Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain

James Baldwin (1953)

James Baldwin’s debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, the semi-autobiographical story that culminates in 14-year-old John Grimes’ born-again experience as he physically struggles on the floor of his stepfather’s storefront church, is generally considered his masterpiece. It comes in at No. 39 on the Modern Library list of “Best English-Language Books of the 20th Century,” and also made Time magazine’s 2005 list of the “100 Best English Language Novels since 1923.” Thus, along with Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Baldwin’s novel forms a kind of triumvirate of the most significant novels by African Americans between the Harlem Renaissance and what we usually think of as the Civil Rights Movement.

But Baldwin’s book is simultaneously broader and narrower in its concerns than either Wright’s or Ellison’s. It is broader in that it is about more than being Black in America. It’s also about universal concerns like growing up, sexuality and sexual identity, faith and its loss, love and its loss. It is narrower in that it really doesn’t try to tell us about Black experience in a white society. Rather it focuses on one very specific individual—teenaged John Grimes, in a very specific family—one in which his abusive stepfather is a Pentecostal preacher who loves his own son Roy, John’s unreliable brother, but cannot bring himself to love John; in a very specific place—Harlem in the 1930s; on a very specific day—John’s birthday. Baldwin makes no implication that John’s experience is the quintessential metaphor for all African Americans everywhere. But readers will extrapolate some general truths from the experiences of this single family.

What Baldwin’s book does more convincingly and through the truth of personal experience is document the significant role of the church in African American life, both in its positive function of unifying the community and providing inspiration, and also in its negative aspects as a source of moral judgment and exclusion. Baldwin was well aware of these aspects, having been brought up in them, and, like John in the novel, having had a religious awakening at the age of 14 and having become a preacher himself, until he eschewed his faith.

Baldwin divides the novel into three sections. The first part begins as John wakes up on his birthday, wondering if anyone in his family is going to remember what day it is. Elizabeth, his mother, is arguing with Roy about their father, Gabriel, who is aloof and authoritarian and ready to enforce his dictums with beatings. When John thinks everyone has forgotten his birthday, his mother gives him some money to buy himself whatever he wants as a present. He uses it to attend a movie, one of the things his father forbids. When he gets home, he finds that Roy has been in a fight in which he was stabbed, and Gabriel is blaming Elizabeth for Roy’s wild behavior. Florence, Gabriel’s sister, tries to intercede, but Gabriel strikes Elizabeth anyway, and then beats Roy for defending his mother. The section ends with John joining Elisha, his church’s youth minister, in cleaning the church his family attends, and Gabriel, Elizabeth, and (to John’s surprise) Florence entering the church to attend the evening service.

The second part of the book, titled “The Prayers of the Saints,” is a brilliant tour de force in which Baldwin presents us with the entire complex backstory of this family while never straying from the self-imposed straight chronological narrative of this single day in John’s life, a classical unity of time in which is revealed a classical family curse. He does it by allowing us to overhear the unspoken prayers of all the novel’s chief characters as they rehearse before God their secret sins. The section begins with the prayer of John’s aunt Florence, Gabriel’s sister, who has nearly forgotten how to pray, it’s been so long. She reveals her resentment of her brother dating back to childhood, when Gabriel’s drinking and gambling drove her to leave their southern home on a train for New York, where she had married, and lost, a good man. She also remembers her friend Deborah, Gabriel’s first wife, who knew that Gabriel had an illegitimate son in Chicago.

In Gabriel’s prayer, he remembers his conversion after a night of wild carousing, remembers his turning preacher and his defending Deborah at a revival meeting when others shunned her for having been raped at 16. He also remembers his first son, the illegitimate Royal, now dead through his own debauched life, and whose mother Gabriel had abandoned when she became pregnant, giving her money to start over in Chicago.

Elizabeth prays, recalling her own unhappy childhood, in which her mother died and an aunt took her away from her father. She recalls her lover Richard, who suffered unjustly at the hands of the police (Black Lives mattered then, too) and died before she had given birth to John. In New York, she had met Florence, who introduced her to her brother Gabriel. Elizabeth comes out of her prayer when she hears John, lying on the floor and overcome with the power of the Holy Spirit.

The climactic part three of the book, called “The Threshing Floor,” focuses on John himself, writhing on the floor of the church in the throes of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the book, the adolescent John has been struggling with his own sexuality and his church’s attitude toward sin. His thoughts and his natural inclinations, he feels, threaten to separate him from God: “You is in the Word or you ain’t—ain’t no half way with God.” Prior to the service, John had been roughhousing with Elisha, whom he admires deeply—a struggle that he compares to Jacob wrestling with the angel. In a way that seems radical by today’s standards, but which has a history in English poetry that goes at least as far back as Donne—“Imprison me, for I /except you enthrall me never shall be free,/ nor ever chaste, except you ravish me”—Baldwin equates the physical ecstasy of sex with the spiritual ecstasy of religious fervor: John is enthralled by the way Elisha’s “thighs moved terribly against the cloth of his suit,” and as the Holy Ghost speaks to him on the church floor he experiences “a tightening in his loin strings” and “a sudden yearning tenderness for holy Elisha; desire, sharp and awful as a reflecting knife, to usurp the body of Elisha, and lie where Elisha lay; to speak in tongues, as Elisha spoke, and, with that authority, to confound his father.”

Baldwin would not write openly about a homosexual relationship until his next novel, Giovanni’s Room, in 1956. But it is clearly suggested in this novel, though it is not a crucial element in the plot since any form of sexuality would cause the 14-year-old protagonist shame and confusion in the stifling atmosphere of this particular tradition. John hopes that his born-again experience will bring him closer to his stepfather. You can probably guess how well that works. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that it is more positive than you might imagine. For a book that deals with violent conflict with a difficult father, sexual ambivalence, religious guilt and shame, and, oh yeah, living in a racist society, it’s surprisingly affirmative—as if something has been exorcised, something has been blessed. If you haven’t read it, you ought to. Four Shakespeares for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Mulan

Mulan

Niki Caro (2020)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

Milan is the latest installment in Disney’s ill-advised obsession with remaking all its classic animated features as live-action films, a trend that seems at best a mistaken reading of current popular tastes as preferring computer-generated effects to animation, and at worst a cynical ploy to recycle previous successes to squeeze every last ounce of money from them. This apparently unstoppable mania has mostly yielded terrible results, a la 2019’s Dumbo, and even when its results are palatable, as in 2016’s The Jungle Book, the product has been significantly inferior to the original animated version.

Such is the case with Mulan. Originally released in 1998, the animated Mulan capped a decade during which Disney’s “princesses” had cast off their familiar “Some Day My Prince Will Come” image, beginning with the Gaston-busting Belle in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast and moving through the John Smith-rejecting Pocohantas in 1995 to the cross-dressing woman warrior Mulan in 1998. And while the film drew criticism for Westernizing or “Whitewashing” an original Chinese legend, there is no question that it went a long way in empowering Asian girls in the United States who had seen precious few role models in the popular media.

The idea of a live-action Mulan first surfaced in 2010, but got nowhere. It grew legs in 2015 and, wishing to avoid past mistakes, Disney tried to hire an Asian director, first approaching Oscar-winning Ang Lee, who declined with regret, unable to fit it into his schedule. Disney also approached acclaimed Chinese director Jiang Wen (Let the Bullets Fly), who had recently appeared in their Star Wars saga Rogue One, but that didn’t work out either. On Valentine’s Day 2017, Disney announced that Mulan would be helmed by New Zealand director Niki Caro, who had made Whale Rider and North Country.

Without an Asian director, it was doubly important for Disney to get the casting right, particularly the lead. They wanted an ethnically Chinese woman who could speak good English and who exhibited passable martial arts skills. They interviewed and tested some 1,000 candidates on five continents until finally settling on the Chinese-born American actress Liu Yifei—a choice the company may have since regretted, since her controversial support of Hong Kong police on social media sparked a widespread movement to boycott the film. The Chinese government launched a rival pro-Mulan campaign, ensuring the film will get plenty of play in the People’s Republic, if not Hong Kong itself. But I digress.

