Sunday, April 25, 2010
Neoliberalism has stolen much from the experience of being young in Australia. High university fees and rental costs restrict its possibilities as a liminal period in which all kinds of education – sexual, emotional, intellectual – take place.
Early adulthood, especially in the university context, is a time characterised by uncertainty, intense but shifting friendships, and periods of apparent stasis in which the future may be quietly and steadily shaping itself. It is also a time in which romanticism must square up with cold and inexorable reality. Now that the coming of age of the young is once more blighted by class, we inevitably look to the privileged for models by which to characterise this period.
Emerging maturity among the upper middle class gets a fresh and unusual treatment in Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy, a complex narrative that uses a mystery story to describe youthful romanticism in ironic terms, undercutting it with doses of grunge realism.
The Legacy has been hailed as a literary triumph. The fact that Tranter’s agent, Lyn Tranter, happens to be her mother hasn’t harmed the publishing, marketing and reception of the book – apparently the first-time author received a six-figure sum from HarperCollins for two books, with a second novel to follow.
So does this genre-crossing novel live up to the hype? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good – there’s much to enjoy, even though the combining of genres does introduce its own limitations.
The story has a wide imaginative reach, encompassing six years and two cities on separate continents, Sydney and New York, in a back-and-forth sweep that seems to echo its heroine’s own emotional seesaw-ing; there are smaller temporal swings, too, that emulate the confusions of recollection. The plot is complex, both factually and emotionally, and the mysteries buried at its heart are skillfully conceived.
The mistakes that Tranter avoids may be as important as her achievements in The Legacy. There’s more than competence here; Tranter demonstrates a level of sophistication and mastery of story that elude many a first-time novelist. She writes with a kind of narrative ease, and reading the novel is sometimes a bit like watching a jazz pianist improvise – you feel that she’s exploring new territory yet still in her comfort zone.
***Plot elements given below***
It is the late 1990s. On a visit to Europe, beautiful young heiress Ingrid Holburne, a classics student at Sydney University, is swept off her feet by the sophisticated Gil Grey, a New York art dealer. Leaving behind an intense three-way friendship with her cousin Ralph, who loves her unrequitedly, and Julia, a restless law student, Ingrid marries Grey and goes to live in New York with him and his daughter Fleur, a precociously talented teenage artist.
Ingrid disappears on September 11 2001, presumed dead in the disaster. Julia travels to New York to find out about her life with Grey and Fleur, and stumbles on a mystery whose unanswered questions compel her towards the truth with ever greater urgency.
With an almost stereotypical self-destructive streak, Julia drinks too much (‘I wondered if the last glass of wine had been a mistake. I looked around for another’) and has made poor romantic choices overshadowed by her own unrequited love for the bisexual Ralph. Prior to her trip alone to New York she has reached a stage of ‘purposelessness’. Her journey is an attempt at an emotional coming of age: in seeking knowledge on the fate of Ingrid she is also in search of herself.
To learn what she has to learn, let go of childhood patterns and discover what she really wants to do with her life, Julia must be willing to remain in uncertainty, Keats’s ‘negative capability’. She must also do this if she wants to discover the truth about Ingrid’s fate. It is this process of submitting to the flow of life and letting go of destructive patterns that Tranter demonstrates so powerfully, with a minimum of self-analysis on Julia’s part.
The Legacy abounds in what’s fashionably known as ‘intertextuality’, with its diverse antecedents indicating its genre-crossing ambitions. Tranter has said that Ingrid is a transplanted, modernised version of the unfortunate Isabel Archer in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, and that the ailing Ralph is also taken from Portrait. In contrast, the novel’s heroine, Julia, is based on a minor character in Raymond Chandler’s murder mystery The Big Sleep.
It’s not necessary to have read either of these books to appreciate the novel. Nor does the style echo that of James, although it does to some extent take up the theme of the Old and New Worlds that James deals with, the US now playing the more established culture that seduces a younger, more innocent Australia.
Rather, Tranter has adopted something of Chandler’s bald, cinematic prose. The novel treads a challenging line between grunge realism and the emotionally detached tone of a hardboiled murder mystery. It’s quite filmic; many of the scenes would be apt in a feminist version of film noir:
I was all rush and wanting to go faster; he let me for a minute and smiled at me. Then he pinned my wrists above my head against the bed and gave me a cool, hungry look.
