Talking about Books: Arcadia, by Iain Pears

Fates of worlds, ends of stories, types of telling. Thinking about Arcadia (book and app) on the blog.

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I got home late-ish on Friday night, picked up Iain Pears’ Arcadia to read a chapter or so of before turning in, and basically disappeared until late Saturday night. To be honest, I kind of knew that was coming–I’ve been excited about this book since I first heard it was coming out and I’ve read and loved all of Iain Pears’ novels, and own most. (And Arcadia! I hoped there were connections to Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which I love, and there are!)

First off, the plot of Arcadia is hugely complicated. If you’re familiar with Pears’ work, you won’t be surprised by this: An Instance of the Fingerpost told the same story from four perspectives; the three stories that made up Stone’s Fall were told in reverse order, The Dream of Scipio considers the same fundamental questions through several crises in history…. Lots going on, always. You don’t read Iain Pears with your brain turned off. (His art history series is less challenging but very enjoyable.

Screen shot of Iain Pears' Arcadia App, my phone. Iain Pears explicitly and consciously plays with forms of narration in his work. He talks narrative strategy in this article in the Guardian, in which he introduces the app that he designed for this book. From what I can garner (I read the old school hardback pictured above) the app is an ebook that lets you rearrange the narrative based on whose story you are interested in. There are ten narrative lines (the student’s tale, the professor’s tale) and you can follow read straight through on one narrative line, or stop to move to another. He mentions that critics of his previous novels thought they were too complicated, that readers complained because you had to remember a detail for 500 pages or so. (I’m thinking this is what note cards are made for, that’s how I made it through The Children’s Book, because, as much as I love Byatt, that book positively sprawls.) So he created the app to make things easier on the reader. I’m also wondering what this does to the function of the author– I’d need to play around in the app a bit to really have an opinion, but right now it seems to venture towards the “Choose Your Own Adventure” realm… not really there, of course, because the plot is set and I’m not sure how much the order matters. Perhaps I’ll understand this a bit more when and if I explore the app. Check out this video if you’re interested in the app.

But back to the novel. There is a lot going on at all times. Or at one time. Or however you interpret time, which is a central question of the book. That said, I only needed to flip around in the book to remind myself who someone was once or twice– in some books with multiple interweaving timelines (ahem, David Mitchell) I spend as much time analyzing and tracking as I do enjoying. Not the case in this book.

There are three worlds (for lack of a better designation) in Arcadia: Anterworld, a pastoral idyll with heaping helpings of all things Shakespearean; 1960’s Oxford, where Henry Lytton (friend of Tolkien and Lewis) writes stories about his ideal world as a respite from his war work; and Mull, a far-future totalitarian government in which Angela Meerson’s subversive discoveries about time travel threaten the prized stability. But divisions between these worlds are far from distinct: Henry Lytton has an idiosyncratic friend named Angela Meerson, the world he writes about is called Anterworld, and the rest is plot that I don’t care to spoil for you.

I highly recommend this book. I loved the characters, I loved the worlds, I loved the narration, I loved the problems that it was preoccupied with. Get it, you won’t be disappointed. And the app is free!

 

Fragmented Conversations

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Roland Barthes liked fragments. Last week I read some 40 or so pages of a collection of his interviews, The Grain of the Voice, and amid the zillion or so fascinating things I learned there was this: Roland Barthes liked fragments.

He says the “fragment breaks up what I would call the smooth finish, the composition, discourse constructed to give a final meaning to what one says” (209). He was talking about writing articles and discrete paragraphs instead of book-length works, but that idea of breaking up the smooth finish caught me. And while Barthes might have been horrified to be invoked as blog-philosopher (probably not, he seems pretty cool) this exchange of the fragment for the finished product struck a note with me.

I go through long periods of time with my blog—and with other forms of writing, but primarily the blog—when I’m sick of my own voice. But more, as it’s not really my voice—I generally feel like my word choice mirrors the patterns of my brain and I’ve expressed what I meant to say— I get sick of my blog voice, which attempts to be authentic but (like all narratives that attempt to be single) is just as much of a creation as any twitterbot. It’s because of my perspective—I cast all projects and ideas and thoughts in the past; I generally don’t talk about a problem until it’s sterilized by its solution, neatly tied up in a “and this is what I learned from this” candy coating.