The new version keeps the same basic concept as the old one: Facing a foreign invasion, the Chinese Emperor decrees that one male member of every family in the country must join the Imperial Army to defend against the attackers. Mulan’s father, a war hero, is the only man in her family, and so prepares to join the emperor’s forces, even though his previous service has left him barely able to walk. Mulan disguises herself as a man and joins the army in her father’s place. She eventually becomes an honored warrior and a hero for her family and country.

But that is essentially all that the two films have in common. The writers of the screenplay—and there are a committee of them—have chosen to eliminate some of the most popular features of the original film: the songs, which won an Oscar in 1998, and the talking dragon Mushu, who, voiced by Eddie Murphy, brought some humor to the animated film. Mushu did not go over well in China, and Disney decided to go in a different direction with the live-action film. And director Caro, aiming for realism, chose not to include soldiers singing about going off to war. The dropping of these elements has resulted in an atypically sober film more evocative of Game of Thrones than the Mulan cartoon, and it has decidedly not pleased fans of the original movie.

The screenplay that replaces the original is, frankly, something of a mess, which is not surprising for a script written by a committee. It was put together by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (who teamed up to give us the recent Planet of the Apes movies), and Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin (who teamed up on the TV movie Christmas Perfection and the short Boy Eats Girl: A Zombie Love Story). How they divvied up the work is anybody’s guess—I suppose it may have been something like “OK, Jaffa and Silver, you work on the action scenes, and Hynek and Martin, you do the relationship stuff,” or some such thing.

But it all seems to have been done as a kind of paint-by-number production, where the parts get put together but there’s not a lot of spirit behind the outside shell. Put in humorous early scene where girl is a disappointment to parents. Send her off disguised as a man and give her some embarrassing moments trying to avoid being seen with her pants down. Have a scene where she bonds with her fellow soldiers. Have her save the day, but get banished when they find out she’s a girl. Give her a romantic interest. Give her an antagonist who is enough like her to make it interesting. Throw in some Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon martial arts stuff. Explain her superhuman martial prowess by calling it “ch’i,” because that sounds pretty Chinese. Give her a triumphant return. OK, that script’s done. What should we churn out next?

To be sure, the film looks great: There are some magnificent cinematic shots filmed in both New Zealand and China. The costumes are beautiful and the fight scenes skillfully choreographed. But this is the appealing outer shell of a film that has no heart. The weakest parts of the generic script are the training scenes in which Mulan is supposedly bonding with her fellow troops. In a change from the original story, in this film she has an inborn ch’i-abundance that gives her great abilities, which she essentially has to hide while training. So the only reason to show her training is to show her bonding, and there are perhaps two scenes in which she speaks to her fellow soldiers, but so little is said in those exchanges that none of the other soldiers is distinguished as an individual, except Chen Honghui (Yoson An of TV’s The Luminaries), who becomes Mulan’s rather lukewarm love interest, and her commanding officer Commander Tung (famed martial arts choreographer Donnie Yen), an old comrade of her father, and the man who exiles Mulan when she is revealed to be a woman. Both characters are based on Li Shang in the animated film—perhaps the writers were afraid having a single character who was both commander and love interest might make him into too memorable.

The one memorable character other than Mulan and her sympathetic father (Tzi Ma of TV’sThe Man in the High Tower) is Xian Lang, a ch’i-powered shapeshifting witch played by China’s best-known actress Gong Li (who starred in films like Farewell My Concubine), who is aiding Bori Khan (martial artist Jason Scott Lee), the one-dimensional villain invading the empire. In two of the most promising scenes in the film, Mulan confronts Xian Lang, and we learn how much the powerful Xian resents being in a subservient role simply because she is a woman. Unfortunately, the scenes play like rip-offs of scenes between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Disney’s recently acquired Star Wars franchise, and “ch’i” comes off as simply a kind of Chinese translation of “the Force.” Perhaps such scenes might have seemed less derivative if one of the myriad writers of the film had actually been Chinese, or at least Asian.

Disney took a big gamble releasing this film on streaming rather than on the big screen, which movie houses worldwide had anticipated as a chance to lift them from pandemic financial woes. Instead, Disney made it the first major streaming release after launching Disney Plus with the live-filmed Hamilton several weeks ago. And the company gambled that people sitting at home watching their computers were going to be willing to spend thirty dollars to see the film. The film cost $200 million to make (it is the largest-budget movie ever made by a woman director), and it is still too early to know how well the gamble has paid off. But if you want my advice, unless you have four or five kids who are going to gather around the little screen and make it worth your while, I’d save the thirty bucks and wait a few months until you can stream it for free. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Dean Parisot (2020)

The cosmic quest of Bill & Ted Face the Music—the duo’s need to put together and perform a piece of music that will keep the entire cosmos from disintegrating and thereby save reality as we know it—is pretty much about as far from the pair’s initial quest in their 1989 premier (passing their history final) as it is possible to get. But if it seems unprecedented or a claim far beyond the power of so inconsequential a thing as music, think again. For thousands of years, the “music of the spheres” was a seriously held tenet of faith: the notion that the divinely conceived universe literally demonstrated the harmony of its design in a music that played forth as the heavens moved. Chaucer or Dante would have understood it. So it follows logically that, if that universe were coming apart, the way to save it would be to return it to that very literal harmony. Cue Wyld Stallyns.

The current film is not billed as a “reboot” but as the third installment of the Bill and Ted series, initiated with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in 1989 and followed by Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey in 1991. If it seems unusual to have a gap of 29 years between installments of a movie franchise, that’s because it is. Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, who originated the Bill and Ted adventures, had conceived of a third film by 2010 (which would have been just a 20-year gap), and both Alex Winter (who’s been devoting himself to making documentaries in the interim) and Keanu Reeves (who’s been doing a couple of little things like The Matrix and John Wick series) were on board to reprise their roles, but there was some difficulty in finding backers for the film, and while it remained in conversation and the principals kept saying it was going to happen, it stayed on the shelf until a distributor was found and the movie was greenlighted in May 2018, with production finally beginning in the summer of 2019. As with most films, COVID-19 has messed with distribution plans for Bill & Ted, but the film was finally released, simultaneously both in theaters and on demand, on August 28. It’ll cost you as much to stream it on Amazon Prime as it will to go to the theater, but of course you’ll be a lot safer that way.

Directed by Dean Parisot, who directed Galaxy Quest and Fun With Dick and Jane and was hired to direct this film back in 2012, the movie makes it clear that thirty years have gone by in the cinematic world of Bill and Ted just as in the real world: Their marriages to medieval princesses Elizabeth and Joanna—played here by Erinn Hayes (of TV’s Kevin Can Wait) and Jayma Mays (from TV’s Glee)—are in trouble, owing mainly to the lameness of Bill’s and Ted’s ability to adult. And they don’t understand why it’s not a good idea to go to couple’s therapy as a foursome, to the frustration of therapist Dr. Taylor (Jillian Bell of Brittany Runs a Marathon). Meanwhile their daughters Theodora “Thea” Preston (Samara Weaving of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—and the niece of Reeves’ Matrix co-star Hugo Weaving) and Wilhelmina “Billie” Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine from Bombshell) are chips off the old blocks and show every indication of following in their inept fathers’ footsteps. Worst of all, the middle-aged Bill and Ted, having once been huge stars of the rock music scene, have now been reduced to playing at the Elks Lodge in front of 40 people who are there not to see them but because it’s two-dollar taco night. They have still never achieved that one great song—the song that would unite the world—which Rufus, their contact from the civilization of the future, had told them was their destiny.

Rufus, of course was famously played by comedian George Carlin in the first two films. Carlin died in 2008, and there was no move to recast the part: Instead, the filmmakers decided to pay tribute to the deceased “dean of counterculture comedians” by using old footage from the first film to create a holograph of Rufus, welcoming people to the palace of the future’s Great Leader.

