Friday, 3 November 2017

Reading Notes: Naomi Alderman's The Power

It took a few days after finishing this novel to come to grasps with how I felt about it, in particular because there was a point, maybe 150 pages in, where I felt like I would end up enjoying this a lot more than I eventually did. Which isn't a reflection on the novel per se, just that Alderman chose a completely different path than I expected. Specifically, there is a moment where Roxy first meets Allie (who is on her way to consolidate her power as Mother Eve, with her community growing and just to demonstrate its true potential to the small town nearby - but they have not become the transformative movement that they will be later on). Roxy has just escaped the UK after killing a crime boss to revenge her mother. They meet by the water, at night, Roxy demonstrating her power with an act that is both amazing and horrifying (awesome, in the classical sense of the world rather than the popcultural). The ever-present voice in Eve's mind (a voice that -  we do not know who it is, we know that it speaks in biblical terms but uses very non-biblical language, we know that it wants, that it might as well be an expression of Allie's inherent ambition rather than something truly god-like, but the fact is that the distinction increasingly becomes irrelevant, considering the kind of methods and tools that Allie has at her command) tells her to use Roxy as a soldier, but not to become friends with her. But Allie can't help but connect with Roxy over their shared histories, their lost families, their shared experience of killing abusive men, their shared drive for a world that belongs to them. 

I think, deep down at this point I expected the novel to go somewhere entirely different, and I expected that connection between the two to go to a different place as well. They remain deeply and profoundly connected until the end, when Roxy is wounded and has lost all her power, while Eve is on the verge of transforming hers into something truly awesome, in the apocalyptic sense. But the novel is less interested in their intimate feelings, the way that their individual traumas play out to determine their paths, and how that may connect them - instead its starts to transform into something entirely different, something with geopolitical ambitions, a worldwide perspective. Which works in the novel - because obviously, Alderman is interested in the religious, political and cultural implications (and how all of this is mediated, through the outside perspective of Tunde, so hungry for story and context) of the very interesting biological twist of fate that begins everything. But maybe I would have felt more strongly about the individual tragic fates of the protagonists if the focus hadn't blown so wide open into a story about the entire world, changing, tumbling towards an apocalypse. (and this is an odd thought - but even though these two novels on the surface have barely anything in common, apart from The Power having a bit of storyline about London crime, and both being about a cast of characters connecting and disconnecting, the first part of the book reminded me of Kate Tempest' The Bricks That Built the Houses, and I missed that in the second part).

At points throughout I felt like this novel could have something else, and probably, at an earlier stage, was (apparently Alderman had 200,000 words at some point, but maybe even a whole other book here from which this one spun off). 

One approach maybe doesn't go anywhere, and that is to investigate whether her assumption about how the entire world would change if women were physically stronger than men is correct. It's the presumption of the novel and it falls apart if we don't buy it, so there isn't much point to debating it. Here, it takes ten years between teenage girls showing first symptoms of the skein - a genetic mutation that allows them to use energy to defend themselves and attack - to a part of Moldova spinning off into a women-led dystopia that intends to kill most men and subjects them to severe human rights abuses (the twist of which, at any point throughout the book, is that all of these things have happened and are still happening to women all over the world, and the shocking newness only exists because Alderman switches the genders of victims and oppressors). It only takes ten years for Allie, a foster child who escapes a physically and sexually abusive foster family (killing the man before she leaves with her newfound powers) to transform into Mother Eve, the figurehead of a new version of Christianity that only edits ancient texts a little bit, only gently twists the perspective, to build an entirely new female-centric religion on the base of the old ones (one of the great thoughts here, that all of these stories already exist, but have been read in a deliberately patriarchal way - for a very specific reason - this whole time).  

