Author: englishstudens

Film Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol is, I contend, the definitive cinematic version of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. It is, certainly, the one I’m most familiar with. (I’ve only actually read the Carol once, and I may have seen a non-Muppet version once, but I can’t be sure.) If you haven’t seen it (and if not, why not?), the Muppets’ retelling features the Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself, narrating the tale, Rizzo as his comedic assistant, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit (with Miss Piggy as his wife, natch) and a surprisingly committed Michael Caine as Scrooge.

It’s delightful to me mostly because it’s so much better than it needed to be. Let us remember that this is essentially a sentimental children’s puppet show from 1992. With an array of catchy tunes. And yet. We have the Great Gonzo reciting large chunks of actual Dickens prose, and explaining the concept of omniscient narration to boot. We have Michael Caine playing Scrooge as if he’s on the stage at the RSC. (The moments before the ghosts of Marley and Marley appear are utterly convincing, Caine’s face registering the frozen terror we’ve all experienced on hearing an unexplained bump in the night – all the more horrifying because it’s real this time.) We have Scrooge declaring that all the poor people should die and “decrease the surplus population!” which is a hell of a line to include in a kids’ film, and also, terrifyingly, something that a Brexiter on the Internet might plausibly say.

I also think it captures the positive aspects of Dickens’ humanity wonderfully. Like his characters, the Muppets are larger than life, and as such they embody and perform the exuberance and vitality of city life; the unexpected moments of community we in the West often find at Christmas (the strangers who wish you a merry Christmas on a country walk; Christmas tableaux in windows in a rural village). Dickens and the Muppets is an inspired combination – and adding musical numbers only makes it better: Dickens was a performer as well as a writer, and fascinated by all things theatrical; I like to think he would have enjoyed the vivaciousness of this retelling, which brings everything in London to life, even the vegetables.

What the film misses, though, is Dickens’ reformist anger, his glimpses into the grimy underbelly of Victorian society. That would be a bit of a drag on an upbeat Christmas film, to be sure, but it doesn’t help that most of its references to Scrooge’s general misanthropy are either in song (“He charges folks a fortune for his dark and draughty houses/Us poor folk live in misery/(It’s even worse for mouses!)”) or undermined by broad and slapstick humour (“Do you remember when we evicted an entire orphanage? I remember those little tykes standing in the snowbank, clutching their little frostbitten teddy bears!”). It certainly isn’t anarchic or anti-establishment, words that keep cropping up in reference to the Muppets; it may have some dark moments, but they’re there to cast the film’s joyous, consolatory ending into greater contrast. Ultimately this is a film about reintegrating a rich man who refuses to act like one into his proper place in society, rather than actually upending the power imbalance between Scrooge and, say, Bob Cratchit.

Complete social reform is probably out of scope for a film like this; to be fair, it’s also out of scope for the original Carol, which nevertheless at least acknowledges the systematic existence of a struggling underclass (there’s a short scene which the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge in which a couple fear bankruptcy because they cannot pay him a debt they owe him). It’s still a lovely, warm-hearted thing to watch at Christmas, and a brilliant, accessible way to introduce young people to the original text.

Review: Fire and Fury

“Why are you reading that?” asked the Bandersnatch in a kind of astonished horror as I settled down with Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s much-debated account of life in Donald Trump’s White House. And it is true that, like most people I know who are still sane, I try and manage my exposure to news about Trump, Brexit and similar geopolitical movements for fear of breaking down in complete and utter despair.

But. It has to be said, there is something compulsively awful about Trump; something about the certain knowledge that he has neither the moral rectitude nor the political smarts to be holding the office he is holding; about the way his administration is so publicly, almost unashamedly ridiculous. The eccentrically-punctuated Tweets. The outrageous, easily-disproved lies. The utter lack of coherent policy. It’s this can’t-look-away train-wreck vibe Fire and Fury taps into: the addictive quality of a con perpetuated on an entire nation.

None of what Wolff’s written – apparently as a result of just…floating unmanaged around the White House? which honestly doesn’t seem unlikely – will be much of a surprise to a liberal reader: Trump allegedly doesn’t read, doesn’t have a foreign policy and will do whatever the last person he had a conversation with says he should do; engages in real-time conversation with Fox News, didn’t really think he was going to become president and has a vendetta against gossip columnists. It’s admittedly horrifying, but also, like a really juicy celebrity biography or Netflix’s documentary about Fyre Festival, quite a lot of…fun to read about.

That’s because the book doesn’t look at all at the actual effects of Trump’s actions on America’s people, its democracy and its public life. Both the book’s attraction and its downside lie in the fact that it treats Trump as he undoubtedly loves to be treated: as the centre of it all, the main attraction, as a celebrity rather than a politician making decisions that represent life or death for millions of ordinary people. If celebrity culture and distrust of experts is (part of) what got Trump into the White House, we may ask, is this unreferenced, gossipy account really helping?

