Catachresis: A Way Too Scary Game

 Catachresis, a fygure, wherby the propretie of a worde is abused: as, Facies simillima lauro [A face most like a laurel tree], where facies oonely belongeth to a man, and not to a tree, although it doth signifye there a similitude or fygure.

-The dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot, 1538

For a while now I have wanted to write something about Catachresis: A Way Too Scary Game by Cameron Kunzelman, which you can play for free.  Kunzelman set the stage by saying he “didn’t want to make a horror game like all the other indie horror games that are out there,” and with some self-deprecation admitted it probably wouldn’t be all that scary because one of his central influences was Ghostbusters.

How I would flip this around is to say that Catachresis is what would happen if Ghostbusters committed fully to a horror framework but remained rather funny, and also got a healthy dose of the Hellboy mythos.  So if you need an endorsement to go play it before reading further, there it is — the game should only take you an hour or so, providing you are not Way Too Scared to finish it.

Videogame horror is obviously something I have an interest in, considering my other interests of videogames and horror.  Kunzelman lives up to his ambition, I think, of making a different sort of indie horror game.

Most indie horror games work like this: there’s some scary stuff that will chase you/kill you/jump out at you, and you must navigate an environment while this scary stuff happens.  Sometimes there are Silent Hill references.  Context, if provided, is minimal or incredibly fragmentary, in the hopes of being “dreamlike” and “open to interpretation.”  In more story-inclined games there is often a distinct possibility that you — yes you, darling player — might be crazy.  Take a moment to adjust to that incredible twist of the narrative screw.

Here is what happens in Catachresis: you walk around, you talk to a demon computer, and some other things, and then the fucking world ends.  It ends in a way that I can only describe as sublime — in the Burkean sense, that of huge and terrifying and somehow beautiful.

It is horror, yes, but a more subtle, yet also more cosmic sense than what you normally get in games that deal with the genre, and certainly far more careful than what you usually encounter with the horror trope of the apocalypse.

Apocalypse from the Greek means uncovering.  In English it was rendered as Revelation, from the Latin revelare, to “lay bare.”  To tear away the veil — to show that which has been hidden.

We live in a time when these words mean the End of the World.  We are now inundated with narratives of Apocalypses — biological, ecological, technological, religious, vampiric, zombie, whatever.  The issue with this use (abuse?) of the term however — this catachresis — is that it is a slide from the original meaning of the Biblical “Revelation.”  John of Patmos had the future laid bare or uncovered or revealed to him — the Apocalypse was not the end of the world itself, but the position of seeing it before its time.

By conflating the revelation with the thing revealed, I think we foreclose on its possibilities — its immensities, for one.  At the end of Catachresis nothing is revealed in any sense beyond the basic — you find out the world is ending and then it ends, welp!  But furthermore, there is not a call to speculate as in some games, no sense that you need to piece together the mythology that has led up to this point, because the event (it is clear) is so much larger than us.  There is no uncovering, but a descent into sublime unknowing.

The second foreclosure: I suspect Kunzelman, because I can’t count on him sharing my interest in Renaissance rhetoric, is reaching for Derrida’s sense of catachresis: “the imposition of a sign upon a meaning which did not yet have its own proper sign in language” — the possibility that that apocalypse-end-of-the-world is really a new beginning of a new type of world, a world that radically decenters us in our ways of knowing and feeling but which may not, as one character suggests in the end, be unlike going home.


Cormac McCarthy’s Pre-Written Obituary

The world was saddened today to learn of the loss of author Cormac McCarthy.  Mr. McCarthy lived a long life and anticipated his own passing some time ago, and thus wrote his own obituary well in advance.  It is printed without editorial comment below.

the old man

 

The old man died this week.  He was known chiefly in the region as a charlatan who peddled illusions to a people desperate to speak back into the echoes of its own savage past and there scrape up the dried blood on the worn stones of this country’s history.  He had white hair and a face dry and cracked like an ancient arroyo scraped into the land by a presence perhaps implied by circumstance but far from tangible and at many points seeming to be a figment altogether.

The old man had read quite a few books and at some point took it to his own mind to produce a few which was hard but honest work and in the end the satanic engines had churned up and down the hillsides devouring the trees to make the paper on which his thoughts were printed.  His works included Child of GodNo Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road.  Several were bought by soft men in suits and these men went back to their luxurious cities and they made these stories into talking pictures not entirely to the old man’s taste but it happened regardless, inevitable like the onrushing dark as the sun sinks down into the parched earth and extinguishes the light of gods and reason.  On account of one of his books he met the black woman Oprah.

The old man was not always an old man but was once a child.  He was a child partly in the East where he was born but the currents of his life dragged him West and his fascination with this place was to become in some ways metonymic with the old man himself.  When the old man was a child he once saw a dog beaten to death with a tire-iron by a local rustic and as the child who would become the old man watched the animal’s eyeball stalk and all drip like egg yolk down the cracked skull he thought, One day that will be me, and in the grand design of things he was not far off.

The old man’s favorite song was Always on My Mind but not as you would expect based on his demographics the Willie Nelson version but rather the recording from the 1980s by the Pet Shop Boys. It will be played at his services this Thursday no matter whatever his wife says.

Texts from Last Night

The library here is a lot stranger than any others I’ve ever been in.

It’s two towers of aging Indiana limestone that have stood here for forty years and for all I know might stand for forty more.  Unlike most major university libraries students are allowed to browse the stacks freely, which is of course quite a privilege, and something that makes me excited to have it at a resource.  Actually being there, however, is quite an experience.

It’s far larger than any academic library I’ve been in, and thinking about the books it’s acquired throughout the years — for the first time in my life if I want to read something I can almost guarantee it’s close by — it’s a little unsettling.  On one hand, it’s exciting to consider all of those books around me, all of those things freely available for me to pick up and read.  On the other it makes me intensely aware that there are many more books available to me than I could ever read, literal decades of accumulated attempts at communication, more than I could ever comprehend or understand or synthesize into a coherent whole.

This becomes especially pertinent if you hit the library during a slow period, or if you end up in part of the stacks where no one usually goes, and have plenty of time on your hands.  You may be surprised at what you find.

I was on the ninth floor of the east tower — the highest you’re allowed to go if you’re not staff — when I first saw the phone.  It was probably the beginning of September and I was dropping by to pick up some books for a possible research project.  I stepped out of the elevator and into the small hallway situated in the dead center of the stacks.  Immediately across from the elevator bank are the restrooms, plus a table supporting a yellowed dictionary (which seemed adorably quaint to me upon first glance) and I noticed, right by that, a purple cell phone.

Cell phones aren’t unusual, of course, and I figured this one wasn’t my problem.  Someone had left it — probably after sending a text or making a call, which incidentally is a big no-no since cell phone use is prohibited beyond the main lobby.  After waiting around for a few minutes, listening for anyone approaching or to see if anyone ducked out of one of the nearby bathrooms, I realized that the owner probably wasn’t going to come back any time soon. Because I’m something of a Good Samaritan, I decided to take the phone down to the Lost and Found, after I got the Milton biography I came for.

I grabbed the cell phone — a purple Motorola — and slipped it into my bag before running my errands.

It wasn’t until I got back to my apartment that I realized I’d forgotten about the phone entirely.  I’d been distracted in the stacks and gotten a deal more than the Milton bio I was aiming for, and the Motorola had slipped my mind.  I found it when I emptied out my bag and instantly felt a sharp pang of embarrassment.  Of course, all was not lost.  I just turned the phone on.

I already mentioned it was a Motorola.  It was also marked as a Verizon phone, and beyond being purple was mostly nondescript.  It was one of the models that slides open to reveal a perpendicular QWERTY keyboard.  It also had a camera, but the background was what looked like a default image: two figures silhouetted against a sunset on a beach.  Above that the time was displayed, the signal strength (good), and the battery life (about half).  My plan was to see who the last person contacted was and hit them up letting them know a friend’s phone was missing, so I quickly navigated through the menus.

I discovered the lists of incoming and outgoing calls were both blank.  The text message in- and outboxes were likewise empty, and so was the address book.

I can’t say I wasn’t suspicious.  This simply wasn’t how people use phones. Yet, if someone had chosen to clear out their phone, well, more power to them, no matter how weird it was.  That just meant I had no way of getting it back to them on my own, and at the time I remember being distinctly grateful that the next day I could just drop it off at the library Lost and Found, as per my original plan, and be done with it.

So I set the phone aside, and went about my business.  It was a Wednesday, which meant my roommates would be out most of the evening for various reasons, so I took advantage of the situation by making full use of the kitchen.  I was dipping chicken thighs in Italian dressing when I got the first text.

I’d left the phone on, and right next to my own phone in the pile of homework I habitually keep on the kitchen table when I’m cooking.  There was no ringtone, only a setting to vibrate, so when the text came, I thought it was my own phone going off.  (I personally hate ringtones.)  But I was surprised to see, after washing my hands and heading over,  that it was the purple Motorola’s screen that had lit up with a message notification.  One new text message.

