Un Lun Dun

China Miéville's 2007 novel for young adults, which I finished reading last night. Paraphrasing this comment on Whitechapel, he is a maestro at weird urban landscapes, something I've already experienced from reading Perdido Street Station and The City & The City. Here, a greater level of wackiness and humour is allowed in the world-building. Miéville, out of humility rather than vanity, includes a list of influences in each of his books, and for this one he name-checks Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter. While his other worlds are very rigidly defined, Un Lun Dun shows Miéville's imagination at play.

All that is well and good. But as I mentioned on the thread: can't escape the feeling that it's all a bit of an intellectual exercise for him. I dunno... a bit bloodless. All affect, no throbbing pulsating mucky uncomfortable FEELING in it.

Miéville is an interesting critic, and he gives good interviews. See e.g. here, where he talks about Jane Eyre and monsters and genre and the tyranny of plot and the way characters in his novels disrupt expectations. That last is a big feature of Un Lun Dun, where prophesies and quests are very obv questioned and subverted. There are also revolution metaphors to spot (the dialectic of the um- un- re-brellas is the one I got). All of which is fun in a kind of Where's Wally way...

I got through it, riding on the cool environments and the metaphors, but I'm still waiting for Miéville to have that breakdown / epiphany that leads him to start writing from the heart.



Realism is an effect just like any other. I haven't seen Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, but I imagine what they do is use the 'found footage' conceit to create a sense of immediacy that makes the horror or the monster all the more scary and exciting. Chronicle tries to do the same with superheroes and supervillains, with mixed results.

The problem is that the conceit doesn't have a lot of credibility through the film. The camera is set up too perfectly in each scene, and there often isn't a good explanation for that. This is distracting, and undermines the 'realism' the conceit is supposed to produce. What's disappointing is that the film didn't need to do that. It could keep the style, without having to continuously explain to the viewer why this character is filming at this time.

Because the style itself is great, I think. And applying it to superheroes is a great idea. I remember the giddy feeling I got when I saw Iron Man zoom through the sky in the trailer for the first Iron Man movie. Chronicle can match that feeling by putting you behind the eyes of the guy zooming around in the sky. It is AWESOME. The epic showdown at the end also thrills precisely because it's so realistic. In fact, by that point, the film abandons the constraints of the 'found footage' conceit, forgetting the cameras, hoping to distract its audience with all the excitement and emotion. It could have done that throughout the whole film and I wouldn't have minded.

So the film is a failure in formal terms. But I liked it, not least because it proved very knowledgeable about the genre, and crafted two origin stories that captured the best aspects of what superheroes can do. I also liked the little nods to established tropes -- such as training in Tibet to become a ninja, and swooping to rescue / the death of Gwen Stacy. What I liked most about it is that it was mean about nerds. This is what bugged me about Kick Ass (among other things). Chronicle understands that the shy guy in the corner can be just as conceited, violent and misogynistic as the jock or the bully. And nerds with power can be srsly scary people.


Wuthering Heights

Haven't seen the film, although really should, since Andrea Arnold would certainly have done something interesting with the material. I wanna talk about the book, which I finished reading yesterday. Organised notes might be the only thing I can manage, because there's a lot to get thru, and I'm too tired to polish prose right now. The enjoyment was in the reading and the thinking. This I'm doing just so I have a reference when I forget everything I read and thought, an inevitability this blog is, in part, designed to prevent. So the following is work rather than play, and liable to be very dull. I'm already bored typing this introduction. I mean, I could be reading YA fantasy or drinking Orval rather than raking over all this again... Here we go:

The narrator denies being conceited, but his voice is rather smug (and he has much too much money). The only interesting thing about him is his dream at the beginning of the book, after his exposure to Joseph, which looks like a critique of evangelical (Methodist) religion: practitioners clutching staffs as support which turn to clubs to punish infidels. Lockwood rebels, but in the eyes of the faithful appears a materialist ("crush him to atoms"), and is assaulted. The blows soon turn indiscriminate, and the entire congregation is swept up in the brawl, where "every man's hand was against his neighbour" — Christian morality entirely inverted.

Speaking of Joseph, his piety is wielded as a weapon to oppress others. It is an act of power, a way for him to prove he is in fact superior to his masters. He believes the tables will be turned on the Day of Judgement, which keeps him obedient and satisfied. The reason he sticks with Henley and Heathcliff is because they make maintaining his superiority complex so easy. Hareton's ignorance and vulgarity is attractive because they are signs of deserved downward mobility.

