Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Alternative World in Stephen Carter’s The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln

One of the most popular leitmotifs of the what-if alternative historical novel focuses on delineating an imaginary world had the Nazis won the Second World War. Two outstanding examples are The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick set in 1962 America and Fatherland by Robert Harris set in 1964 Germany. In the former, most of America is living under fascist rule, most American Jews have been murdered and the main characters gladly embrace the new reality. (A compelling subplot is about a banned underground novel reputedly written by an individual in a fortified castle who writes an alternative history about the Nazis losing the war. Readers are entertained but consider it farfetched.) In the latter, the Nazis, who are in perpetual war with the hordes of Russia are preparing for the visit of the American President, Joseph Kennedy, and an agreement that would signal a rapprochement between the world’s pre-eminent powers.

Another leitmotif is how would America be different had the South won the Civil War. One gem for this alternative history is the 1953 publication of Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore. In the novel’s first sentence, the narrator states, “Although I am writing this in the year 1877, I was not born until 1921.” It must be one of the strangest sentences in American fiction. But it makes sense when the novel is mainly set during the first half of the twentieth century. Moore’s conjured America is one of bleakness and of hopelessness with a hobbled economy and heightened social tensions. Confederate citizens rule over Northern subjects. Blacks, Asians and Jews are pressured to emigrate and indentured servitude prevails in the industrial centres. The major character, Hodge Backmaker, is fortunate to spend seven years living in a communal haven of creative people who would have been regarded as pariahs in the coarser society beyond its confines. As a history scholar specializing in the “War of Southrun Independence,” Hodge is given the opportunity to time travel to the site of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the decisive battle that, in this alternative history, ensured southern victory. He is, however, warned that he must remain an observer. Inadvertently, he does become involved and with one altercation he wipes out his own personal history and changes the course of the war. Unlike the protagonist school teacher in Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (Simon & Schuster, 2011), who is able to retreat from 1963 America to the present, Ward’s time traveller cannot return to his former life living with his wife and fellow intellectuals. He is destined to live out his life in an America that resembles the historical reality of the late nineteenth century but one wherein he feels estranged and is regarded as an oddball eccentric.

author Stephen L. Carter

With the caveat that The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln: A Novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) is not about the south winning the Civil War, it does follow in the tradition of writing an alternative history. Its premise is that Lincoln recovered from his wounds inflicted by John Wilkes Booth but his vice president Andrew Johnson did not. Failing to become a martyr, Lincoln becomes politically vulnerable. Like his weaker successor, the historical Johnson, Carter’s Lincoln becomes the target for an impeachment trial led by the Radical Republicans who contend that the “tyrant” did not sufficiently protect the freedmen and that he intended to usurp the powers of Congress. As he did with his previous four novels, Carter combines a murder mystery, a spy thriller and a courtroom drama. Part of the trial itself adheres to the historical record of Johnson’s impeachment trial, and sometimes the novel feels weighted down by the rules of evidence and the minutia of the court proceedings that Carter as a Yale law professor intimately knows.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Coming Full Circle: Richard Thompson's Electric

The "Melancholy Galliard" of the 21st Century has to be Richard Thompson. His latest release, Electric (New West, 2013) features the troubadour in great form with songs about love and loss, broken relationships and heartfelt soul-searching. It's a record full of Thompson's first-rate guitar playing and arrangements, but what is most noticeable is the pathos in Thompson's vocals, a subtle device that truly defines his distinct baritone from the rest of the pack. Electric is Thompson's 42nd release in a long career that marks his place in 2013: present but mirroring the past as only he can see it. Perhaps it's because he's never been afraid of expressing himself regardless of age, or because his prolific songwriting is finely tuned, he's never lost touch with his muse. Regardless, this new album finds his songs matching his style, wit and technical skills. It's an excellent album without clutter and that clarity of purpose is the key to the success of Electric. Produced by Buddy Miller, at Miller's house/studio in Nashville, the album features a trio setting (Michael Jerome, drums; Taras Prodaniuk, bass guitar) and this smaller band seems to have lifted Thompson's performance immeasurably. It’s also his touring trio and he specifically wrote the songs on Electric for the band.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Damp Squibs: Parker and Bullet to the Head

Jason Statham stars in Parker

Movie lovers can spend the first couple months of a new year scanning ten-best lists and catching up on recent films they’ve missed, or reviewing the classics, or tinkering with their DVD libraries, or, if they don’t mind giving their loved ones cause for concern, get involved in the Oscar race. (They can even spend January happily wallowing in Turner Classic Movies – although in February, the channel limits itself to movies that were nominated for Academy Awards, and tumbleweeds blow through its schedule for days at a time.) One thing they can’t do very often is have a good time checking out new movies; long ago, a shared understanding developed between the studios and the audience that January is dumping ground for movies nobody has much hope for, and the dumping period keeps getting extended, in the same way that the start of the summer blockbuster season keeps getting pushed up earlier and earlier every year. At some point, the two periods will meet, and whoever can tell the difference between the last movie that the studios want to wash their hands of and the first one that everyone’s beach house is riding on will be officially recognized as the Antichrist, or at least the editor-in-chief of Entertainment Weekly. In the meantime, people desperate to get out of the house currently have their choice of some expertly gummed-up little action movies that give the frustrated film freak a chance to at least commiserate with talented directors who are stuck in the dumping season of their careers.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