But sometimes there isn’t a point. Sometimes there isn’t even a problem and a solution—sometimes it’s just a passing image that impressed me for some indeterminate reason. And I think that’s ok. Because that’s life.

Today, I’m exhausted. I spent half the weekend watching really stupid TV and the other half frantically trying to catch up on homework. This was not a good idea, just in case anyone is wondering. But yesterday, rounding my sixth straight hour reading Michel Foucault, I had a thought. This guy that I’m reading—Foucault and then a little Barthes—academics have been reading him for decades. I mean, this guy is one of the big guns. Other theorists and academics that I study—pretty much anybody coming after—has studied him, just as I am now. It’s a little like (religious reference ahead: warning!) what I imagine the first Protestants felt—after years of being read to and explained to (which is great, don’t get me wrong [in an undergrad, not religious, sense]), finally reading it for yourself. It’s like becoming your own priest.

[So that’s my conclusion, eh? Grad school is like becoming your own priest? Now that’s brilliant.]

It’s intoxicating. And then I thought about the other things I’ve read [rushed through at the speed of light] over the past few weeks: Plato and Lucretius, a little Shakespeare, Balzac, Stendhal, and really, how amazing is it to read someone like Plato or Lucretius and recognize all of the brilliant people before you who have read him?

Once I had a teacher describe what I was trying to do with an academic paper as “entering the conversation.” And I love that– I think about it all the time. She meant that in writing a paper, I’m not responding to something that happened in class, or something (perhaps) that happened to me—I’m responding to an argument. Like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was a move in a long and fascinating game, and I can respond to that—adding to it, changing perspective—and if (if!) my play is good enough, it might become part of the dialogue about that article. Or about my article.

And then I realized that all of this reading and thinking and gnawing over ideas is still being part of the conversation. Right now, I’m the kid in the back of the class who doesn’t have anything to say just yet. Because in the front of the classroom are Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault and Judith Butler and I’m not quite there yet. But I’m in the classroom and I’m in the conversation.

[I’m deeply uncomfortable with how vain that sounds—sitting in the same classroom with the gods of academia—but I think I am. Not because of my brain, but because of my focus (as in what I’m focused on, not my dedication). I think. Note the fragmented thoughts. Thanks, Barthes.]

I set alarms for study breaks, but they almost always come too soon, pulling me out of conversation with the people others quote. And I realize I have just as much “authority” over the text as Foucault, as Halberstam or Butler. As I read Plato, Shakespeare read him too. He’s in the desk next to me. And seriously, how cool is that?

Charles Boyer, gaslighting and elements of the Gothic

Today is Charles Boyer’s birthday. Or would be, had he lived to be 113. And who, you ask, is Charles Boyer? Movie buffs, go get a snack. You already know.

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Charles Boyer was born on August 28, 1899, in Figeac, France, and died on August 26, 1978.  He met his wife, English actress Pat Patterson, at a Hollywood party, they were engaged two weeks later and went on to have a forty-year marriage. He died two days after her death from an overdose of Seconal. His son also died of suicide, some fourteen years earlier.

During his long career as an actor, he worked opposite some of the most glamorous of screen goddesses: Ingrid Bergman, Hedy Lamarr, Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine, and Katherine Hepburn. Early in his career he was typecast as the “mysterious French romancer” and in most of his films he is playing some version of that character.

In the 1938 film Algiers, for instance, he plays notorious thief Pepe le Moko who has retreated Algiers (on the northern coast of Africa) after a spectacular jewel heist. He is holed up in the Casbah, living like a king and protected by the locals, when he meets and falls for Gaby, a French tourist.

The movie Algiers went on to inspire two other pinnacles of Western civilization: Pepe le Pew and the movie Casablanca.

In 1945, Looney Tunes cartoonist Chuck Jones based his new character on Boyer’s mannerisms and accents as Pepe le Moko  in Algiers. And Pepe le Pew was born. The amorous skunk frequently employs the pickup line “Come with me to the Cazbah,” and, although that line never appears in the movie (much like “Play it again, Sam,” frequently attributed though never appearing in Casablanca) the phrase was used on movie posters and is known to refer to that film.