Alderman shows us how a democracy like the United States would grapple with the change, first following the old instinct of trying to preserve the old order, trying to find a cure to reinstate the status quo, trying to protect boys from girls by separating them, before realising that the biological advance is permanent, cannot be healed or reversed, and will require a profound change within the society. That change happens quickly, once women realise that their physical strength now puts them in the position to argue against all the ancient gender stereotypes that have held them back. News anchors who used to be only ancillaries to their straight white men co-hosts suddenly become the serious stars of the show. The mayor of a major metropolitan area, Margot, makes a swift career progression once she realises that her powers are an advantage, not a dirty secret, that she can use them to demonstrate her strength in difficult times. Inadvertently, she also becomes a tool for Mother Eve, as the voice in her head puts all the pawns into place. 

Tunde, the Nigerian journalist, watches all of this, realises the unique opportunity to become the media voice of the change, someone who does not hesitate to go into dangerous situations for the good stories, someone who aspires to write the definite book that provides context for this historic change in human society. He documents women rising up against their oppressors, political systems changing, but he also realises, very soon, that the gender switch does not lead to a more peaceful and gentle society - instead, the same extremes of violence start to appear. Fuelled by anger, ambition and a drug that Roxy brings into the world, women in war zones start to commit war crimes. The very close-to-home (as in - 2017, here) men's right activists that gather in internet forums and eventually use bombs to express how frustrated they are by the new world justify severe responses. Old patriarchal structures try to reassert themselves, as those who have always been in power refuse to accept the new reality. 

These are the in-between sections of the novel, after Mother Eve sets herself up and then allows her belief to find fertile ground in the still-religious world out there (the interesting question here is how much of Mother Eve is really in Allie, who asks if the voice in her head is God, but seems to consider scripture a very useful tool rather than something that she genuinely believes in - in the beginning, there is only the wish to make the world hers, to carve out a place for herself). The matriarchal new country that split from Moldova, led by the former wife of the authoritarian ruler, becomes an expression of her own insecurities and vanity (some of the most shocking scenes of the book happen in close succession here - the great leader punishes a waiter for speaking over her and makes him lick up alcohol and glass shards from the ground, while groups of women soldiers in the outskirts of the country prepare for war by raping and pillaging the citizens), becomes the festering wound that soon makes it clear to Mother Eve that her attempts at a tabula rasa have failed utterly. 

It's interesting that Margaret Atwood mentored this book, considering that there are so many parallels here to The Handmaid's Tale: In both, a biological event triggers a severe societal change, in both cases, religion plays a central role to cement a new regime. Alderman merely switches the genders (and again, the novel only really works if you believe that the timeline she marks out for all of this is realistic, so there's not much point in debating if this would be enough to undo thousands of years of the patriarchy). Also, in both, the story is framed in a very subversive way. In The Handmaid's Tale, the epilogue is the meeting of an anthropological congress, debating Gilead as it is seen through the tale of the (in the novel, unnamed) handmaid. The framing device here is that this whole story was written by a male writer (whose name is an anagram of Naomi Alderman), sending his novel to a woman (Naomi Alderman) for review - in a world, as we found out in the end, that is finally the complete utopia, the new place, that Mother Eve imagined. It is the culmination of everything that the novel works towards, the attempts at building a new society, the realisation that this will be impossible for as long as there is even a root of patriarchy, even the faintest memory of it, and the eventual shocking decision that the only way to move forward is a complete nuclear apocalypse that will wipe out any record of humanity. Like in Gilead, the only way to truly begin a new society is to destroy any record, or memory, of the old one, except here, in Alderman's world, that annihilation is complete, as is the rewriting of history. This is a very interesting idea (one that I would still trade, very much, for a story about Roxy and Allie).  It makes fun of every single biologically essentialist argument about the differences between men and women, it creates a historic record of artefacts that document a society in which women having this power has always been a reality, it maps out an alternative history of the world with only one minor detail altered. The world that results is very likely not better than our current world - individuals are still limited by cliched  gender models and the lies of a constructed history that justifies subjugation -  which is the point here, considering that this is titled The Power. Why does it happen? There isn't an attempt at an answer here, really, as multiple personal dramas and deeply wounded characters stumble forward, instinctually attempting to create a safe space for themselves, to reassert themselves, to find a shape and form for their ambition. 