Thinking I might be able to return the phone in person after all, I opened the message.  It was prefaced by the number of the sender — no name, since there was nothing in the address book — and I could tell at first glance that the number wasn’t local.  The message said

are you home yet?

I hit reply and with fingers not at all used to the keyboard wrote back that I wasn’t the owner of the phone, that I’d found it in the library, but I’d be happy to return it if I could figure out who it belonged to.  I hit send and waited.

I expected a response within at least a few minutes.  In my admittedly limited experience with things like this, people are pretty prompt when a phone is missing.  But as it turned out, I didn’t get a response until half an hour later, after my chicken and sweet potatoes had been in the oven for a quarter of their bake time.  I was sitting at the table doing homework when the next text came.

are you home yet? this is harder than i thought lol

Confused I spent some time comparing the originating phone numbers  They were the same, but the second seemed oblivious to my reply to the first.  Not sure what to do, I replied again, something along the lines of, I’m sorry, this isn’t my phone, I said I found it, could you tell me who it belongs to?

The phone was silent again until I was doing dishes almost an hour later.  I took my time checking it, since I was already expecting something less than helpful, and sure enough I wasn’t disappointed.

when they knocked i didnt answer so its ok. ive been drinking a little. ok maybe alot lol what about you?

Still the same number.  I didn’t respond to it this time, figuring that whoever was on the other side of this conversation was probably a bit more than drunk.  Instead, as a mild curiosity, I googled the number, idly fantasizing I’d find it associated with a Facebook page or something.  No such luck there, but I did manage to pin down a region: Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.  Nowhere close to local, but the university takes students from all over.

I shrugged this off as I went about my business, finishing up the dishes and moving on to more homework.  It occurred to me at one point that due to the time difference, my mystery correspondent was drinking a little (okay maybe a lot) at four in the afternoon.  Strange, but I hear they have odd ways in California.

Regardless of my own lack of response, I saw the purple phone had received yet another text after I got out of the shower.

hes been weird since you left

By this point I was beginning to feel a bit uneasy.  Whose phone was this, who was texting it, and why were they ignoring me?  I began to consider the possibility that this was an elaborate prank, or maybe part some psych doctoral student’s research project.  Of course it made me wonder what sort of prank or research project relied on people stealing a cell phone from a library and sending those people aimless texts.  I wondered if it were some sort of trolling gimmick — someone with money to blow was hoping to get a rise out of me, and would upload a transcript of my hilarious reactions to a cutting edge comedy website, or a 4chan board or something.

That still didn’t make any sense.

I got another text while I was pondering the possibilities, though.

i saw lights outside my window are you home yet

I swallowed.  It had to be a trick.  Someone’s dumb game.  Would I be playing into their plans if I called?

Only one way to find out.

I called the number and waited.  One ring, two rings, three rings, four and five and — someone picked up.  “Hello?” came a voice.  It sounded like a woman’s voice, maybe middle-aged.

“Hello,” I said, doing my best to organize my thoughts.  I honestly hadn’t expected anyone to answer and now I didn’t know what to say. “I’m not sure whose phone I’m calling from, I found it in the library here and when I received a text from your phone I tried asking for a name so I could–”

There was a groan.  “I’m so sick of this,” the woman said.  “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

Then she hung up on me.

I stared at the screen for a few moments, watching  CALL ENDED blink on the screen, and then set the phone aside again.  It was certainly some kind of trick, I decided.  I was getting texts from the woman’s number.  I got one just before I called her.  There was no way she didn’t know what I was referring to.  It was a prank, a really elaborate and inscrutable and asinine joke.

A bigger man, at this point, would have checked out, just turned the phone off.  But I was beginning to feel indignant and more than a little pissy toward whoever was orchestrating this game, and more than a little anxious to see if they tried anything further.  So I just set the phone aside on my night stand, right next to my own phone, and went about the rest of my nightly routine, finishing up reading for the next day’s classes.  As 11:30 rolled around, the purple phone hadn’t shown any signs of life.  I went to bed.

I’m a heavy sleeper, which somewhat explains what happens next.  How I remember it beginning is rolling over in bed during the night, as I think most people do, and becoming aware that something was off about the light level in the room.  That set me on the path for a full awakening, and as I smashed my face into my pillow in protest I became aware of a low buzzing sound.  The sound of a phone vibrating against my night stand.

I’d forgotten about the purple Motorola and immediately assumed it was my phone going off, that there was an emergency somewhere.  I reached out, my hand scrabbling around the nightstand until I felt my phone’s familiar case, and cracked open my eyes.

The screen was dark.  The light was coming from the other phone.  Memories returned and, irritated, I picked up the Motorola with the intention of turning it off.

That was when I caught sight of what the screen said.  It was not a call, of course, but a text message.  But not just one.  The screen said there were now 15 new messages.

I dropped the phone, my hand reaching out again for my glasses.  I blinked as I pulled them on, wondering if I’d read the screen correctly.  On the night stand the phone buzzed again as I picked it up.  16 new messages.

I hit a button, automatically opening the most recent.

im coming now let me in

I closed the message and frowned, still trying to get the sleep out of my eyes.  As I focused on the screen I noticed two things.  The first was that it was past two in the morning.  The second was that the battery icon was flashing.

But before I could fully comprehend that, the phone died, the screen flicking to black in an instant.  But in that instant I saw once again the background image, the wallpaper, that sunset.

Then I was alone in the dark.

I took the phone back to the library the next day, not even bothering to see if my own phone cord would suffice to recharge it.  I decided, after my night of intermittent sleep and uneasy dreams, that I didn’t want to see whatever else it had to say.

“Hey,” I said to the man behind the reference desk, “I was wondering if you had a Lost and Found here.”

“Sure do,” he said.  “Lose something?”

I shook my head and showed him the phone.  “I found that up in the stacks on the ninth floor,” I said.  “No one was around, so I figured if anyone came back looking for it they’d check here.”

“Ninth floor?” said the man.  “Thank you very much.”  He took the phone and dropped it somewhere below the counter as I walked away.

I wondered if I had imagined the look on his face when I set the phone down between us.  It was almost surprise, or rather, the look someone trying to hide surprise.  Or recognition.  Maybe I had imagined it, I decided.  Just like when I glimpsed the phone’s wallpaper for the last time, and in my confused, half-asleep state imagined I saw, standing black against an orange beachside sunset, a solitary silhouette where I had before seen two.

*

Last week I got a call from an unfamiliar number.  I usually don’t answer them but occasionally, if the mood strikes me, I will.

This time, after maybe four or five rings, I did.

“Hello?” I asked.  I was standing in the hallway of the apartment, just getting ready to head out for the night.

“Hello,” said a voice, a young woman’s voice.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know whose phone this is, I found it today, but you’ve been texting me and–”

I understood what was happening, at least on a surface level.  I suddenly understood, with perfect clarity, as if I could see it physically, what phone this girl had found.

But I still don’t know what came over me.  I knew, as she was speaking to me, exactly what it was I was going to say.  I don’t know why I said it, but with a heavy sigh I did: “I’m so sick of this.  Don’t you have anything better to do?”

And then I hung up.

My phone began to buzz in my hand almost immediately; she was calling me back.  I held down the red END button, watching as my phone’s screen went black, and I kept it off for the rest of the day.

When I turned it on the next morning, I was relieved to see there were no new messages.

if we stop teaching we’ll need someone to raise us from the dead

“What are you preparing to study?” asks the woman next to me on the bench.

English literature, I say.

It is approximately 82 degrees Fahrenheit and our bench, which does not have a protective awning, is placed squarely in the sun.  Three hours have passed since I first got off the bus at this stop, and I have walked in toto something like three and a half miles in a pair of sandals not made to live up to my usual brisk walking pace, so consequently my feet hurt like hell.  I have visited four bookstores and have $250 (15 pounds, ~6.8 kilograms) of books in my lap, this being no doubt the reason the woman asks me what I am studying.  My bus back to my apartment will arrive, by my estimates, in more or less 25 minutes.

“English, good,” says the woman.  “It’s a good thing to learn.  Good luck to you and bless you.”

She hesitates.  “God bless you, I mean,” she says after a moment of thought.  “His blessing has got a lot more weight to it than mine, I can say from experience.”  She laughs.

I laugh too, to be polite and thank her.  “I know it can be a hectic time right now,” she says.  “A big, new experience.”

I tell her that it is indeed, though I sort of have a head start.  I’m here for my MA/PhD, I already have my BA, but that was from a much smaller institution, and a very different institution, with only about 1,000 students combined compared to this place’s 40,000.

“Well, maybe you can teach them to concentrate,” the woman says, and laughs.

I laugh too.

“I know it’s supposed to be a place of learning,” she says, “but come dusk…”  She shakes her head.

I know what she means.  I’ve been here for only a week and multiple times now, and before 11 o’clock hits, I’ve seen the roaming herds of frat guys and sorority girls drunkenly jaywalk, like flocks of petulant birds in muscle shirts or miniskirts, respectively.

“Your degrees,” she says, “after the first one, when you get those does that mean you’re gonna teach the teachers?”