I mean, not to be too holier-than-thou: I read this because it promised to be pacey and entertaining, and would probably not want to wade into a tome about all the depressing things Trump is doing to the world. And there’s also the fact that Trump really hates this book, having infamously tried to suppress it before it got published. So! If it annoys the worst man in the world, can it really be that bad?

Review: Ghostly

Ghostly is pretty much what it says on the tin: a collection of Audrey Niffenegger’s favourite ghost stories.

Like any multi-author short story collection, it is a bit of a mixed bag, ranging from the mildly interesting (Niffenegger’s own “Secret Life, with Cats”) to the nasty (Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat” – content note for animal cruelty) and the outright racist (Saki’s “Laura” – I’m at a loss how anyone thought this was appropriate to reprint). There’s a not-terrible Neil Gaiman story, “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”, and the only truly haunting story in the collection, Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains”, in which an automated house slowly collapses in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse.

Apart from a couple of outliers, it’s mostly…fine. I guess I’m not sure what the point of it is, though. About half of the stories date from the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, and are consequently a bit tame for a modern reader looking for horror thrills. Most of them are quite frequently anthologised: Poe, Bradbury, Gaiman, A.S. Byatt and M.R. James are hardly forgotten gems or lacking in name recognition. Niffenegger has little in the way of insightful commentary to add to these stories, and the collection doesn’t have a whole lot of coherency. Nor is she interested in interrogating the problematic elements of these stories, as the Saki example proves, as does the inclusion of a story by the always-irritatingly-misogynist P.G. Wodehouse. Like, I think if you are going to reprint stories that reflect problematic views from the last century, you should at least provide some context for them instead of just saying, “well, it was another time”?

The inevitable conclusion is that Ghostly is more or less a branding exercise: Niffenegger carving out a small niche as an Expert on Spookiness. I suppose if you’re interested in Niffenegger especially, and in thinking about what she has to say with her fiction, it could be worth reading; if not, though, it feels a little inessential.

Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

This review contains spoilers.

Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock opens, appropriately enough, on a dark stormy night in Gravesend, 1785, with a well-off merchant by the name of Jonah Hancock opening his door to the news that his agent has sold his prized ship in exchange for what is allegedly a taxidermied mermaid. Hoping to make the best of a bad situation, Hancock takes the mermaid to London, where it becomes a sensation – catapulting him into the upper echelons of society and steering him into the path of one Angelica Neal, glamorous, high-class courtesan. Their worldviews couldn’t be more different, but they’re thrown together when an ill-advised love affair sees Angelica facing bankruptcy and ruin; to save her, Hancock offers to marry her and take her to his staid household in Kent. And then a second mermaid comes into the Hancocks’ lives, one whose influence is much more sinister.

At its heart I think The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a novel about the exploitation of women in the Georgian period, and the sheer precariousness of their position in society. Angelica sees marriage as a domestic cage, preferring the sexual, financial and emotional freedom she enjoys as a courtesan; but her near-ruin and the example of one of her friends, another former courtesan who becomes the wife of her client, shows that marriage is still the only long-term guarantee of security available to her. (She could also become a madam – but this option is strongly aligned in the text with becoming complicit in her own exploitation.) Then there’s Polly, a mixed-race courtesan-in-training who runs away from her madam to escape a lifetime of relentless objectification as an “exotic” experience for upper-class men only to find herself offering the same services to genuinely dangerous men for shillings on the street. Finally, there’s Hancock’s niece, Sukie, a girl of respectable family who nevertheless has absolutely no say in her own employment situation, forever at risk of being shunted by her mother between the households of various relatives to play maid-of-all-work. These are women in very different circumstances, united by the fact that they really have no good choices because of a system that treats them in various ways as objects for the delight and convenience of white men.

This dynamic of exploitation actually gets slightly extended along a different axis: Polly’s story is part of an underdeveloped subplot involving her and the Black servant of her madam, who, like Polly, must exploit his own objectification and exoticisation if he’s to survive in Georgian London. Both he and Polly are hyper-aware of issues of performance, decorum and respect in a way the white characters aren’t – because their existence at a relatively comfortable level of society is much more heavily dependent on how other people see them.

This is all summed up by the image of the novel’s second mermaid, captured somewhere in the North Sea by a heavily bribed captain after Hancock’s marriage to Angelica. Kept underground in a dark grotto, far from her native waters, the mermaid emanates a creeping depression that infects the entire household: a metaphor for the damage inflicted on women, people of colour and the natural world by the rampant forces of mercantile exploitation. (Content note for miscarriage.) It’s only when Angelica finally takes back control of her life, literally and metaphorically setting the exploited free, that she can take her rightful position in society – as a fabulous style-setter and thrower of parties. Significantly, the Twelfth Night-style revel that ends the novel sees upper classes mixing with sailors, a symbolic breakdown of social boundaries hinting at the possibility of a more equal future.

