilla, if that was  her real name.

I’m suspicious, you see, because of her name: Camilla Klein.  And her father, Cameron Lee Klein. It may be the stress, but when I say those out loud they sound incredibly close to chameleon.  The Lion of the Earth.

Perhaps I really did genuflect this new god, in my own awkward way.  Perhaps I’ve seen the divine image: its human heart, its human face, its human form.  Now is a time of reformation, of transition, and the bum outside is a part of that, the fiery furnace in which this City shall be melted down and made anew.

Worse before they get better

Yes, obviously, the situation here hasn’t been improving.  There had finally been some talk about sending us all home, especially after the riots in front of Westminster.  Naturally at that time Iceland decides to fucking explode and ground all flights in and out of the country.  They even had us on a train, packed with people, for around four hours, trying to export all Americans en masse, but we never left the station.  I’m just lucky our host family has allowed me and my roommate to stay with them until, well, whatever happens.

Of course, when the entire sky turns black at like three in the goddamn afternoon, the angry protesters in the middle of London do not react well.  I’m not sure how well it’s being covered in the global press, with the death toll from Iceland constantly rising and no end to the eruptions in sight, but when the ash could hit, people didn’t exactly stay calm.

Not even the police could stop them.  The riots spread as far as Camden Town, which is more than a little close to home.  My roommate was out at the time with some other people from the program, but they managed to get home okay.  We only had a little problem here when some guy who looked like a bum in a bomber jacket crawled into the garden and tried to smash in the glass patio doors — he didn’t make it, just scrabbled around a bit and then moved on.  Thank god for small favors.

Anyway, so in addition to having no flights in and out of the country, I guess we’re all under martial law now.  The Underground is under strict patrol, most of the lines are closed.  Classes and internships have been called off.  I don’t go out anymore; I can’t say I miss the Underground, it was far too loud down there recently.   The grocery stories have pretty much run out of fresh vegetables and meat, and the canned stuff is selling pretty fast — I gave all the money I’ve saved to my host dad so we could afford to stock up on food.  I don’t know when they’ll start cutting off internet access, but I’m sure passing the Digital Economy Bill a few weeks ago won’t hinder that in any way.

I’ve said before it was a mistake to come here.  Now I’m really beginning to understand how wrong I was then — and how right I am now.  I haven’t seen the sun in so long.

Still alive, still discontented

I was planning on making the reassuring post that I lived through my week abroad this Friday or Saturday, but I had to get completely pissed off and blow my cover before then.

You see, I’ve finally had a realization, or reached a conclusion.  I will make the declarative statement here very shortly, so if I turn out to be wrong I can read it later and feel like an idiot and you can all be witnesses.

The conclusion is this:

My semester in London is a complete waste of my fucking time.

Yes, I like being here, and I like being able to see the city, I like being able to hit the theater, and I really like the ease of travel.  But academically and professionally this is an utter joke.  My classes, save one, are worthless; the one worthwhile class is taught by a faculty member from my home institution, and therefore has such things as discernible class structure, goals, and competent teaching.  The rest of the classes are taught in three hour chunks by adjuncts who care probably only marginally more than I do.

I am learning nothing.

I take my academics seriously.  I don’t appreciate being spoonfed information during ungodly long class periods just so they can keep up some pretense of me being a student, or their institution being a place of education.

So now that I’ve hit the halfway point and two of my four classes have ended, I must be happy, right?  Well, no, because now that my classes have ended I am required to take on an unpaid internship for “cultural experiences” and “immersion” and so on.  My internship started today.  It was seven hours of combing through Microsoft Access databases updating contact information for journalists.  At no point did I learn anything about British culture or what it’s like to live in London; I can have a soul-crushing office job just as well in the States as I can here.

The program my college has opted to use is basically running a temp agency on the side, shunting students off hither and yon to do unpaid work at various places.

Everything I have learned and experienced in this country about culture I have learned on my own time, outside of the classroom.  The rest of it is busywork.  I could have had a more profitable academic year if I stayed on campus.

It’s starting to look like I should have.

I am going to be homeless for a week, let’s talk about plays

Going to put this on automatic update, just so I don’t miss another week.  See, my abroad program incorporates a week of “free travel” into it, which is supposed to be more or less equivalent to Spring Break back home.  A vacation, if you will, or a holiday as they are called here.

This is where we run into problems.  I’m not much for vacations, you see, and I didn’t have to read any Jamaica Kincaid or DFW essays about lobsters to make me like this.