Random thoughts: 
  • When Alderman did give Margot's daughter Jos space - a girl with a broken skein, attracted to the few boys who have them, but don't quite know what to do with them - it felt like a sad lost opportunity to maybe address how this whole dichotomy between having and not having this power would play out in a world where trans people exist. Another criticism - there is still a very clear sense here that the US and the UK are the known world and most of the places that Tunde goes to are the strange other that are perceived through the eyes of characters thoroughly rooted in the West. 
  • Just to reiterate here that I really, really wanted this story to be about Roxy and Allie's complicated feelings for each other and for a second I thought that's what I would get, so everything after made me a bit sad. 
  • One thing that I will give this novel though is that it succeeds through its different perspectives, the way that the whole situation escalates through the views of these diverse voices (some privileged, some slowly realising they are very much no longer privileged, as happens to Tunde once he reads his own obituaries and the stories that his ex-girlfriend stole from him). After all, the best episode of The Handmaid's Tale is one that could have never happened in the book, as June isn't even in it. 
  • I also want to reiterate that the book gets the most horror out of the thought of "what if this happened... TO MEN", not unlike The Handmaid's Tale (mostly, but not exclusively) does "what if this happened.... TO STRAIGHT WHITE AMERICAN WOMEN".

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Halt and Catch Fire

When I graduated from Berkeley in '75 with a degree in computer science, nobody batted an eye. That's probably because back then, coders were like secretaries and engineers, meaning little solder soldiers on the assembly lines, were kind of invisible. And we're used to that.
But somewhere along the line, these jobs became important. And don't get me wrong, I'm happy to hang out with "you guys" any time and eat good food, but I hope that by the time my daughters are my age that they don't have to have gatherings like this anymore to remind themselves that they're actually here. I've been in tech for 18 years.
I've won.
And I've lost.
I am a woman who voted her female partner out of her own company, the company she founded. I am a woman who lost a marriage to, among other things, this line of work. I can't sleep at night sometimes worrying if I'm seeing my kids enough or if I've been there enough for them or if it's already too late.
But I've done things.
That always comes with a price, but I did them.
One of the many things I've learned is that no matter what you do, somebody is around the next corner with a better version of it, and if that person is a man, it might not even be better. It just might get more attention. And sometimes, that person is you. The you that's never satisfied with what you just did because you're obsessed with whatever is next. The one constant is this. It's you, it's us. The project gets us to the people. Because it's people that got me where I am, people like Diane Gould. People like my husband and my first partner, Gordon Clark. People like my last and best partner, Cameron Howe. And for all the rest of you, I hope that tonight can be the beginning of something, something so that even if we see each other across the corporate battle lines one day, that you will know that I am rooting for you.
I can't help but not.
Because I am a partner by trade and a mother and a sister by design.
I am so proud to be on this journey with you.

The fact that the person giving this beautiful speech in the final episode of Halt and Catch Fire is Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) encompasses how this amazing show managed to turn into one of the best in recent history. Donna didn’t have much of a role to play in the first season, she was mostly confined to providing a stable background for Gordon (Scoot McNairy), she came in with her genius hardware skills to fix a problem, but she didn’t drive the show. But then, at some point after that first season, everything changed. Halt and Catch Fire completely reoriented from focusing on Gordon Clark’s and Joe MacMillan’s (Lee Pace) relationship – the reliable engineer who never goes that step further and the eternally driven inventor and futurist who is obsessed with what comes next – to telling the story of Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna Clark. 

