Romance and the gothic, two dominant modes in the American novel, loom over Washington Square and frame expectations for how the plot might develop. Interestingly, all of these expectations are dashed.
The narration personifies both modes: romance is a meddling aunt, the gothic, a fierce and domineering father. Under their shadow, an allegory emerges both from the protagonist’s troubled courtship by a charming rake out to marry her for her fortune and from the narration’s evocation of and subsequent refusal of romantic and gothic expectations for how that courtship might proceed. The stakes of this allegory are nothing less than the novelist’s sense of the aesthetic possibilities of the American novel.
The heroine survives the mechanations of her father and aunt. She also escapes the rake’s attempts to marry her. And then twenty years after their engagement is called off, in the novel’s final and most powerful scene, the heroine, no longer young and no longer innocent, is confronted again by the rake and he still has eyes on her money. But this time around the heroine has her eyes on him as well. He speaks, and she watches, and what she sees—powerfully and in an instant—is who he is and who he was. Fortified by a clear view of his character, she rejects him one last time and returns to her ordinary but not unhappy life.
What I read in this final staging of vision as knowledge is the author’s self-conscious choice of a realist mode and his glorious discovery of the character’s gaze as it’s vehicle.
Don’t undervalue irony, it is often of great use.
—Henry James, Washington Square
When I was doing my BA, a friend told me a story about her younger brother. As I remember it, while growing up, her brother loved Bette Midler and Patsy Cline despite the fact that they were performers from and for another generation. He’d collect photos, news stories, anything else he found, and paste them into elaborately decorated and carefully maintained scrapbooks. He was extremely proud of these books and showed them off to friends and family, who took them as signs of his creativity and individuality.
Eventually when he was older, the brother realized he was attracted to men, came out as gay, and it is at this point that the story of the scrapbooks takes a tragic turn.
Once out, the brother began to meet other gay men, and it wasn’t long before he realized that Bette and Patsy were common gay obsessions, both of them campy as hell. Learning this, he understood that his scrapbooks weren’t simply testaments to his creativity. They were billboards advertising his emerging sexuality to anyone with the sense to read the signs. He was in other words the the object of a painful irony, his scrapbooks were now embarrassments, and as I remember the story, he threw them out, although I’m less certain of that than the rest.
I thought of this story reading Halperin’s book because his object of study is precisely these odd, recognizably gay cultural obsessions. The book is wordy and overlong and, in chapter after chapter, Halperin finds reasons to discuss at length Joan Crawford, his own camp obsession. But despite the weakness of the writing and the seemingly impossible scope of his project, Halperin’s descriptions of experiences like those of my friend’s brother often ring true and his attempts to explain how they work are thoughtful and thought provoking.
Todd Haynes’s Carol offers so careful and so powerful a reading of Highsmith’s The Price of Salt that it acted as a screen between me and the novel, directing my attention and shaping my responses. And so for me, Carol and Therese are as glamorous, sophisticated and brave in the book as they are in the film.
I wonder though: if I hadn’t seen the adaptation, would the attention to gloves and furs and scarves and purses and all the other recurring details of dress that I read as glamour, would they instead have seemed fetishistic? Would the silences and hesitations of the women as they test their sense of what’s possible between them have seemed so romantic? Would the brutality of the men’s rejection of their relationship have upset me more than it did?
Whatever the case, my movie-addled sense of the novel is that Carol and Therese are enjoying a slow-moving game of cat and mouse in which both of them are cats and both of them are playing mouse.
It was all things. And it was one thing, like a solid door. It’s cold sealed the city in a gray capsule. January was moments, and January was a year. January rained the moments down, and froze them in her memory: the woman she saw peering anxiously by the light of a match at the names in a dark doorway, the man who scribbled a message and handed it to his friend before they parted on the sidewalk, the man who ran a block for a bus and caught it. Every human action seemed to yield a magic. January was a two-faced month, jangling like jester’s bells, crackling like snow crust, pure as any beginning, grim as an old man, myseriously familiar yet unknown, like a word one can almost but not quite define.
–Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt
Aliens arrive at twelve different sites on Earth. They are unavoidably menacing—their ships hover impossibly over land and sea, they manipulate gravity, and they look like slow–moving giant facehuggers—but nothing they do is hostile. Two scholars, one a linguist, one a physicist, have to figure out how to communicate with them while also keeping various militaries from blowing things up.
This isn’t an action film. Violence threatens, but when it happens, it happens off-screen, structuring the story as a deadline or countdown. Camera movements are slow, the shots composed. Both are independent and consistently meaningful channels of information, a feature of sophisticated communication explicitly celebrated in the dialogue. Bracing thoughtfulness is the dominant tone of the narrative. The dominant activities are listening, studying, and remembering.