The intertextuality, though, goes further than a transplanting of characters and a particular tone. With the university backdrop, the three main characters use filmic and literary references to understand and reflect on their own lives; for example, Ralph quotes from the film version of The Big Sleep when meeting Julia for the first time. Tranter seems sublimely aware of the impossibility of separating life from art: the two endlessly inform each other.
The narrative is powered by Julia’s emotional detachment, limited point of view and instinctive search for emotional and factual knowledge. Because of the emotional journey she must undergo, the action proceeds slowly, consistent with its realist style; for example, the youthful, idealistic friendships that are central to the novel change gradually in a series of phases rather than abruptly through a conventional climax.
Despite Tranter’s skill with plot, there was one point in this long novel where I felt the emotional journey slowed the action down and was getting in the way of the mystery story. Julia is called back to Sydney for personal reasons, yet, on the cusp of new knowledge about Ingrid, feels compelled to return once more to New York. The time just before she leaves the action felt too slow, and I was frustrated with her seeming torpor: having acquired some disturbing clues, wasn’t it clearly time to do some serious sleuthing? The novel regains this lost momentum once she returns to New York a second time.
Because the novel unfolds from Julia’s perspective, and because of the requirements of the mystery genre, Ingrid remains a remote character. This is deliberate and serves to make her exotic, the obscure object of desire, which is the role she plays for Ralph; but eventually our not knowing who she really is makes her less exciting. (Ironically, she becomes more three-dimensional as Julia scouts for information about her in New York, echoing the heroine’s own journey of self-discovery.)
The character of Ralph, too, takes a while to coagulate; eventually he becomes sympathetic, although he also remains opaque. Grey, Ingrid’s husband, is arresting but also a bit thin, fulfilling to perfection his role as the ‘baddie’.
It is the emotional resonances of the friendship between Julia, Ralph and Ingrid that Tranter chiefly explores through this expansive story. Idealistic university-based friendship in early adulthood isn’t new – think of Brideshead Revisited – but it gets a fresh treatment here. For Tranter, the hero worship and sexual overtones that such friendships can involve complicate as much as they enable emotional maturity.
To this end, she vividly conveys the intensity and intellectual urgency of Julia’s feelings for Ralph and Ingrid, as well as her emotional fragility. For a time the three friends meet daily at the university bar to drink and play games and the mundanity of this routine, and of Julia’s jobs at a video store and then a secondhand bookshop, is a pleasing contrast to the complex forces that will tear the threesome apart.
The book also strongly critiques an art world that is portrayed as being ruthlessly exploitative of investors’ endless quest for cultural capital and novelty. In a world where artists and art are both fetishised, Ingrid becomes for Grey just another object that he acquires.
***Plot elements end***
The detached tone of the novel offers some distinct pleasures. Don’t expect long, involved metaphors; instead there’s a focus on tiny details that possesses almost a quality of the haiku even as they are a tribute to Raymond Chandler.
Julia sometimes focuses on these details as an indirect way of indicating her emotional state, or as a means of coping with the enormity of tragedy and loss. But they also often act as adjuncts to the plot and as guides to the inner lives of the other characters. Notice the small aspects of life, Tranter seems to be advising, and you will understand the large ones. This is evident in the description of Grey’s apartment after the loss of Ingrid:
The proportions of the room and windows had a classical, balanced aspect: tall ceilings and tall windows hung with long, fine curtains, the one aspect of excess in the room. They fell from their high rail like the pleats in Ingrid’s wedding dress and hit the floor in a tumble …
Given this focus, it’s perhaps no wonder that the story becomes more vivid and richer in detail when Julia travels alone to New York after September 11, seeking to find out about the fate of Ingrid on Ralph’s behalf. The city and its endless range of tiny bars, minute stores crammed with goods, haughty galleries, doughnut shops, mob-filled streets and stately, graceful public buildings provide an infinity of novelty and fascination both for Julia and the reader.