Algiers was the first introduction to the romanticized version of Algeria for most English-speaking audiences. The movie was so popular that it served as the inspiration for the much more well-known 1942 cinematic venture to the area: Casablanca. Interesting tidbit: the character Ilsa Lund, that would eventually be played—quite perfectly, in my humble opinion—by Ingrid Bergman, was actually written for Hedy Lamarr. She also, coincidentally, turned down the role of Paula Alquist in the 1944 film Gaslight.

In Love Affair (1939) he played Michel, another French playboy. Cary Grant would later take that role  An Affair to Remember (1957). So in 1994, when that film was (regrettably) remade with Warren Beatty and Annette Benning, the name choice didn’t so much distance the remake from the previous version as return to the original.

In both of these films (and countless others, seriously, dude was prolific) he plays a basically moral guy, regrettable choices like burglary aside. But in Gaslight he upended the conventional “mysterious foreign romancer” that he so frequently played and it becomes ever so much more interesting.

My very favorite of Charles Boyer’s films is Gaslight (1944). I wrote (rather comprehensively) about the movie plot last October in my Favorite Halloween Movies series of blog posts, so rather than repeating myself (read the long version here) I’m going to quickly summarize and move on.

Beware! These be spoiler-infested waters…

Paula Alquist is being driven mad by her husband, who married her for her real estate. Many years ago, he murdered her aunt, Alice Alquist, for her jewels, but was unable to find the stash before the police arrived. So every night, Gregory retreats to the attic, unbeknownst to Paula, to search for the loot. And when he turns on the attic lights, the lights in the rest of the house get more dim. (Gas lights: a set amount of gas comes through the pipes, when one is turned on, it will be at one level of brightness, another turned on will divide that set amount of gas and make each light somewhat more dim than one alone would be.) She notices this phenomenon every night, but can never find outside validation for her perceptions. And since Gregory has systematically been convincing her that her perceptions of reality are invalid (he moves things, accuses her of losing things, recounts conversations they never had, makes up a tale about her mother in an asylum), she begins to believe that she is mad.

The term gaslighting is used in pop culture (and a bit in pop psychology) for when person A (usually male) convinces person B (usually female) that their perceptions are incorrect so that the actions of person A remain hidden. And since I began studying women and madness, the psychological abuse is main thing I’ve seen in the movie.  But in thinking again about the film, I realized that it’s pretty much a perfect example of the Gothic genre.

