Sunday, May 27, 2018

Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850)

So far, among the slave narratives I've read, Sojourner Truth may be second only to Frederick Douglass as a significant historical figure. But her narrative is very different from Douglass's and the others. Most of them are first-person straightforward (more or less) recountings of life events. This has no other name connected to it than Truth's, no "with" or "as told to" or anything to indicate who is writing. A cryptic headnote indicates she never saw a proof of the manuscript before it was published. There are many obvious omissions. It's the first slave narrative I've read by a woman and I suspect certain delicacies are the reason for some of the gaps. Besides involving a woman, this one is also different because she was a slave in the North, owned in New York before that state changed its laws in the 1820s. At first I thought the focus was again going to be on the tragedy of families torn apart. After the New York laws change, Truth sues her former master for custody of her son, a landmark case. She also became an abolitionist and Christian preacher, taking her wonderfully evocative name in her 40s (she lived most of her life as Isabella "Bell" Baumfree). As the 19th century went along, more and more of these narratives served a kind of propaganda purpose. It's perhaps more obvious here because it's handled so clumsily. Then her story is followed by a densely worded 15-page appendix—with a byline, Theodore D. Wald—that thunders about the evils of slavery, helpfully elucidating some points of Truth's biography, but mostly preaching loudly to the already convinced. Or that's my sense of it anyway. By 1850, when this was published, polarization around the issue was well calcified, and mostly people only talked futilely past each other. I remember when this kind of entrenched division was harder to understand, but we are more and more living it again. In many cases in many ways it seems fair to call the situation a Cold Civil War. Therefore, the appendix has some reflexive interest in seeing the arguments against slavery made when there were still arguments being made for it. If we've truly moved past that, I guess we've seen some progress.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Revival (2015)

Disclaimer: These days I subscribe to a streaming service and often miss out on formerly one of my favorite things about albums, the cover art. I wanted to write about recovering child star Selena Gomez for reasons not related to the cover, I promise you—or at least not directly related, because I didn't know it. The image does fit with her in-construction persona, as sexy but vulnerable, knowing but naïve, bold but tentative, child in a woman's body, all that. I did know her role in Spring Breakers, as the good Christian girl yearning to be free and terrified at the same time of her own impulses, an awkwardly fascinating turn which also fits. And then I liked her song "Same Old Love," her biggest hit yet with "Good for You" (also on Revival). I've noted divergence about "best" Selena Gomez songs (among those who even deem it worth considering)—preferences for "Bad Liar," or her collaboration with Kygo, "It Ain't Me," or others. But I liked the achy exasperation and soulful strutting of "Same Old Love." She's fed up and so committed to it she allows herself a little swear word. That led me sideways to the album, by which time I was ready for some of the testy touchy prizes, such as they are, "Sober" and the two "Me &" songs. "Sober" takes dead aim at the persona and hits the mark square. "You don't know how to love me when you're sober," she heaves up (followed immediately by a Girl Scout troop shouting "Hey!"). She goes on, "I know I should leave, I know I should, should, should / But your love's too good, your love's too good, good, good."

It's probably worth noting that Gomez only receives partial songwriting credit on some of these songs. This is an album by other songwriters, and by various production teams too. "Sober" is the only song here by Chloe Angelides, who has also written for Jason Derulo, Ciara, and others. The Norwegian production team Stargate worked on that one. The Swedish Mattman & Robin handled "Me & the Rhythm." The American Rock Mafia did "Me & My Girls." The producers also get songwriting credit, sometimes primary. Most of these songs have four or five songwriters and some more than that, so it's really a jumble figuring out who's in charge around here. Maybe that's why it feels like there's a lack of unity across the album. Selena Gomez herself does a lot to hold it together, but there's also a sense she's not really in control—the persona again, which even so often feels too constructed and hollow for comfort. My favorites veer toward electronica-driven grooves inflected by new wave pop melodies. "Me & the Rhythm" makes me jump around. "Me & My Girls" puts me in mind of Kid Creole doing a spaghetti western soundtrack for a girl power movie—specific! I never get tired of the way they sing "Hey!" on "Sober." I'm not saying it doesn't mean anything that two of the four best songs here start with the word "Me"—the child star syndrome again or something. Nor can I claim some of these experiments in style and form don't go flat on their faces. The album's opening seconds almost torpedo the whole thing. And there are other problems. The self-pity is never far and sometimes all the way up to your chin ("Camouflage," say, which still has its merits, like another swear word). At this point she sometimes seems dangerously close to the Katy Perry treatment. Yet there is still something about her I like quite a bit.

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Red Shoes (1948)

UK, 134 minutes
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Writers: Hans Christian Andersen, Emeric Pressburger, Keith Winter, Michael Powell
Photography: Jack Cardiff
Music: Brian Easdale
Editor: Reginald Mills
Cast: Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Robert Helpmann, Albert Bassermann, Leonide Massine, Ludmilla Tcherina, Esmond Knight

I love the swooning romantic pulse of The Red Shoes by the Archers (codirectors and cowriters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger). It's magical, of course—a technicolor movie full of special effects based on a ballet based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale—but it bears a dark and keen edge as well. While the narrative frets over questions of art, love, and sacrifice, perhaps its most germane features are that it was designed by a painter, cast with professional ballet dancers, and dreamily hops about Europe, from London to Paris to Monte Carlo, like there had never just been two great wars and a major economic depression. Mostly it stays indoors within the world of theater and make-believe.

