Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Famous Ones, and Everyone Else: Gender & Class in the Novels of Meg Wolitzer

Author Meg Wolitzer. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

"She understood that it had never been about talent; it had always been about money."
 – Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

“The people who change our lives... give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be.” – Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion

Recently, I discovered a major talent when I read The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead Books, 2018). I was astonished that I had never heard of her before. I mentioned my enthusiasm for it to a friend who had a similar experience with her 2013 book The Interestings and decided to read it as well. I still wondered why Wolitzer was unfamiliar to me until I read her 2012 essay in The New York TimesAlthough at that time she had published nine books, she lamented that few female writers of literary fiction are taken seriously by men unless their major protagonist is a male, they write short stories, or they embarked on their writing careers during the women's movement of the 1970s. Perhaps her piece had touched a collective literary nerve, since the publication the following year of The Interestings turned out for her to be a breakout novel, deservingly so, about the lives of both men and women.

Reading these two absorbing novels together has the benefit of revealing certain Wolitzer trademarks: her interest in exploring a broad range of relationships over a large span of time (romantic, friendship, parents and their offspring, and between mentors and acolytes); her penchant for fictionalizing a character or situations that will remind readers of real life personalities or events; her ability to connect the lives of her characters to larger real life issues such as Presidential politics; the power of cults to prey upon the vulnerable; the 1980s AIDS crisis, and the 2008 financial crisis; and the quality of her writing that is by turns laced with verbal brio, acerbic and funny lines, and astute observations. Above all her novels are character-driven and it would be hard to review them without familiarizing the reader with her characters  sometimes with more detail than I generally prefer  and the trajectory of their lives before addressing the issues that animate Wolitzer.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Women Who Write: Michelle Dean's Sharp

A close-up of the cover art for Michelle Dean's Sharp. (Photo: Amazon)

The incontestable assertion behind Michelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion (Grove Atlantic; 384 pp.) is that “The forward march of American literature is usually chronicled by way of its male novelists.” The book, whatever its minor shortcomings, is a witty, healthy corrective to a myopia that afflicts many of us. An obvious fact of American literature is that it has been overwhelmingly phallocentric in nature, from its romantic traditions to its symbology – not to mention the critical canon, erected by men, that has only in the last few decades begun to be meaningfully dismantled. Even, or especially, for a reader who loves the likes of Melville, Hemingway, and Mailer, the mighty winds of maleness can grow stale and suffocating. One tires of that world of suffering loners, bilious bromance, and bullet-headed misogyny; one needs to immerse in other minds, hear other voices, be maddened and inspired by other egos. And so one falls gladly and hungrily upon the singular works of – oh, I don't know – Shirley Jackson, Zora Neale Hurston, Patricia Highsmith, Vernon Lee, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mavis Gallant, Jane Austen, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Joyce Carol Oates, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alice Walker, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Alison Lurie, Grace Paley, Dawn Powell, and many others less famous.

If a few names are conspicuously missing from that list, it’s because they are present in Sharp. This critical history is a rogues’ gallery of literary femaleness – even though most of the women in it rightly bristled at being defined as “woman writers.” Dean’s exemplars are, in chapter if not birth order, Dorothy Parker; Rebecca West; Hannah Arendt; Mary McCarthy; Susan Sontag; Pauline Kael; Joan Didion; Nora Ephron; Renata Adler; and Janet Malcolm. Most have at least a few things in common. While some doubled as novelists, all are distinguished for their nonfiction, with fully half reaching eminence via The New Yorker. Several were at the center of at least one major literary controversy (e.g., McCarthy’s feud with Lillian Hellman; Adler’s New York Review of Books attack on Kael; the defamation suit brought by one of Malcolm’s subjects). Each was or is noted for, as Dean’s subtitle puts it, “having an opinion”: that is, a contentious opinion, boldly and unequivocally stated. Above and beyond these are other commonalities – of spirit, of temperament – which enabled the women to power through sexist barriers that limited, or shut out altogether, many of their contemporaries. “Through their exceptional talent,” Dean writes, “they were granted a kind of intellectual equality to men other women had no hope of.”

Friday, June 22, 2018

Neglected Gem: The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)

Wendell Burton and Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo. (Photo: Getty)

Alan J. Pakula’s first movie, before Klute and The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, was a small-scale adaptation of a first novel, The Sterile Cuckoo by John Nichols, written when the author was only twenty-three and published in 1965. It’s a touching chronicle of a college romance that gets crushed under the weight of passing time and shifting perspectives and the alcohol-soaked traditions of higher education; you feel the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the descriptions of party nights where things go wrong and can’t be put right. But even without the drinking, the relationship between Jerry Payne and Pookie Adams, the first real one for both, is too fragile to survive:

"It got so that we were always off balance together: one second I would love Pookie so much my intestines twinged, the next second I would dislike her intensely and sincerely wish that she would take herself and her wisecracks and go far away. It seemed that gradually our love affair was slipping out of our hands altogether, as if, while our backs had been turned... the magic had mysteriously drained out of it."