  1. imgresBig, creepy house? Check. After marrying in France, Gregory convinces Paula to return to the London townhouse in which Alice was murdered. And while a London townhouse doesn’t seem quite in the same realm as, say, The Castle of Otranto, in boarding up the attic (where Alice’s stuff was kept, effectively repressing all memory of the trauma and just asking for later trouble) Gregory obfuscates the basically straightforward floor plan. Also, one could argue, if one were arguing, that the boarding up of the attic is somehow symbolically linked to his attempt to make Paula believe that she is mad—the space of the attic is literally at the top of the house, as the mind is located at the top of the human body. Gregory categorizes both as in/valid space.
  2. Ancestral drama? Check. Gregory strangles Alice. And every time Gregory kisses Paula,  he circles her throat with his hands, reminding the viewer of that earlier moment of violence enacted upon her aunt.
  3. Inexplicable events, often later proven natural phenomenon. Check. Paula sees the lights go down, Paula knows she didn’t move that damn painting, but somehow, the lights are going down and the painting has been moved. Paula doesn’t spend very long wondering about these events, as Gregory has done such a good job of making her doubt herself.
  4. gaslight-photo2_625pxA damsel in distress? Check and double check. First, Paula is basically without protector. (The assumption is that she needs a protector. Blargh.) As she is alone in the world, doubly orphaned by the deaths of her parents and then her aunt, the suave accompanist she meets abroad has no trouble sweeping her off of her feet. A protector, presumably, would have checked his references, found out who his people were and, you know, maybe found out about that wife living in Prague. Gregory specifically hires the staff (a deaf cook and an insolent maid with a crush on him) to further distance her from any support system. He gives orders that neighbors are not to be admitted. He finds a way of preventing Paula from keeping appointments. He sends regrets for all invitations they receive. And all this time, he’s work work working on her mind, telling her she’s mad, convincing her of things that are not true. Bastard.
  5. gaslight-photo1_625pxPsychological tension. Mother of god, check. I think this is one of Ingrid Bergman’s best movies, merely because she shows the tension, the self-doubt, so freaking well. Everything is threatening, the servants are colluding, she thinks she trusts her husband, but sometimes there’s this look in his eye….   Also, Gregory is quite, quite mad. Maybe. It’s suggested that he has some sort of jewel mania, and he gets all buggy-eye entranced when they visit a collection of royal jewels, but mostly he’s just a manipulative sadist. (This movie evokes an emotional response. Can you tell?)
  6. MV5BMTI5NzA2OTE1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDgxOTM1Mw%40%40._V1._SX382_SY500_Focus on boundaries? Check. After their marriage, they move back to London. In traditional Gothic literature, this move from the unknown (they honeymoon at an undefined remote location) to the known would have signaled a retreat from horror. But in traditional Gothic, horror is externalized—danger comes from outside, from something Other. The move to London actually signals a move to female Gothic, in which horror is internalized. This touches on the first point I mentioned, that of the threatening location, but is more specific to the house itself. The inside and outside of the townhouse are drastically different locations: the act of crossing (transgressing) that boundary is first accepted then, as Gregory’s power over Paula becomes more entrenched, becomes a more and more rare—and difficult—occurrence. In one particularly telling scene, Paula has decided to go for a walk. Gregory is gone, but the maid he hired (a woman working for the patriarchy—there’s a term for that…) stands in as the guardian at the gate and asks questions about her purposes until the already-fragile Paula gives up and goes back in. In another scene, Paula has successfully insisted on attending an event held by a friend of her aunt. Paula has a very noisy breakdown after a whispered accusation from Gregory. Once they get home, Gregory berates her for the occurrence:   Gregory: I’ve tried so hard to keep it within these walls – in my own house. Now, because you would go out tonight, the whole of London knows it. If I could only get inside that brain of yours and understand what makes you do these crazy, twisted things. Gregory emphasizes the boundary between inner and outer space and suggests that the interior is shameful, hidden; outside, we must keep up appearances.

Anyway (sorry, I got caught up) Gregory is played in all of his malicious glory, by Charles Boyer, whose birthday it is today.

So happy birthday, Charles!

Thinking about stress as an identity marker

I think a Foucauldian move has been made to feelings of stress. Instead of experiencing moments of tension, or times when we have to “buckle down and get to it”, the assertion of “being stressed” has become a characteristic of identity.

Michel Foucault tells us that the end of the Victorian era marked a shift in how we view sexuality. Our sexual choice (same sex or opposite sex) became an identity marker (homosexual, heterosexual). Engaging in sex with another of your own gender became a marker of your entire being–your childhood, your present beliefs, everything–where as before it would have been viewed as a singular action. Sexuality became an identity marker.

A note on the difference between identity marker and individual action: an action is an action is an action–I read a book, I ate too much. An identity marker takes an action–possibly a habitual action–and turns that into a characteristic of the entire person. I am a nerd. I am a glutton.

Why is this important? Well, identity markers get imbued with all sorts of stereotypes that aren’t heaped on individual actions. The statement “I read a book” only informs you that I’m fortunate enough to be literate. It could be Dr. Seuss, it could be Michel Foucault, it could be Oprah’s latest favorite. The statement “she’s a nerd” or “she’s a bookworm” asserts that that action (reading of book) is not only habitual but it affects more than just that action. What does a nerd wear? What does a bookworm listen to? You might not be able to answer those questions correctly, but you have an image in your mind– a stereotype that is implicit in the identity marker but not in the individual action.

Take it one step further, if I say “I’m a nerd” or “I”m a bookworm,” I’m accepting that identity marker. I’m saying yes! this action (of reading a book) is really one that defines me.

Ok, back to Foucault. He says 

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality…. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature…. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. (The History of Sexuality, Foucault, p. 43)

Basically, he’s just articulating the idea that we haven’t always assumed a person’s choice of sexual partner is a way to categorize them. The action (gay sex) was changed to an identity characteristic (lesbian/gay) which then was thought to explain or clarify that individual’s entire life.