I say yes, because, well, I am sure some of my hypothetical future students will teach in their turn.

“Ah, that’s good.  I don’t have any degrees, but I have some experience with that area.”

The woman is maybe forty-something (she is 54, she will tell me later) and has on her lap a K-mart bag with some boxes in it and a Nalgene.  When I first sat down the woman was eating goldfish crackers from the K-mart bag, popping handfuls into her mouth.  She is thin without looking drawn in the way that some older people sometimes have, though her blonde hair is starting to look a bit gray in a certain light.  She is wearing a pair of sunglasses that sit close on her cheeks, the lenses so large and round that they obscure a third of her face and look a bit like goggles.

I am already mentally kicking myself when I ask her what it is exactly she does, because I dislike talking to strangers generally and dislike talkative strangers even more, plus what are the odds a random bus station conversation will not turn weird, especially given the God thing from earlier,  but there I go, I ask her, I ask her what it is exactly she does.

“I teach ministry,” she says, smiling that I’ve asked.  “I work with a group of believers here and do some street evangelizing.”

I nod and consider asking her if she’s associated with any particular church but don’t.  I also consider mentioning Quakerism, the theology with which for various reasons I tend to be most copacetic, but don’t.  Instead I ask her how long she’s been in town.

“A year,” she says.  “I was doing some wandering — I was in fact part of the homeless community for a while — and ended up in a tent.  Literally, in a tent!  Like Abraham!”

I know there is something of a housing crisis in the city, forcing many lower-income locals into nearby tent communities, and I am struck by the Old Testament parallel the woman has drawn.

“Of course, we’re moving on now,” the woman continues, “and the ministry has gotten stronger.  We were in our prayer circle back then,” I assume she means the tent city, “and we heard God telling us ‘boot camp.’  My minister-friend just looked at me and he says, ‘Boot camp.'”

The chain of association here is beyond me, though I guess the idea is that boot camp whips you into shape for deployment whether you like it or not, and the woman and her prayer circle were being told by God to stop feeling sorry for themselves in a tent community and move on with their lives, an act which apparently consists of spiritual deployment into the Gomorrha of a Big Ten University town.  Whatever the case, combinations of military and religious terminology make me uneasy (cf. Quakerism, above), so I just nod and cross my arms over my books.

“And you know,” she is saying, “it took some humbling when I heard that.  I had to get rid of my pride.  My minister-friend asked me, if you were ministering in a jungle somewhere where they hadn’t heard of Christ, would you try to change their culture, or be Christ-like in their presence?”

Though I’m still not really following the chain of association, I think this is a pretty good theological sticking point and I tell her so.

She nods.  “That shut me right up,” she says.  “Now I think that when we do minister, we have a lot more behind us than we wouldn’t have without that experience.”

Yeah, I agree, it seems to me she and her friends would have a strong foundation from which to work.  They know what it’s like to be in tough spots, unlike some ministers.

She nods again.  “I may not have any letters next to my name, but I did go to college, and I’m 54 years old, and I got experience.”  She offers me her hand and tells me her name is Tracey.

I shake her hand and tell her my name is Michael.

Something flits across her face and she says, “Of course it’s Michael,” which is a pretty weird thing to say and I mentally kick myself some more while I wait to see where this is going.  “You know what that name means, right?”

I say I don’t remember the Hebrew meaning, but I know that Biblically Michael is an Archangel, the general of Heaven’s army.  (I know this because I read Milton.)

“And what it originally means,” she says, “is ‘Who is like God?'”

I know this is correct, because I remember the fact as she says it, as sometimes we remember facts.  I think it’s a rhetorical question, because the correct answer is that there is no one like God.

She says, “I know that because it’s also the name of the father of my child.”

Oh Lord, I think.

“We looked it up once.”

This is the end of this particular tangent, apparently, as she goes onto how names are very interesting, very meaningful.  I sort of wish I knew what ‘Tracey’ meant so I could say something about it, or maybe I could ask her because she probably knows, but I don’t.

The topic of names steers her toward the topic of her ministry again.  She works in prisons, leading classes with names like “Emotional Healing” and “Positive Attitudes.”  She makes it a point to memorize each prisoner’s name — and with God’s help she does it within the first six weeks — because names are important.  A lot of those people aren’t used to being called by their names, just their numbers by the guards and their doctors, and sometimes by their doctors’ diagnoses, which trap them into cycles of thinking about themselves in certain ways, ways which limit how they can act and feel.  And part of her job as a teacher, she says, is to help break those cycles, to show those people that they can be loved, to help them learn how to be loved.  If you can’t be loved then you’ll never love anyone yourself.

I look in my lap at a copy of The Duchess of Malfi, which is a play where a corrupt cardinal confesses his sins to his mistresses and then murders her by persuading her to kiss the poisoned cover of a Bible.

I tell her what’s she saying is very true.  I’m angry at myself a little because I know that despite the sappy rhetoric what she is saying is true, I’m angry at myself for thinking that and at the same time thinking it’s absolutely cheesy, and I’m angry at this woman for talking to me, and I’m angry at myself for talking back, and I’m angry I have this impulse to immediately start forming counterarguments, I’m angry that I have to squash a desire to say, Well, yes, but aren’t there some people who just won’t learn to love?

“It’s all about attitude,” says Tracey.  “You have to keep your attitude positive, because — and I know this — in a lot of situations, all you really can control is your attitude about things.”

I agree again, this time more enthusiastically because it really is true, and I don’t think this is a cheesy thing to believe or say, even though I’m aware that other people probably do.  It’s a shame, a real shame, I say, that there are so many people who never learn that, who aren’t taught that.

“You’re right,” Tracey says.  “And a problem with a lot of people who haven’t learned that early, is later on they won’t learn it.  They’ll think they already learned everything.”

I think, what if this were a Flannery O’Connor story?  The street evangelical and the modern malaised intellectual at a bus top on a hot day.  If this were a Flannery O’Connor story Tracey would be blind behind those sunglasses, or she’d have a club foot.  If this were a Flannery O’Connor story I would probably die at the end.

“I have a saying,” Tracey tells me: “If we stop teaching we’ll need someone to raise us from the dead.”

This doesn’t make sense to me at first blush.

“Something I’ve learned, while teaching,” she says, “is that if you’re teaching, you’re also learning, and if you’re learning more, you should understand each time you learn more, how much more you haven’t learned.”

Again she’s saying things I agree with, which makes me happy but then also makes me uneasy, because it makes me wonder how much of what I believe is basically bromides for street evangelists, and then I am angry at myself for wondering for even the tiniest second that something being a bromide, or something being believed by both myself and a street evangelist, makes it inherently lesser.

I tell her that’s she speaking a lot of sense, and I see my bus is coming, so I tell her good luck with the ministry.  And then I think Oh hell why not, and I tell her God bless, too.

She takes the same bus as I do, but we have different stops and sit pretty far apart, so by the time I get off she’s already having an involved conversation with the unsteady old man who sat beside her.

I think about how when I first sat down she was eating little goldfish crackers, and the little fish connected with the fact she’s a Christian minister would be symbolically significant in a short story, but I don’t know how to make it work without it seeming silly.

The Tragedy of Arthur (book review)

The Tragedy of Arthur is a book by Arthur Phillips.

Arthur Phillips, incidentally, is a writer who has hovered at the periphery of my awareness for a while, mostly for his novel Angelica (which I have yet to read but now certainly plan to), and here he demonstrates a level of playfulness, imagination, and earnest workmanship that is pretty refreshing, and redeems what could have easily been a heartless postmodern endeavor.

The plot of the novel is something like this: Arthur Phillips (the writer/narrator) is the son of Arthur Phillips (a many-times convicted forger), who upon his death bequeaths Arthur the younger a lost Shakespeare quarto, The Tragedy of Arthur — this third Arthur being the king.  Arthur the writer/narrator believes the quarto to be fake (eventually) but due to a legal fuckarow is contractually obligated to write the introduction to the play (which everyone else thinks is real) when it is published by Random House.  The first two-thirds of the novel are this introduction, in which Phillips delves into semifantastical memoir describing his childhood, his relationship with his twin sister Dana, his con man father, and the whole family’s complicated relationship to Shakespeare.  The last third of the novel is the play itself.

(Now, despite Angelica — a ghost story — being what brought AP to my attention, you may see why I went for Tragedy as soon as it hit shelves, right?)

This novel’s been well reviewed, to understate it a little.  I mean, this isn’t early Jonathan Safran Foer effusive praise, of course, but everyone is pretty set on this being a good novel, especially people who “count” like Michiko Kakutani and Shakespeareans Greenblatt and Shapiro.  And they are right, it is a good novel!  So if you need to hear it from someone more than “a dude on the internet” then there you go.  Now, we can delve into the gritty of what I think about this thing.

I’ll be up front about my big gripe here, which is that the actual play The Tragedy of Arthur is kind of a slog.  My precise feelings about this are complicated, for reasons I’ll get to in a second, but I’ll stage it first in terms of technicality.  You have a 360 page book, the last 100 pages of which are a (fake[?]) Shakespeare play written as such, while the preceding bulk of the tome was a flighty author enormously screwing up his life.  It should not take a rocket scientist to see why an abrupt transition in styles, tone, and language can potentially shut down a reader, or throw off the groove, or whatever.  My point is that it’s difficult to make the transition from one part of the narrative to the next.

