Elly McDonald

Writer


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Esplanade (25 June 1978)

At night, in winter, in St Kilda
the bayside highway forms a halo. Cars
like comets blazing at and into me.
Walking into lights, the cold, the hard clean bayside night,
their energy recharges me.

Melbourne at night, a winter night, has no sunsets, no stars.
Instead, a rose-tinted, glass-panelled airport and
the traffic current.
There are no stars in the bay. The water reflects
the grey mist ripples, smothered night, that functions as a sky.

In winter, Melbourne nights are tones of grey on black and red and
amber aura light.
An empty Brighton crossroad, tusk-like railway lines.
Each street-light traps a sparkling mist,
electric dew.

Melbourne
is a cage. Held down by tram-wire steel-nets overhead,
this city is straitjacketed,
sedated in the luminous haze of clouded sky and mist and bay.
Bright lights gleaming, flashing meteor
prison bar tramlines, wire sky leveller, cutting down…

By day the Melbourne summer sky
is violet tinged, not azure.
I remember
night-time skies as light,
when dull red dust clouds billowed down
escaped the gully, loomed above the dry town
I once called my home.

Five years, I said, and so with sentence up
I am glad to be on schedule.
Facing into lights, the world, the hard clean unchained wind…
I never called Melbourne home.

Written age 17 on the day I formally dropped out of university.


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Reviews: Seven Years of Darkness by Jeong You-Jeong (translated by Kim Chi-young 2020), and The Only Child by Seo Mi-ae (translated by Jung Ye-won 2020)

Two Korean psychological thrillers.

They’re both best sellers in South Korea and well-reviewed internationally. They’re neither of them particularly demanding, nor ambitious beyond the thriller genre.

I enjoyed Seven Years of Darkness better simply because it gallivants along at a ripping pace and is entertainingly told, focusing on So-won (Sowon), at age 11, when he survived a catastrophe that wiped out his community and removed him from everyone he cared for, and at age 18, when the events of seven years before come home to roost.

So-won has three guardian angels, which is more than most of us, but he needs them. There is a moustache-twirlingly villainous antagonist, some flawed parents, and a cat named Ernie.

The classic K-drama (Korean TV series) trope of The Drowning Boy features prominently. I learned some interesting things about Korean underwater rescue scuba diving. I learned a bit about safety mechanisms for giant hydroelectric dams. Having read this book and viewed the French TV series Les Revenants I’ll pass on ever living downstream of a hydraulic dam, thank you.

The final sequences of Seven Years of Darkness were ludicrous but satisfying. There are worse ways to pass time.

Next: The Only Child. I don’t know whether to blame the Korean original or the translation for the somewhat leaden writing style. But The Only Child has its virtues.

The Only Child features several only-children as main characters. There is Yi Seon-kyeong, a lecturer in criminal psychology who is likened by herself and others to a Korean Clarice Starling (in reference to the FBI rookie profiler in The Silence of the Lambs). There is Yi Byeong-do, the Ted Bundy-like glamorous serial killer. There is Yun Ha-yeong, an 11 year-old whose near and dear drop dead with statistically improbable frequency. Don’t let her near pets.

The novel alternates between first-person as told by Byeong-do and third-person, mostly from the POVs of Seon-kyeong or Ha-yeong. It says something when this reader relates more sympathetically to an adult male who has murdered perhaps a score of women than to a neglected pubescent girl.

The author isn’t really all that fussed to keep us in suspense about whodunnit. She’s more interested in psychological development, the unfolding understandings of the main characters. The real suspense is in how the plot will pan out.

To my great pleasure, the ending is a direct homage to Alfred Hitchcock, to his original ending of his film Suspicion.

Was that a spoiler? Whoops.

Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.


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Review: The Disaster Tourist (2020) by Yun Ko-eun, translated from Korean by Lizzie Buehler

The Disaster Tourist is a short (185 pages) novel, a surreal satire translated from Korean in a crisp tone. I was about to say it’s deadpan and heartless -“The deaths were unadvertised disasters, unexpected by the travellers” – but instead I’ll say it’s angry. Funny, but angry. Appalling and appalled.

It makes me feel much better about not being able to travel. And much worse about previous holidays in other people’s misery.

The Disaster Tourist looks at the contemporary (pre-COVID) model of Third World tourism, specifically Pacific island tourism, and lays bare the commercial drivers and marketing strategies, in catastrophically exaggerated form.

The premise is this: A disaster occurs. Lives are lost. But a catastrophe is also an opportunity. A sensational disaster will attract foreign funding (foreign aid) and put an otherwise obscure location on the map (even as it wipes it off the map). Righteous tourists will come to put things right. They will come to experience authenticity, what life is really all about (death). They will come to rubber-neck: to gape, to tut-tut, to experience shock and awe.

If a community has nothing else to offer, being poor, not scenic, its indigenous culture beaten down or dismissed as unremarkable, might it not make sense to manufacture a disaster? To script a catastrophe? To create spectacle? Might that not also provide vested interests an opportunity to rewrite the narrative, to rebuild to design, eliminating or minimising undesirable elements?

Ko Yo-na – or Yona Ko, as the translation insists – is clinging precariously to a ten-year career designing and promoting “Disaster Tourist” travel packages. She’s on the out at work, possibly for reporting her manager for sexual harassment. Her resignation is not accepted. Instead, management proposes she tests out one of their holiday packages, as a guest (expenses paid by the company), writes a token report, then reports back at work refreshed after her “break”.

Yona chooses the Mui package: an island off the coast of Vietnam where an ethnic massacre occurred decades ago. It has sinkholes and a dormant volcano.

Things go terribly wrong for Yona, her own personal disaster tour. But even more terribly wrong is the context: Mui is run by a shadowy corporation known as Paul, and the mechanics of what Paul has planned for Mui’s people and its future is something most tourists would wish to shut their eyes to.

By the time Yona realises she is living within the constraints of a script – an actual script, written by an actual scriptwriter – she’s lost all control of her circumstances.

What is her assigned role? What is the role of Luck? And what of the crocodiles?

The Disaster Tourist recalls for me Amy Tan’s novel Saving Fish From Drowning, and some of J.G. Ballard’s satire. Also the 1998 film Wag the Dog, and its precursor The Mouse That Roared (1959).

Did I enjoy reading it? Not hugely. It was hard and cold, like a pebble. Like a pebble in my shoe, it disturbed my comfort.


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Review: Severance (2018) by Ling Ma

Alfred Hitchcock said his films at essence addressed mundane issues, dressed up in a plot to make them entertaining. Reductively, Rear Window is about a man who can’t decide whether to marry his girlfriend. (This is separate from the McGuffin, a different concept. But layers within layers, like a Russian doll.)

In Severance, Ling Ma interweaves a post-apocalyptic narrative with the tale of a Chinese-American immigrant millennial making her way in New York.

At one level, Severance is about a woman conflicted over breaking up with her boyfriend when he leaves the Big Smoke. Leaving New York would mean leaving her career. Her mother lost her career accompanying her husband from China to the U.S. What is the value of a life without a career, without participation in the workforce and consumer culture?