I think the same move has been made to feelings of stress. Instead of experiencing moments of tension, or times when we have to “buckle down and get to it”, the  assertion of “being stressed” has become a characteristic of identity. 

I am stressed. You are stressed. He, she and it are stressed. We and they–yep, also feelin’ it.

Feeling it always. All the time. I go to bed stressed and I wake up stressed. I think about my to-do list while I’m making the bed, filling up my car and scratching  my dog’s belly. It’s always there–insistently reminding me of what I need to be doing.

But that’s a little ridiculous, isn’t it? Am I–are any of us– actually going to be working the entirety of our waking hours? I know–ideally: yes! otherwise I’ll never get it all done! Ohmygod (cue hyperventilation)–but honestly. Can you–can I–actually be researching while making coffee and feeding the pets? What about while driving to school? Or walking from the car to the library? Or from the library to class? Or any of the other five million little things that I’ll get done today that aren’t intrinsically linked to the projects that are pending? Not really.

So right there, I have at least two hours (likely quite a bit more) in my day that I can determine. I can be impotently stressed and tense, feel my stomach twist and kink the entire day, completely focused on getting to the library as quickly as possible (hurry-hurry-hurry-can’t get it all done)… or I can let it go, refuse to let stress be my primary identity marker this week, acknowledge that I’ll be spending a good 8 hours in the library today, during which I’ll have to focus…but that’s later and not right now. There’s no reason to allow stress to engulf my world in burning acid.

At least, that’s how I see it. 

Theorizing community

I’m in the midst of attempting to formulate something brilliant for an upcoming project… so far I’m feeling a little incoherent. Earlier this spring, I read and re-read Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits; it’s a great book–complex and twisted and frustrating and sad… it’s one of those books that I truly believe everyone should  read, but no one I know has. Sad. But I’ll keep pushing it.

(plot spoilers– but the book is so good that the plot really isn’t the main thing, so feel free)

Horace is a black teenager in a rural community in North Carolina. The community is as many rural communities are:  heavily influenced by religion, race, a sense of history and continuity– redemption after slavery, proving racial equality–, being “respectable,” ideas of family and generation and respect for elders and the past and the upward, promising trajectory of history and ‘the race.’

Horace is gay. He is tormented, quite literally, by the fear of his family and church exposing and condemning his sexuality. He goes a little crazy–he sees bird men and ghouls and a mysterious double of himself that orders him to shoot the pastor–and then, horrifyingly, shoots himself.

This is awful. It is sad when it happens in a novel and tragic when it happens, as it too  often does, in reality. What I intend to look at, however, is not a simple reduction of this novel to a pre-figuration of the “It gets better” campaign- which, obviously, is problematic on many levels- instead I intend to examine the effect of Horace’s suicide, which he postpones until it can be witnessed by his uncle, the preacher, on the community as a whole.

I believe that a community is created by the mutual credence given to a set of stories. That set may exclude as much as it includes–the stories of the unsuccessful long shot, the insufficiently brave, the missed chance that is never reclaimed… these are not stories that are precisely profitable for a community’s sense of self and are not, therefore, usually prevalent in its collective mythos. I believe that stories of homosexual members of the community are most frequently included within this subset of excluded stories. Horace’s suicide, which, as I mentioned, is witnessed by his uncle, forces an acknowledgement of the previously ignored. He destroys the assumption that “none of us are like that”, or that “that’s a white thing” by dramatically–theatrically– forcing everyone to look.

I plan to examine this book and the ideas of community and homosexuality and suicide and religion… my thoughts are circling around a re-formulation of the centrality of history and of memory to the idea of the self. If community is created by mutual credence given to a set of stories, then all (all!) that is needed to fundamentally change that community is a change in the stories that are told and believed.

At least, these are the ideas that are percolating in my little house tonight.

What I’m Reading: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The ancient General Fentiman is found dead in his favorite chair at the Bellona Club. The death appears to be natural, but a survivorship clause in a wealthy relative’s will, also newly deceased, requires a closer look at the circumstances.