This makes me wonder what it would be like if the book were just the introduction.  That would be too much of a tease, wouldn’t it?  To go on and on about this play, and then not print it?  It occurred to me at one point that the traditional (really?) postmodern thing to do in this regard would be to have the manuscript of the play be destroyed, thus making the introduction the only thing left to print, and the name of the rose is all that remains and so on.  A plot point of the introduction would be Phillips, say, destroying the quarto or allowing it to be destroyed, which makes life seem nice and inoffensive and hollow and saves him the trouble of actually faking some Shakespeare.  So in one way the warmth of the novel is attributable to the fact that, despite all his games, Arthur Phillips sat the fuck down and wrote a play in blank verse, complete with act and scene breaks, vocabulary glosses, and contextual notes.

Except it’s kind of intentionally a bad play.  Kakuktani’s remarks regarding it (“lumpy”) and Greenblatt’s thought that it is a gifted imitator lacking the genius pretty much hit the mark.  This makes me wonder.

Is the effort enough?  That Phillips actually sat down and wrote this damn thing, and there’s some value in that?  Hell, if I’m completely honest it even has a few good bits of dialogue I wish Shakespeare had written.

The best parts of the play itself by far are the Nabokovian footnotes, where Arthur Phillips argues with Random House’s hired Bardolator over the play’s authenticity, but after the genuinely intriguing and moving introduction it all seems a little rushed, truncated, tacked on.  Suffice it to say I’m intensely ambivalent about that, then, but the novel is still definitely worth a read.   Shapiro, I think, says it best when he calls this a work of literary criticism disguised as fiction: it does this neat thing where all of the themes of seeming, of authenticity and art and the stage and life, in Shakespeare’s plays get flipped around and turned on the man himself (if he ever existed).

The novel raises the possibility — one I’m partial to — that our idea of Shakespeare is more important than the mundane reality of him, and I don’t mean that in an exactly rapturous Bloomian sense.  It recalls the authorship debate, and at least some parts of Phillips’s novel suggest that it’s unimportant whether a man from Stratford wrote these plays, or if Bacon or Oxford or Arthur Phillips or his dad did, because if there is some nebulous, numinous cloud that envelops all these people which we in aggregate recognize as Shakespeare, then that might be all that matters.

Here is a bonus review of DFW’s The Pale King, which I read just before I read Tragedy:

The Pale King is unfinished.  This does not stop it from being better than Infinite Jest.  I will not be one of those reviews who says “Maybe it was intentionally unfinished, huh” because though I am something of a formalist I am not that committed to deifying DFW.  What we have is observably unfinished, assembled by an editor, and we have notes to hint at what might have been more.  Still, in its broken state, The Pale King is better than IJ.  IJ had me and lost me several times, but TPK kept me for the whole way through, could have kept me for more, had there been more.  It is a number of adjectives.  It is beautiful, it is funny, it is sad, it is infuriating, it is perhaps the most terrifying (literally frightening, scary) thing I have read in the past five years.  I do not know if something can be so unfinished and still count as a masterpiece but in my head it most definitely can.

How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night,

as if it had never been.

I graduated from college last Saturday.  I’m the first person in my family to do so — the first person to get a bachelor’s degree, the first person to go on to graduate school.

I’m still reeling from it, to be honest.  I met a lot of people in those four years that I consider my friends, and the fact of the matter is that I’m probably not going to see them much anymore.  We’ll meet up, yes, but those friendships cannot persist in the patterns they’ve held.  That time is over.

There are a few things I have to do now.  I have to get a new car, one that will last me a while and get me across the state for graduate school, and I have to locate a house or an apartment that will allow me to live within the means provided by my fellowship.  I’ve spent the majority of today running between car dealers and banks trying to work out specifics on a loan, which is something a generous financial aid package in undergrad never prepared me for.  It is all quite harrowing, but added to that I’m going to a research conference in Seattle next week, and that will eat some of my time.

What I am saying is that I’ve become a rather terrible blogger, who very rarely posts anymore and when he does post things are all sorts of uninteresting.  This is partly because I tend to have to react to something to actually write a post — I mean, there has to be some article or video for me to respond to.  This hasn’t been happening lately, and my fallback in those cases in essays, but then I haven’t had much time to write silly extra essays for this blog, and I haven’t had an opportunity to clean up some older undergrad essays for observance.

I hope to remedy this soon.

In the meantime, let’s talk about what we always talk about, Macbeth.  I finally got around to watching the Great Performances Patrick Stewart thing that aired last fall, and you can watch it here!  And I gotta tell you, this is actually really excellent.

Let’s keep this brief, starting with the good things.  First of all, Stewart rocks the shit out of this role.  He plays Macbeth with the sort of terrifying insecurity that I find most interesting in the character, and his take on Lady Macbeth’s death was unlike any way I’d seen it played.  Rather than making Macbeth an inhuman monster (the old school take) or making him a sad crazy human dude (the more contemporary take) this production manages to mix both approaches, creating a Macbeth who is a monster because he is human.  Lady Macbeth is suitably terrifying, as well, and though I don’t quite like the “crazy bitch” line of thought on her, it works here reasonably well.  The generational difference between the Macbeths, furthermore, underscores the play’s issues of childrearing and legacy, again, in a way I’ve never seen before.

The presentation of the witches was mostly cool.  There’s also a contemporary tendency to make the witch scenes rather metaphysical and subdued, which I think is a shame because this is theater and we want to see blood splattering and Black Masses and so on.  My only issues with the witches here, really, are how they are apparently also ghosts (?) and the fact that they rap.  Yes, they rap the “Double Double” scenes, because the they are witches who look like war nurses in what appears to be Stalinist Russia and that totally makes sense.  (It doesn’t.)  Other than the rapping, though, I thought that scene was actually really well done.  This production also had the least teeth-grindy rendition of Lady Macduff’s scenes, and it was pretty damn effective.  Actually the whole thing, I think, did a pretty good job with the “world has gone to hell” thing that shows up in the misrule tragedies.

That said, here are some things (aside from rapping) that weren’t so great: the scene where Macduff confronts Malcolm in England was a drag, as so often is, and the Stalinist Russia setting, while cool, never coalesces into anything meaningful.  The porter was played as creepy, which is sort of good I guess, except I prefer a seriocomic portrayal and they tried to make this dude actually scary?  And by scary I mean just sort of over-the-top and grating.  Also, he was the character of Seyton, which is a neat double I guess but I didn’t like how they were playing him anyway so it was just more grating.

All in all I think this is a really good Macbeth and one worth seeing, though it might not overturn your conceptions about the play.  It’s based on a production from a few years ago that was runaway successful, and I know at least three people who saw it at the time.  One was the father of a friend, a cross-cultural psychologist who specializes in US-Russia exchange, and from what I can tell he loved it to bits.  The other two people were Shakespeare professors — one being my longstanding pal and former instructor Brainworm, who was basically incredulous w/r/t rapping witches, while according to Brian, my Shakespeare professor when I was in London, the staging was an absolute mess, Stewart kept forgetting his lines (???), and Lady Macbeth was wandering around with a babydoll strapped to her or something.

So, going in knowing it was a version of that staging definitely led to a few surprises in that it was actually a pretty solid thing, with the rapping being the only standout moment of “what are they thinking, what is happening.”  If you’ve got three hours to spend, there are far worse ways to spend them — it’s a competent production, and by far the good choices made during its shooting outweigh the bad ones.

I’m still not sure what will be in this space next week.  As I said, I’ll be in Seattle at a conference and probably won’t have time to write something original, so I’ll comb through my essay backlog and see what shakes loose.

Tables of Memory: Fathers, Sons, and Ghosts in Ellis, King, and Shakespeare

REMINDER: you can buy Arcane #1 in print or for your ereader of choice right now, and it has a story by me!

But today I’ve gone through my archives and found this essay on Shakespeare, Stephen King, and Bret Easton Ellis, because certainly those things all belong in an essay together!  Anyway, if you’ve ever wondered how I can reconcile my love of Shakespeare with being a huge horror geek and pop culture nerd, this is probably the best example.  Please note that this essay will discuss the plots of all three texts in depth, so if for some reason you are wary of “spoilers” for old books, beware!

Read, enjoy, comment if you like, and so on.

Tables of Memory:

Fathers, Sons, and Ghosts in Ellis, King, and Shakespeare

–What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy.  One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.  …  Who is the ghost from limbo patrum, returning to the world that has forgotten him?  Who is King Hamlet?