Tranter lived in New York for eight years and her love of and familiarity with this city is evident. Its takeaway culture – endless coffees and bagels and Thai food and hardly a home-cooked meal in sight – is part of this ambience, and beautifully serves the detached, sometimes Chandleresque style.
The Legacy plays around with, as much as it celebrates, the mystery genre. Tranter inserts some stock characters – there’s an elderly fortune teller and a male femme fatale – and sets up a contrast between the glamorous and the sleazy (with both, in the best tradition, being ultimately connected).
In particular she has fun contrasting the casual elegance of Ralph’s family home in Kirribilli with the grime of a modern megalopolis and the slightly seamy lifestyle of university students at the turn of the century, with their casual indulgence in drugs, alcohol and sex:
I loved the sense of discontinuity between the frantic, late-night urban world we moved through – winding inner-city streets strewn with garbage and seedy interiors and neon light – and the high-class opulence of Ralph’s house at Kirribilli.
Don’t commence this book expecting to be immediately swept up by breathless prose, and don’t be fooled by its seeming straightforwardness. Instead, enjoy the ambience and let Julia’s recollections slowly reveal their complex undercurrents.
For more recent book and film reviews, visit my new blog Feminist Culture Muncher!
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
(Note: I'm so sick of my old template, I had to make a change. I'm not sure about this one but I'll try it for a while and see if it 'takes'.)
As a lover of thrillers and horror movies – not slasher movies, but the kind that dole out steady doses of heart-thumping suspense – I look forward to a good ghost story.
Every aficionado of thrillers or horror knows that at some point you’ll be plunged into a parallel world of fear or terror that there’s no escaping from until the end of the movie. A strong back story is vital to the believability of that world, but it must ultimately be secondary to the sometimes sadistic display of evil or supernatural forces, which must also have their own logic. Wolf Creek is one of the finest examples of a strong initial back story adding to the horror that awaits.
Yet watching a thriller or horror film is a bit like getting on a roller coaster. Once you’ve paid your money, you want to keep riding until the end. Occasional uphill chugs are a relief, but you don’t want to keep getting off for rest breaks.
The Eclipse promises a ghost story entwined with a love story. Ireland is an obvious setting for both, and the film is set in the storybook, rainy romanticism of the coastal town of Cobh in County Cork, amid the not-so-rarefied atmosphere of a provincial literary festival.
But the attempt to weave the two genres together doesn’t work, and detracts from both plot lines. In this film, the ghost story is the back story, and not only is it weak, but it lacks strong connections to the romantic plot. Unfortunately, this overshadows (eclipses?) what is good about the film.
The Eclipse has its antecedents in the brilliant Sixth Sense, and it also reminded me of the creepy Full Circle (aka The Haunting of Julia) with Mia Farrow, an underrated ghost/horror film made in the late 1970s that sadly isn’t available on DVD. While the elements of realism in these films are essential to their spookiness, The Eclipse can’t hold a candle (despite a surfeit of candles in the film’s imagery) to either of them.
*****Plot elements given below*****
Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds) is a burly, laconic woodwork teacher, heavily burdened with a grief he can’t let himself feel following the recent death from cancer of his wife. He is a volunteer at the annual Cobh literary festival and himself a secret scribbler. He seems remote from his two children and his father-in-law, who lives in a nursing home.
Michael is assigned to pick up one of the festival guests, Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), a successful writer of books on the paranormal. Looking for all the world like a young Julie Walters, she is blonde, lithe, intense, and skittish about romantic involvement. Michael thinks he may have been seeing ghosts, and the two begin to develop a bond as they share their supernatural experiences.
Also at the festival is Nicholas (Aidan Quinn), a narcissistic best-selling author with a burgeoning alcohol problem. Being married doesn’t stop Nicholas from pursuing Lena, with whom he’s had a one-night stand in the past. The stage is set for a love triangle, with Lena at the apex.
*****Plot elements end*****
The mode to expect here is the British version of realism seen in, for example, Billy Elliot or The Crying Game. It’s not grunge, but it doesn’t have the excessive clean-ness of mainstream Hollywood movies. The colour palette is muted, the dulled light creating a sense of otherworldliness, of remoteness from the present. While it might abound in cliches, the camerawork succeeds in revealing the continuing presence of an older, more spiritual Ireland that exists as a substrate of the globalised present.