Thus it is Rufus’s daughter Kelly (Kristen Schaal of TV’s Gravity Falls) who travels back in time in this film to bring Bill and Ted back to the future. (The character is essentially a tribute to Carlin, whose own daughter is named Kelly—and in fact Kelly Carlin appears in a cameo in this film as one of the character Kelly’s entourage in the future).

In a mid-life crisis of sorts, Ted tells Bill that he is no longer confident that they will ever successfully write the song that brings the world together. At this point Kelly arrives from the future and brings the pair back to meet with the future’s Great Leader (Holland Taylor of TV’s Two and a Half Men), Rufus’s widow and now the most powerful being in the world of the future. She tells Bill and Ted that they must complete the prophesied song and sing it with their entire band in a venue known as “MP 46,” in order to “save reality as we know it by uniting humanity across time.” And by the way, they have exactly 77 minutes and 25 seconds (i.e., the remaining length of the movie) to get this done.

Bill and Ted reason, probably wisely, that since they haven’t been able to come up with this world-changing song after thirty years of trying, they are not likely to do it now in less than two hours. So they begin a quest through time to track down various versions of their future selves in order to steal the song that they must have created from their older selves. Meanwhile, the Great Leader has lost faith in them, and believing that Rufus had interpreted historical data incorrectly, concludes that an alternative conclusion from the data is that Bill and Ted must be assassinated in order to save reality, and she sends a killer robot—an insecure “terminator” by the name of Dennis Caleb McCoy (Anthony Carrigan from TV’s Gotham)—to track them through time and kill them.

Appalled by her mother’s decision, Kelly travels back to the present to warn Bill and Ted, but finds them gone and meets Billie and Thea instead. The two daughters, gung-ho to help their fathers save the world, go on their own time quest that parallels their fathers’, but the girls go into the past rather than the future to put together the greatest group of musicians ever assembled: They track down Jimi Hendrix in 1967 and a young Louis Armstrong in 1922, then travel to the 18th century to collect Mozart, and the third millennium BCE to collect the legendary Ling Lun, supposed creator of music in ancient China. And if that is not enough, they speed back to the stone age to collect a drum-beating cavewoman named Grom who, for purposes of the film, seems to have been the first musical human. Rapper Kid Cudi even shows up for the band, playing himself and spouting a whole lot of theoretical physics jargon.

To describe how this all comes together in 77 minutes and 25 seconds would be to engage in way too many spoilers. It would probably not surprise you, though, to learn that all these forces meet up in the end for the great world-saving concert, in which Bill and Ted are joined by their old band-mate Death (William Sadler) from Bogus Journey, bringing along his electric bass.

I must admit that there are holes in this plot large enough to drive a semi through. In a situation where you have access to a time machine, how can it matter that you have exactly 77 minutes and 25 seconds to solve a problem? You have all the time in the world. And what sense does it make if you are Bill and Ted to travel forward in time, to find out what you did in the past (which is still your future)? If you go past the point in time when reality was going to go blooey, and you find yourselves still alive in the future, then things must have turned out fine, right?

But why worry about such details in a Bill and Ted film? As Chaucer said, there’s no point in making earnest of game. The movie is a lark. Its chief purpose is to give their fans another look at air-headed slackers in their later years—and as they travel into the future, in their later and later years. The confrontations with their future selves (who get steadily worse until the death-bed Stallyns) are absurdly comic, though they tend to turn out badly (as Bill tells Ted: “Your future you is a very pretentious dickwad”). But I found the daughters’ roundup of the super band of all time more interesting. The fact is, despite its premise, Bill & Ted Face the Music is not going to change the world. But it will probably make you laugh, and distract you from your pandemic blues. Two Jacquelyn Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Sophie’s Choice

Sophie’s Choice

William Styron (1979)

I’ve deliberately avoided this book for forty years. Sure, it was  a huge bestseller in 1979 and won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1980, and yes, it was honored with a spot on Modern Library’s famous “100 Greatest English Language Novels of the 20thCentury,” but I could not bring myself to read it. And the reason for that was pretty straightforward: I knew what Sophie’s Choice was and, having my own 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son at the time the book came out, I just did not need that image in my head.

The book, however, has sat on my bookshelf for those forty years, just staring back at me whenever I looked in its direction (third shelf from the bottom in the kitchen lounge bookcases, fifth book in). And my kids are in their forties now, so I figured I might be up to it. And what better way to entertain oneself during a pandemic than reading a good Holocaust novel?

Imagine my surprise when I started the book and found it not at all gloom and doom from beginning to end, but rather light and humorous as its narrator, “Stingo,” a 22-year-old aspiring novelist from Virginia come to New York in 1947 to seek his fortune, goes on about his difficulties in the editorial department of McGraw-Hill and his adventures in finding affordable housing in the city. The latter he accomplishes in Brooklyn, at a huge boarding house run by Yetta Zimmerman that is painted top to bottom in Army-surplus pink. Apparently pink was a color of which the army had a lot left over.

Stingo quits his job and tries to live frugally on what his indulgent father sends him while he works on his Thomas Wolfe-inspired first novel, but he has trouble working, or sleeping, at night because there is a couple in the apartment directly above him who make a great deal of noise with their rather athletic lovemaking. He soon meets them: a Jewish research biologist working at Pfizer named Nathan Landau, and Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish Catholic woman whose numerical tattoo on her arm marks her as a survivor of Auschwitz. After an initial encounter with an irate Nathan who is shouting at Sophie and belittles Stingo for his southern heritage, the young writer eventually befriends the couple and the three become inseparable friends.

To a large extent Stingo is a chorus figure, and a kind of buffer between the extreme characters of Sophie, the often depressive Auschwitz survivor, and Nathan, the often manic jealous lover who saved the anemic Sophie when she had fainted in the Brooklyn public library and nursed her back to life and to a reason for living: himself. For although many critics have suggested that the Virginian Styron is working within the tradition of the southern Gothic—characterized by grotesque and angst-ridden characters, and the presence of madness and horror, I suggest that the novel falls into the more universal category of tragedy. The novel is a tragedy both of Nathan, who carries his tragic flaw within his own psyche, and of Sophie, who bears both a family curse (her father was an outspoken anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer) and the curse of her own choices. And Greek tragedy needs a chorus.

This chorus is the undisguisedly autobiographical young southern writer working on a book that sounds remarkably like Styron’s own first novel, Lie Down in Darkness. Stingo, writing their story decades after his friendship with Sophie and Nathan, even muses upon his book about Nat Turner’s rebellion and the criticism it evoked—charges of racism, appropriation, and historical inaccuracy—just like Styron’s own Pulitzer-prize winning Confessions of Nat Turner, his last book before Sophie’s Choice. It’s as if Styron anticipates more critical blowback about Sophie, and gets right out in front of it in his own person.

For Styron’s book is certainly not a typical Holocaust narrative. In the first place, Sophie is a Polish Catholic, not a Jew. It’s not that Styron minimizes the Nazis’ genocidal extermination of six million Jews, but is reminding history that the German death camps also included hundreds of thousands of non-Jews, including Romany people, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and as the war progressed political enemies like communists and many Slavs, especially Poles, Serbs, and Russians. The first victims of Cyclon-B gas were Russian prisoners of war. And there were many who complained about this emphasis in the book. It is, after all, a little bit like the people who answer the “Black Lives Matter” assertion with the evasion “All Lives Matter,” and hence refuse to see the point. Yes, Styron is right in his depiction of Sophie’s suffering, but oppression of Poles was a political expedient for the Nazis, and not a carefully calculated deliberate genocide, as it was for the Jews (and the Romany). Styron’s characterization of Auschwitz as essentially a brutal slave-labor camp rather than an extermination camp is also flawed: It was both, and for Jews it was primarily the latter.