– Joyce, Ulysses

 

Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park is unquestionably connected to Hamlet — one of the novel’s epigraphs is Hamlet’s vow after the ghost of his father tells him to seek revenge in I.v: “From the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there.”  The bulk of its action also takes place on Elsinore Lane, near Ophelia Boulevard and within spitting distance of Fortinbras Mall and Horatio Park.  Thematically, Ellis seems to concern himself with the relationships between fathers and sons — and how the son remembers the father who has passed on, as with Hamlet’s vow after meeting with Old Hamlet’s ghost.  And yet in addition to Shakespeare, another writer looms large over Ellis’s novel.  Following an incident where Bret-the-Narrator storms into his family’s house, drunk and high, wielding a handgun in order to fend off the serial killer he thinks is hiding out on the second floor, his wife Jayne refuses to let him sleep in her bed.  Bret brings up an earlier conversation they had about starting over, about “new beginnings,” to which Jayne replies, “You screwed that up sometime last night …. You screwed that up with your big Jack Torrance routine” (219).

Jack Torrance is the protagonist of The Shining, a 1977 horror novel by Stephen King, dealing with substance abuse, familial disintegration, and — a concern it shares with Hamlet and by extension Lunar Park — the relationships between fathers and sons.  I suggest, however, that Jayne’s seemingly offhand comment is a single explicit reference to the text from which Ellis draws most of King’s themes, giving them center-stage in a book that simultaneously rewrites Hamlet and The Shining, bringing to light elements of the former that are more obscure in the latter and raising the possibility that The Shining is itself another rewriting of Hamlet.  What this means is that Ellis’s novel, being the most recent text, does not simply include conscious references to Shakespeare and King, but embarks on what might be termed a renovation of both works, a very direct campaign to dismantle, remodel, and improve Shakespeare’s play and King’s novel so that the end result (to carry the house metaphor) has different molding, flashier wallpaper, new windows, more rooms, but still rests on what is essentially the same foundation.

This foundation, the key element that unites all three of these texts, is the way they dramatize the relationships between fathers and sons, and the mechanism of this dramatization is the supernatural — specifically the concepts of haunting and ghosts.  A ghost in fiction, speaking in very broad terms, is simply an indicator of trauma, of the past exerting some sort of malign or at least upsetting influence on the present.  In other words, the ghost in fiction can be a very powerful tool for presenting the way in which a character’s memory influences his actions — the past has an effect on the present because the living are constantly beset by their memories of the dead.  This is most concisely encapsulated in Hamlet’s meeting with Old Hamlet’s ghost: Hamlet’s dead father, or some demon taking that form, is speaking to him, calling him to action.

But Hamlet, no matter what he vows, is placed in a situation where he is uncertain of his father figures; Old Hamlet, a headstrong and commanding warrior, has been replaced on the throne by the physically weak but wordy and cunning Claudius, and while Hamlet admires his namesake more he wonders why his mother should marry his “father’s brother, but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules” (I.ii.157-158).  Hamlet’s concern here is primarily why his mother should have remarried so quickly – “within a month.”  Yet as Hamlet contemplates the situation, he remarks: “O, most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! / It is not, nor it cannot come to good. / But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (161-164).

To hold one’s tongue means to stop speaking, which of course makes sense as other characters have just entered the room, but it also suggest Hamlet must not say something in particular.  What could he possible feel so strongly about?  Voicing his dismay the marriage?  Everyone seems to know he’s upset.  Rather, I believe has made a realization, and the reason for his mother’s quick marriage has become very clear: if Gertrude did not in fact love Old Hamlet as she seemed, she may have been having an affair with Claudius for years, thus explaining the speedy marriage; and if this is the case, then there is a strong chance that Claudius is Hamlet’s biological father.  After all, Old Hamlet was a fearsome warrior, like Hercules, and Claudius is a talky intellectual; Hamlet knows he is nothing like Hercules, but in this scene he suddenly understands that he is a young man who likes to read books and hear himself speak — he’s more like Claudius than the man he’s believed to be his father.

Hamlet, perhaps unaware of what he is doing, even acts like Claudius for most of the play: we know that when Old Hamlet wanted something done (eg annexing part of Norway) he simply challenged the rival king to single combat; when Claudius wants something done (eg, the king dead and the throne and queen all to himself) he sets up an elaborate plot involving ear poison and a lie about a serpent in an orchard.  Hamlet seems to take after Claudius, in that when he wants to exact his revenge on his uncle he must first feign madness and put on a play in order to determine Claudius’s guilt.  If Hamlet is Claudius’s son, the implication might be that he naturally acts as his father does.

Yet Hamlet also has a moment of self-realization: while being escorted to England, he is struck by the similarity between Fortinbras’s self-motivation and Old Hamlet’s escapades, and wonders: “Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’ / Sith I have cause, and strength, and means, and will / To do ’t” (IV.iv.47-49).  Hamlet’s epiphany here is that — regardless of who his biological father is — he still has the power to act and to choose how he acts; if Fortinbras can be so forceful despite his own father falling to Old Hamlet, then so can young Hamlet, even if he might be Claudius’s son.  And from this point on in the play Hamlet does away with scheming, boldly doing battle with pirates, escaping back to Denmark, and calmly and confidently accepting the invitation to duel to Laertes.

Old Hamlet is distanced from his son by death; Claudius (if the usurper is indeed his father) has been absent for most of Hamlet’s life, and is furthermore estranged from Hamlet by his crime.  One possible point of Hamlet is that the young prince must make the choice of whether to heed the call of not one father, but two possible fathers; to choose not only to heed the call but to also choose which call to heed: will Hamlet do as the ghost of the old king or the nature of the new king bids him?  To choose one father over the other means to choose one way of acting over another; for Hamlet, for the son, it means choosing what sort of life he wants to live.  This is not only the crux of Shakespeare’s play, but the crux of the two rewritings of it I will discuss, and while Hamlet contains only one ghost in a minor role, the supernatural is unleashed with a vengeance in the other texts.

Of the three texts, King’s The Shining comes the closest to embodying the typical modern conception of a ghost or haunted house tale.  It is the story of the Torrance family (Jack, Wendy, and six-year-old son Danny) who are hired as the winter caretakers of the haunted Overlook Hotel, an establishment with a sordid history of illegal gambling, mob connections, suicide, and murder.  When the snow piles high, trapping the family inside the hotel, the Overlook’s past begins to seep out of the woodwork; it becomes apparent that the hotel itself has been bestowed with some sort of sentience by the aggregate emotional trauma experienced within it, and it desires to add Danny, who is a powerful psychic and telepath, to its menagerie of specters.  This is all suitably pulpy, the kind of supernatural melodrama that King is most well known for, and if the hotel simply used its collection of ghostly mobsters and turn-of-the-century business moguls to accomplish its goals the novel wouldn’t be much more than that.  However, it takes on a deceptive complexity in the way the Overlook chooses to attack the Torrance family: from the inside out, using Jack as its agent in the attempted murder of Danny.

The Overlook’s ghosts are unconnected to the Torrances, but when the hotel goes to work on Jack its methods become deeply personal.  He is a recovering alcoholic when the story begins, a point made clear in the early chapters.  As the novel develops, we learn two important details: first, that Jack has trouble controlling his temper (he broke Danny’s arm a few years before and was recently fired from his teaching job for assaulting a student) and Jack’s father was similarly violent and alcoholic, implying that his present behavior is tied to his father’s abuse.  During one of Jack’s more lengthy flashback sequences, we learn that he idolized his father, completely innocent as to the nature of his dad’s alcoholism.  However,“[l]ove began to curdle at nine, when his father put his mother into the hospital with his cane” during an irrational, drunken dispute at the dinner table:

[Jack’s father was] up out of his chair and around to where she lay dazed on the carpet, … [his] jowls quivering as he spoke to her just as he had always spoken to his children during such outbursts.  “Now.  Now by Christ.  I guess you’ll take your medicine now.  Goddam puppy.  Whelp.  Come and take your medicine.”  The cane had gone up and down on her seven more times before [Jack’s brothers] got hold of him, dragged him away, wrestled the cane out of his hand.  Jack … knew exactly how many blows it had been because each soft whump against his mother’s body had been engraved on his memory like the irrational swipe of a chisel on stone. (224-225)

The hotel, which appears to be psychic in its own right, uses Jack’s memories of his father to manipulate him; it conjures alcohol for him to drink, it speaks in his father’s voice through the Overlook’s emergency radio; his father’s bludgeoning of his mother is reminiscent of Jack’s eventual assault on his wife and son with a roque mallet, and the hotel (speaking to Jack through the person of Delbert Grady, the last caretaker to murder his family in the Overlook) casts the necessity of murder in terms of patriarchal punishment and discipline: “[Your son] needs to be corrected, if you don’t mind me saying so.  He needs a good talking-to, and perhaps a bit more” (352).