Leaving New York City would mean leaving a place: a place of significance, a place that provides Candace with identity. She’s left places before – Fujian, in China, and Salt Lake City. She’s acutely conscious of identity dislocation. New York is her carapace. She wants to hunker down.

I suspect it’s no accident the central character in Severance is named Candance. Ling Ma peppers her narrative with brand names and pop culture references. When we think of a single woman in New York, we might think of Candace Bushnell, writer of Sex and the City.

My favourite paragraph:

In Jonathan’s apartment, we used to watch single-woman-in-Manhattan movies, a subgenre of New York movies. There was Picture Perfect, An Unmarried Woman, Sex and the City. The single heroine, usually white, romantic in her solitude. In those movies, there is nearly always this power-walk shot, in which she is shown striding down some Manhattan street, possibly leaving work during rush hour at dusk, the traffic blaring all around and the buildings rising before her. The city was empowering. Even if a woman doesn’t have anything, the movie seemed to say, at least there is the city. The city was posited as the ultimate consolation.

This paragraph seems to me to prefigure the ending (and “The End”, as the pandemic is termed).

Candace spends much of her time in her early months in Manhattan just walking the streets, taking photographs, posting her photos in a blog as NY_ghost. Similarly in her last months.

The subgenre of the single-woman-roaming-Manhattan gets spliced with the post-apocalypse dystopia genre, so Candace is also Will Smith in I Am Legend and Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later, the isolated survivor, the wandering civis post-civilisation. She becomes an urban ghost.

So to my mind this is a novel about place and identity. In the face of apocalypse, various characters are tied to place: Bob the crazy would-be New Order leader drawn to the mall of his childhood; Ashley the former fashion student drawn to her childhood home, specifically her wardrobe; Eddie the NY taxi driver forever bound to his cab. Candace, initially, encloistered in her office, before she realises the working life is redundant, an idea whose time has ended. As her boyfriend knew.

Severance is also, among other things, a critique of consumption and capitalism. In its post-apocalyptic dystopia, infected people – ” the fevered” – mindlessly, endlessly re-enact meaningless rituals from their former lives until their bodies give out, while the handful of survivors go on pillaging “stalks”.

The further I read the more I appreciated how ambitious Ling Ma has been here – it’s not just a post-pandemic dystopia, or a millennial generation satire, or a critique of consumption and capitalism, or a study in cultural dislocation, or an investigation of memory, the place of the past, the past of place, the role of routines and ritual… it’s all that, conveyed in beautiful – sensitive, intelligent, funny, chilling – writing.

What makes life worth living? Is it work? Is it place? Is it people we love?

My second favourite paragraph, an email to Candace from a colleague in China:

You are good at what you do. In these sad, uncertain times, however, it is important to be with people you love. I do not know the details of the epidemic in New York, but my suggestion to you: Leave. Spend time with your family.

Candace no longer has family.

When I ask myself, if Candace were to become fevered, as some of the seeming “survivors” do, what ritual or routine that defined her identity would she loop till death?

My guess: walking. She’d walk city streets till she dropped.

Even if a woman doesn’t have anything, at least there is the city.

At desk. On deck.


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Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins (2020) – The Hunger Games prequel

Kudos to Suzanne Collins for ignoring commercial imperatives and writing a Hunger Games prequel the fans will hate, not filmable as a blockbuster. Though it could make a terrific art-house film.

This prequel is set 63 years prior to the first of The Hunger Games trilogy: 517 pages thrashing out the Hobbes vs Locke Enlightenment philosophers’ debate – human darkness vs human optimism – through the making of a dictator, the unmaking of a man. I’ll attempt this blog post without spoilers. The biggest ‘spoiler’ is a given: Coryo Snow, a boy of promise, must in the end be Coriolanus Snow, the sociopath tyrant.

My sister and I both hated that sentimental, golden glow epilogue tacked onto the end of The Hunger Games film trilogy. We saw it as a betrayal of the novels.

“The point,” I glowered, “Is that heroes, if they survive, are maimed for life, irrevocably damaged.”

“No,” said my sister, who always knows best. “The point is that heroes become monsters. Heroes are killers. They can’t escape that.”

Coriolanus ‘Coryo’ Snow is the ‘hero’ of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a title explicitly referring to the Americana murder ballad tradition. He’s a ‘hero’ who over the course of his narrative becomes an anti-hero and ultimately, long before The Hunger Games trilogy kicks in, an antagonist.

In the C17th, philosopher John Locke contended that human beings are born into the common condition of humanity (which for him, encompassed a concept of human rights), but that each individual is born a “blank slate”, with the capacity to make moral choices that determine the kind of human they become: self-authored. Thomas Hobbes, in contrast, argued that human nature is base, brutish, a reactive amygdala wired to fear, aggression, violence, self-preservation: self-interested (no, Hobbes did not pre-empt neuroscience, my amygdala reference is anachronistic).

The Hunger Games is a battlefield where the ideas of Locke versus Hobbes play out. In Collins’ Hunger Games novels, every person fights through their own Hunger Games, in their own arena. The slogan is “May the odds be ever in your favour”. But when the game is skewed, and the odds are never in your favour, the outcome can only be Hobbesian.

The boy Coryo Snow starts, as all Hunger Games contestants do, with a set of resources (weapons), and a set of deficits. Coriolanus is the 18 year-old son of a dead war hero, from a patrician family whose antebellum wealth was immense. Their fortune was based on munitions, with manufacturing and research bases in District 13, nuked out of existence during the war.

Coryo was an 8 year-old orphan when the rebels were defeated. His people, in the Capitol, were ostensibly the ‘victors’, but his cohort grew up under blanket bombing, with constant gruesome death, starvation, even cannibalism. They endured their own “hunger games”, desperately trying to stay alive on the thinnest gruels, sparsely dished out. Even 10 years post-war, the streets are blocked by rubble, the poor still go hungry (very hungry), and the final year students at the Capitol’s elite Academy bear a huge weight of expectation to revive the Capitol’s prosperity. They also carry an immense legacy of bitterness.

Coryo has social capital (he is part of the elite), but no actual money. If the Snow family is to recover what he sees as their rightful place, he must attend university. If he is to attend university, he will need scholarships. He is battling for The Prize. The final year of schooling is an arena in itself.

Coryo’s personal capital (resources) include an exceptionally astute strategic mind. He grasps situations quickly, with clarity, and can formulate swift, effective responses. Excellent survival skills. But if you see things with clarity, and can see where they’re headed, and what it takes to survive is an unethical action, or actions, are you morally culpable? Is it more worthy to act in line with idealist morality and die?

What if the idealists by their actions endanger others, people who owe them nothing (unless altruism is a human absolute)?

Or: is seeing situations with clarity and acting pragmatically, in one’s own self-interest, the definition of sociopathy?

Coryo’s personal capital also includes charm. He’s an actor. He is constantly alert to the impression on others his behaviours make. Is he irrevocably two-faced, to be condemned, or is that good sense? What consequences follow being too honest, too open?

It’s important to register that although this novel is not told in the first-person, directly in Coryo’s voice, everything is presented from his perspective. That’s terrific, in that Coryo is awake to most of the information salient to his survival. But it is a self-justifying perspective. And he has pronounced blind spots.