It’s interesting to consider the historical background to all this: though of course The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a modern text, novelists choose their settings for reasons which are generally better developed than “because the Georgian period is cool”. The Georgian period saw the rise of imperial mercantilism on a grand scale: this was a time when much of the world was quite literally for sale. That’s a key dynamic underlying Gowar’s discussion of objectification and exploitation – and of course it’s highlighted by Hancock’s own business (more on that in a moment). This is also a period of mass urbanisation, which brings out certain anxieties in the literature of the time: the city’s lower classes are either conspicuously absent, as in Jane Austen’s novels, or portrayed as venal moneygrabbers, as in Alexander Pope’s satirical Dunciad. With The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, I think Gowar is attempting something similar to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: rewriting our understanding of a historical period to address and bring to light the invisible inequalities that inform our present-day situation. In other words, she’s highlighting that the Georgian period is a key historical point in the development of modern capitalism, and the oppression and exploitation that comes with it.

It does have some capital-P Problems which undermine this work. Chief among these is the fact that Hancock’s wealth must have come from slavery, somewhere along the line, just because of how the economics of the time worked. It’s this wealth that enables Angelica’s freedom and flowering at the end of the novel; which means that the novel is essentially about white middle-class women fulfilling their potential at the expense of everyone else. I also find Hancock’s Nice Guy tendencies a little…uncomfortable; he hangs around Angelica pre-bankruptcy despite knowing he has no chance with her, and then is conveniently in exactly the right position to take advantage of her desperation. This does not seem a great foundation for a lasting relationship – and the fact remains that she is forced into domesticity and marriage despite her resistance to the institution; it’s not really a free choice for her, given her situation at the time.

These are Problems, and I don’t want to downplay them. But I also found Angelica and Hancock so winningly sympathetic as characters that I couldn’t help but root for them, and hope they found happiness together. It’s an imperfect but cosy book, a novel for long rainy Sundays with a blanket and a cup of tea, thoughtful and melancholy and full of the sights and smells of Georgian London.

Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a look back into 20th-century Chinese history from the vantage point of modern-day Canada. The framing narration is provided by Marie, a girl living in Vancouver whose father Kai has recently died by suicide in Hong Kong, far from home, and whose mother has taken in an older girl called Ai-Ming, a student fleeing from the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the story of Marie’s parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles; and the story of Ai-Ming’s parents too, and how they came to be entwined so closely with Marie’s family. It’s the story of a family living through land reform, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward and Tiananmen Square, and a look at how they cope (or not) with oppression, hunger, imprisonment and humiliation.

Music, and art in general, is a key theme in the novel. Kai, Ai-Ming’s father Sparrow and Sparrow’s cousin Zhuli are all gifted musicians of one sort of another who study at the Shanghai Conservatory – which becomes a target during the Cultural Revolution for its focus on Western classical music, seen as decadent and unpatriotic. Then there is The Book of Records: a handwritten novel in multiple volumes that grows throughout the course of the novel and comes to have hidden significance for the family.

For this is a story about family, at its heart, about the cords of love and obligation and convenience and shared heartbreak that bind us all together. Those relationships are tested in different ways in Thien’s novel: couples separated for years in reeducation camps; in-laws on different sides of political disputes; a friend turning away from becoming something more, out of fear. Terrible things happen – death, illness, humiliation, radicalisation. And yet, those bonds persist, riding the waves of political tumult until two young people meet in a small flat in Vancouver.

And so, art is perhaps one outward manifestation of what it means to be a family. Not just The Book of Records, a neverending story encoding this particular family’s struggles and secrets; there’s also the music that Kai, Zhuli and Sparrow share, that ends up tearing them apart too. There’s a point when Sparrow says that of course music doesn’t matter when placed against a life; but also, that that is the point. In the same way, for these characters swept up in the flood of history, the bonds of love avail nothing against the vast changes sweeping their country: all they can do is weather the storm. And yet. Love – for others, for art – is all that these characters have. A fragile and tenuous thing; but it is not nothing.

Do not say we have nothing, the novel’s title urges, a reference to the Internationale – an anthem popular in Communist China. Thien’s characters quote it at intervals throughout the novel, insisting that they have some rights, that the Party is ultimately benevolent and grants them that much; but, as those illusions are stripped away, the phrase takes on another, half-ironic meaning. Do not say we have nothing: we have this thing that has no power, that cannot protect us, and yet persists – love. Connection. Family.