Jack has a choice to do as the spirit(s) of the Overlook command him or to protect his family; his wife Wendy understanding the crossroads her husband stands at, and casts it in very telling terms: “[Jack] looked to her like an absurd twentieth-century Hamlet, an indecisive figure so mesmerized by onrushing tragedy that he was helpless to divert its course or alter it in any way” (297).  The hotel, like the demon Hamlet initially supposes the apparition of the old king to be, is a monster in the form of Jack’s father, calling him to terrible action, and Jack, unfortunately, answers.  This culminates in him echoing his dad’s drunken cries while he stalks Wendy and Danny through the hotel corridors:  “You’ll take your goddam medicine for this, I promise you!” (383).  In a way, by making this decision, by siding with the Overlook, Jack becomes his father.[1]

This raises an interesting problem for King: if the nature of trauma is somehow recursive, if the sort of abusive father-son relationships The Shining explores are actually a self-replicating phenomenon, then what does the future hold for Danny?  This is remedied by Danny’s own unique nature; the manifestation of his psychic abilities is a ghostly young man he calls Tony, a figure the adults around him believe to be some sort of imaginary friend.  But Tony shows Danny the future, gives him hints as to what will come, and before Danny’s final confrontation with Jack at the end of the novel he sees Tony more closely than ever before:

And now Tony stood directly in front of him, and looking at Tony was like looking into a magic mirror and seeing himself in ten years ….  The hair was light blond like his mother’s, and yet the stamp on his features was that of his father, as if Tony — as if the Daniel Anthony Torrance that would someday be — was a halfling caught between father and son, a ghost of both, a fusion.  (420-421)

Danny is saved by this vision, by the implicit realization that while he may resemble his father he is not and does not have to be a copy of him; Danny cannot fully shed Jack’s influence and legacy of abuse, perhaps, but he still is (and will be) his own person, and is not doomed to imitate his father’s (or his father’s father’s) mistakes.  This sort of generational tension, the eventual self-realization of the son, and the personal nature of haunting are all Hamlet-esque elements of The Shining that Bret Ellis draws to the fore of Lunar Park, which he admitted in a Today Show interview to be his “homage to Stephen King.”

In the first chapter of Lunar Park Bret-the-Narrator gives an extensive overview of his early home life and his rise to fame as a young novelist in the 80s, with special attention paid to his troubled relationship with his father: “[M]y father had always been a problem — careless, abusive, alcoholic, vain, angry, paranoid — and even after my parents divorced … his power and control continued to loom over my family” (6).  He repeatedly mentions that leaving California for college in New England was a type of “escape,” and his unexpected success as a writer granted him a financial independence from his father that allowed the man to be cut from his life almost entirely.  When Bret’s father died, Bret explains, he stored the ashes in a California bank vault rather than scatter them in the ocean, and he let himself forget about them.

Yet despite his attempts to distance himself from his father, Bret falls into many of his dad’s bad habits; though he’s not physically abusive, he’s careless, alcoholic, and vain: “And soon I became very adept at giving the impression I was listening to you when in fact I was dreaming about myself: my career, all the money I had made, the way my life had blossomed and definde me, how recklessly the world allowed me to behave” (12).  The real meat of the novel lies outside the first chapter; Bret settles down with movie star Jayne Dennis and her two children: Sarah, from one of Jayne’s previous relationships, and most importantly Robby, who is actually Bret’s biological son, born after a tryst between Bret and Jayne a dozen years before their marriage (and, notably, conceived in the aftermath of Bret’s father’s death — Robby is named after the deceased).  Bret is “thrust into the role of husband and father” (38) and takes up teaching at a New England college.  However, the situation is fragile; Bret wants to continue the self-centered drug-abusing lifestyle he’s used to, while his new position as part of a family demands some measure of responsibility.

The tension between Bret’s old life and the requirements of his new one would make satisfactory fodder for a normal dramatic novel or perhaps a second-chance romantic comedy but, like The Shining, Lunar Park uses the supernatural as a vocabulary for (self)destructive behavior, the resulting disintegration of the family unit, and the ability of the past to encroach on the present.  Bret-the-Narrator (who is to some degree based on Bret Ellis the writer) wrote a novel called American Psycho about the serial killer Patrick Bateman who was, he confesses, inspired by his father: a rich, successful, vain man with a propensity toward staggering and horrific violence.  Bret is a little ashamed and afraid of the novel; he likens the experience of writing it to having been possessed.  And when Patrick Bateman (who for all intents and purposes is the conglomeration of all of Bret’s negative feelings about his father) shows up at a Halloween party, driving the vintage car Bret’s father drove, he becomes understandably upset.

The idyllic existence Bret has managed to construct for himself becomes more and more uncanny: he receives apparently blank emails from the bank where his father’s ashes are, a series of murders mimicking those perpetrated by Bateman in American Psycho occur in the surrounding area, Sarah’s toy bird takes on a life of its own and begins eviscerating stray animals, and boys Robby’s age are disappearing all over the county.  Throughout the ordeal Bret is the only character who suspects that something supernatural is at the root of what is happening — only he seems to see Bateman, or a college student named Clay who resembles both the narrator of Ellis’s first novel and Bret himself and perhaps even a younger version of his father.  Bret grows intensely paranoid and afraid, confused about what is happening around him but unwilling to explain it to anyone.  This stress only makes his drinking and drug use worse, and when he acts rashly (such as the episode recounted at the beginning of this essay, where Jayne compares him to Jack Torrance) the people around him assume drug use is finally taking its toll.  Much as in The Shining then, the supernatural is a mechanism by which 1) substance abuse is worsened, and 2) the family is forced apart.  Though Bret doesn’t attempt to murder anyone, the supernatural forces at work intensify the weaknesses already present in his relationships with his family, and they are particularly harsh for him because they are in some way related to his dad.

This is especially troubling for Bret because he finds that Robby treats him with much the same distaste that he treated his own father: after ignoring his son for twelve years Robby is a resentful stranger, and Bret’s inability to understand his son leads him to believe that the disappearing boys are actually running away from home, working together in some sort of conspiracy to escape their parents, and that Robby will soon join them.  Bret’s distrust of his son is also one of the key facets of the way in which Ellis works with Hamlet, in this case actually restaging an aspect of Shakespeare’s play while maintaining the notion of recursive or generational trauma found in The Shining.  Bret takes on the role of Claudius, the scheming usurper of the throne who is doing his best to guess the mind and motives of his petulant stepson, Hamlet/Robby.  But Bret hasn’t always been Claudius — he was once, in his own way, Hamlet His father, he tells us, “had no faith in my talent as a writer … [and] demanded that I attend business school at USC,” and despite this, Bret chooses to go to college in New Hampshire: “My father, typically enraged, refused to pay tuition.  However my grandfather — who at the time was being sued by his son over a money matter so circuitous and complicated that I’m still not sure how or why it began — footed the bill” (8).

The relationship between Brett and his father here mirrors — though not exactly — that between Hamlet and Claudius in I.ii, when Claudius orders his stepson not to leave Elsinore to return to school at Wittenberg.  Ellis switches things up by doing the opposite of what would happen in a Hamlet adaptation with closer analogues: he lets Bret, the Hamlet character in this scenario, go off to college against the wishes of the father.  However, Bret escapes to college only because of his grandfather, who in turn has a soured relationship with his own son.  Bret’s grandfather sends Bret to school just to spite Bret’s father, who in the meanwhile is carrying out a bitter legal battle against him.  This is an important move on Ellis’s part because it shows us that this Hamlet-like estrangement between fathers and sons is not some one-off event, but like King’s conception: a generational phenomenon, something that happens over and over again.  There is not just one scheming Claudius and one avenging Hamlet, but an interlocking history of them, and they move in and out of their roles when appropriate, as they age and father their own children.

Ellis is notable in his handling of the self-realization or self-determination of the son, the attempt to break out of the shadow of the father — because unlike Shakespeare and King, he shows that it may go wrong.  Bret ran away to college and essentially disowned his father, demonizing him in American Psycho, all in an attempt to free himself.  However, as Bret admits early on: “As much as I wanted to escape his influence, I couldn’t.  It had soaked into me, shaped me into the man I was becoming” (7).  So the escape was not entirely successful; we know this because we’ve seen Bret become a sort of lo-fi version of his vain, alcoholic father, though it doesn’t become obvious to Bret himself until he sees that Patrick Bateman (along with all the other monsters he created out of fear of his father) has come back.

“…[S]pirits who show themselves between night and dawn want something,” a paranormal investigator explains to Bret, bringing to mind Old Hamlet’s ghost walking at night and returning to the fires of purgatory at dawn.  He goes on: “It means they want to frighten you …. It means they want you to realize something” (340).  Like the Overlook Hotel masquerading as Jack Torrance’s father, or Old Hamlet appearing before his son, the appearance of Patrick Bateman, the mysterious emails, and every other supernatural facet of the novel is also, in a way, Bret’s father calling him to action — in this case, though, not murder or revenge per se, but to right old wrongs.

What the wrong seems to be, in the end, is that fact that Bret did his best to wipe his father from his memory, to forget him entirely, to leave his ashes locked in a bank vault in California, and only call upon him should he need fodder for a despicable character in a novel.  And Bret’s father probably was vindictive and abusive — though Bret is unreliable we have no real reason to doubt that, he probably doesn’t hate his father without reason.  But it seems that at some point, without Bret realizing it, his father changed.  When he finds an email video attachment showing his father’s death, Bret sees his father as he truly was at the end of his life: the product of a selfish, abusive existence, a weak old man who died alone and unloved and knew that was how he was dying.  And because he has copied the worst traits of his father despite himself, Bret is in danger of meeting the same end, of losing his son and everyone close to him and dying alone, pathetic, and reviled.