Given how astute he is, and how obvious some of the information he filters out is to a reader, what determines these blind spots? Is it simply that he doesn’t want to see some things? Is this guilt? Or, again, is it sociopathy: he screens out distasteful data that serves his survival?

He’s certainly obsessive.

It’s fair to say Coryo is deaf to poetry and does not understand music. That’s a shame, as the person he believes he loves is a poet and musician. We have no access to who that person is beyond the poetry and music they articulate, because Coryo is stumbling blind there.

What he does know is this: ‘She’s onstage. You’re onstage. This is the show.’

The Capitol’s chief of weaponries research tells him, “You’re good at games. One day you’ll be a Gamemaker.”

The thought had never crossed his mind. […I]t didn’t seem like much of a job. Or like it required any particular skill, tossing kids and weapons in an arena and letting them fight it out. He supposed they had to organise the reapings and film the Games, but he hoped for a more challenging career. “I’ve got a great deal to learn before I can even think of that,” he said modestly.

Coriolanus is nothing if not a fast learner.

That’s his dilemma: what is he – nothing, or a fast learner?

Afternote: A 1799 poem by William Wordsworth is a key device in this narrative. It’s worth noting Wordsworth started out as a youthful radical liberal and aged into a conservative. I think there’s a point there.

The_Ballad_of_Songbirds_and_Snakes_Elly_McDonald

 

 

 


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Review: Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah (2013) translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2020)

I knew nothing about this novel when I opened the first page and for much of the following 152 pages I still felt I knew almost nothing.

Yet when I finished page 152 I was in love with this text. I kept reading and re-reading the final pages. I didn’t want it to end.

I read Untold Night and Day in 50 page chunks (yes, I’m obsessed with the numbers). To me it reads like a prose poem, so 50 pages was as much as I could take in at a time.

After the first 50 pages, I read Deborah Smith’s Translator’s Notes, at the end, which I found helpful:

Bae’s oppositions are emphatically not binaries. Her books are filled with repetition, mirroring, echoing, overlapping […] Simultaneously is another thread-word studding the text.

Many years ago, when I was a poet, an editor described my poems as “games of rhythm and repetition”, which was apt. I came to enjoy the circularity of Bae’s world in Untold Night and Day, and the chunks of repetition.

The quotes on the book jacket are similarly apt:

“As cryptic and compelling as a fever dream […] a vivid and disorientating exploration of identity, artifice and compulsion” – Sharlene Tao

“I loved its uncanny beauty, its startling occurrences. As it unravels you feel […] yourself unravelling too” – Daisy Johnson

“Haunting and poetic […] holds the reader in a suspended state, allowing us to explore the tension of the threshold” – Chloe Aridjis

Untold Night and Day is filled with oppressive heat and damp, small concrete rooms, dank alleys, circling traffic, recurrences, identity switches, blocks to communication, temporal distortions…

Very early on, I recognised the figure of a girl in a coarse white hanbok (traditional dress), wearing woven hemp sandals, with her hair tied back in a low pony-tail, as a figure from the Korean spirit world: the young girl ghost, or supernatural entity.

The main female character is called Ayami (and sometimes other names). Bae has explained that “According to Siberian shamanism [the forebear of Korean shamanism], ayami is the name for the spirit that enters the shaman’s body and communicates matters of the other world to them.”

But Deborah Smith rightly points out that Untold Night and Day does not proclaim or labor its “Koreanness”. She quotes the self-mocking Korean joke rejecting Other-ing: “Oh, let me go put on some hanbok.

So it’s contemporary experimental literary writing, rather than a hanbok tale.

What strikes me, reading during COVID-19 uncertainty and a wave of job losses and business failures, is that the narrative commences with two central characters being made redundant.

Ayami could be a spirit guide escorting a man to another world. Or they could both be casualties, on a more mundane level:

“Ayami [comforted him] for a long time, as though the repetitive gesture might conjure a shamanic power – the only way of keeping together, in the same place and time, two human beings in the process of disintegrating.”

Untold_Night_and_Day_Bae_Suah


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Re-blogs: Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata (trans Ginny Tabley Takemori 2018) – Literally Literary blog by Xi Chen; The Nakano Thrift Shop (2017) by Hiromi Kawakami trans Allison Markin Powell – LA Review of Books review by M W Larson

Convenience_Store_Woman_Sayaka_Murata

This is not the cover art of the edition I read #1: the edition I read had quotes from reviewers suggesting Convenience Store Woman is “irresistibly quirky”, “hilarious”, “intoxicating”, “exhilarating… funny”.
I loved it, but I found it dark and disquieting.

I hadn’t been reading for a while and felt the need to ease my way back in via very short novels.  These two – Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, and The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami – are both written in simple, deadpan styles that make for fast reads, the Murata novel in a somewhat mechanical tone suited to its themes, the Kawakami novel delicate, sometimes verging on twee. They’re linked thematically, both being told in the first person by young women narrators who work in retail, and both addressing sexual behaviours, relationship options, relationship to employments.

Both present contemporary young Japanese people shying away from sexual relations and intimacy, instead seeking identity in service transactions, workplace routines, and (at least in Kawakami) objects imbued with emotional significance.

Although I have visited Japan, and although I have a decades-long interest in East Asian arts and cultures, I am very far from being equipped to report meaningfully on these narratives. Instead, after organising my own thoughts I sought out reviews that opened up the narratives for me.

There is nothing I can write that could better present these two texts than the two reviews linked here. I thank both Xi Chen and MW Larson.

What I will say: Reading Convenience Store Woman, I occasionally laughed wryly, with some discomfort; reading The Nakano Thrift Shop, I quite often laughed out loud, screenshotting pages to text to my sister. Ultimately, The Nakano Thrift Shop was a feel-good light read. I couldn’t say that of Convenience Store Woman, but it spoke to me more strongly.

Convenience Store Woman as read by Xi Chen: https://medium.com/literally-literary/sayaka-muratas-parable-of-alienation-25a188337adb

The Nakano Thrift Shop as read by MW Larson: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-anxiety-of-intimacy-in-hiromi-kawakamis-the-nakano-thrift-shop/

The_Nakano_Thrift_Shop_Hiromi_Kawakami

This is not the cover art of the edition I read #2: the edition I read had an image of a hip bright young thing leaping onto a commuter train.
I loved the narrator, but she struck me as much more introvert than that image.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Reviews: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (2007, trans Deborah Smith); I am Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo (2016, trans Jamie Chang) – translated from Korean

The_Vegetarian_Han_Kang

I had formed the impression from publicity I’d seen that The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, was a novel about patriarchy pushing back when one woman attempts to make a relatively mild assertion of will: woman goes vegetarian, male state goes mad.

I suppose the first section, at least, of this book, can be read that way. Woman does indeed go vegetarian. Male relatives do indeed get mad.

But there are other things going on here. British novelist Ian McEwan sums it up well, describing The Vegetarian as “a novel of sexuality and madness”. Mostly madness, for me.

The narrative unfolds through three sections, from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband; her brother-in-law; and her sister. I found the final section, the sister’s perspective, most compelling.