When We're Older Things May Change: Janis Ian's "Society's Child" (1966)

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, declaring that children wouldn't "be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character." The Freedom Movement, which fought the early battles for desegregation in the South and voter registration for black Americans, was extending a call for a shared vision of interracial harmony. King, the political and spiritual leader of the civil rights struggle in the United States, called for the country to abandon the bitter legacy of slavery. King's speech, that hot day in August, hit like a bolt of lightning, and suddenly a vision of hope and possibility spread throughout the country. Critic Craig Werner persuasively describes that promise in his book A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America. "For people of all colours committed to racial justice, the Sixties were a time of hope," he writes. "You could hear it in the music: in the freedom songs that soared above and sunk within the hearts of marchers at Selma and Montgomery; in the gospel inflections of Sam Cooke's teenage love songs; in Motown's self-proclaimed soundtrack for 'young America'; in blue-eyed soul and English remakes of the Chicago blues; in Aretha Franklin's resounding call for respect; in Sly Stone's celebration of the everyday people and Jimi Hendrix's vision of an interracial tribe; in John Coltrane's celebration of a love supreme. For brief moments during the decade surrounding King's speech, many of us harboured real hopes that the racial nightmare might be coming to an end."

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Deliriously Inventive: Leos Carax’s Holy Motors

Denis Lavant in Holy Motors

There’s a scene in Leos Carax’s enticing Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood) (1986) that still resonates for me more than 25 years later. The film, a futuristic fable about a disease that is transmitted when people make love without actually feeling love, has a young man, played by Denis Lavant, express his love for a young woman by dancing to David Bowie’s "Modern Love." Lurching down the street, in a spastic manner reminiscent of Joe Cocker, and clutching his stomach as if he’s ill, he suddenly breaks out in a full run before just as quickly stopping as the infectious song is suddenly truncated, an abrupt conclusion to a man gripped by the fever of love.

Earlier, he and the girl, played by Mireille Perrier, pass by a disco but we only see the patrons’ feet moving frantically on the dance floor.  Working simultaneously as science fiction, romance and drama, Mauvais Sang was a perfect introduction to Carax’s off kilter, unique and highly inventive mode of filmmaking. Holy Motors (2012), his latest film and only his fifth feature since his  impressive1984 debut with Boy Meets Girl, is a timely reminder of how strikingly original Carax is. It’s also the most exciting movie I saw last year, proof positive that there are still a few directors out there who know how to use the medium in clever and imaginative ways. For the most part, Holy Motors is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Family Happiness: Tolstoy on the Rack

Ksenia Kutepova and Alexey Kolubkov star in Family Happiness” (Photo: A. Sergeev)

Whatever has secured the reputation of the Moscow Theatre-Atelier Piotr Fomenko as one of Russia’s best theatre companies certainly isn’t in evidence in Family Happiness, which I caught on the Boston leg of its American tour. The production, which premiered in Moscow in 2000 and is performed in Russian with English supertitles, is an adaptation (no playwright is listed) of Tolstoy’s beautiful novella tracking the arc of a marriage between a recently orphaned eighteen-year-old girl, Masha, and Sergey Mihailovich, her neighbor and guardian. The marriage begins in a kind of other-worldly bliss but reaches a point of crisis when, after they have begun to raise children, Sergey takes Masha to St. Petersburg and reacts with revulsion as she gets caught up in the social whirl that their provincial home has denied her. The story is about the way the cracks in a relationship that have been covered up by romantic optimism can suddenly appear, focusing the partners on incompatibilities they’re shocked to discover have been in place since the outset. Masha and Sergey’s marriage somehow endures the crisis and passes into a third, compromised phase that Masha (who is the narrator) sees as true “family happiness”:

That day ended the romance of our marriage: the old feeling became a precious irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of a new life and a quite different happiness; and that life and happiness have lasted to the present time.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Rod, The Autobiography: He Wears It Well

A year and a half ago I reviewed a biography of the [Small] Faces entitled Had Me a Real Good Time. It told the story of a bunch of wild English boys living the dream in the 60s and 70s (and 80s, 90s and on) drinking, singing and shagging their way to the top of the charts. Rod Stewart was just one of these lads, and now he tells his own story in what really appears to be his own words. And it seems that the previous book was no exaggeration whatsoever.

2012 was a great year for rock music autobiography. Neil Young’s scattershot ramblings in Waging Heavy Peace led things off, and Pete Townshend’s intimate confessions in Who I Am certainly made clear just who he was, but neither of those volumes had the rock’n’roll swagger down as proudly as Keith Richards’ Life did in 2010. But if it’s swagger you want, Rod the Mod brings it in the plainly titled Rod: The Autobiography. The book could’ve been called "Blonde on Blonde" considering the number of fair-haired beauties Mr. Stewart has bedded, and wedded. Blondes were who he was looking for, he emphasizes, especially young blondes and preferably of the absolutely gorgeous variety. He found lots of ‘em.