When Donna says she is a “mother and a sister by design”, and looks at all these women, who will still fight so hard for their place in the promised future in 2017, she is looking back at the last 10 years of her life. Gordon, Cameron and Joe built one of the first portable computers together, but they didn’t manage to come first. But then, Cameron and Donna built Mutiny – a sprawling monster, a beautiful, chaotic, creative place, in which Cameron’s creativity absolutely thrived. Part of why the first season isn’t as good as it could be is because the show hadn’t found its footing, and hadn’t really thought about who Cameron was yet – or maybe Cameron didn’t really know herself. This changes when she discovers her passion for developing games. I don’t think any of the technological advances that Halt and Catch Fire portrays throughout the 12 or so years it covers would be moving, or work at all, if they weren’t connected to who these characters are. Cameron thrives in a communal setting but is always torn between her need to be alone and her fear of loneliness. When Mutiny becomes one of the first social networks, she realises what she has in her hands – the first step towards an online community, based on shared interests – but the idea of monetising this new thing immediately messes up any working utopia, and eventually, her incredibly productive friendship with Donna. It takes Halt and Catch Fire a few seasons to get to the original sin, the central conflict that will drive everything until the end, but when it happens, it’s horrifying. It’s a friendship torn to pieces over a disagreement over the future of their company, and Donna ends up driving Cameron out of her own company. It’s unforgivable, and a greater, more traumatising break than any of the other separations that happen as the future reveals itself. When Donna and Gordon’s marriage ends, it seems like nothing more than the inevitable happening to two people who have grown apart emotionally and spiritually, while Donna and Cameron’s breakup resonates through every single scene that follows. 

Halt and Catch Fire’s characters are constantly thinking about the next step, are looking at technology as the driving force for the future, their trade is one of prediction, of envisioning just where all of this will go. This whole show is about the internet, but the only reason why this works, why it isn’t an empty shell of nostalgia, is because the creators are so eloquent in thinking about consequences, in how all of this is about community and individuals navigating a new space and building something that reflects them in some way. Halt and Catch Fire understands the internet, and its characters express themselves by technology rather than just fetishizing it as something that will make them money. Community matters. When Gordon and Joe fail to get there first by building a browser, they realise that the future is a search engine, but it’s Gordon’s young daughter Haley (Alana Cavanaugh) who builds a personalised surface for searching the internet, and all the weird subcultures that are emerging on it. After the end of Mutiny, the fourth season is a struggle between Haley, Gordon and Joe’s Comet, a homegrown, communal company with a personal touch, and Donna’s corporate behemoth. It’s a struggle between a girl categorising the internet by hand and a bunch of programmers building an algorithm to do the same, but without the heart. And it all comes to fruition when Joe realises that the point isn’t to make searching the internet quicker, but to satisfy people’s need for a community, for a home. 

And there’s so much more. There’s Cameron, now a well-known games developer, writing an obscure, unsellable game about finding a family and love that remains inaccessible to everyone except Donna, who plays all the way through and only in the end, when she alone finds the solution, realises what she lost when she sold their friendship. There’s the tiny moments when, in portraying Haley’s struggle with being gay (and having a crush on an unobtainable girl), the show hints at how essential the internet will one day be for gay kids who can’t find a community where they live. There’s Donna and Cameron, inevitably coming together again, because the magic that happens when both of them contribute their best work IS the future. 

And somewhere before the end, Halt and Catch Fire tells one of the most moving, relatable stories about grief, one that comes close to what Six Feet Under achieved with Nate’s death, and Buffy with The Body. In Goodwill, everyone comes together in Gordon’s house, after his death, to pack things up, and the next hour is a meditation on grief, anger, loss, on shared memories, on holding on to things or using traumatic moments as a tabula rasa for new beginning. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful, and entirely singular. 

And then it all ends with Donna’s speech, about women in tech, about doing it all, about the sacrifices of creating the future and the beauty of seeing it realised. Donna calls Cameron her “last and best” partner, and later on, looking upon what used to be Mutiny and Comet, they walk through what it would be like to do all of this again, a Phoenix, from beginning to end: The glory of creation, the constant struggle to stay ahead, the inevitable concessions, the conflict ensuing from differing goals. For a moment we think that this may be the conclusion: that these characters are locked into the circle of invention, that their personal relationships are defined by the marketization of their creations – but this isn’t where it ends. 