In keeping with a feminist reading, neither of the two men have any interest in Yeong-hye’s personhood. She’s an object, for both. The book’s opening line is “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” The husband (“Mr Cheong”) goes on to innumerate the many ways Yeong-hye seemed to him entirely ordinary, and why this very ordinariness qualified her to be his wife. (In short: inadequate man seeks woman he can disregard.) He only ever refers to her as “my wife”.

Her brother-in-law, in contrast, sees Yeong-hye as distinct, even unique, and exotic.  For him, she embodies sexuality. Vitality.

Both men are projecting like crazy. (“Crazy” being a technical term.)

In her marriage, Yeong-hye goes mad. Pointedly, her husband reports this in terms of her ceasing to dedicate her being to his service. He has no feelings of concern or compassion. Instead he feels revulsion.

Witnessing Yeong-hye’s madness, her brother-in-law goes mad. He conflates his madness with “art”. He feels he’s come alive. The comedown is – how shall I say? – deflating.

In the final section, Yeong-hye is certifiably mad and confined to a secure psychiatric ward. Her sister is the only family remaining by her side, figuratively and in fact. Her sister meditates on the nature of madness, its origins, and concludes that only a fine string ties us to sanity. Any one of us could untie that string and be ”absorbed” by our dark dreams.

When Yeong-hye is asked why she rejects meat, she can only say, in a perverse of echo of Martin Luther King, “I had a dream”. As someone who watches Korean TV drama, I recognise this notion of “What is your dream?” as a catechism of aspiration. What do you want for your life? What is your ambition?

What Yeong-hye had (and has) is not a dream but a night terror. Her only apparent desire is to disappear into a forest, to join the plant world. This is her survival strategy, even if it kills her.

Yeong-hye’s older sister recognises she too pursued a survival strategy. In her case, she adopted the persona of the sane one, the capable, conscientious older sister. She had cosmetic surgery (double eyelids), promoted a pleasing demeanour, and built a business selling cosmetics. None of that ensures her psychic survival.

The most troubling character, for me, is the older sister’s young son. With the adults gone mad, he is abandoned. Who will protect his survival?

I_Am_Kim_JiYoung_Born_1982

The Vegetarian begs comparison with Cho Nam-joo’s controversial 2016 Korean novel, I am Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Cho Nam-joo is a former TV scriptwriter who took a career break after having a child. She wrote her book fast, apparently in just two weeks, using elements of her own experiences. Footnote sociological research citations firmly anchor anecdote and individual composite in statistics and legislation.

The novel is presented as a case study – a psychiatric case study, as we come to realise. Stylistically it’s a very straightforward, not to say clinical, read. By stepping us through Kim Ji-young’s life history, Cho shows the ways a female in Korea is disadvantaged from birth relative to her male peers.

Inevitably, the book prompted a backlash of ‘Whataboutism’, intergenerational beefs and male resentments, as did the film adaptation.

I lent the novel to my mother, born 1934, knowing some of Kim Ji-young’s workplace experiences mirrored hers. My mother read it, handed it back, commented wryly, “All women, all over the world.”

Like Yeong-hye, Kim Ji-young (a common name, a kind of Jane Doe) goes mad. As at the novel’s conclusion, her prognosis does not look good. The male psychiatrist who is purportedly writing her case study reflects privately on how her story relates to his own experience. He, like Ji-young’s husband, is a caring and intelligent man. He believes his desire to help is sincere.

The sting in the tail? Even recognising the structural and systemic inequities that resulted in his patient’s breakdown, as his attention moves elsewhere, the male authority figure disregards what he might have learned. Instead of being a change agent, he perpetuates the way things are.


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Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994 trans 2020) – translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

The_Memory_Police_Yoko_Ogawa

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa, was published in Japanese in 1994, then in 2019 in an English translation by Stephen Snyder (nominated for the International Booker 2020).

It’s a bleak, Kafkaesque piece of speculative fiction, or allegory, or dark folk tale.

A novelist, writing in the first person, recounts how on the island where she lives, over a period of 15+ years, there has been a series of “disappearances”: the population wakes up some days with a shared sense of loss, that something from their familiar lives has ceased to exist, has been erased.

The objects of these disappearances don’t physically cease to be manifest, or become physically invisible. Instead, they remain as tangible presences, at least initially, but they cease to have meaning – their associations, their functions, are lost to recall, and eventually the very concept of those objects ceases to exist for most people, except in occasional flashes of semi-recollection.

To aid in this process, to make this process efficient, a fascist squad called the Memory Police ensures people dispose of the tangible physical remains of these objects promptly. Retaining relics of disappeared objects is forbidden, policed by house to house searches. Individuals who retain memories, who are not subject to the collective amnesia and do not collude in erasure, are frogmarched away by the Memory Police and themselves “disappeared”. As are those who attempt to hide those who remember.

At first, the objects the novelist notes as having disappeared are objects of joy: ribbons, perfume, gemstones, millinery, roses, music boxes, boiled sweets, fruit. So at first I was thinking this might be an allegory about loss of pleasure, of anhedonia (loss of joy). I was thinking in terms of depression, especially as the novelist telling the story appears to be suffering from imminent writer’s block: her novel in progress starts out as a tale of a typist who loses her voice but is still able to communicate with her lover (her typing instructor) via typewriter, until her typewriter breaks down.

The narrator-novelist within The Memory Police has a close professional relationship with her long-time editor, who has nursed her previous three novels through to publication. She learns her editor is one of the few who retains memory of the disappeared objects, and her immediate thought is that she must hide him to protect him, and also to protect her writing project.

Typewriters themselves are however obviously a “disappeared” artefact in our contemporary world, so the novel seems to be asking us to consider what, in our lifetimes, has “disappeared” and been erased. In the way that the category “hats”, and therefore the concept “millinery”, has been disappeared within The Memory Police, whole categories of consumer goods and therefore work skills and workplaces have become redundant in real life, often all but forgotten.

Some reviewers have broadened that thought to consider how elements of our natural environments are disappearing: animals, plants whole eco-chains.

Other reviewers home in on cultural erasure: cultures where language and traditional practices are banned, forcibly suppressed, resulting in actual absolute or incremental erasure of cultural identity.

There is also a layer of gender-based allegory. The narrator within The Memory Police feels her way through her narratives through her fingers, through typing, and sometimes her stories takes unforeseen turns. Her work-in-progress switches from being a gentle love story, with a supportive lover, to a Bluebeard-like contemporary horror story of captivity, domination, perversion and erasure of a woman’s will, faculties and ultimately existence.

The perverted parallelism of the novel-within-the-novel vis-à-vis the narrative that is The Memory Police is troubling. In the novel-within-the-novel the captive is the female first-person narrator, the malevolent entity is her male lover/abuser. In the actual novel, the person imprisoned is the writer’s male editor, and his story is told from the female narrator-novelist’s perspective. Is her version, in which she is his ‘savior’, self-serving? We have no direct access to how he really feels about being removed from his wife and his newborn, never-seen son. The editor has been persuaded by his novelist that it is in his best interests to abandon his wife and newborn and instead focus solely on assisting her stalled manuscript through to completion. He is always represented as grateful and acquiescent – but he’s dependent on his novelist for food and sanctuary. How do we, as readers, feel about the writer and her editor as lovers, given the typing teacher enacts the role ‘lover’ towards his typist captive?