But none of this detracts from the effectiveness of the novel itself as an exemplum of human evil and its consequences. The real core of the book occurs in Sophie’s gradually more detailed, and increasingly more disturbing, revelations concerning her past. She first claims that her father was arrested and killed by the Nazis for being a fervent defender of Jews. But she ultimately reveals that he and his closest disciple, her husband, were actually virulent anti-Semites, though they were rounded up indiscriminately with other university professors when the Nazis conquered Poland. They were, after all, just lowly Slavs—to the Germans, they were vermin themselves. Sophie’s “Aryan” features and her knowledge of German get her chosen to be a clerical assistant to Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Höss. And she further reveals to Stingo her attempts to get her son accepted into the “Lebensborn” program, which would allow him to be adopted by a German family and raised as a German. She tries to seduce Höss with her sex appeal and with her legacy as the child of a famous anti-Semite, but none of this works. Finally, toward the end of novel, when she and Stingo are fleeing Nathan’s irrational rage, she reveals what happened to her daughter Eva.

The book’s title is suggestive in a number of ways. If you don’t actually know the climax ahead of time, you are probably assuming through the book that her choice is going to be a choice between Nathan, who saved her but threatens to destroy her, and Stingo, who is hopelessly in love with her from the moment he sees her. It might also apply to her choice at the very end of the book, a choice between life and death. But the choice everyone will remember is the choice she is forced to make between her children when she first arrives in Auschwitz. The choice will devastate you as a reader. Even when you know it’s coming. I thought, once I had finally read the novel, that I could now bring myself to watch Meryl Streep’s legendary Oscar-winning performance in the movie. But even after having just read the book, the scene was devastating.

There’s much more to the book than Sophie’s single choice. The omnipresence of human evil and guilt is underscored, for example, even in Stingo, whose sojourn in New York is being funded by a family inheritance that came ultimately from the sale of a family slave “down the river” in the ante-bellum south. No one’s hands are clean in this novel. Even Sophie’s. But what makes for tragedy is that the consequences for the tragic protagonist are far more severe than seems just. Sophie’s consequences are beyond the pale. Four Shakespeares for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians
Ciro Guerra (2020)

In the classic 1967 Paul Newman vehicle Cool Hand Luke, the most iconic figure is Boss Godfrey, the “walking boss,” the silent guard who watches the road crew of prisoners armed with a rifle, and so effectively hidden behind his reflecting sunglasses that he becomes known as “the man with no eyes.” Played by Morgan Woodward, Boss Godfrey personifies the brutal penal system that keeps the prison’s convicts subdued in fear, and brings down irresistible torture and pain on inmates, particularly Luke, who show any sign of individual humanity. In the film, he seems an image of an indifferent, unapproachable and arbitrarily cruel god, in control of a wasteland of a world that Luke has determined, Christ-like, to redeem. As a comment on the deepening resistance to the Vietnam War at the time, the man with no eyes seemed the embodiment of Western Imperialism imposing its will on the world’s hapless “others.”

In Ciro Guerra’s new film version of Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee’s literary fable Waiting for the Barbarians, Johnny Depp as Colonel Joll takes a page from Boss Godfrey as he saunters into a nameless fort on the frontier of an unnamed empire wearing small round sunglasses, carrying with him all the compelling power of brutal imperialism to bring home to the native barbarian “others” of the region just who is in control here.

The film is Guerra’s first English-language feature. The Colombian director was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Foreign Film” for his 2015 movie Embrace of the Serpent—a story focused on the sufferings of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon at the hands of colonialists. Cinematographer Chris Menges, who won Oscars for his work on The Mission and The Killing Fields, has a similar pedigree in terms of his association with anti-colonialist films. Their previous efforts are certainly an apt prelude to their current work, the dramatization of Coetzee’s 1980 parable that, at the time, was a thinly-veiled protest against apartheid South Africa, and a condemnation of European imperialism in Coetzee’s native land. Forty years later, the film appears at a moment in time when Black Lives Matter protests have sparked a worldwide awakening to the evils of the White privilege that is the legacy of centuries of colonialism.

Coetzee himself penned the script—his first venture into screenplay writing. So it cannot be said that the film adaptation takes liberties with the book’s plot with which the author would not approve. The novel, in fact, is told in first person from the point of view of “the Magistrate,” the protagonist played in the film by Oscar-, Tony-, and BAFTA-winner Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, Wolf Hall). The film necessarily loses much of the internal monologue that characterizes the book, and we have to determine the Magistrate’s motives and reactions the same way we do the other characters, by their words and actions.

In Coetzee’s parable, the story is set in an imperial frontier post in an unnamed country far from the capitol of the unnamed empire. The author intended the fable to be universally applicable to any empire in any frontier at any time. When I read the book, I imagined an outpost of Imperial Rome somewhere in modern-day Germany, a bulwark against Teutonic “barbarians”—Visigoths, Ostrogoths–or Huns maybe. The film opens in a desert, in a fort manned by soldiers in buff-colored uniforms resembling troops of the French Foreign Legion. You could be watching a remake of that imperialist classic, Beau Geste. These scenes were filmed in Morocco, and Menges’ desert vistas are beautiful and stark. But to make sure we don’t get too comfortable in pinning down time and place, the indigenous people of the region are all played by Mongolian actors speaking their own language. The Magistrate, who has been at this frontier post for many years, seems to be on relatively peaceful terms with the locals, speaks their language, understands their written messages, even collects archeological finds from the region.

Into this comfortable setting barges Colonel Joll and his storm troopers, uniformed in black liveries reminiscent of SS uniforms. Joll and his chief lieutenant Mandel (Robert Pattinson of The Lighthouse) are the only major characters in the film who are named (“joll” is Afrikaans slang for playing or having fun; Mandel sounds remarkably like anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandella—perhaps the only names that can exist in this fable are ironic ones?).

Or perhaps Joll’s “fun” is sadism. Little more than a one dimensional villain (which is I suppose admissible in a fable), Joll is essentially the personification of imperialism. He has come to ferret out rebellion among the indigenous peoples, and by god he’s going to find it. And his methods of interrogation are simple and brutal. As he explains to the Magistrate: “First lies. Then pressure. Then more lies, then more pressure. Then more lies, more pressure, and then comes the break. After the break, more pressure. And then at last, the truth.” “Pressure” is of course the euphemism for “torture,” euphemism being the language of choice for imperial powers, so that, for example, “mass murder of millions” becomes “final solution.” And in case the Magistrate’s benevolent administration had lulled us into a false sense of peace, Joll’s tactics underscore the basic truth of colonialism: Pious platitudes to the contrary, it’s not about “civilizing” or “sharing,” it’s about power, and its concomitant exploitation. Period. And by the time Joll is done with his interrogations, he has fomented the rebellion he is looking for.

The Magistrate is a far more complex character. Once Joll has finished his inquisition and is on his way back to the capital, the Magistrate adopts one of Joll’s victims—a young woman whose father has not survived Joll’s torture, and whose feet have been broken and her eyes blinded during her own interrogation. This woman, known only as “the Girl” (Gana Bayarsaikhan from Wonder Woman), he brings to live in his apartments in the fortress, sparking a good deal of gossip around the outpost. And though the attraction is unmistakably sexual in the novel, here it is more ambiguous. We see the Magistrate wash her feet and care for her injured body with a Christlike tenderness. He asks whether she wants to stay with him, and when she insists she wants to go back to her family, he leads a troop of his guards into the mountains on a dangerous mission to return her to her own people. On his return, he finds that Joll’s men have taken over the fort in his absence, and Mandel, Joll’s sadistic clone, is in charge while Joll is leading troops to make war on the natives. The Magistrate is arrested for deserting his post and consorting with the enemy, and he witnesses Mandel’s cruelties to prisoners as well as his stirring up of the colonists in the fort to participate in the frenzied tormenting of helpless captives, ultimately subjecting himself to Mandel’s tortures, even to the point of a symbolic crucifixion.

But for all this, the Magistrate is truly no Christ-figure, except perhaps in his own mind. Despite his opposition to the worst abuses of the colonial empire, he is still a representative of that government. He has enjoyed his own comfortable life for decades as a part of that system. And if Joll is a personification of the empire, the Girl seems a personification of the indigenous population, whom the Magistrate wants to love him but who only want to be out of his hands. His rule may be benevolent, but it is a benevolent dictatorship, and would not exist without the threat of Joll and his ilk behind it.