At the end of the novel, we discover that Bret had one opportunity to change this course of events.  The last time he met with his father in person was for dinner in LA; the older man was “fat and drunk” and Bret wonders to himself, “What if I had done something that day?” (394).  He elaborates:

The decision was: should you disarm him?  That was the word I remember: disarm.  Should you tell him something that might not be the truth but would get the desired reaction?  And what was I going to convince him of, even though it was a lie?  Did it matter?  Whatever it was, it would constitute a new beginning.  The immediate line: You’re my father and I love you.  I remember staring at the white tablecloth and contemplating this.  Could I actually do it?  I didn’t believe it, and it wasn’t true, but I wanted it to be. … I realized it could actually happen, and that by saying this I would save him.  I suddenly saw a future with my father.  But the check came … and I simply stood up and walked away …[,] thinking I could just let go of the damage that a father can do to a son.  (394-395)

Bret’s attempts to escape, to determine his own life, result only in tragedy.  His father is fractured, both in Bret’s memory and in his manifestations in the outside world: the human part of his father, the part that deserved pity and forgiveness, has been overtaken by Bret’s fear and hate for the man.  Added to that, Bret becomes a copy of his father, a repetition, and when he confirms that Robby is indeed part of a conspiracy of sons attempting to escape their parents, he finds himself in a situation analogous to that of his dad years before, when a young Bret insisted on going to college in New England and, once he achieved independent success, attempted to sever all ties.

Also like his father, Bret is unsuccessful in maintaining a connection with his son; by the end of the novel Robby has left him, just as Bret left his father, heading off “to the land where every boy forced into bravery and quickness retreats: a new life” (397).  Their final meeting in person, many years after the main events of the novel, mirrors that of Bret and his father: they have lunch together, and Bret is depressed and high on heroin.  But Robby doesn’t sit passively by, waiting for the check; he speaks, he tells his father that everything is okay, that he is “not lost anymore,” and when Bret tells his son he is sorry, Robby says he understands (396).  As Bret, after much denial and hardship, heeds the call of his father and forgives him for his wrongs, so does Robby forgive Bret, preemptively ending the father-son cycle of trauma and haunting – should we choose to believe Bret is writing the truth, and not a wish.

Hamlet puts forth that a son has a choice about which of his fathers (or father-figures) to listen to, whether they are estranged from the son by the son’s hate or by the father’s death.  The Shining holds that a son must not be his father, must contain the part of him that resembles his forebear, for not doing so means repeating his father’s mistakes and destroying himself.  Lunar Park also shows that a son must make a decision, must determine what sort of person he will be, and choose his own life; yet in fleeing his father’s influence, in containing that aspect of his being, he runs the risk of not actually escaping, but only continuing a cycle of resentment and fear with his own sons.

Every Hamlet, fearful and suspicious of his father, may grow up to be a Claudius, fearful and suspicious of his sons; every guilty Claudius may end up a wronged Old Hamlet, tortured in the fires of a purgatory real or imagined and begging to be set free.  To really make peace with his father and the past, a son must be forgiving; he must recognize that his father probably faced many of the same decisions he faces (or will face) and perhaps did not choose wisely; every father was a son once.  This is how the cycle is broken; this is how to make peace with the past and one’s memory of it.  This, Ellis seems to say, this is how ghosts are finally laid to rest.

 

Works Cited

Ellis, Bret Easton.  Lunar Park. 2005.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

“Easton Ellis on Lunar Park book.”  The Today Show.  Prod. NBC Studios, 8/15/2005.

< http://www.bing.com/videos/watch/video/easton-ellis-on-lunar-park-book/6ma6lch>

Accessed 11/26/2009.

King, Stephen.  “Before the Play.”  Whispers Magazine, 1982.

King, Stephen.  The Shining.  New York: Doubleday, 1977.

Shakespeare, William and Barbara A. Mowat, Paul Werstine (eds).  Folger Shakespeare Library: Hamlet.  1992.  New York: Washington Square Press, 2002.


[1] This bit is hammered home quite soundly in an earlier draft of the manuscript, in a prologue King excised.  Eventually released as a standalone story called “Before the Play” and now extremely difficult to find, the prologue gives a lengthy history of the Overlook and includes a short vignette from Jack’s childhood:  “In that long hot summer of 1953, the summer Jacky Torrance turned six, his father came home drunk one night from the hospital and broke Jacky’s arm. He almost killed the boy. He was drunk.”  Not only does this parallel Jack’s breaking of Danny’s arm, the vignette ends with young Jack passing out from the pain, thinking feverishly to himself, “What you see is what you’ll be.

 

Sumer is icumen in

Ah, spring! The temperatures are in the balmy mid-60s, we’re being sprinkled with warm thunderstorms every few days, the cuckoo is singing loudly, the ewe bleats after the lamb,and there’s a new Roland Emmerich movie on the horizon.

A new Roland Emmerich movie about Shakespeare.

Yes, so the director of Independence Day is making a movie about Shakespeare, and I can die happy.

But wait, you may ask, what the holy hell is this movie actually about?  Other than, I guess, Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare and also late 1500s London looks a lot like Middle Earth when it is an aerial CG shot?

Wikipedia tells me it is about the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship, but not just the boring old “A noble decided to write some plays under a pseudonym which was actually the name of another, real dude and for some reason everyone just went along with it” theory!  That is not exciting enough for cinema, not exciting enough for Roland Emmerich, and not exciting enough for you or me — so instead we get the Prince Tudor theory, aka the unorthodox Oxfordian theory.  Why is it called unorthodox version when it is in fact a heterodoxy of a heterodoxy?  BECAUSE OF ALL THE SEXINGS, MAN.

Specifically the movie is paying attention to the version of the theory where the Earl of Oxford was 1) the illegitimate son of Elizabeth, and 2) the lover of Elizabeth, resulting in 3) their incest-baby, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and supposed Fair Youth of the Shakespearean sonnet cycle.  As a friend of mine remarked, this sounds like the setup for an awesome Greek tragedy.

Wait: why in the holy hell is Roland Emmerich making this movie?  Again, Wikipedia has the answer.

[F]or me there was an incredible script that I bought eight years ago. It was [initially] called Soul of the Age which pretty much is the heart of the movie still. It’s three characters. It’s like Ben Jonson, who was a playwright then. William Shakespeare who was an actor. It’s like the 17th Earl of Oxford who is the true author of all these plays. We see how, through these three people, it happens that all of these plays get credited to Shakespeare. I kind of found it as too much like Amadeus to me. It was about jealousy, about genius against end, so I proposed to make this a movie about political things, which is about succession. Succession, the monarchy, was absolute monarchy, and the most important political thing was who would be the next King. Then we incorporated that idea into that story line. It has all the elements of a Shakespeare play. It’s about Kings, Queens, and Princes. It’s about illegitimate children, it’s about incest, it’s about all of these elements which Shakespeare plays have. And it’s overall a tragedy. That was the way and I’m really excited to make this movie.

So wait, this started out as a taut conspiracy thriller centering on the jealousy of Ben Jonson (who was absolutely baller), Shakespeare, and Oxford, and it is all like Amadeus but with old theater dudes?  This movie sounds completely awesome.  Unfortunately Emmerich doesn’t seem to realize that!

Now we have to throw in the Queen, too, and also the Essex rebellion, and the question of succession, because the audience won’t be happy without explosions and beheadings.

Incidentally, if you poke around enough about these Shakespearean authorship debates, you’ll find a lot of people quoting Supreme Court justices about what they think.  This is because people like to stage mock trials to determine Shakespeare’s identity, and these justices make rulings.  Other than the fact that this is all vapid pageantry, it… wait, nope, it’s pretty much all vapid pageantry.  Why the fact that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor thinks Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays should have any sort of weight is completely beyond me, when someone like, oh, I dunno, BEN JONSON (baller) KNEW SHAKESPEARE AND NEVER DOUBTED HIS AUTHORSHIP?

Incidentally, this is one thing the movie seems to take care of — by implicating Jonson in the conspiracy.  I am so excited, guys, you do not even understand.

Young Hamlet

So now that A Serious Game has wrapped I find myself without my weekly guaranteed blog entry.  The upshot is that this semester I am nowhere near as busy as I was last semester, so in theory I should have more time to do write-ups about various things that occur to me.  The problem, then, becomes getting these things to occur to me.

I saw a production of Hamlet last Sunday that was billed as “Young Hamlet” — because it was based off the first quarto (Q1) text of the play, rather than the First Folio text we all are generally familiar with.  The thing about Q1 Hamlet is that it is very, very different from the Folio Hamlet.  To give you an idea: the character of Polonius is, in Q1, called Corambis, and two silly courtiers are Rosencroft and Guilderstone, and so on.  The play is half the length as well, with the production I saw running in at a brisk two hours — this isn’t just because whole speeches aren’t there, but that when they are they are, they’re often shortened or paraphrased versions of the speeches we know.  The most pertinent example here is “To be or not to be — ay, there’s the point!”