The captive in the novel-within-the-novel is imprisoned in a turret (like Rapunzel). The captive in the main narrative is imprisoned in a too-small cavity between house storeys (‘stories’), beneath a trapdoor. Is this gendered symbolism: the woman imprisoned in a tower by a man; the man imprisoned in a dark enclosed space by a woman?

The ‘love’ story elements were, to me, disturbing. (I kept thinking of John Fowles’ novel, The Collector.)

The novelist-narrator has, on the face of it, a less disquieting relationship with a surrogate father, an older man who assists (aids and abets) her. He doesn’t have a name, and nor does the editor: they are “the old man” and “R” respectively. But then, the narrator has no name, either.

There are layers. Ultimately, I read The Memory Police as an allegory about mortality, ageing, and death – at its most blunt, as an allegory of dementia.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

Life on the island diminishes through a series of small losses, loss of small joys; the loss of staples (food types, loss of appetite, as the remaining foods are increasingly unappealing); the loss of time and seasons, when “calendars” disappear, resulting in endless snow, snow that buries all it covers; loss of story-telling, of narratives, when “novels” disappear; then increasingly intimate losses. How does one adapt to the felt-loss of body parts – of a left leg, a right arm?

Once loss has progressed that far, how is it policed? If people retain the awareness of what was a left leg, but have no recall of its function, have lost any sense of relatedness, instead recognising the “disappeared” limb at best as a “tumour”, how is that policed? Can left legs be physically disposed of, the way rose petals can be? Can left legs be set free, as caged birds can be?

What will be the ultimate loss? What, at the last, will be left, will disappear?

I referred to “perverted parallelism” but in fact the relationship between the novel-within-the-novel and the main narrative is a chiasmus (if I remember Lit 101 Poetry correctly). It’s not parallel lines, it’s a ‘X’ cross-shape.

The first thing lost by the typist-victim in the novel-within-the-novel is her voice. More accurately, her voice is taken from her, as happens in totalitarian states and patriarchies, and as happens with writer’s block. But in the main narrative, the last element of the narrator’s being to be erased is voice. As her voice ends, so does the text.

As her voice evaporates, her editor climbs out of the cavity between floorboards.

He emerges to a ruined world, but he does not look back.

The_Memory_Police_by_Yoko_Ogawa


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Six Flying Dragons (Korea, 2015) and Tree With Deep Roots (Korea, 2011) – spoiler-free

All the virtues of adventure costume drama with the added value of surprise.

Incredible sets, costumes, gorgeous young actors, swashbuckling action sequences, revenge, romance… and the whole way through I was trying to imagine how Korean audiences, knowing the framework of historical fact, would be interpreting characters and events.

Then when I realised I was watching the two shows in reverse order – Six Flying Dragons is a prequel to Tree With Deep Roots, made by the same team – I realised Korean viewers watching SFD would already know the fates of key characters, removing elements of suspense I found excruciating, but adding poignancy.

The entire political history of Korea would inform Koreans’ understandings of these dramas. I don’t have that. So my responses are naive, in the sense of… uneducated.

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The FB diary:

“… starts off playing like a kids’ adventure yarn then turns into an examination of political morality, dissidents, the nature of power, the nature of courage, wrapped up in an origin story of the [medieval] kingdom of Joseon (Korea). (The actual founding of the Joseon dynasty differs in marked ways from the hero tale of Six Flying Dragons.)

“This is gathering in power episode by episode and the climactic sequences in Ep4 – the music! – are killing me.

“Some parts so far are so pertinent to what’s happening in Hong Kong but the political parable is encompassing.”

“Rock stars. Amazing. I think I prefer it to GoT.

“12 episodes into Six Flying Dragons and it’s striking to contrast its female characters with how women were presented on GoT.

“Not many female characters in SFD, but those there are, are strong and complex, and respected: a woman spy master, a woman master spy, a peasant village leader, a peasant family matriarch, a resourceful peasant in a player troupe, a very young political ‘genius’ (so described by her father’s retainer).

“There’s a dorm-full of women spy-assassins but no overt prostitution, no femme fatale, no fallen women, no nudity. No conniving queen. The only sex has been one implied rape, off camera.

“Plus one young woman who appears to have an orgasm when the [much higher status] man who is patiently courting her assists her in fitting her first real pair of shoes. But I’d lose it too if I were that particular young woman and that particular young man was fondling my feet.”

“Things are turning very bleak in the last 10 episodes of Six Flying Dragons.

“The essential questions: What constitutes a righteous action? Does loyalty to an ideology take precedence over loyalty to loved ones? Capitalism vs Communism?

“Does a person become evil by performing evil acts or were they evil already?

“And the perennial: Who will live? Who will die violently?”

“Traumatised by Ep48 of Six Flying Dragons then cried the whole way through Ep50, the finale. [And kept on crying for 24 hours.]

” ‘We are stronger when we have someone to protect.’ ”

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“In my quest to become an overnight expert in Early Joseon I have done a deep dive into art history books, Wiki and Korean film and TV series beyond Six Flying Dragons.

Tree With Deep Roots picks up in time where SFD left off. I was going to say it presents a very different interpretation of King Taejong/Yi Bang-won but actually, the characterisation has a certain continuity, for obvious historical reasons. From this perspective, it makes SFD a romantic origins story.

“TWDR a.k.a. Deep Rooted Tree (a nice ironic pun) is more Alexandre Dumas.

“I also tried the popular Netflix series Kingdom, which has the apt conceit of making a Joseon king a raving zombie. I applaud the idea – the entertaining Inspector K: Secret of the Living Dead turned Joseon nobles into vampires – but I couldn’t cope beyond the first ten minutes.

“However (Korean: honne), I am not surprised Kingdom has just been renewed for a second season. Maybe I’ll work my way up to it.”

Tree With Deep Roots turns out to be a conspiracy thriller about… literacy?

“Could you stake your life the pen is mightier than the sword, that debate trumps torture, that a good man can survive wielding power?

“Would you?”

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Seoul Broadcasting System


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Mystify: Michael Hutchence – a documentary by Richard Lowenstein

Today I attended a Melbourne media preview for Mystify, director Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about his friend Michael Hutchence, lead singer of the band INXS, who died by suicide in 1997.

Michael was my friend once, too. We were a year apart in age and we met not long after we both moved to Sydney in 1979. Back then, I was an Australian rock music writer.

As a rock writer, I wrote a number of articles about Michael and about INXS. More recently, I’ve written two memoir pieces about Michael as I knew him [links at bottom]. Today, I was fortunate to attend the preview as the guest of my friend Jen Jewel Brown, a prominent Australian rock music writer (writing as Jenny Hunter Brown or Jenny Brown), who also knew Michael back in the day, and who co-wrote the 2018 Michael Hutchence biography Michael: My brother, lost boy of INXS, with Michael’s sister Tina Hutchence.

At the end of Mystify, Jen and I sat transfixed. Afterwards, we talked for hours.

I sincerely hope Richard Lowenstein’s sensitive, intimate portrait of Michael as recalled by the people closest to him reaches its audience.