There’s this horrid little neologism that’s made the rounds recently, the ‘staycation.’  That is, a vacation where you stay home instead of going out somewhere; the thing is, every vacation for me is a staycation, and it always has been.  It may surprise you, given my seething antipathy towards fun, good will, sunshine, and human beings in general, that I really, really dislike going out onto beaches or to theme parks and seeing various things/people/situations that only intensify my disgust and displeasure with life on this earth.  When I have time off I don’t want to fucking go anywhere, I want to lock myself in my house and sleep for twelve hours and read books until three in the morning.  This is how I relax, this is how I unwind.  This is what a vacation means for me.

Not for most other people, unfortunately.  The “free travel week” my program has is a bit misnamed.  You see, it’s a misnomer because 1) if it were truly a “free” week I could stay at my house and sleep, as would be my preference, or 2) if it were “free” in the pecuniary sense, it would be a lot more appealing.  As it happens, for seven days I am required to leave my house and travel either on my own or with friends and fend for myself.  My host family is not being paid rent for that week.  In essence, I am being kicked out.

My program, for whatever reason, thinks it’s a good idea to have a mandatory crash course in homelessness.

This all sounds a bit whiny, I’m sure, as I am a privileged young white male college student in an abroad program, which puts me a damn sight ahead of 80% of my cohort.  I’m in Europe, aren’t I?  I should be taking in the culture and traveling and seeing the sights.  If you’re thinking that right now, then I have an offer: you fucking pay for it.

I’m a goddamn scholarship student.  I’m only on this abroad program because I am incredibly, indescribably lucky — my tuition has been covered, thank god.  But on the other hand, I’ve had to pay for plenty of other stuff out of my own pocket — plane tickets, clothes, supplies, food, various other travel expenses such as cabs and trains.  My personal savings were drained by this trip, and supporting myself as an itinerant for a week will pretty much reduce me to nothing.

If I were the kind of person who read literature as being, in its heart, about class conflict, or if I were the kind of person given to screeching about systemic classist elements of any setup, I would have been bitching about this sort of thing long before now.  So while I normally don’t care about it, I’ve finally come into a situation where it really irks me.  (Enough to blog about it, anyway.)

To put it succinctly, I don’t have the money to live on my own in a foreign country for a week.  My family does not have the money to help me.  This is not something I can do.

But I’m doing it anyway, because I don’t have a choice.

Luckily I have some connections in Stratford-Upon-Avon who are willing to put up with me for a few days, though they’re in the process of moving so I can’t stay there the whole time.  My family back home has managed to get me enough money that I can stay in a hostel (as much as I hate hostels with all my soul they are cheaper than hotels) in London for the remainder of the break.  I’ve been living as a spendthrift over the last seven weeks, saving large amounts out of the grocery stipend I receive, so I have enough money to eat and buy various little stupid things I need, so I should be all right.

I’d still like to lock myself in a house and read all day, though.

Anyway, excitement: while I’m away I’ve used WordPress’s handy autoupdate feature to organize a series of short reviews of plays I’ve seen recently.  These should be popping up at various points during the week, digitally prepackaged and intellectually microwaved for your consumption.  It’s not going to be in the vein of the Psycho series, since there’s less for me to string together, so I figured it wouldn’t be bad for me to throw up all three reviews in a week.  We’re looking at a Monday/Wednesday/Friday thing here, so stayed tuned.

On the tube

On a good day it takes me something like 40 minutes to get to classes, or to get back home.  On a bad day it can take an hour.  There’s really nothing to be done about this in the mornings — it so happens that I have to take the tube most days at a time when everyone else in the area is also heading to work, so the trains are packed.  Heading home in the evenings, on the other hand, is something of a crapshoot; the rush hour never seems to be very consistent in when it decides to happen, and usually my rides back are less cramped than my rides in.  I’m usually even lucky enough to get a chair!

Now, there are a few things people do on the tube to keep themselves occupied.  I’ve already mentioned reading, though a lot of people also listen to iPods and such things.  I do both or one or the other, but I’ve also devised a little game to pass the time during the longest stretch of my commute, when I get on the Northern Line at Leicester Square.  The game is called “Who’s Getting Off at Camden Town?”

Here’s how it works: you covertly assess everyone in the current train car and, based on their outward appearance and demeanor, guess who among them is going to get off at the Camden Town stop.  Every time new passengers get on in between your current stop and Camden Town, add them to the pool.  You start with a score of 0; for every person you correctly guess is going to get off at Camden Town, your score is increased by 1.  For every person who you think will get off there but who actually leaves earlier, your score gets -1.  The game effectively ends when you reach the Camden Town stop; if any of your picks remain on the train past the stop, your score receives no merit or demerit.