Anyway, there are two reasons why this version is called Young Hamlet.  One theory is that this text written by Shakespeare early in his London career — he would have been in his 20s — and it was revised later in life to make the more popular Folio version.  The second reason is that you can figure out Hamlet’s age from some things said by the gravedigger near the end of the play, and if you listen to him in the Folio, Hamlet is about 30 while in Q1 he’s 16-19.  Though I like the Folio text more, I actually prefer a younger Hamlet, because the play just makes more sense.  I mean, the guy is a college student, and even in Shakespeare’s day, if you’re 30 and in college and living at home (and dating a teenaged girl?) there is something wrong with you.

So there are some good things about the Q1 text despite its omissions, and seeing it in performance actually opened up the text for me more.  I don’t know if this speaks to the integrity of Hamlet as a piece of drama or to the obvious care and enthusiasm put forth by the production team, but it was really fun to watch.  There’s a delicious tension in Hamlet for me, at about the point right after he meets with the Ghost.  Here all of the machinery of the play seems to lock into place and I can only watch astounded from the sidelines as the play rockets toward its conclusion, when everything spectacularly goes to shit.

This production — and this text — had that same inertia, it seems.  It was really great to see this similar-but-different take on a story I know very well, and to see some very clever staging decisions the production made.  If there was one big disappointment, it was that the play’s pace in this earlier version was probably too fast — the ending came about very abruptly, and suddenly everyone was dead.  As I said, the feeling towards the end of the play — especially during the fencing scene — when every character’s plans suddenly go off-track is wonderfully complicated and chaotic in the Folio text.  Here everything was comparatively simple and very brief, and the abrupt entrance of Fortinbras (or Fortinbrasse) with little expository dialogue from either him or Horatio made the ending seem like a bit of a slump.

This might be something that could be fixed with staging decisions, since the text doesn’t seem to allow that sense of madcap tension, but at this point for me it’s all speculation.  In short, I’m glad I got the chance to see this production, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked.  There’s been an academic move to reclaim Q1 in the past few years, but this is the first I’ve heard of steps being taken in actual performance, so it should be interesting to see how moves like this change our perception of Hamlet in the future.

A Serious Game Part 6: The Only Way to Lose Is Not to Play

It’s been a long, crazy journey through A Serious Game, but with this entry the series draws to a close.  Just think back on what we’ve learned about the way fiction and reality mingle and and what this means for us. After that I did my best to make Harlan Ellison into the biggest bogeyman of 20th century speculative fiction.  I allowed myself a digression into ethical action and postmodern disillusionment, and then more or less took back almost everything I said before about Harlan Ellison.  Today the essay draws to a close, and I offer a few reflections and some tentative suggestions about how we can be better — more ethical — readers in the future, and affirm what I think is my purpose in the study of literature.

MacIntyre points out that the good we receive from ethical practice “can only be achieved by subordinating ourselves within the practice in our relationship to other practitioners” (191).  This is why I study literature: to become more aware of myself as one person in the context of many others, and more conscientious in my ethical evaluations.  This comes about through my reading of diverse texts, but also through my relationships with other practitioners: reading a wide selection of criticism on those texts, and my individual interactions with professors and fellow students.  I have played a game throughout this essay, at varying levels, with texts that I enjoy for myriad reasons, and in writing about it I have invited you to play the game with me.

Wayne Booth offers the metaphor of a book-as-friend, with some books being more worthy of our company than others, but with all of them, generally, deserving of at least minimal attention to determine that.  I think this is workable, but for my part I would like to combine it with a notion implied by my Borges epigraph, the idea of the author-as-chessmaster.  In ethical reading we are playing a friendly game of chess — but we must remain alert whenever we are in danger of being drawn into check, or sometimes cheated.  In a game of chess between friends, or potential friends, victory is not important.  Getting to know one another is: spotting your opponents’ gambits and strategies, their strengths and weaknesses, and learning how they think.  Above all, we must recognize that any bad turn is not indicative of some inherent, all-consuming malevolence on our opponents’ part, but rather due to the fact that texts are the products — us in our act of reading, and the author in his or her act of writing, and the cultures that gives rise to our expectations in either case — and therefore capable of every prejudice and imperfection we are heir to.  Just as chessmasters are not angels, they are by no means demons.

Interacting with stories is a game insofar as doing so is quite selfish: I read the texts because I enjoy them, though my reasons are slightly different in each case.  My approach to stories is not that reading them is at the forefront practical, in the same way washing the car or buying groceries is practical.  But I am also aware of the serious ethical dimension of this game; texts may invite me to think some things that I know to be wrong, or in subtler instances, not think about something that I would recognize as wrong.  I can anticipate and block these moves because my life, both everyday and scholastic, has trained me otherwise.  MacIntyre claims that inherent to the future of virtue is “the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained” (263).

The reliance on a community is what makes ethics problematic; differences between communities will engender different ethical approaches.  But while the hope of an ideal ethical communal space is probably just as much of a pipedream as true ethical universality, some grasp at that community is why I believe the study of literature is important.  Academic study initiates the student into a practice of thinking and acting where both aesthetic and practical considerations of texts matter, a community where concerns about a text’s stance on class, gender, race, or economic policy can be discussed alongside a text’s language, form or genre.  These modes of reading are not exclusive, and this is where the possibility of ethical reading flourishes.  A morally bankrupt work, like The Jew of Malta, may be immensely entertaining, while a formally clumsy and sometimes boring work such as Edward P. Jones’s The Known World may have a vibrant ethical core.  An ethical reader, active in a civil, intellectual and moral community, should have the power to appraise both of these works, enjoy them for the reasons they are enjoyable, and allow that enjoyment to be tempered by the ways in which they falter.

Ethical reading is a serious game, and it is through a wide-ranging and conscientious study of literature and criticism that we learn how to play it.  I did not always read ethically; it was a gradual process, lasting many years and only becoming a conscious issue as my college courses exposed me to the many natures and schools of criticism and interpretation available.  I had to learn understand that literature did something.  I had to learn, first, how stories could shape my world and the life I lived in it.  If literature is a force that contributes to making us who we are, it follows that our assent to stories can make us better or worse people.  In the case of my childhood encounters with Old Hickory, it seemed incredibly easy to assent to a story entirely, to just believe.  As this dawned on me, I began to wonder: how likely was it that I unthinkingly accepted or applied patently untrue or unhealthy narratives?  How many of them, instead of teaching me to tread very softly on hardwood floors, were teaching me to demonize, discount, or oppress?  How many of them were convincing me to harm myself or others?  And how would I deal with stories that did this,  but were still beautiful or elegant or clever in some other way?  Booth makes a poignant analogy of this dilemma: “…[Stories] offer every opportunity to miseducate ourselves, and therein lies the task of ethical criticism: to help us avoid that miseducation.  The trick is always to find ways of doing that without tearing the butterfly apart in our hands” (477).

I think this is the key: the butterfly is in our hands.  We are not powerless, but in fact are given a very important task as readers.  Barthes’s idea of a mediator applies just as well to readers as authors, for as Eco suggests, the reader is a “fundamental ingredient not only of the process of storytelling but also of the tale itself. …[A text] cannot say everything about the world.  It hints at and then asks the reader to fill in a whole series of gaps” (Walks 1, 3).  The text has the power to shape us, yes, but it is not an autocrat; we can resist and to some degree shape the text.  To believe, though, that people and literature should be good — or should be made good — for all times and places is fallacious.  In understanding how narratives do make us who we are, we must also be aware of the ways in which narratives could shape us but do not or should not, because they probably have shaped others in those ways, and we could just as easily have been shaped.

We must play our games cautiously and wisely, we must maintain intellectual and moral civility, for the things at our disposal — our literature, our narratives, the building blocks of ourselves and those around us, the butterflies and the chess-pieces — are fragile.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland.  “The Death of the Author.”  Image — Music — Text.  Trans. Stephen Heath. NY: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-148.

Booth, Wayne C.  The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”  Labyrinths.  1962. Trans. James E. Irby.  New York: Modern Library, 1983.

Dickens, Charles.  Great Expectations. 1860-61.  Ed. Charlotte Mitchell.  London: Penguin, 2003.

Eco, Umberto.  Five Moral Pieces.  1997.  Trans. Alastair McEwen.  New York: Harcourt, 2001.

—.  Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.  1994.  Boston: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Ellison, Harlan. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman.”  The Essential Ellison.  Ed. Terry Dowling, et al.  1987.  New York: Morpheus International, 2001. 877-886.

Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. 1978.  New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Gregory, Marshall.  Shaped by Stories: The Ethical Power of Narratives.  Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.

Johnson, Samuel.  “Rambler No. 4”.  1750.

MacIntyre, Alasdair.  After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.  1981.  Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe.  “A Defense of Poetry.” 1821

Wilde, Oscar.  “The Decay of Lying.”  1891.

Wallace, David Foster.  “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky.”  Consider the Lobster.  2005.  New York: Black Bay Books, 2007.