It would be a travesty if Mystify got lost in the wake of the many previous accounts of Michael’s life.

In addition to Tina and Jen’s book last year, published biographies include: Toby Creswell’s Shine Like It Does: the life of Michael Hutchence (2017); Michael In Pictures – A Celebration of the Life of Michael Hutchence by Richard Simpkin (2015); Total XS by Michael’s brother Rhett Hutchence (2004); Paula, Michael and Bob: Everything you know is wrong by Gerry Agar (2003); Michael Hutchence: Just A Man: the real Michael Hutchence by Tina Hutchence and Michael’s mother Patricia Glassop (2000); Michael Hutchence: The Devil Inside by Vincent Lovegrove (1999); and The Life and Death of Michael Hutchence by Mike Gee (1998), also released as The Final Days of Michael Hutchence.

There have been TV dramatisations and documentaries: The Day the Rock Star Died (2019); The Last Rock Star (2017); the mini-series Never Tear Us Apart: The untold story of INXS (2014); Autopsy – The last hours of Michael Hutchence (2014); The Life and Death of Michael Hutchence (2014); Behind The Music Remastered (2010); True Hollywood Story – Michael Hutchence (2004); True Hollywood Story – Rocked To Death: Michael Hutchence (1999).

Some of these accounts are outright exploitation. Others are attempts by people who knew Michael to tell his story as they understood it, or as they want the public to perceive it. Michael’s story is highly contested: it’s been told many different ways.

In Mystify, Richard Lowenstein presents Michael through footage filmed by friends and family, and outtakes from live performance and music video shoots. His friends, lovers and bandmates provide commentary superimposed on images from the time.

Some of the footage, photos and mementoes are breathtakingly personal. Kudos to the women with whom Michael had significant relationships who have chosen to speak honestly and insightfully, and who gave permission for private mementoes to be featured.

That they do this from love, not from any self-serving motive, is abundantly evident.

Kudos to the band members and fellow musicians who speak about Michael as they knew him, for better and for worse.

Kudos to Lowenstein (director of numerous INXS videos, Michael’s director in the feature film Dogs In Space), whose voice is not heard but whose commentary is expressed through his editing choices and the narrative structure.

A few things are brutally clear. Michael’s life was irrevocably altered by Acquired Brain Injury (ABI). He acquired brain injury in 1992 when a Danish taxi driver knocked him down on a cobblestone street in Copenhagen. His partner at the time, Danish supermodel Helena Christensen, recalls blood coming from his ears and his mouth. She recalls him insisting on leaving hospital, being nursed by her at home for the following month. He kept the extent of his injury from others. Perhaps he never fully recognized the extent to which head injury damaged him. But the brain scans exist: Michael had frontal lobe damage, which will have affected his emotional regulation and behaviours. He lost the sensory perceptions of taste and smell, which, for a sensualist like Michael, was tantamount to losing who he was.

In truth, the Michael I see in footage from the last years of his life is not the Michael I knew. His bandmates say it isn’t Michael as they knew him, either.

The Michael presented in those final years is panicking, desperate, lost, humiliated.

For those of us who cared for him, it’s hard to watch.

Afterwards, I felt like I’d been hit by a cannonball. “I feel sick,” I said to Jen. She felt sick, too.

I told Jen the last time I saw Michael was during the recording of their mega-album Kick, in 1987. He was walking up William Street in Sydney, towards Kings Cross. I was walking downwards, towards him. He was wearing a long loose beige coat. I was wearing red. He invited me to join him at Rhinoceros Studios, to help him fill in time between takes, chatting.

Or maybe it was that time when he stopped by my table in a crowded restaurant, and everyone in that room craned to check out who he’d deigned to talk to, strained their ears to hear what we talked about.

But actually, that wasn’t the last time I saw Michael. The very last time was New Year’s Eve 1988, when we were both at the same party at a fancy harborside mansion. He arrived trailing his model of the moment, an Amazon with sky-high cheekbones. We nodded. But by then INXS were major international stars, and I turned away without speaking to him.

Michael Hutchence was a real person, very real. I’ve heard him dismissed as a poser, a wally, a twat. For me, he was a sensitive, talented, inquiring young man, entranced by glamour, dreaming big. For years I thought the life he lived after that New Year’s Eve epitomized success: Michael living happily ever after, in the sunshine of the south of France.

I was disabused of that belief when Michael died.

In Mystify, I now see those years presented as a drawn-out descent into exhaustion and eventual dehumanization, as the tabloids chewed him up.

In one of the Mystify reviews I’ve read, it’s suggested Michael made a Faustian pact: “success”, at the cost of a life worth living.

I’m not sure who it’s implied is the Devil in this pact. I don’t think it’s “the devil inside” (to quote the song).

I do know fame’s a bitch.

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Link to my blog tribute to Michael Hutchence, with personal reminiscences – Someone Famous, With Girl (2014) https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2014/06/05/someone-famous-with-girl-for-michael-hutchence/
  2. Excerpt from my blog post W for War (2017). In its totality, this piece is not about Michael and there is some repetition with my Mystify blog post and my blog post Someone Famous, With Girl, above. W for War is, I suppose, about my own personal disillusion with previously held notions of “success” and “glamour”. It’s quite naked and wasn’t really written to be read (true confession!):Let’s begin with Michael Hutchence’s death. That’s a cynical place to begin, because of course it – any “it” – began much earlier. But this is a cynical tale, so let’s start where Michael ended.One morning late in 1997 I arrived at my Knightsbridge [London] workplace – the office with W emblazoned above the reception desk – and the tabloids on the foyer table screamed that Michael Hutchence was dead. Found hanged behind a hotel room door. I don’t remember much of that day but I do remember getting home at about 7.30pm and crying hysterically for two hours.

    Michael had been an acquaintance, possibly a friend, of mine. He was a year or so older than me and we’d arrived in Sydney at much the same time. In my first week in Sydney I saw Michael and his band, INXS, play at the bottom of a four-band bill at the Stagedoor Tavern. I say “saw”, but the Stagedoor was so crowded, so dark, I couldn’t see the stage.

    I became a rock music writer, Michael became a rock star. I interviewed him when the band were unknowns, then when they achieved national fame; I hung out with him while INXS recorded their international breakthrough album Kick, I met up with him occasionally and we nattered.

    I wrote him a poem, at his request:

    stops at the sound of
    his name called by
    a stranger – then
    recalls
    who she is and forgets
    himself: it’s you
    he smiles (he always means it)
    he laughs (and feels abashed)
    her eyes mirror his
    she is his (they always are)
    they are both young
    veterans
    they both can
    remember
    moments of belief, of the only kind
    he’ll know
    all strangers
    his kind. He is
    kind, or he could be, this singled out
    outsider
    he takes her
    camera and asks
    Am I in there?

    Someone Famous, With Girl (1985)

    In 2014 I wrote a blog about Michael that stops at that poem and bears its title.

    The last time I saw Michael was New Year’s Eve 1988. I was at a party at a Sydney harborside mansion. Michael was there, with model-actress Virginia Hey. I was femme’d up – stiletto heels, a satin bubble skirt, ‘80s long hair – and we exchanged formal nods. My heels sank into the lawn and mosquitoes bit my shins.