The acting is similarly low-key, character based rather than star-making. This enables some strong drama and lovely touches of finely honed Irish humour, even if the target is mainly the arrogance and vanity of Nicholas.
The presence of the ghosts signals another layer to life that we confront at powerful times, when experiencing grief for example. The aim of the film, I think, is to show how these two layers of experience, although separate, are entwined with each other – that encountering the ghostly layer can help guide us through the emotional mazes of everyday reality.
There are constant visual and verbal references to the past, the dead, and spookiness in general. Candles are lit by women dressed in period costume in preparation for a literary lunch; characters exchange words while shown in silhouette or are seen from the back as they stalk down tenebrous Irish corridors; Lena and Michael stroll companionably through a cliche-ridden graveyard on an inevitably overcast day.
These touches are inoffensive in themselves, but they promise a supernatural element that, while it pops up occasionally, never actually coalesces into a coherent narrative within the main one. There’s also one particular spooky manifestation towards the end of the movie that seems absurd, but again it doesn’t really go anywhere. And there are two attempts at schlock-horror, which, while they might provide short-term thrills, detract from the overall theme – an attempt to assert the validity of the supernatural as just another aspect of life.
Much more annoying, however, is that whenever things are getting a bit profound in the action of the film, or indeed when a particular, serious event occurs that Michael has been forewarned about, soulful choir music overwhelms the soundtrack. The effect is simply gauche; any genuine ambiance is ruined, because the viewer is being told that that they are now to lift their minds heavenward.
The two ghosts in the film don’t really have enough of their own narrative, and neither of them is connected strongly enough to the main narrative. There’s not even any obvious connection between the two hauntings, although in ‘real life’ the ghosts are related to each other. The traumatic event that occurs seems to be somehow peripheral to Michael’s life, its seeming main purpose to illustrate something about the supernatural. As a result, the culmination of the ghostly aspects of the film is something of an anti-climax.
The film handles its setting much better than its subplot. If it wants to create ambience while reminding us of how complex and unknown the world is, the town and landscape of the picturesque Cobh offer a convincing enough argument. Views of tall, brightly painted historic tenements seen from a ferry, and a stunningly luminous deep blue shore that Michael and Lena contemplate at dead of night, add a layer of authenticity to the film that some of the visual cliches can’t.
*****Plot elements given below*****
Having said all this, there is a scene towards the beginning of the movie which suggests how good it might have been. The household is asleep. Michael hears noises downstairs and goes to investigate. The dog wimps out with childish yelping. What Michael thinks he sees for a matter of seconds as he stands on the landing in the dim half-light is wispish-ly chilling in the way that blood-spattered corpses will never be.
*****Plot elements end*****
Ciarán Hinds is effective as Michael, even if you sense that he’s perhaps played too many similarly deep but inarticulate men in the past. A little bit ubiquitous in historical dramas, his turn as the repressed Captain Wentworth in the 1995 film Persuasion puts Colin Firth’s Darcy to shame.
Aiden Quinn has perfect comic timing as the champagne-soaked Nicholas. His presence is not only a foil for Michael’s character, but enables a gentle send-up of literary festivals and literary stars in general. While this send-up doesn’t go very far, Nicholas’s character continues to add much-needed drama and humour even as the ghost subplot fails to deliver. Iben Hjejle offers a poised, understated Lena, although we never know the source of her excessive reserve.
My criticisms about this film suggest the difficulty of bringing any work of fiction to the screen. Director Conor McPherson is also an internationally celebrated playwright, and he cowrote the screenplay with Billy Roche. The screenplay, in turn, is loosely based on a short story by Roche. I haven’t read the story, but I wonder if, rather than adding necessary extensions to the original plot, the screenwriters relied on inserting excessive ‘atmosphere’ to pad it out.
Having said all that, The Eclipse’s main story, while it’s fairly understated, does have its strengths; there's some powerful drama, and many of the interactions between the characters sparkle with sly Irish humour. Just don’t expect much more from the ghosts than a few unexpected jolts.