Because the central line in Donna’s speech is about the beauty of doing things, of seeing your own creations shaping the future. This exists, regardless of how having to make money of these inventions may mess that vision up at any point. It’s about creating something that is real – like Mutiny was real when they sent out their floppy disks and fielded phone calls about gamers stuck at some point, asking for clues. Like Comet was real when Hailey collected links to every single obscure homepage, dedicated to hobbies and obsessions, the entire world of human knowledge, coming together. Donna walks into a diner, and she sees something – she sees the future. It doesn’t really matter what it is precisely, because I don’t think it’s one technology in particular. It’s not just Wifi, or just portable music. It’s the realisation that every single aspect of her world will be utterly changed by technology, and that she wants to be part of that change, and that the best person to get there with is her best and final partner, Cameron Howe. Let Joe MacMillan teach humanities, and Boss (Toby Huss) and Diane (Annabeth Gish) enjoy their well-earned retirement: Donna and Cameron are going to build the future together.  

2014-2017, created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, starring Kerry Bishé, Mackenzie Davis, Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Toby Huss, Annabeth Gish, Alana Cavanaugh, Morgan Hinkleman.

random mixtape - the self is not so weightless, nor whole and unbroken.

gang of youths | achilles come down. alice glass | without love. chvrches | call it off (tegan and sara cover). madeline kenney | don't forget // there's room. mount kimbie | marilyn (feat. micachu). the blow | the woman you want her to be. smerz | blessed. jessie ware | your domino. yaeji | drink i'm sippin' on. mount kimbie | we go home together (feat. james blake). burial | rodent

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Reading List: October.


Rebecca Solnit: The Mother of All Questions.


Megan Abbott: The End of Everything.
Megan Abbott: You Will Know Me.
Jeff VanderMeer: Annihilation. 
Jeff VanderMeer: Authority. 
Jeff VanderMeer: Acceptance.
Annalee Newitz: Autonomous.
Paolo Bacigalupi: The Water Knife.
Rachel Cusk: Transit.
Celeste Ng: Little Fires Everywhere. 
Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose.


Raw (2017, Julia Ducournau).
Colossal (2016, Nacho Vigalondo).
Paint it Black (2016, Amber Tamblyn).


Transparent, Season Four.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season Five.
Mindhunter, Season One.


The Dark Inn (written and directed by Kuro Tanino, at Her Majesty's Theatre).
Music in Anticlockwise (at Nexus Arts).
Rabbits (written by Emily Steel, at Plant 1, Bowden).

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Links 22/10/17


I have not mentioned the Austrian Parliamentary elections, mainly because this is no longer my home and I spent enough years struggling with that particular misery, but for the record, it looks like the People's Party will once again govern the country - which I believe makes it 29.01 out of 30.10 years of my life, in a stunning display of how to successfully never be held accountable for your own actions. It also looks like the Freedom Party will make a return to the governing coalition after the crash and burn of 2000-2007. 

All of this is insane: 
“I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him,” Corker said, adding later that most GOP lawmakers “understand the volatility that we’re dealing with and the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around him to keep him in the middle of the road.” 
The Washington Post: Inside the ‘adult day-care center’: How aides try to control and coerce Trump, October 16, 2017

All of the personal stories emerging concerning Harvey Weinstein's frequent assaults on women are horrifying to read, as are all the other reports of other high profile figures abusing their positions of power (like Björk's about Lars von Trier).  

Pop Culture: 

Music - a long portrait of techno culture in Detroit (and gentrification) at Roads & Kingdoms. 

Halt and Catch Fire, perhaps the best television show this year, ended magnificently after turning itself inside out, and refocusing entirely after its first season (after realising that two of its minor characters were the most interesting people on the show, and should be at its moral and emotional centre). 