    As INXS conquered the U.S. charts, and as stories about Michael’s jet-setting lifestyle cluttered the tabloids, I came to see Michael as symbolic of “success”: Michael was the one who’d made it. I envied him his home in the south of France, his London pad, his famous friends. I envied him the Good Life with the Beautiful People. Even when paparazzi ambushed him and Paula Yates that notorious Sunday morning on their weekend ‘getaway’ (as if), even as I grew anxious for his well-being, I still saw Michael as representing success, and I still saw success as luxury and celebrity.

    That night, after Michael’s death, I had a nightmare that another of my rock star acquaintance-friends, a peer of Michael’s, Marc Hunter, had hanged himself too. (Marc died a few months later, of throat cancer; I didn’t know he was ill). I wore black to work the next day, and a small cross, and Liza Minnelli sad eyes, and I told my boss and another workmate about my nightmare. Michael’s death was all over the papers, or should I say, the papers were all over Michael’s death. I worked at a media planning agency, with 50 young men, two young female media planners, and four admin support staff (all female). Almost all staff were aged under 30. There were jokes about rock star deaths.

    Rock star deaths proved such a hit that our Xmas Party Social Committee decided to make that the Xmas party theme: Dead Pop Stars. The 33 year old who headed up the committee announced his intention to go as Michael Hutchence, in blue face, with a rope around his neck. I said that if Dead Pop Stars was the theme, I – the marketing director – would not attend the Xmas party. The theme was amended simply to Pop Stars.

    My boss told me other staff complained I was making something out of nothing. They didn’t believe I’d known Michael Hutchence. My boss told me to buck up. I decided to use the shock of Michael’s death to make changes in my life. I took to jogging around the Serpentine in Hyde Park during my lunch break, a short-lived practice.

    On about my second run I emerged from the lift and stepped into the office foyer as my boss was waiting to take the lift down. I glared at him; I was embarrassed at being seen in lycra shorts.

    My boss asked, “You look at me as if you hate me. But I’m the only friend you have around here.”

    That, I think, is a truer beginning.


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Review: The Lost Ten (2019) by Harry Sidebottom

Harry_Sidebottom_The_Lost_TenHarry Sidebottom is an academic specializing in the 3rd Century Roman Empire who has written two popular novel series: the best-selling Warrior of Rome series (seven novels centered on a Germano-Roman general named Ballista), and the Throne of the Caesars series (three novels charting the tumultuous times between Alexander Severus and the Gordian emperors).

This year, a stand-alone novel was published (through Zaffre / Allen & Unwin), loosely connected to the Ballista tales, and titled The Lost Ten.

The cover blurb for The Lost Ten reads: ‘A crack squad. An impenetrable fortress. A desperate mission’.

Inevitably, this blurb conjures up sword’n’sandals Guns of Navarone or Andy McNab ripping yarn, which is probably how this title was pitched. In much the way his previous novel, The Last Hour, can be dismissed as Jack Reacher in Rome.

But I like Harry Sidebottom as a writer, and I like the way he evokes his ancient Rome, and I think it a mistake to dismiss these books.

Sidebottom writes in a fine tradition of historical fiction descending from Alexandre Dumas and Sir Walter Scott, through Robert Louis Stevenson to Patrick O’Brian and Bernard Cornwell.

At his best, in the Ballista novels, Sidebottom’s work is characterized by a keen eye and sense of humour, teamed with research-based authenticity, a confident, lucid writing style, rollicking plots, a moral awareness, a degree of sensitivity, and a grounding in the genres of contemporary popular culture, notably the Western.

The Ballista novels seem to hold a special place in the hearts of Sidebottom fans. With The Throne of the Caesars trilogy, he explored a weightier, more ponderous format, and my guess is it bit him in the butt commercially.

There was a change in publisher. The first two novels with the new publisher, Zaffre, are a bid to reassert the thriller creds of the Sidebottom brand. They seem to me directed to a target audience that is mostly (but not wholly) male, whose reading is perhaps (but not always) confined to military adventure novels and graphic novels, and really wants a fast page-turner.

Both The Lost Ten and The Last Hour deliver to that demographic.

For me, I think it would be a shame to consign the Sidebottom output solely to that demographic, however. In my humble opinion, there are rewards to reading Sidebottom novels that extend well beyond.

I look forward to whatever Sidebottom writes next, and to rejoining Ballista’s continued adventures.


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Female sociopaths on TV: Luther (2010), Killing Eve (2018), Sherlock (2016), Elementary (2013), Atomic Blonde (2017)

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Killing Eve’s Villanelle (Jodie Comer)

Today, as I write, the second season of Killing Eve debuts on American television.

A Variety article online warns “a brutal killing changes our obsession with Villanelle”, the whimsical assassin played by Jodie Comer.

What could change our love for Villanelle? What could counter her playfulness, her venom, her charisma?

Villanelle is without question the best thing Killing Eve has going, and Killing Eve Season 1 is a cornucopia of good things.

Yesterday, nine years after its debut in 2010, I binge-watched Season 1 of the UK TV crime thriller Luther. Luther stars Idris Elba, who has had me in the palm of his hand (I wish!) since he co-starred in the 1998 UK 10-parter Ultraviolet, where we met him as a Desert Storm veteran hunting vampires in ‘90s London.

Idris Elba is a good thing. But the Luther character I love, my obsession, is Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan. Like Villanelle, Alice is a sociopath. She executes her parents and the family dog. And that’s just for starters.

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Alice is at it again – Ruth Wilson in Luther

The female sociopath on TV is compelling and unabashedly entertaining. She’s the female unconstrained by social convention, the disinhibited Id. She charms, she flirts, but she does not make nice. She’ll kill as readily as smile. She’s the female without fear, the female who turns the tables on men. The female who rejects expectations of kindness, courtesy, forgiveness, gentleness.

In the first episode of Luther Season 2, Abby, a beautiful young art school student out and about in London’s famed Petticoat Lane, is taking photos for an art assignment. Abby is accosted by a young man who persists in trying to monopolise her attention. At first he’s an interruption, then an irritation, then he’s harassing her: she wants him to desist but she cannot say outright “Stop. Go away.” And if she did, he – and any witnesses – would consider that an overreaction, an unnecessary aggression. So he keeps being in her face till she turns away, strides away, retreats to a quiet recess. Where he reappears and kills her.

Alice would not be caught dead that way.

Alice would entrap him. And gut him.

Be like Alice, we think, we women watching.

Like Season 1 Killing Eve, Season 1 Luther is sublime. It works as a brilliant ensemble piece – not only Ruth Wilson and Idris Elba, but Indira Varma, Paul McGann, Steven Mackintosh, Saskia Reeves – and also as a contemporary reworking of Othello, with plot twists. It takes the familiar tale, with its emotionally volatile hero and his doe-eyed wife who ends up dead, and turns our expectations inside out. And it adds in Alice. Perfect.

After Season 1, in my opinion Luther lost the plot. There is no storyline as compelling as the false friend and the slain wife to drive the narrative forward. There remains only increasingly pointless “psychosexual” nastinesses and, infrequently, Alice. Not enough Alice. And even Alice seems adrift.