I won’t talk about how the film ends to avoid spoiler activity, but suffice it to say that by the time the end comes, we are pretty certain who the barbarians actually are. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Everyone will not love this film. Coetzee’s cerebral narrative does not translate readily into the medium of film, and many will find the movie slow going, especially in the beginning. Depp is memorably menacing in his role, and Rylance is brilliant as the sympathetic and ineffectual Magistrate. And Menges’ camera work is starkly beautiful—particularly striking is his forebodingly chilling final shot. If you aren’t expecting continuous action and superhero powers, here’s a movie that will make you think. Three Tennysons for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

 

 

The Mirror and the Light

The Mirror & The Light

Hilary Mantel (2020)

If you have read the first two books in Hilary Mantel’s epic historical trilogy covering the career of Renaissance English statesman Thomas Cromwell, you are no doubt poised to finish the story by reading the third and final novel, The Mirror & The Light. You should know from the outset that this is going to take some real commitment: This last volume is 754 pages in its American edition—if you happen to listen to it on Audible, it’s longer than 38 hours—only minutes short of the combined length of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two books. But if your experience of the text is anything like mine, you will regret that ending when it comes, and Cromwell is silenced forever. Mantel won the Booker Prize for Wolf Hall in 2009, and joined a very exclusive group (including only herself, Peter Carey, J.G. Farrell, Margaret Atwood, and Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee) of writers that have won the award twice. The Mirror & The Light, which came out in March of this year, has now been long-listed for this year’s award, and appears to be the favorite, so the there is a good chance Mantel will become the first three-time winner of the coveted prize.

In Wolf Hall, Mantel recounted the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the service of Cardinal Wolsey, and his stepping into the Cardinal’s shoes as Henry VIII’s primary counselor after Wolsey’s fall from grace. It takes the story through Henry’s divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, his break from the Roman Church, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. It ends with the death of Thomas More, who stubbornly refuses to accept Henry as head of the Church in England, though Cromwell bends over backward trying to save him. In Bring Up the Bodies, Henry’s relationship with Anne Boleyn deteriorates as she fails to give Henry a legitimate son and heir. Henry, now in love with Jane Seymour, wants to end his marriage with Anne, and charges Cromwell, now the king’s Master Secretary, with freeing him from this inconvenient wife. Cromwell tries at first to find legal means of ending the marriage. As he investigates Anne’s behavior she threatens his own position, and he finds that many of the people close to the queen are willing to pass on rumors of her infidelity to the king; ultimately Cromwell brings a case against Anne for adultery. One of Cromwell’s motivations is that a number of the men closest to Anne were instrumental in bringing down his old master, the Cardinal, and ultimately it is those men, including her own brother, George Boleyn, who are executed for adultery with the queen. Though Cromwell certainly suspects that not all the evidence against Anne is true, he is still willing to let Anne herself go to the executioner’s block, since it is what the king desires.

The Mirror and the Light begins immediately after Anne’s execution on 19 May 1536, and covers the last four years of Cromwell’s life, until his own execution on 28 July 1540. I apologize if that is a spoiler, but you had to know that a three-volume work dealing with a well-known historical figure is pretty certain to end in that figure’s demise. There is also, of course, a kind of symmetry achieved as Mantel ends each volume with an execution ordered by King Henry, and Cromwell’s death might be viewed by some as a sort of poetic justice: since he had been responsible for bringing about the execution of so many others, it is appropriate that he die in the same manner. Or, in the same vein, since Cromwell has devoted his life to serving a king whose whims, passions and egotism made him dangerous to anyone close to him, it was inevitable that his most effective instrument would ultimately end up as just another victim.

Still, the fact is that by the time we get to this third volume, we are heavily invested in Cromwell and his schemes.

The complexity of Cromwell’s character becomes more problematic as this long novel progresses. As Cromwell grows richer and more powerful, his motivations appear less and less pure. He has always been ready to do whatever the king requires, no matter how questionable its morality, but he has consistently tried to do the least harm. His vindictiveness began to appear in the denouement of Bring Up the Bodies, and here appears more openly at times (especially in an incident he relates from his youth that we have not been told of before), and his desire to enrich himself and his close supporters is more apparent here.

But at the same time, Cromwell’s virtues still shine through: He is still in this third book a “modern” man, a commoner who rose by his own skill and intelligence to threaten the entrenched interests of the aristocracy, a proponent of Protestantism against the interests of a smug and bloated Catholic tradition that serves the privileges of the old Plantagenet nobility, the Howards and the Poles, who think of England as their personal minibar. This is the Cromwell who believes that government can do something to help common people by improving roads and public works, but like many of his ideas that one is too progressive—“Parliament cannot see how it is the state’s job to create work,” he laments. This is also the Cromwell who has always done his best to stand between women and the king’s ire (well, except perhaps in the case of Anne), probably saving the lives of the king’s daughter Mary and his niece Margaret by teaching them to bend to Henry’s will.

But Cromwell must inevitably fall. In part his downfall is a result of his own merciful attitude toward his enemies: The old Catholic aristocracy of England, most significantly the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, were allied with him when he brought down Anne Boleyn, but are put out that he does not continue to do their will once Anne is gone. Cromwell had chances to bring Norfolk down but never does, because his military prowess is needed in the north to deter Scottish invasion, and unlike anyone else in the government, he puts the country’s interests ahead of his own. When Cromwell fails to have Reginald Pole, the traitorous scion of the Catholic Pole family who has called for Henry’s assassination, tracked down and murdered in Europe, Cromwell is in hot water with the king. And when, after Jane Seymour’s death in childbirth, Henry wants to marry again, Cromwell dismisses any alliance with either France or Spain, and argues that the king must be allied with the Protestant German princes. He arranges for Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves—a marriage that is a disaster from the moment the two see each other. This is a mistake from which Cromwell cannot recover.

But he is also brought down by his own hubris, helped along by those old Plantagenets. Cromwell, as Henry’s closest adviser, is the government, and begins to believe he is indispensable. At one point he thinks to himself “It is I who tell [Henry] who he can marry and unmarry and who he can marry next, and who and how to kill.” As the book’s title implies, he is the mirror to Henry’s light, a reflection of the king who performs the king’s wishes and takes the blame for the king’s decisions, but who knows Henry to be “a man of great endowments, lacking only in consistency, reason and sense.” At one point he recklessly says in what he believes to be a private conversation that if the king tries to move back into Catholicism, “Even if Henry does turn, I will not turn. I am not too old to take a sword in my hand.” It is a statement that will come back to bite him. So, too, does his kindness toward Henry’s daughter Mary. These two trivial things combine to allow his enemies to make a case that he is trying to marry Lady Mary and become king himself. And so, like the hero of a tragedy, Cromwell falls.

The final volume of Mantel’s trilogy recreates the Tudor era in spectacular detail and verisimilitude. With so much material to cover, it is probably less tightly focused than the previous books, but it is rich and rewarding. It would be perfectly justified for Mantel to sweep to her third Booker Prize for this book. In any case, it will definitely satisfy you if you are a fan of Mantel or a lover of history. Four Shakespeares.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Palm Springs

Palm Springs

Max Barbakow (2020)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

After a hundred days or so of social distancing at home, my wife and I began to sing “They say we’re young and we don’t know, won’t find out unti..i..il we grow” every morning when we woke up, knowing that each day was going to be a carbon copy of the one before. Oh yes, we were going through a Groundhog Day experience, and just as Bill Murray awoke every morning to the same Sonny and Cher serenade that signaled the repeat of February 2, we felt that redundancy as well. That’s why Palm Springs, the new blandly titled film from director Max Barbakow, is perfect for streaming during the current pandemic: We can all really relate to the monotony of the same day being lived through over and over and over again ad infinitum.