Some book recommendations: Annalee Newitz' Autonomous, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife, Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere

Runaways will premier on November 21st and here is a final trailer (also highly recommended, Rainbow Rowell's writing for the returned comics). 

Friday, 13 October 2017


I wouldn't be writing this, if I hadn't, in reading up on this film after viewing it, stumbled across an odd division in how people have received and interpreted this film. 

Or, let's start differently. This is a very good film but the thing about it that will follow me isn't the memorable concept, the way it twists the superhero movie into something new, unexpected and budget-conscious, but how Jason Sudeikis manages to portray the transformation of a romcom staple - the nice guy - into an absolutely terrifying, textbook abuser. And in turn, how alienating it was to read reviews of this film that focused entirely on Anne Hathaway's character, on her issues, on Gloria's alcoholism, and never even mentioned the way that this whole film is about Oscar being revealed as a misogynist super-villain, and Gloria finding the strength to stand up against him and rid the world of his terror. 

Colossal is a film about toxic masculinity and a very specific, American approach to catastrophes happening in distant countries, to people who are far away. And the film isn't even particularly subtle about either of these (nor is it about Gloria's alcoholism, or the fact that it lacks sympathetic characters), so that it becomes even more astonishing when this core driving force is buried beneath cliched review writing about "genre-hopping" or "romantic comedies with a twist". 
Gloria (Anne Hathaway) lives in New York with her boyfriend, played by Dan Stevens. Once, in the past, she was a writer of some sort, but she is no longer writing anything at all, and instead suffers from alcohol-induced blackouts that severely impact her memory and her temporal orientation. To get her life together, she moves into her parents' empty house (where the parents are, or what happened to them, isn't really revealed) in her hometown - soon stumbling into gainful employment with the help of an old acquaintance, Oscar, who is now running his dad's old bar. Oscar first appears as a helpful, down-to-earth guy, who according to every trope in the book has always had a crush on Gloria and is now just trying to help her out any way he can, except the disconcerting thing that soon emerges is that he also starts using her alcoholic blackouts as an excuse to weasel his way into his life (like showing up at her doorstep, again and again referencing things that supposedly happened while she was drunk). There is also a scene early on that hints at what is to come, when Oscar reacts aggressively to one of his mates flirting with Gloria. It's the small things that matter here - the way he becomes cynical and verbally abusive when he's drunk, the way he doesn't accept boundaries, the way he doesn't really take no for an answer, ever. The scary thing about this film is that it is so clearly conscious of the fact that all of these gestures, in a lesser film, would have been interpreted as romantic - that Oscar would be the romantic lead - thereby normalising his creepy behaviour. 

The twist here is that this isn't a drama film, that there is a whole other plot that starts to happen in the background - after one of her alcohol-induced blackouts, Gloria catches up with the news that she missed while she was sleeping, and realises that world history has changed while she was checked out. A giant monster appeared in Seoul, causing destruction and confusion. Gloria (and the rest of the world) becomes obsessed with that monster and follows it through youtube videos and newsfeeds. Except the twist is that she soon realises that the monster appears every time she steps on a particular playground in her neighbourhood, and that the monster mirrors her movements. Gloria - drawing a direct line from Seoul to her hometown - realises that she IS the monster, that there is a weird, spacial connection between the playground and Seoul. 

It reveals a lot about Gloria that her reaction to this realisation is to share it with her newly found, down-and-out friends, that she thinks it's particularly cool, that she doesn't even feel particularly guilty straight away when she drunkenly stumbles and the monster, across the world, wipes out hundreds of human lives, stumbling with her. It's a perfect metaphor of sorts, that a witless American on the other end of the world stumbles around a playground, causing human suffering in a place she's never been to, and it takes Gloria a while to realise the implications of it. She does, eventually, but this is also the point at which the film again turns into something else: when Oscar turns from the gentle man who protects Gloria, who helps her (who discovers his own powers, materialising as a giant robot aside her in Seoul when he is on the playground, at a particular time), into a raging monster, because Gloria sleeps with one of his friends. 