Pakula’s movie is a very different animal from Nichols’s book. The screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, reshaped the story to make Pookie – played by twenty-three-year-old Liza Minnelli, already a veteran of stage musicals but in only her second movie role – a freakishly unconventional and deeply neurotic young woman who inhabits her own private world and draws Jerry (Wendell Burton) into it, attempting to lock him inside it and everyone else out. Sargent had been writing for television for nearly a decade and a half, but The Sterile Cuckoo was only his third screenplay, and I think that the fact that the picture was put together by and with relative novices – Burton’s only previous movie role was a walk-on in The Gypsy Moths, though he’d played Charlie Brown on stage – contributes to its freshness, which it has maintained over half a century.


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Love, or the Lack of It: Morgan Neville's Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers with the Neighborhood Trolley on the set of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. (Photo: IMDB)

As a Canadian kid, Fred Rogers wasn’t supposed to be my children’s television mainstay. The afternoon kiddie slot for my generation was the realm of Mr. Dressup (played by Ernie Coombs), whose lighthearted show about costumes, arts & crafts, and puppet pals effortlessly won the hearts of my peers (and inspired more than a few people I know to refer to any large container in their home as their own personal “tickle trunk”). But I didn’t love Mr. Dressup the way most Canadian kids did – I was much more entranced by an American import shown on our local PBS channel about a kind, quiet, genial man, his friends and neighbours, and the things they learned and shared in their neighbourhood. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired right alongside Sesame Street, but it didn’t need to live in such good company to endear itself to me. The show, in the same gentle, unassuming way as its host, did that all by itself.

Thus it was with a level of interest that’s uncommon (but not absent) among my Canadian peers that I watched Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, about the life and work of Fred Rogers, and I was floored by its sensitivity and emotional power (just as I was, and still am, by Rogers himself). And the same unusual sense of subversion I felt as a Canadian who preferred an American kid’s show pervades the film, which depicts Rogers’s kindness and empathy as qualities that probably shouldn’t feel as radical as they do.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Wing and a Prayer: Ireland's Swan Lake

Alexander Leonhartsberger, Rachel Poirier, and Mikel Murfi in Swan Lake. (Photo: Marie Laure Brian)

An Irish Swan Lake floated into Toronto’s Luminato arts festival for five packed shows only, June 6-10, attracting both awestruck and baffled stares. An evocative piece of dance theatre created by choreographer and director Michael Keegan-Dolan (formerly of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre) and performed by the 13 dancers, actors and musicians in his Teac Damsa (House of Dance) company, the 75-minute production traversed a nonlinear path (hence the bafflement) and hypnotized with its dream-like sequences of stark, emotionally jarring imagery and performances both precise and raw.

Swan Lake / Loch na hEala remakes Tchaikovsky’s 1875 ballet not as a classical dance with pointe shoes but more as a multidisciplinary creation borrowing from the original to (likewise) explore the struggle between light and dark forces. Merging powerfully poignant contemporary dance with visceral storytelling and an original minimalist score created and performed live on stage by the Dublin trio, Slow Moving Clouds, this extraordinary work appeared as esoteric and stringently crafted as a Yeats poem: “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still / Above the staggering girl . . . ”


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Once More unto the Breach: You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (2012)

Sabine AzĂ©ma  and Pierre Arditi in Alain Resnais’s You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (2012).

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Vous n’avez encore rien vu, 2012), Alain Resnais’s penultimate film but in the form of what any other filmmaker would choose as a last film, is a stupendous achievement. Featuring a veritable Who’s Who of the French cinema playing themselves in a film (based on the premise of a play) about a play performed alongside the same play caught on film (which is adapted from an actual play), it manages the rare feat of evoking multiple levels of emotion and intellectual delight with a single conceit.

Monday, June 18, 2018

London and Stratford: The Shakespeare Report

Jack Laskey and Nadia Nadarajah in As You Like It at Shakespeare's Globe. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

While I was watching As You Like It at Shakespeare’s Globe, the two quotations that kept running through my head – when I wasn’t boiling up with rage or, alternately, feeling like the life had been drained out of me – were the Stage Manager’s casual pronouncement in the third act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, “Wherever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense,” and Mollser’s query at the end of act one of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars to Nora Clitheroe about whether there’s anyone around with “a titthle of common sense.” What prize collection of idiots would mount a production of Shakespeare’s sublime romantic comedy with a male Rosalind, a female Orlando and a deaf actress as Celia? I say “collection” because, though two people, Federay Holmes and Elle While, are listed as co-directors, the Globe’s modus operandi, under its latest artistic director, Michelle Terry (who plays three male roles in the production), is to assemble a show democratically, with the directors serving more as organizers than as auteurs. Even the costume designer, Ellan Parry, worked with each actor individually to select his or her clothing, items that come from all over because the show isn’t set in a specific period. What this catch-as-catch-can eclectic approach to costume doesn’t explain is why the outfits are so consistently ugly to look at. Were they selected to punish the audience further throughout the three interminable hours of the performance?