The one industry that has seen something of a boom in the current pandemically-sponsored worst economic slump since records have been kept is of course streaming content. This year may not have given us any of those traditional summer blockbusters, but it has given us a taste of what it’s like to debut new streaming films in our own living rooms or on our own laptops, and provided us with small screen blockbusters in their own right, like Hamilton or Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods, or this film: a small romantic comedy that takes as its inspiration Harold Ramis’s classic comic precept, the man caught in a frustratingly perpetual time loop.

This isn’t the first time that this essentially sci-fi motif has been rebooted since Ramis’s 1993 film. Most notably and most successfully, the 2014 Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow had Cruise reliving the same battle again and again till he got it right. But the same motif was used in the 2017 slasher pic Happy Death Day, and Doctor Strange deliberately causes a time loop in his 2016 film. But Palm Springs is the first really successful return to the use of a time loop in a romantic comedy.

This is the story of Nyles (Andy Samberg—like Murray an alumnus of Saturday Night Live, but, you know, like 35 years later) is the one trapped in a loop that keeps repeating November 9 at a posh desert resort in Palm Springs, California. He is here accompanying his self-involved cheating girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagne fom TV’s Search Party), who is a bridesmaid at the wedding of her friend Tala (Camila Mendes from TV’s Riverdale). The day of the wedding is the day that Nyles keeps repeating: Each morning begins the same way, as he is awakened by Misty, who reluctantly agrees to have sex with him but, careful not to smear her makeup or break a sweat, she cuts it off because he is taking too long. Apparently each night he watches her through a window engaging in, shall we say, untoward activity with the wedding officiant.

Apparently Nyles has been repeating this day through hundreds of loops before we see him for the first time. But unlike Bill Murray’s weatherman, Nyles is not alone in his loopy status. During the first wedding day we witness, he befriends the bride’s older sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti of Wolf of Wall Street and TV’s How I Met Your Mother) after stepping in to give a rousing wedding speech when she, as Maid of Honor, is clearly reluctant to perform that duty herself. Some of the guests find it odd that he is dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and yellow swim trunks, but at this point he’s clearly just taking things as they come. Afterwards he calmly shows Sarah where Misty is having her little tryst, and he and Sarah go for a picnic in the desert night.

All seems to be going well until out of nowhere a homicidal maniac named Roy (the always watchable J.K. Simmons), shoots Nyles twice with a bow and arrows, chasing him out of his pleasant tête-à-tête with Sarah and into a strangely glowing cave. A screaming Sarah runs after him to the cave mouth, and he warns her not to come in.

The next morning, when Nyles rises to Misty’s wake-up call, Sarah bursts into his room, wanting to know what in the f— he f—ing did to her. Clearly she did follow him into the cave after all, and now is caught in the loop just as he is. She first tries to escape the time-loop by driving all day back to her home in Austin, only to wake up the next morning in Palm Springs on the day of the wedding.

Nyles is already at the acceptance stage of his own imprisonment, and takes everything in stride because he’s become convinced that nothing actually matters. Roy turns out to be another wedding guest with whom Nyles got high one night and who made the mistake of telling Nyles he wished the feeling he had at the time would never end. Nyles took him to the cave and doomed Roy to an eternal loop. This is why Roy periodically tries to murder him in painful ways. Death in this loop is only illusory, but pain is real.

Since Nyles and Roy are both jaded veterans of the Palm Springs loop, it’s Sarah whose development we follow as she tries to adjust to her new life. She finds she can’t change her fate by moving elsewhere, so she tries to kill herself, which after a few attempts she gives up on, since, as Nyles told her, pain is real.

In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray finally breaks the loop by becoming a selfless person and showing a truly selfless love. In Palm Springs, Sarah believes she might break the loop by becoming a truly good person herself. It doesn’t work. The attraction between her and Nyles grows, and it is clear at the end that they truly love each other. But that does not seem to break the loop either. Unlike Nyles, Sarah cannot give in and accept her fate. She has good reason to want to escape from this day that repeats endlessly, but I don’t want to feed you any spoilers so I won’t say what that is. But I will say that Sarah ends up doing something that Bill Murray never thought of: She throws herself into a study of quantum physics, where the idea of time loops has its origins.

And so we come full circle. Palm Springs may seem like a metaphor for the COVID-19 quarantine, and just like the pandemic, the only escape from this loop is found in science. Follow the dictates of science and we will get out of this mess. Now of course, screenwriter Andy Siara and director Max Barbakow (in their first feature film) did not have the current pandemic in mind when they made the film in the spring of 2019 and premiered it at Sundance this past January. But as Tolkien said about Lord of the Rings, it may not be allegorical but it is applicable. If the shoe fits, stream it.

This is a highly enjoyable film: It’s funny and sometimes touching, and the world-weary Samberg and earnest, soulful-eyed Milioti have a pleasing chemistry between them. The plot twists are amusing, though I have to say that the whole glowing-cave-as-cause-of-strange-loops concept seemed a little lame to me. But overall, this is an enjoyable and, it turns out, timely story. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Werewolves in Their Youth

Werewolves in Their Youth

Michael Chabon (1999)

I freely confess to being a Michael Chabon completist, at least as far as his fiction goes. Ever since reading his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I have aspired to read every novel and short story Chabon ever wrote, from his acclaimed first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) through his most recent semi-fictional novel about his grandfather, Moonglow (2016). The list includes two collections of short stories: A Model World and Other Stories (1991) and this one, with the promising title Werewolves in Their Youth. With Werewolves, I have completed this self-imposed task—at least temporarily, until Chabon’s current fictional project (purported to be a sequel to his 2002 YA novel Summerland) is published. One general truth I’ve observed in all of this reading, which pertains to the book under discussion here, is that Chabon’s novels tend to be far more impressive than his short stories.

I’m probably not the first of Chabon’s sympathetic readers to think this, and I’m certainly not the first to put it in writing. In 2003, Chabon was guest editor for McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, and in the editor’s preface to that collection he lamented—humorously but not insincerely—that the short story in English, as practiced for some fifty years, was almost exclusively “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.” Most readers, he suggested, were bored by this. And, he added,  “I am that bored reader, in that circumscribed world, laying aside his book with a sigh: only the book is my own, and it is filled with my own short stories, plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew.” He seems to have been referring to his own (at that time) recent collection, Werewolves in Their Youth: nine stories, the first eight of which follow the sort of Joycean pattern he suggests in this comment. Chabon was making an argument for genre fiction in his editorial comments for McSweeney’s, an argument for science fiction or mystery or horror (the American short story was fathered, after all, by Poe), and in the final story of Werewolves, Chabon breaks out of his slavish homage to Joyce and provides a macabre homage, instead, to H.P. Lovecraft.

That final story, “In the Black Mill,” actually purports to be written not by Chabon himself but rather by August Van Zorn, whose name readers of Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995) will recognize as the pulp fiction writer who, as a boarder in his grandmother’s hotel, served as a kind of role model for the young Grady Tripp, the protagonist of that novel: Van Zorn wrote horror stories at night ‘”in a bentwood rocking chair…a bottle of bourbon on the table before him”—until his ultimate suicide. He’s the model of the old plot-driven genre writer who cranks out one story after another while Grady spends seven years writing an unpublishable novel thousands of pages in length. In a move reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s use of his imaginary science-fiction author Kilgore Trout, it’s Van Zorn Chabon turns to as the supposed author of the very Lovecraft-esque “In the Black Mill.”

This story, set in the Yuggogheny Hills near Chabon’s native Pittsburgh, involves an archeologist who, researching the former Native American residents around the town of Plunkettsburg, begins to take an interest in the history of the local Plunkettsburg Mill, wondering why so many of the men who work at the Mill are missing parts of their bodies: here a finger, there an ear, even perhaps a foot. What exactly do they manufacture in this Mill? No one ever seems to be able to tell him. He tries at one point to enter the Mill, passing as a laborer, but is thrown out before he can get inside. The feeling that something sinister is going on in that place becomes stronger and stronger, and the narrator needs to drown his apprehensions by indulging in the local beer, “Indian Ring.” The horrifying denouement is everything you’d want in this particular sort of genre thriller.