The unpleasantness begins on Armistice Day, and echoes of the first world war create a complex theme throughout the book. The general’s two heirs, George and Robert Fentiman, are veterans. While Robert is the classic war hero- all hale and bluff and ready to shoot game in Africa after the war is over- George has suffered from shell shock since his return from the front.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s portrayal of shell shock and frail/fractured masculinities is one of the reasons I find her work so fascinating. Detective fiction, especially from this era, usually serves to shore up the disintegrating class system and the problems of modernity by ignoring all changes (Agatha, I’m talking about you). Sayers breaks that trend: Numerous characters in her books have been negatively affected by the war– Wimsey himself suffers from returning bouts of shell shock, and is open about spending time in an institution of some sort after the war. He met, and was rescued, by Bunter at the front, and Bunter is frequently presented as the indispensable one who knows what to do when the terrors come.

Bunter doesn’t suffer any aftereffects from the war. By positioning the hero, Lord Peter Wimsey (the aristocrat with excellent taste, excellent sensibilities, and excellent mental facilities) as the one with shell shock, I think Sayers is making a rather subversive stab at modern (well, 1914-style) war. She doesn’t make the leap to actually condemn the war– it is shown as a necessary evil–but in showing the repercussions of war, the long-term destruction of the livesthat escaped instant annihilation, she opens a space for a rather crippling critique of war. Presented with such violence, the correct response (since her hero responds this way) seems to be mental fracture. Instead of condemning shell shock (as was a prevalent party line at the time) as the effect of war on “weak, un-manly” men, shell shock seems to be the correct response.  (This from Elaine Showalter’s fascinating discussion of shell-shocked soldiers in  The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980.)

I also love Sayers’ gestures towards understanding women’s roles. Wimsey is summoned in the middle of the night by the long-suffering wife of the shell-shocked soldier, who has gone missing. The police had made rather a bungle of an interview earlier in the day, and there are fears that George has had a recurrence of his difficulty. Wimsey’s first instinct is pure lord of the manor: he orders her to sit and calm herself, while he begins making some tea for the little woman. He then stops himself with the following reflection:

“One has an ancestral idea that women must be treated like imbeciles in a crisis. Centuries of ‘women-and-children-first’ idea, I suppose. … No wonder they sometimes lose their heads. Pushed into corners, told nothing of what’s happening and made to sit quiet and do nothing. Strong men would go dotty in the circs. I suppose that’s why we’ve always grabbed the privilege of rushing about and doing the heroic bits.”
And then he sits down while she makes the tea.

This is why I love these books: if he had just sat down while she made the tea, he would have looked rather patriarchal/aristocratic/little woman will serve/godawful. Instead, Sayers has him begin to do the expected thing- to take over- then stop himself. Sayers is excellent at discussing the motivations behind actions and assumptions. Even when she is wrong (in my opinion) about those motivations, she articulates a reason behind them. They aren’t just the “natural male response” or the “natural female response”: there are deeper issues at stake. I think she works to expose the construction of identity, and more particularly, of gender.

(And that sounds like an abstract for the paper that I someday will write about her works.)

No Future: Lucy Maud Montgomery and Jack Halberstam (with a little Queen Latifah in there too)

downloadFull disclosure: I spent the evening crocheting and watching The Last Holiday. I know, you didn’t think I was such a party animal. Truthfully, although the movie is somewhat horrible, I heartily enjoy the sentiment—the “why am I waiting and what am I waiting for” sentiment, when the things you are putting off in life (travel, family, free time)  seem ever so much more important than the reasons you are postponing them (education, career).

Last weekend, I seriously considered selling my somewhat meager belongings and moving to Italy. (I was reading Frances Mayes. I’m susceptible.) I still wish I could move, and the fact that I backed down seems less a triumph of common sense over recklessness than a cowardly taking of the safe track. I need a safety net and a five year plan- I hate it, but that is, apparently, who I am.

All of that goes to establishing mindset. This is why I was watching Last Holiday, a movie I’ve seen before and judged really crappy somewhat substandard then, LL Cool J notwithstanding. In case you don’t remember (and why would you?) Queen Latifah is a hardworking employee/drone, trying to protect her future by postponing all joy: terrible job? not important, it pays. cute boy? not right now, must work. And so on and so forth. Then she gets a terminal diagnosis and moves to a fancy hotel in Europe to blow through her savings and live it up while there’s time. I feel like there are a few other movies out there with a similar plot, but can’t think of them right now.