Obviously to play you have to be northbound and on the Northern Line, or sufficiently far out and southbound; the best times to play, however, are Friday and Saturday evenings, when the nightlife at Camden Town is thriving.  This is also the easiest time to play, because you’ll really pad out your score with a bunch of easy guesses.  However, if you want an extra challenge, try playing during the day or on weekday afternoons.  You’ll still get the very obvious ones, but not quite as numerous, and sometimes they’re heading to other places; you’ll also get some real surprises, like men in conservative suits and little old ladies who are going out to shop.  If you have a friend on the train, you can try to compete or gamble, and these hard-to-guess passengers really add an element of risk.

In other news, last weekend I saw an absolutely mediocre production of Macbeth, which in the end I am so apathetic to that I chose to blog about what the hell I am thinking on the damn Underground rather than try to say anything substantive about the production.

See you next week.

Disruption

So it’s Friday, getting on into the evening here in London, and I don’t have a blog post.  There is a good reason for this, as my internet was out most of the day and I was attempting to fix it, something I have finally achieved my tricking Blue Yonder into thinking my router is in fact my cable modem. This would have been no problem at all for someone who has experience with cable modems, but that I ain’t.

What I’d planned to write today was a hopefully amusing article on newspapers here in the UK, specifically a few operating in London.  I know that sounds about as exciting as a box of twine, or probably less so, but the way in which newspapers unabashedly take political sides in this country fascinates me.  I don’t blog about politics because it’s not a good way to make friends, plus I’m generally apathetic to the whole business, but it’s also interesting for me to see how different sides here view our sides back home; plus, something really hilarious (to me, anyway) popped up in the Evening Standard a few nights ago, so if I get time maybe I’ll do a mid-week update, or just save it for next Friday.  Usually I’d just write it tomorrow, but as it happens I’ll be going to Stratford-upon-Avon to meet up with some people, so blogging then is shot, but HEY, it’s Stratford so who cares.

I suppose I can rattle off a few words about my classes.  I have a history of photography class that, while not a roller coaster ride, keeps me interested because I like tracing the development and evolutions of artforms.  I also have a class on British culture, which seems like a general history/sociology blend and should be pretty easygoing.  By far my least favorite class deals with social welfare issues and their history here in the UK; I don’t dislike the class because I dislike social welfare, but I dislike it because it is run by breaking us up into small groups and having us discuss various problems (eg, multiculturalism) and then bringing the class back together to get some common points.  I’d much prefer a straight lecture-style class because as I see it this discussion is completely useless — for instance, we were most recently told to discuss the perception of the word ‘welfare’ in America.  I don’t know about you, but it’s blatantly obvious where this is going to go: every group will say that welfare has a negative connotation.

Well, they did.  After like half an hour of dicussion.

So then the prof told us — surprise! — that in the UK ‘welfare’ has a different shade of meaning, one encompassing basic public services such as ambulances and education, and is not necessarily as negative as it is in the States.  Woo-hoo.  Basically, as I see it, this class is going to be many, many weeks of us arguing ourselves in circles over problems that are essentially insoluble and end up being a big waste of time.

Of course, there’s also my Shakespeare class.  We’re reading Macbeth, which I am basically tickled pink over, along with Measure for Measure and Twelfth Night.  I’ve never read Measure (aside: abbreviating that M4M might seem like a good idea but it isn’t) but I’m glad to tackle Twelfth Night in a classroom setting since I also happen to enjoy it greatly.  How greatly?  Well, I only really like one of the other comedies, really, so maybe that tells you something.  (Of course, I haven’t read them all — maybe I’ve just read the boring ones first?)

Anyway, a few nights ago we went on a walking tour of “Shakespeare’s London” across the Thames.  Of course, Shakespeare’s London is a bit of a misnomer because when Shakespeare and the Globe and the bear-baiting rings were in operation there, it wasn’t really London, and most of it has fallen apart or burned down by now, so a Shakespeare-centered walking tour of the area basically consists of looking at places where things used to be.  Nevertheless it’s possible to look at the empty lot where the Globe once stood and then convince yourself you’re feeling a pseudoreligious sense of awe because you are literally oh my god really standing where Hamlet was unleashed on the world.

An addendum: last night I went to Piccadilly Circus and saw The 39 Steps at the Criterion, and it’s a wonderful show.  Mel Brooks tried his hand at Hitchcock sendup with High Anxiety, but in my opinion it kind of fell flat; this production, meanwhile successfully manages to parody Hitchcock while being a rather earnest homage to the man and his work.  It doesn’t help that it recasts the original story in sort of the style of a Cary Grant 1940s screwball comedy, which I admittedly have a soft spot for.