Oscar is nice and helpful for as long as he thinks that he is successfully working towards winning Gloria over - he isn't nice for the sake of being nice, but because he think she will eventually be rewarded with her love and affection. From his perspective, this is a classic manic pixie dream girl story, where he is the nice guy who, through continued acts of niceness, will eventually get the girl - except the story doesn't go this way, because Gloria isn't really romantically interested in him at all (or in anyone, really, including her actual boyfriend, who eventually pops up to try and save her from herself, which thankfully the story doesn't allow him to do). He reacts with a blind rage, the kind of terrifying, very very real violence that first turns against objects (because he is a good guy, he isn't going to hit a woman, until he does). He becomes manipulative, using Gloria's empathy against her, threatening to kill people across the world if she doesn't stay with him. Sudeikis performance is outstanding here, especially considering that he is mainly known as a comedy guy - he hits all the notes perfectly, the veiled threats, the scary body language of a man barely containing his rage, the anger of someone who feels wronged because he didn't get his prize, in spite of playing the game the way he was taught to. His friends do nothing, in spite of seeing every bit of his evilness, of the danger he poses not just to Gloria, but to the people far away on the television screen. They are hapless, ineffective, powerless. In the end it's Gloria who - with a black eye, because at some point, all of Oscar's pretence drops, and he reveals himself as the monster that he is - finds a way to beat this perfect example of toxic masculinity. She saves herself, and the world with her, except the world would have never needed saving if she had been responsible for her own actions in the first place. It is quite astonishing that Colossal manages both here: portraying Gloria as the heroine in the face of an abusive, manipulative villain who hates women, who has always hated women, but also as the emblem of American irresponsibility, which costs so many lives in this film. 

2016, directed by Nacho Vigalondo, starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Stevens.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

That Girl is Forever.

“That’s what parenthood was about, wasn’t it? Slowly understanding your child less and less until she wasn’t yours anymore but herself.”
In an interview with Megan Abbott in Entertainment Weekly, the writer explains that the driving force behind her novels, which centre on the experiences of teenage girls, was allowing them more complexity - aggression, desire, and ambition. She says "I think women are always trying to figure out their own adolescence. We never stop.", which I think is a perfect way to preface both Raw, directed by Julia Ducournau (her first full-length film) and Abbott's own You Will Know Me
Part of why we do constantly try to figure out our own adolescence is, I think because we are always working with limited information and skewed perspectives - the former maybe a deliberate exercise of power that tries to control what teenage girls can be and do in their lives, and the later wilful ignorance that finds comfort in cliches. The parents in both stories are guilty of both, even though the motives are different. 

In Raw, we meet Justine's parents as they stop on the way to dropping off their daughter at a prestigious veterinary University (where their other daughter is already studying), grabbing some food for the road. In a scene that gains a different meaning later, Justine's mother is horrified to find that her daughter has been served a piece of meat with her potatoes, even though the whole family is vegetarian. She goes and complains loudly to the staff, and the viewers assume that she is just a particularly outspoken vegetarian, making a scene - an overbearing parent, still controlling what her daughter can and can't eat now that she is old enough to go to University. Later, we find out that the control that she exercises in the family is overbearing, but for an entirely different reason. 

In You Will Know Me, the protagonists are the parents - it's the story of Devon, a gymnastics prodigy on a highly competitive track that is meant to eventually lead to the Olympic team, but we follow Devon's parents, Katie and Eric Knox, and the way that their lives are revolving around Devon's schedule of endless training sessions, booster meetings and injuries. As much as Raw is defined by something that happened before Justine's birth, the seed from which everyone grows in You Will Know me - a terrible accident in which a very young Devon lost two toes due to Eric's carelessness, is something that inevitably charts Devon's life now. The book circles back to the question of how Devon became the prodigy, which takes as much talent as it does focused, complete ambition, which the parents and her teachers feel comes from her (while the other kids around her, the mediocre ones, are constantly driven by their parents, require encouragement and discipline, Devon does all of this to herself, single-minded). Is it because or in spite of her deformed foot? Does the foot hold her back, a constant reminder of Eric's guilt and shortcomings as a parent, or is it somehow imbued with the ability to give her a certain edge, an opinion that Eric voices throughout the narrative? 