Review: Woman and Nature

Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature is, I guarantee you, nothing quite like anything you’ve read before.

Published in 1978, it’s very much a product of second-wave feminism: a remarkable extended dialogue on how the patriarchy treats women and the natural world. The interlocutors are the Patriarchal Voice itself, which is, broadly, the voice of Rationality, of Science, of everything that seeks to measure and analyse and exploit the natural world; and the voices of woman and nature, as their lived experiences and intuitive ways of knowing overwhelm patriarchy’s narrow viewpoint.

I realise that sounds hokey and problematic and cliched, but in reality this is a complex and difficult text that’s almost impossible to reduce down to a single “argument” – deliberately so. That can be seen in its very form, which reminds me most closely of Darren Anderson’s work of “creative non-fiction” Imaginary Cities: a hodgepodge of different non-fiction sources woven together to create a single driving thread of idea. There are sections on dressage; on farming; on nuclear fission; on surgery inflicted on women (content warning here for graphic medical descriptions); all drawn from (invariably male-authored) non-fiction texts. There are notes and a bibliography at the back of the book, but no footnotes within the text. The formatting is often non-conventional, as when, for example, the female voice in italics interpolates the male voice’s impassive description of a scientific procedure.

This is all deliberate. It’s a refusal to engage with patriarchy on its home ground, in the rational debates whose terms it sets and thus always wins. This is a text interested in reclaiming, and asserting the value of, modes of emotional knowledge that the patriarchy denigrates and sees as lesser.

Of course, there’s a risk with this sort of thing that it becomes schematic, perpetuating patriarchy through rigid gender roles even as it superficially challenges them. Actually the aligning of women with nature as a tool of patriarchy – if women are closer to nature that makes them “lower”, less human, less worthy – is something the book explicitly addresses. The equivalence between woman and nature here is more like an alliance: both are exploited and used by patriarchy as things that are not Man. It is a commonality of experience, not an innate commonality; an association not a comparison. And in associating woman and nature, it makes a powerful call to action to its readers: it asks us to reevaluate what we mean by “human”, what it is to live in this world, what is worthy of our attention and our respect and our love.

A word on the book’s ideas of femininity, which are a lot less problematic and gender essential than I was expecting. Although there’s a lot about vulvas and vaginas and wombs and pregnancy here, it is mostly from the patriarchal point of view; it’s not at all clear that Griffin thinks womanhood is tied to possessing these organs. Perhaps the opposite, actually. So I think the book does leave space for trans and non-binary identities, albeit not explicitly (and with the caveat that I am cis and may be reading with that bias).

All in all, Woman and Nature stands up pretty well to a modern-day reading – and is perhaps even more of its time now than it was when it was published, given our surging awareness of the effects of the climate crisis and capitalism’s exploitation of our natural resources. I’m really glad to have read it: it’s a book I want on my shelf, to re-read at will every few years.

Review: Myths of the Pagan North

Chris Abram’s Gods of the Pagan North is an academic yet reasonably accessible history of the Norse myths. Working forensically through the various types of available evidence – archaeological finds, placenames, first-person accounts, skaldic poems and of course the great Eddas – he examines what myths might have been around when and what that might tell us about actual religious practice.

He’s particularly concerned with how the coming of Christianity affected the mythology, which he treats not as a static canon but as an evolving body of story that responds to sociocultural changes. It turns out that a lot of what we think we know about Norse mythology probably comes from well after Christianity reached Scandinavia – and well after Norse paganism stopped being practiced. Loki, for example, a figure that most modern adaptations of Norse myth put at their centre, is barely attested to in the actual pagan period; he crops up much later, in the determinedly post-Christian Eddas. The myth of Ragnarok Abram reads as a response to the coming of Christianity, and as in fact containing Christian elements in the sources it appears in: the old pagan world dying, destroyed by the division of the gods, to be replaced by a bright new Christian one.

I enjoyed this reading of the myths as historically contingent, evolving texts a lot. Abram also offers some fascinating insights into the varying quality of the different types of evidence and how much they can actually tell us about religion and belief. Archaeological evidence, for example, usually needs to be contextualised by textual evidence: so depictions of a man with a hammer slaying a giant serpent are only recognisable as Thor slaying the Midgard serpent because of the later written stories about the episode. But then, of course, the authors of those texts have their own agendas; much surviving textual evidence will have transmission errors and selective editing; and how much could post-Christian poets know about their pagan past?

Abram’s book is at least as good on the how of scholarship as it is on the what, which makes it valuable for anyone interested in old folktales and pagan religion. Apparently he’s working on a second book subtitled The Ecopoetics of Old Norse Literature; I’d be fascinated to read that, too.