Despite the aliens, their technology and the narrative’s mind–bending approach to time, the focus of the film is squarely on two educated people’s efforts to solve cooperatively an unabashedly intellectual problem. Their antagonists are the uneducated and thoughtless people around them who are driven by suspicion, anger, and fear and who are urged on by a hysterical and irresponsible media. These people cut off possibilities for cooperation, prefer violence to patience, and, whether committing suicide, looting, sabotaging, or inciting or threatening others, consistently act badly.
The fantasy of this science fiction is that humane intelligence wins out in the end, a triumph that manifests not as spoils but as a book about translation, a learned work offering help to those wishing to understand the thoughts and ideas of Others in their own words.
This novel was frustratingly close to a do-over of Leviathan Wakes. Yes there was variation—a different world in the Belt, an introduction to life on Earth, new characters—but it was still a fake war providing cover for a rogue experiment involving the protomolocule.
What saved it for me was Avasarala and the most unexpected last–page surprise I’ve read in a long time.
I have the third book and will get to it eventually, but I’m less enthusiastic than I was after finishing the first volume.
This is the season that broke my binge.
The script and direction are under control in a way they weren’t in the weirdly wonderful first season. As a result, this season manages to gather up loose ends and weave them all tightly back into the fabric of two main story arcs.
In the first of these, Scott becomes an alpha wolf (read: real man). In the second, Stiles overcomes and banishes a mischievous trickster spirit that operated as a second personality. Both arcs signal that fun time is over, and by the end of the season, the group of guys has broken up into a gang of three straight couples (some real, some potential), and the gay characters have either left town or dropped out of sight.
This shift is obviously a let-down and more than earns Teen Wolf a spot on my long list of those TV series in which I have over-invested by rooting for off-story readings that cannot possibly pan out as the show develops.[note]”In a show like House of Cards or Damages, first seasons, which are powerfully suggestive but also necessarily fragmentary, are like traps. When later seasons make choices about what was not said previously, the contradictions between them and what I loved—which is necessarily an amalgam of textual detail and the products of my imagination—make later seasons a real disappointment. In pre-internet days, water cooler talk might have regulated my fancy, but in the world of Netflix, I watch seasons quickly and alone and love what I love on my own terms without check. And that makes later seasons hard to swallow.” (post)[/note] Unlike these previous series though, the disappointment I feel this time around is friendly and free from frustration. I like the cast, like the set up, and still like the show.
And yes, if I’m honest, I knew all along that the fun couldn’t last: a mainstream show directed at adolescents, especially one with a break-out star with a budding movie career, cannot (or at least will not) pick apart the seams of contemporary masculinity for very long, even if it’s fun to pretend otherwise while binging. The best that can be hoped for, I think, is for the show to be “cool” and to signify that coolness by being “cool with” gay people.
And that’s what’s happened here in spades.
On the surface, Season Two throttles back on the guys-in-the-locker-room gayness of the first season, while doubling down on Scott and Alison’s romance plot. There’s also some kind of killer lizard on the loose, a menacing grandfather up to no good, and a dive into lore through subplots that lays the groundwork for future seasons. Which is a lot of ground for a single season. Of all of this, my favourite sub-sub-plot involves a mid-teens rich kid giving his girlfriend a key to his
parent’s place. It’s a silly but sweet fantasy vision of what it’s like to be a grown-up that turns out to play a vital role in the resolution of the central storyline.
That all said, no matter how far you pull back on the throttle (and the writers are clearly trying to do so), it’s hard to quell the anarchic, queer connotations unleashed in the first season in one go. And it’s going to be that much harder if you make the villain a frequently shirtless Abercrombie model who also happens to be one of the guys. Or if you let a running joke be about how Stiles knows everything about how Scott looks. All of which is just my way of saying that this season remains ripe for willful
misreading even if the low-hanging fruit is gone.
The season’s highlight—and when googling for images I discovered it is a scene that has driven the internet into a frenzy—takes place in a pool and involves Stiles, Derek and the lizard monster. The lizard is afraid of water (don’t ask), so Stiles treads water for hours at the center of the school’s pool holding a helpless Derek in his arms and saving them both from the increasingly frustrated lizard.
The internet believes this is love, and I concur.
Writing this post (and the last one as well), I realize how ridiculous everything about this show sounds. And it is. But is also too much damn fun. And “Sterek” must be celebrated.
(You’re welcome. But enjoy it while it lasts. I’ve seen the next season and there is trouble on the horizon.)