Ok, the movie is kind of terrible. I don’t remember the rest– I think LL Cool J (the aforementioned love interest) shows up in Europe to sweep her off her feet, the diagnosis was wrong, and I guess she doesn’t regret her wasted savings. Whatever. As I said, not a great cinematic masterpiece.

And honestly, I’m not interested in it because of some abstract (whatever that is) value. but I’m fascinated by the burn down the world, grab it all freedom– the impulsivity that is officially allowed (by whom? I’m not sure…society at large? community? common sense? the last, of course, is just the internalization of the former’s judgments… they- the ever-threatening “they”-catch us coming and going) when the longevity question- the planning for tomorrow bit- is taken off the table. (I’m reminded, as I so frequently am, of Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: who would I be, what would my life look like, if I weren’t so pre-occupied with my own futurity? )

In the elimination of the idea of the future in Last Holiday– and in The Blue Castle, which is what I actually want to talk about– the protagonists are given the freedom to travel, to speak their minds, to quit crap jobs, to be—truly be—in the moment.

God, that sounds hokey, but it seems to resonate, at least with me. I live so much of my life in anticipation: when my education is done, when I get a job I like, when I… whatever, that the present seems to escape me. My mother is right (gasp!)–I’m wishing my life away.

Those are problems for another time. What I am reading, however, is a reflection of those fat bubbles of unrest that are rolling to the top of my psyche. The Blue Castle has long been my favorite of L. M. Montgomery’s books; it’s just so absolutely flat-out romantic. Its premise is actually quite a bit like Last Holiday, which is why I began with the confession of my late-night TV watching: incredibly repressed woman gets a negative heath report, and decides (poster-type quote ahead) “to live before she dies.” Queen Latifah goes to some skiing resort;Valancy Stirling meets a mountain man and asks him to marry her.

Wonderful stuff…  (plot spoilers ahead)

Valancy Stirling is a skinny, sallow spinster who lives the most depressing life imaginable with her overbearing mother, sniffling aunt, and interfering, patronizing extended family. (Think Bette Davis in Now, Voyager.) After suffering a worse-than-usual chest pain, Valancy secretly goes to a specialist, who tells her that she has a serious heart condition and will die within the year. Valancy rebels at the idea of “dying before she’s lived,” and starts speaking her mind at family gatherings, leading the elderly patriarchs of the family to murmur, aghast, while her mother has hysterics.

She eventually tells her story to the town ruffian, a “sparkly-eyed backwoods man” (direct quote) who smokes a foul smelling pipe and drives the oldest car imaginable. She then proposes to, marries, and moves in with this backwoods man, the euphoniously named Barney Snaith. After several months of the most perfect health and glorious happiness, she begins to wonder about the doctor’s diagnosis–and what that might mean to her marriage.

This has been my favorite L. M. Montgomery since I was about 16–I think I identified much too strongly with that crazy family! But I’ve always thought of this as kind of a fairytale; an uncomplicated trajectory from misery to happy ending. (I realize that all those who have studied fairy tales in any depth just gasped. Shush.) I still think the story is a little simplistic, but this time I noticed (was looking for) something else kind of nonfairytaley: Valancy saves herself. She doesn’t wait for a prince to rescue her–she leaves home, she throws off convention, she proposes to Barney, she essentially creates her own Eden–or at least her own entry into Eden. She isn’t an all round strong female character–she begins quite weak and then nobly returns home “with the grey face…of a creature that has been struck a mortal blow” when she fears that Barney will feel tricked when it looks like he will get a life of marriage instead of the originally planned year. In that, I suppose, Lucy Maud has Barney play the ever-loving hero, as of course, he comes to retrieve her. (And in such a frustrating way! These books that have the male lead tenderly swearing at the blockhead who won’t believe herself loved… the “Dear little fool!” exchanges…make me a bit tired.) But still, I do appreciate that Valancy didn’t gaze out the parlor window until Prince Charming rode up. In fact, she becomes weak again when she imagines herself to have a future. Wouldn’t it be interesting to examine someone as, dare I say it, staid as Lucy Maud in light of ideas of queer temporality? Lucy Maud, meet Jack.