Religion is emptied of all meaning for the characters. The novel pegs transcendence to the very immanent emotions of love and hate. Heathcliff would prefer to punish Henley himself, "God won't have the satisfaction" he will have. Henley blasphemes because providence has decided to take away his wife. For Catherine Earnshaw, life with the Lintons promises to be heavenly, but she confesses she would rather be in hell, with Heathcliff. The two lovers have only each other for solace — they are each other's "souls". They have shared the same upbringing and miseries. Heathcliff is Cathy's only benevolent universe, and vice versa. Everything else is hostile and strange.

And the upbringing is miserable. Emily Brontë is tough with her characters, none of them are entirely likable. As children, they are rapacious fiends. Henley and Cathy nag their father for presents, and get a gypsy brother instead. They show their disappointment by bullying him mercilessly. Unable to share, Linton and Isabella almost tear their pet dog in half. Heathcliff sees through the hypocrisy of privileging culture and manners: the pampered and educated can be as cruel as the destitute. He and Cathy are honest, wild and free on the moors (cf. Lockwood's praise of Ellen Dean: people outside towns "do live more in earnest, more in themselves, and less in surface, change, and frivolous external things"). The two lovers share everything, they have a true understanding of heaven, the Lintons ("the petted things") only have heavenly surroundings. But while Heathcliff wants to remain "dirty", Cathy is tempted to reform her waywardness.

What to make of either of them? Heathcliff's altercation with Henley over his horse reveals his ability to withstand pain and manipulate others, in order to achieve his goals. Cathy is a "wild, wicked slip", flaunting her power over Heathcliff in front of her father. The old Earnshaw is not a good parent, admitting to his daughter that he "cannot love" her, which only encourages greater defiance: "Why cannot you always be a good man, father?". Catherine's eyes reveal her brilliant spiritedness, Heathcliff's are two "black fiends".

Cathy is ambitious, and caught between Linton and Heathcliff, adopts "a double character". When Heathcliff gives up on education, she complains of his boorishness. But in polite company, she cannot mask her impulsive duplicity and violence. She uses emotional blackmail to keep Linton with her, and he proposes. This is the first notable instance of Cathy feigning weakness to overcome Linton's defences. When Linton forces her to chose between himself and Heathcliff, she throws a fit like something out of The Exorcist and goes on hunger strike. I think Cathy manipulates her femininity to obtain mastery over her husband. Her mastery over Heathcliff is more straightforward — pure love: they share one soul, they are one person.

Cathy doesn't know if accepting Linton was the right choice, and seeks Nelly's advice. Lindon is handsome, pleasant, young, cheerful. Most importantly, "he will be rich". He's the most eligible bachelor around — it is the "rational" choice. And yet the soul and heart rebel. Nelly doesn't want to know, she doesn't care enough, having put up with Cathy's pride for too long (our narrators are no heroes). But she hears the confession anyway: Cathy doesn't want "heaven", she wants the moors and Heathcliff. But marrying him would "degrade" her (Heathcliff steals off at this point). They would be beggars. But marriage to Linton would mean she could help Heathcliff get free of Henley, who has become an abusive negligent drunk, even worse to his offspring than his father was to his.

Heathcliff doesn't need anyone to rise up in the world. He leaves and makes his fortune soldiering abroad, comes back wolfish and pitiless. The only thing holding back his savagery is Cathy. He cannot retaliate against her directly, he will love her for eternity. But he can get his revenge indirectly, by ensnaring Isabella. Heathcliff is not aware of the effect of his Byronic image at first. Cathy mocks Isabella's infatuation: "don’t imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior! He’s not a rough diamond — a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic". Heathcliff learns quickly, however, and mocks Isabella in the same way: her idea of him as "a hero of romance" is a "delusion".

I think this is an important part of Brontë's message. Both Cathy and Heathcliff are able and willing to use romantic myths to deceive and destroy. Indeed, by placing such myths in a realistic setting, and detailing the horrific abuse that results from them, Wuthering Heights aims to critique such simplistic conceptions of romantic (perhaps Romantic) love. Isabella admires Heathcliff's brutality while hoping to be the one special enough to be preserved from it. Brontë shows how dangerous such expectations really are. More broadly, she warns against declaring anyone to be your "soul" or your "universe" — such inhuman devotion leads to madness, death and a lot of collateral damage.

Cathy pretends to be ill, but the illness becomes real enough. Her dreams recur: Wuthering Heighs, the moors, the wind, draw her away from Thrushcross Grange. She wants to feel her power over Heathcliff again ("be content, you always followed me!") And she is manipulative to the end, blaming Heathcliff for killing her and testing his faithfulness. But Heathcliff proves true, they share souls, he will love her forever, and will hurt as much as she does. Cathy relents, declares reciprocity and asks forgiveness. Heathcliff can't bring himself to grant it, her decision to forsake him and kill herself is too difficult to accept. But Cathy is a better player. She scolds him, endangers herself yet futher, until Heathcliff comes to her aid. Heathcliff loves and hates Cathy. He worships her, but as an earthly agent with free will, she forsakes him to her ruin. In the end, her only comfort is to imagine that death will elevate her "incomparably beyond and above you all".