In both cases, the control at the beginning of the story - the mother taking care that Justine sticks to her vegetarian diet, Eric and Katie presiding over Devon's schedule (while often forgetting their other child, Drew, how starts to become a prescient, constant observer in part because their parents don't let him be anything else) - falls apart, which leads to a catastrophe. At veterinary school, Justine is immediately thrown into the chaos of a complex hazing ritual that new students have to survive to be accepted, during which she is forced, both by the older students and her own sister, to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Her first contact with meat first leads to a terrible rash all over her body but then seems to trigger something much worse, a craving for raw meat that, in the course of the film, turns into cannibalism. 

Raw is unflinching body horror, but the way that it uses the images to chart Justine's transformation from a shy student trying to disappear in the masses, to not stand out, to a predator who deliberately transforms herself so that she may attract prey (in a central scene, taking the lyrics of plus putes que toutes les putes literally, as an education), is magnificent. Like Ginger Snaps, the bloodlust is profoundly connected to Justine's sexuality, her awakening cannibalism tied to her sexual desire, with the threat of mauling hanging over every encounter she has. Eventually, her sister reveals the family secret: Alex has transformed as well (and found a brilliant way to capture prey - running into traffic to cause accidents, then devouring the victims), and we start to realise that the mother's attempts to keep her children away from meat was a very insufficient way to try and control a genetic predisposition to cannibalism. 

This twist: that the helicopter parent has a very good reason for what she is doing, but that the decision to keep vital information from her daughter backfires dramatically, leading to a lot of bloodshed and victims wheeled away on stretchers with pieces missing. The transformation of the meek girl that we meet in the beginning into the predator desperately attempting to keep her best friend safe from her own cravings seems inevitable, especially once Justine leaves her parents' control into the very different environment of the veterinary school, one that demands exactly the kind of transformation that Justine just takes to the next level. After the siren sounds three times to indicate the end of rush week, not everyone has survived. 

Justine's parents assuming she will still follow their guidance, that she can be kept from this simply through the rules that have been established in her childhood, speak to neither of them realising what it means when children become their own people. The same happens to Eric and Katie in You Will Know Me - they start out with seeing Devon as this single-minded, driven girl, who needs nobody else to feed her own ambition, even though she is the hope of the entire community. They see her as an extension of the community's ambitions, and while they focus entirely on that goal and lose themselves in the sheer finance- and time-consuming schedule of raising a star athlete, Devon becomes a person of her own. The book shows this perfectly in what Katie encounters when she secretly reads Devon's diary, at first only finding a detailed chart of her athletic progress, then later completely misinterpreting more personal entries because she cannot even think of her daughter as a person with desires beyond the Olympic team. The single-mindedness of that goal works like a parasite, constantly drawing resources out of the family, attention, care, time. Everybody is constantly too tired to pay attention to changes (while in the background, Drew develops Scarlet fever, and that fever becomes a weird sort of heat source for the entire novel, "we are a sick house" Katie says at one point, wondering about her own phrasing almost immediately after). Then, a boy is killed in a car accident and the entire community is shaken up, the routine is disturbed, a rock is thrown into the so tightly wound mechanism, and everything starts falling apart. As much as Devon is the focus point of the story, she suddenly turns into a stranger, someone who has developed into a complex person while everyone else was just focused on that one aspect of her. She is grappling with that as much as her parents are, but since the book focuses on Katie's experience over everyone else's, the main feeling that remains is one of an unsettling, disturbing strangeness, the unknowability of a teenage girl who has started to have secrets. 

Grave/Raw (directed by Julia Ducournau, starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss).

You Will Know Me, written by Megan Abbott.