Luther’s creator and showrunner, Neil Cross, has said he sees Luther as having a touch of the Sherlocks. That’s interesting, though arguably C21st television features a surfeit of Sherlocks. Obviously, there is Benedict Cumberbatch’s eponymous Sherlock, which offers a version of the female sociopath: Lara Pulver as “the woman”, Irene Adler. Then there’s Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary, where ‘Irene Adler’ is uncovered as Sherlock’s traditional archenemy Moriarty, recast as Natalie Dormer. Most recently the Cumberbatch Sherlock has been revealed to have a sociopath sister, more brilliant than the Holmes brothers Sherlock and Mycroft: the evil genius Eurus, played by Sian Brooke.

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Irene Adler, “The Woman” – Lara Pulver in Sherlock

Eurus seems to me in direct line from Luther’s Alice Morgan. Eurus was a freakish intelligence from the outset, terrifying in her freakness. She has the ability to manipulate almost anyone into doing almost anything. Alice was a child prodigy, at Oxford by age 13, at 18 a PhD in the astrophysics of dark matter. Alice explains to Luther she is fascinated by Black Holes:

This is a black hole. It consumes matter, sucks it in, and crushes it beyond existence. When I first heard that, I thought that’s evil in its most pure. Something that drags you in, crushes you, makes you nothing.

It doesn’t take a “psychosexual” expert to figure that a “black hole” is a metaphor for woman. For Alice, her definition of a “black hole” is almost a mission statement. (Reminding me of the wonderful British columnist Lynne Truss, who in the ‘90s referred to a character in the long-running BBC radio soapie The Archers as “Jolene Rogers, not so much a name as a mission statement”.)

One of the promo straplines for Luther is a quote from Season 1, “What if you were on the Devil’s side without knowing it?”

Alice is, arguably, the devil in female form. She’s seductive, beautiful. She’s charismatic. She charms Luther, and they form an alliance. But Luther believes in the value of life, and in love. Alice’s modus operandi is to take what matters and crush it to nothing.

Luther is all stamping bull, stomping forwards, foregrounded. Alice is absence, negative space.

Eurus, likewise, is an absence, physically “missing” from Sherlock’s life, erased from his psyche.

Villanelle is a kind of absence in that she is the mystery Eve seeks to expose. Eve’s job is to trace her, to track her, to entrap her.

I saw a film on TV this week centred on a female assassin and briefly I wondered where she sat in relation to Alice, Eurus, Villanelle, Adler and Dormer’s Moriarity. The film was Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron as a triple agent in a comic strip (graphic novel) version of Cold War Berlin. Theron is wonderful to watch, with her action goddess physicality. But the character is intentionally all surface. There’s no mystery there. Face it, a M16 superagent named “Lorraine” lacks all credibility. We know this Atomic Blonde is American, a male fantasy, Debbie Harry as action figure toy. She doesn’t charm, she does not delight, there is no real intrigue.

The Theron character operates through force, not manipulation. She lacks the black hole power to suck us in.

Once we’re truly sucked in, it’s hard to imagine what fictional misdeed could change our obsession, our crush.

The female sociopath crushes it.

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Eurus Holmes (Sian Brooke) in Sherlock


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Michele Johnson In Memorium (18 March 2019)

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I met Michele through our mutual friend Mary Christie when Michele lived in Sydney in the early 80s. We were neighbours in Kings Cross for a time. We reconnected through social media in more recent times. Michele as I knew her in her late 20s was very much the Michele I could hear in her Facebook posts, which were frequent, and always welcome: amusing, laugh out loud funny, provocative, informative, thoughtful.

I describe her to people who did not know her as “my fierce feisty beautiful friend”. She could be combative; also sensitive. She was caring, and outrageous. She was rock’n’roll. She was art. She was performance. She was politics. She introduced Presbyterian me to same-sex and shall we say less conventional sexual mores (I remained a bystander – dancing together at Kinsella’s was as out there as I got). Michele permitted me to give her a colour cosmetics makeover even though my hands were careless, I used frosted pink lipstick, and her beauty didn’t need any help from me.

She was a straightshooter who told it like it was. She was as generous as anyone I’ve ever known. Witty, acute, astute. Every human being is a universe, and every death is a cosmos lost. Michele was a star. Her loss leaves this world a darker place.

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Michele en route to hospital for specialist appointments

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Left aligned – always left aligned


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Review: Counterpart Season 2 (TV series, 2018) – 24 February 2019

I don’t usually like Season 2 of a TV series better than Season 1. GoT, Vikings… but often I feel as if a series explored its key themes adequately in the first episodes and left itself nowhere as interesting to go.

Counterpart S1 was a terrific series. IMHO, Counterpart S2 is better.

Episode 6 is a stand-alone episode providing back-story. It’s the pivot episode, midway through the 10-part season. It states the main themes explicitly.

In Counterpart, we visit parallel worlds linked by a derelict tunnel called ‘The Crossing’. The Crossing is a closely-guarded state secret on both sides. Most of the inhabitants of the two worlds are unaware there is a counterpart world, and counterpart selves, a phenomenon that occurred in an instant 30 years previous.

At first the two worlds continued on much the same trajectory. Then a flu pandemic killed hundreds of millions in one of the worlds, traumatizing its inhabitants and wreaking havoc with its economy and politics.

Episode 6 shows us how the split occurred, why the two worlds developed differently, and the origins of the flu virus. This sets the viewer up to better understand how we reach where we are: a grey grim world, a prosperous world, a spy state, a terrorist movement.

There’s an allegory here about our contemporary real world, as there always is in Sci-fi. How do we manage difference? How do we address historical wrongs? How to make reparation for ongoing grievances? Can it work to build walls? Is it safe to integrate?

These are obvious questions in a post-colonial, post-Imperial world. There are obvious historical parallels: post-War Germany; Israel and Palestine; Fortress Europe; Australia and its so-called ‘boat people’; the United States and Central America… to name just some.

At the heart of these issues is the question, can we ever embrace the Other, or is the Other always, irredeemably, a threat?

In an unfair universe, where advantage and disadvantage persist, and where one people’s advantage is very often built on another’s disadvantage, can the disadvantaged overlook the happy state of the more advantaged? Or will envy and a sense of injustice always result in retribution?

For that matter, can the advantaged be humble in their privilege and engage with the less advantaged in ways that don’t exacerbate the wounds and that seek to redress harms done?

These are questions that play out at the state level, at the socio-economic level and at the individual level. If I met someone who was just like me – in Counterpart, if I met my own personal Other, the Other with identical DNA, born into identical circumstances, the Other with whom I was One until that fateful split – and if my Other was faring much, much better than me, could I bear that? Who could I blame? What would it mean about me – both of me?

Counterpart S2 asks, if I met my Other, would there not be aspects of my Other’s life that I envied so fiercely, coveted so bitterly, that I might cross all moral boundaries to reclaim that for my self?

Can we share?

Can we play fair?

Counterpart S2 suggests the future of humanity depends on it.

Samuel_Roukin_Yaken_Counterpart_Season2_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Samuel Roukin as Yanek (when young) in Counterpart Season 2 Episode 6, ‘Twin Cities’. James Cromwell plays Yanek aged.