There is a kind of Gothic vibe that unifies all the stories in the collection, though in all but the last it is more figurative than real. The title story, which begins the volume, focuses on two schoolboys, Paul and Timothy, the latter of whom consistently says he is a werewolf. Paul tries to dissociate himself from his friend, who is too weird for anyone else in the class, and Timothy ends up attacking another student and gets sent to a special school. In “House Hunting,” a young quarreling couple is shown a house by a drunken realtor who keeps pocketing random items as they go through the house. In “Son of the Wolfman,” a couple who have unsuccessfully tried everything to have a child is rocked when the woman is raped and becomes pregnant. In “The Harris Fetko Story,” a professional football player is estranged from his father and former coach, now remarried, and has to decide whether to attend the bris for his new half-brother. And in one of the most successful stories, “Mrs. Box,” a young bankrupt optometrist with $20,000 worth of equipment in his trunk is fleeing town to get away from his failed business and his failed marriage, when on a whim he decides to visit his ex-wife’s elderly grandmother only to find that she’s lost her short-term memory, and he decides to rob her.

Each story has a kind of monster, a kind of extreme character whose behavior is beyond everyday classification. A “werewolf” as it were. The stories are also united by the recurring theme of failed marriage or other significant relationship, and by the conventional “epiphany” ending that often restores a relationship or brings a flash of insight to the protagonist: In other words, the kind of story Chabon deprecated in his McSweeney’s foreword. But the collection is not so very disappointing: Chabon’s insightful and vivid prose, what critics have called his “perfectly self-contained” and “finely crafted” sentences, still sparkles in these stories. Marriage, he writes in what could describe the whole collection, is “at once a container for the madness between men and women and a fragile hedge against it.” Of our football player he says “Inside Harris Fetko the frontier between petulance and rage was generally left unguarded, and he crossed it now without slowing down.” And our realtor is described thus: “Bob Hogue was a leathery man of indefinite middle age, wearing a green polo shirt, tan chinos, and a madras blazer in the palette favored by the manufacturers of the cellophane grass that goes into Easter baskets.”

If you decide to take a look at these stories, you’ll enjoy this kind of vivid language, and you’ll be rewarded with the tour de force horror story in the end. It’s also fascinating to consider this book as the one that immediately preceded the publication of Chabon’s work of genius, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which he might be said to break out of the mold of the conventional realist novel. Prior to that novel, Chabon was most often compared to Fitzgerald, or occasionally Cheever or Updike. After Kavalier and Clay—well, he’s a genius in his own right That shift seems to occur in this particular book, in the chasm between the first eight stories and “In the Black Mill.” If you’re a Chabon fan, you’ll definitely find this book worthwhile. If you’re a Chabon completist, you’ll have to.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Greyhound

Greyhound

Aaron Schneider (2020)

When Americans think of Naval battles during World War II, they usually think of the South Pacific. I know I do, since that was where my father served after Pearl Harbor. But the longest continuous military campaign of World War II, the longest and largest naval battle in history, was the Battle of the Atlantic, which began immediately after the war erupted in Europe in September 1939, when the British announced a naval blockade of Germany, and the Germans responded with a counter blockade. The battle pitted German U-boats and other warships against British and Canadian ships and, after the United States entered the war in December 1941, American ships as well. It finally ended when the Germans surrendered in May 1945. Essentially the battle involved the Germans’ attempt to stop the flow of supplies crossing the Atlantic from North America to Britain that allowed the British to keep fighting, and that brought equipment to Britain that would ultimately be used for the invasion of mainland Europe. The Allies ultimately were victorious in the battle, and hence the war, but in the nearly six years during which the fighting raged, the Allies lost 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships, while the Germans lost 783 U-boats and 47 other warships.

Now a small glimpse of that battle is available in Tom Hanks’ new film, Greyhound. Hanks has had an almost obsessive interest in the Second World War ever since making Saving Private Ryan, one of the best films ever made about the war. He and Steven Spielberg created the acclaimed miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific, and a third miniseries,Masters of the Air, is purportedly in the works as well. So it is no surprise that Hanks has had this film as a pet project for years. The story was adopted from The Good Shepherd, a 1955 novel by C.S. Forester, the English novelist famous for the Horatio Hornblower series as well as the novel that provided the basis for a little film called The African Queen. Hanks himself wrote the screenplay for Greyhound, and got Academy Award winning director Aaron Schneider to direct it, his first feature film since 2009’s Get Low. The film had been scheduled for nationwide release in June, but, in another sad pandemic story, was brought out instead streaming on Apple TV+ on July 10. Hanks was reportedly heartbroken that the film would not be released on the wide screen.

The story gives Hanks another opportunity to portray a simple, ordinary man who, confronted with extraordinary difficulties, rises to the occasion and performs admirably, relying on steady competence and what Hemingway called grace under pressure. Like Sully or Captain Phillips, or even Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller, Greyhound’s Commander Ernest Krause is a man with everyday talents and abilities, but with outstanding knowledge, tenacity, and courage under fire that allows him to fight off a wolfpack of enemy submarines in an attempt to save his ship and his convoy.

The plot goes like this: In February 1942, just two months after America’s entry into the war, Commander Krause is given command of the destroyer USS Keeling, codenamed Greyhound. He has the task of escorting a convoy of 37 merchant ships, along with a British destroyer, codenamed Harry, and two other supporting warships, codenamed Eagle and Dickie. It is Krause’s first command, and the convoy is on its way to Liverpool. The convoy enters the area known as the Mid-Atlantic gap, nicknamed the “Black Pit,” where they will be out of range of any air support either from North America on the one hand or Britain on the other. And this is where the German U-boats are most dangerous. The convoy will be without air cover for at least fifty hours, during which they will be at their most vulnerable to enemy attacks.

It isn’t long before Greyhound hears from the convoy’s flagship, informing Krause that they have intercepted transmissions that they believe are from a German submarine. Krause takes his ship off after the U-boat, which dives before Greyhound is able to get within firing range. But shipboard Sonar is able to pinpoint the position of the enemy vessel, and Greyhound destroys the U-boat with depth charges. When one of Greyhound’s midshipmen rejoices “Fifty less krauts!” at this success, Krause mildly corrects him: “Fifty less souls.”

This is a clear sign of the commander’s character. He does not think of his adversaries as a faceless “Other.” We see him in prayer several times during the action, mostly when he says a silent grace before the meals that his personal messmate, an African American seaman named Cleveland, brings him and which we never actually see him eat, since something always takes him away just when he is about to have a bite. He neither eats nor sleeps in the fifty hours in the Black Pit, but pushes himself to be on top of everything at all times. He pushes his crew as well, but another of his notable traits is his kindness to the men. Even when they make errors, he uses it as a teaching moment rather than berating them. You might find him a little too gentle, given the stakes of the battle they are in. But this is the man he is. Forester’s novel spent a good deal of time inside Krause’s mind, but the film does not have this luxury. We get no psychological study but instead a trim, tense 90-minute drama that is continuous action, so that we know Krause only by what we see him do.

Like Krause, we are given no time to rest as one crisis follows hard upon another as the film goes on. Immediately upon sinking the first U-boat, Greyhound is called to assist a Greek supply ship that is sinking, and Greyhound must dodge torpedoes as it moves in to help. There are now six U-boats forming a wolfpack surrounding the convoy, waiting to attack in the night. Five ships are attacked, including an oil tanker, and when Greyhound seeks the vessel that torpedoed the tanker, Krause makes a critical error in judgment that causes him to waste a number of depth charges—a mistake he will soon have reason to regret. But before the scene ends, Greyhound is called to two places at once and Krause must choose either to speed off to protect another ship from attack, or to rescue survivors of the tanker explosion from the sea.

To give away his choice, or more of the plot, would only be to engage in spoilers. So I’ll leave it there. Overall, the film rushes from one crisis to another, and you’ll be kept on the edge of your easy chair, or wherever it is you stream movies these days, with suspense. There is a feeling of actually being there in a sea battle, kept in a high state of alertness for fifty hours in that Black Pit. But it’s really only ninety minutes.