Cathy's undoing, like Satan's, is the result of pride and ambition. After her death, Heathcliff is convinced she walks the earth as a ghost. She cannot be peaceful, she said she will remain as tormented as he will be. The only tranquility Heathcliff has is when he is clutching Cathy's dug-up corpse. He feels her presence then, but why doesn't she return? Why is he still disturbed by separation? Cathy betrayed him because he was poor... perhaps if he acquires all the property Linton had, she will come back to him.

I think this is what drives Heathcliff's schemes in the second part of the book. The law makes him the legal guardian of his wife — which Heathcliff demonstrates to be a grossly unjust rule. Moreover, Ellen's threat that there's "law in the land", even "in an out-of-the-way place" proves empty. The structure of society, as much as Cathy's pride, casts Heathcliff asunder. Those same structures make him into a tyrant.

Cathy doesn't return, as the start of the book shows. Heathcliff has run out of things to do, and grows listless. He has lost his enjoyment in destruction, with his rival dead and his lands appropriated. But getting Cathy back has defined his existence. It must happen. In the end, he wills it so. His obsession alters his reality. All chains of association lead to her (near death, the same happened to Cathy). He (unconsciously) stops eating, finally receiving spiritual nourishment. His excitement builds to a frenzy. He lets the winds and the rain in, his love is consummated, and he dies.

This is a bleak novel, and it is at its bleakest when we come to the younger Linton, callously sucking his stick of sugar candy. But Brontë offers some redemption at the end. Heathcliff's revenge on Hindley is to make his son as coarse as Hindley made him. When he sees Hareton's attraction to Cathy Junior, he vows that their love will make him an outcast and a beggar, as he was. But Cathy does not repeat the mistake her mother made. Her father did love her, and she remembers how a real family functions. As Heathcliff retreats into himself, his influence over her wanes, and she softens towards Hareton. Peace is restored. The novel ends with Lockwood wondering how anyone could imagine ghosts still walking such a beautiful landscape.

I was going to describe Wuthering Heights as a very (very very...) black satire, except there's nothing remotely funny about the carnage it details. What I mean is that I think Brontë aims her novel at certain carefully-chosen targets. Her Heathcliff is a deconstruction of Byron. Her Joseph is an attack on evangelical religion. Heathcliff's machinations are an indictment on social structures that fail to nurture and protect families. Finally, the love between Cathy and Heathcliff is the perfection so many poems and romantic novels attempt to describe, and yet the real world warps it in hideous ways. Cathy and Hareton's relationship is unequal and imperfect, but proves stronger. I guess part of the novel's enduring power is due to the fact that we are still learning Brontë's lessons.


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I haven't read the book. Spy or crime fiction is too plot-heavy for me to really be interested, the only thing that really attracts me is the noiry mood and themes. Happily, it's all about mood in Alfredson's film. I'm comforted by the fact that few could follow the ins and outs of the investigation completely. I just about managed to get the overall contours of the picture, but I wouldn't be able to give the details.

Reviewers got all poetic trying to describe the film's atmosphere... I could litter descriptors like 'coffee-soaked', 'cigarette-stained', 'mouldy' and '1970s' around, but I think my favourite would be 'geriatric', because it describes the lethargic pace quite well, and because it is all about wizened spies living with their crimes. They are all poisonous toads. Ricki, whose hands drip with blood, has the right idea when he says he doesn't want to grow old and become like the rest of them.

It's a formidable roster of actors Alfredson marshals up. All do sterling work. Gary Oldman wears a mask for most of the film, the cinematographer just moving some lights around when he needed to look tired or kindly or sinister. Both of them deserve some kind of recognition.

I did need more on the mole's treason for aesthetic reasons. The film goes out of its way to look as drab as possible, but it's not like what we see of Budapest or Moscow is flashier. Haydon is a bit of a dandy, a philanderer. Perhaps the Orientals were more attractive than the stuffy alcoholics he was surrounded by. As for Karla, a bit like Lord Sauron, he stays an incorporeal menace. We are told "the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt", but that may just be Smiley's delusion. He can't see a weakness so he makes one up. Smiley is not a fanatic. He knows exactly how compromised his own side is. He strikes me as the consummate professional, loyal to Control because Control was always right. Loyal to his wife and his country, despite their betrayals.