Hanks is watchable as ever, the consummate everyman hero. But one of the weaknesses of this movie is that he is the only character that we get to know at all personally. His sympathetic messmate George Cleveland (Rob Morgan from Just Mercy) and his loyal navigator and right-hand man Charlie Cole (Stephen Graham, perhaps best-remembered as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire) are really the only other members of the crew that make more than a passing impression on us, and they don’t have a lot to do but follow Krause’s orders. The only other memorable character is Krause’s romantic interest Evelyn (played by an underused Elisabeth Shue), who pops up in the first scene to decline Krause’s marriage proposal as he heads out for the war, and to exchange Christmas gifts with him. We never see her again, but she does give him a pair of slippers that are going to come in handy during those long fifty hours on his feet.

The movie uses a lot of CGI effects that simulate the feeling of being in a war zone. But this is no Saving Private Ryan—there is nothing close to the realism of the Normandy invasion of that film. In fact, in many ways this film is more reminiscent of another Normandy film, The Longest Day. Like that movie, it makes use of on-screen labels, like “British Destroyer HARRY” and “British Destroyer EAGLE” when Krause looks at those ships through his binoculars. And like The Longest Day, Greyhound is determined to give you detail after detail, often in technical military jargon that many viewers will find annoying after a while.

In some ways, this film is less a war movie in the classic sense than a kind of pseudo- documentary intended to tell you everything there is to know about how this (fictional) skirmish was fought. The opening scene with Elisabeth Shue, designed apparently to give us an idea of Krause’s life outside this episode, seems out of place in this film, since it introduces things never resolved and raises a lot of questions never answered. Despite the delight of seeing her, the film may have been better without it, though it does, as my wife pointed out, establish Krause’s uncertainty of command after waiting so long for a commission. Overall, I’ll give this film three Tennysons, because it does a great job at creating suspense, and because of Hanks’ capable performance. But there are a number of things missing here.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Invisible Man

Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison (1952)

In my continuing quest in my retirement to read every important book I never got around to reading during my own education or my university career, I was most recently drawn to one of the most significant novels of the 20th century, Ralph Ellison’s InvisibleMan. Having recently read and reviewed Native Son, another acclaimed novel by a Black American novelist often contrasted with Ellison’s in the popular consciousness, I figured it was time to give Ellison his due, and took on this rather lengthy tome as my next project. The book has an impressive pedigree: It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, and subsequently was placed at number 19 on the Modern Library’s 1998 list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20thcentury, and then placed on Time magazine’s top 100 English-language novels since 1923, the year of Time’s birth.

Invisible Man is a picaresque novel, or a Bildungsroman—like Saul Bellow’s first major novel, The Adventures of Augie March, which appeared a year later than Ellison’s debut novel, won the National Book Award a year later in 1954, and also appears on those respected Modern Library and Time magazine lists. This is a genre that has always been well-liked but seems to have been particularly popular in the early 1950s. In a Bildungsroman, the protagonist moves from youthful innocence through experiences that mature him/her and force him/her to see the world more realistically. Both Ellison and Bellow present this sort of wandering hero, one who searches for a personal identity, who knows success and failure, who wavers between alienation and social acceptance in modern American society, in what Auden called the “Age of Anxiety.” And both do it with often comic nuances. But Ellison adds the extra layer of American racism to the mix. And while both novels belong to some extent to modern American realism—Ellison has noted his admiration for, and debt to, Hemingway—Invisible Man also owes something to Faulkner in its frank and complex examination of racism. And certainly Ellison was aware of, and partly influenced by, the realism of social protest novels like Native Son.

But Ellison’s novel, which navigates between styles like a skilled racer finding the best lane, goes beyond most of his predecessors and contemporaries in being not simply a modern novel, but a post-modern one. Part of this is due to a Kafkasque absurdity and surrealism in several sections of the book. This is most evident in a scene in which Jack, the narrator’s director in what Ellison calls “The Brotherhood,” gets so angry with him that his glass eye pops out, essentially revealing his symbolic blindness. Other absurdist scenes include the narrator’s semiconscious experience in the “Factory Hospital” in which doctors talk about lobotomizing him, and the darkly surrealist nightmare scene of the riot in Harlem in which the narrator flees police, Black rioters and White vigilantes to end up hiding in a subterranean coal pile. The last two scenes are reminiscent of, and perhaps were partly an inspiration for, Yossarian’s operation scene and his wandering through the dark nighttime streets of Rome in that quintessential post-modern novel, Catch-22.

But the first and most immediate influence on Invisible Man is Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. The novel begins with the statement

“I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids, and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Dostoevsky’s prototypical existential novella begins “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased.” Both narrators are nameless and remain so throughout the books. This, of course, adds to Ellison’s character’s “invisibility.” Ellison’s narrator also literally lives underground, where he steals power from the electric company in order to live, and so very deliberately recalls Dostoevsky’s “underground man.” Even Ellison’s invisible man’s tone is, like Dostoevsky’s narrator’s, spiteful and bitter at times, particularly at the beginning of his rant. But cynical and disillusioned as he is, his tone becomes more hopeful as he tells the story of how he got to this point.

Like most first novels, Ellison’s is semi-autobiographical. Like his narrator, Ellison was the grandson of slaves. Born in Oklahoma in 1914, and growing up in Tulsa, Ellison left to attend the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he planned to study music. Booker T. Washington had founded Tuskegee in 1881, and the school serves as the model for the narrator’s college, with its mythic “Founder,” in Invisible Man. Ellison left college in 1936 to live in Harlem, where he became acquainted with many of the most important African-American icons of the time, including Richard Wright as well as Langston Hughes and the artist Romare Bearden. With Wright, Ellison became attracted to the communist party, but like Wright, and his unnamed invisible man, he became disillusioned with the party, feeling they had betrayed African Americans.

The novel follows this general story arc. Beginning in an unnamed part of the rural south at an unspecified time—likely about 1931, if we think autobiographically—the narrator, star pupil at the local high school, gives a speech at his school about the Black man rising through self-effacing hard work , and is invited by local White leaders to give the speech at one of their meetings—a meeting that first includes a brutal and humiliating “Battle Royal” in which a group of young Black students are blindfolded and forced to fight each other for the entertainment of the White leaders. The speech is a hollow irony after that stomach-turning spectacle, but the group does present the narrator with a scholarship to a respected Black college.

The college, whose philosophy is essentially that expressed in his own graduation speech, turns out to be another disillusionment, as the White donors who help fund the school reveal themseves to be condescending racists—his hometown crackers with better manners and more genteel excuses—and his college president a charlatan who cares only about his own power and nothing for his race, and who expels the narrator for exposing a rich donor to the community of area Blacks who do not attend the college.

Exiled to Harlem, the narrator finds work in a paint factory, where an accident nearly kills him. After this he is taken in by Mary, who rents him a place in her building in Harlem, and who is the only completely unselfish and positive person he meets in the book. Later, after giving a spontaneous rousing speech while witnessing the eviction of an old Black couple from their home of a quarter century, he is recruited by the Brotherhood, Ellison’s euphemistic name for the communist party, and works for them, thinking he’s working for the betterment of the people of Harlem, until he comes to realize that the party is simply using African Americans to further their own agenda, and cares nothing about the individuals he wants to help.

By the end, the narrator, invisible as a Black man in a White society in whom people see only their own preconceptions; invisible as an individual in a modern western industrial collective; invisible as a man who, forced into cynicism by the destruction of all his ideals, has scorned society to live underground; actually expresses some hope. It’s hard to tell how seriously to take this hope: Throughout, the narrator has been characterized as something of an egotist, always motivated underneath by his hope of becoming a leader, a respected mover and shaker. And that has contributed to his naivete all along. Maybe his final determination to come out from underground is just another of these false starts. But at least he knows by now how complex the issues of race and identity in twentieth-century America are, and recognizes that all people are individuals. Maybe there is hope after all. In his last moments before going underground, he is after all trying to get back to Mary’s place.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.