The gist of the fairy tale is that the red shoes are tools of Satan, the color being the giveaway by which he may be known. They tempt a young girl with their handsome fashionable charm and then, once she puts them on, cause her to dance without surcease until she falls down dead (no obvious relation to They Shoot Horses, Don't They?). The Japanese horror version from 2005 is more true to the Andersen story, which does not include even one artist but rather mostly just goodly humble church people. In turn, there are none of those here. Or, if there are, their house of worship is more like the backstage rehearsal space and the holy sacrament of art, Art, ART. In fact, the real star of The Red Shoes is not the young girl, but a character Andersen never conceived at all: the svengali impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), who is the veritable Jesus, Buddha, and Rasputin of art.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969)

The fifth Martin Beck novel in the Story of Crime series by Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö uses a fairly spectacular crime as its focus, though much of the narrative is spent developing the sideline characters supporting police investigator Beck. Lennart Kollberg, in particular, gets a lot of attention here, as well as Gunvald Larsson. Both are large men with tempers, often unlikable (especially Kollberg). But they are still good at their jobs. The case at hand involves an arson of a fourplex apartment building that results in three deaths. I thought the crime was unnecessarily busy with detail—among other things, one of the victims actually committed suicide the night of the arson, which complicates the picture. In fact, the fire is not even considered arson at first, and there's some business about authorities going to a misreported address on the night of the blaze. It all hangs together more or less by story's end but by that point also seems extraneous. Typically enough, for reasons of its fiction market or maybe the times, it can mire down some with obligatory-feeling subplots of the ongoing sexual liberation of the time and place, Sweden in the '60s. The dry straightforward style occasionally verges on the merely uninteresting. And it's not always clear what these characters are doing as they work the case. Who is this Kollberg and why does he rage so much and make himself so unpleasant? It's useful to remember, again, that this is classic police procedural storytelling written in the '60s by a poet and a journalist who are involved with one another. While it doesn't really explain the attraction to police and crime fiction in the first place, it does explain much else: the precision of the language (even in translation), the continuing reliance on irreducible facts, and the way sex, love, and social pressures complicate and drive crime—indeed most human behavior. In the larger series, with The Fire Engine That Disappeared, an increasingly critical eye is turned on police bureaucracy and politics even as '60s turmoil seems to increase exponentially with each passing year. With its episodic focus on crime and law enforcement in Stockholm, The Story of Crime will turn out to be even more the story of an era.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Laughing Policeman (1968)

Jonathan Franzen wrote an introduction for this novel in 2009, declaring it his favorite in the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Franzen says he likes the bad weather of Stockholm in descending winter and he also enjoys detective Beck's chronic cold. Beck is also grouchier than we have seen him before. The crime at hand is again sensational, this time a mass murder. Someone got on a bus and mowed down eight passengers and the driver with a submachine gun. There are not many helpful clues, but among the dead is one of their own, detective Ake Stenstrom. No one has any idea what he was doing on that bus. There are again signs of Ed McBain's influence in the approach the police take to solving the crime, based on a theory that there was one intended victim and the rest were killed to cover that up, making it look like the work of a madman. This unlikely hunch was also the basis of McBain's Lady, Lady I Did It. Maybe such things happen in cases of mass murder, but I suspect not often. Also, the character of Stenstrom has a lot in common with the 87th Precinct detective Bert Kling—they are both young and capable, but still trying to prove themselves, and they are both also particularly good at trailing people. Of course, Stenstrom dies whereas Kling loses girlfriends consecutively, a critical difference. I read all this as sincere respect for McBain even though Sjöwall and Wahlöö are the better and more interesting writers. The theory of the camouflaged victim is not pursued by all the Swedish investigators. Many have their own pet theories they are chasing down. The crime is reminiscent of the movie Speed or a bus accident that actually happened in Seattle in the late '90s. It's sensational again, but already across the series there's a sense of deliberation about the cases: a sex murder (Roseanna), a notorious celebrity (The Man Who Went Up in Smoke), a serial killer (The Man on the Balcony), and now a mass murder. Sjöwall and Wahlöö obviously understood the necessity for the lurid in crime fiction—it's in practically every one of their books—yet they always feel fully in control of the material (unlike McBain and way too many others) and use it to make specific points about justice, society, and other large themes. Martin Beck is also being slowly developed into a fully rounded and complex character, but again this is in the service of larger themes. Beck's marriage has never been good and he has many problems with militaristic police attitudes and bureaucracy. There's a sense of things moving forward and coming together in the larger series.

In case it's not at the library.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Man on the Balcony (1967)

As police procedurals go, I tend to be more attracted to the routine and mundane—I still think Adam-12 is one of the best. But for obvious commercial reasons, and perhaps because police famously "see everything," they're often at least as lurid as true-crime. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the Swedish writing partners behind the Martin Beck series, were hardly immune. The first novel featured a sexualized serial killer. This third is essentially the same, except the victims are young girls around 10 years old. So even more lurid. At the same time, the cast of characters around Beck and the context of his job are starting to deepen and grow larger. And the one thing you can say about Sjöwall and Wahlöö is that their language is never sensational. It is flat nearly to a fault—flatter than Hemingway, though perhaps not Jack Webb. I suppose it could be partly the translation. But they respect rules of the genre scrupulously—it feels like the way police who are serious go about investigating and solving crimes. The Man on the Balcony was written before the Zodiac killer started up in California, though quite soon after the Boston Strangler, and it is good at painting a portrait of a large city, Stockholm in this case, seized by panic as an invisible monster roams among them. There are nods and winks to Ed McBain, such as an alliterated pair of patrolmen partners, Kristiansson and Kvant (different police roles but same narrative purpose as McBain's Monoghan and Monroe). But there's much more gravity to these Martin Beck stories. It's partly the loss of McBain's sunny optimistic American voice as opposed to the more sophisticated and dour European judgments of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Remember, pretty much all McBain did—as McBain, Evan Hunter, and under other aliases (none of them his actual name, Salvatore Lombino)—was write popular fiction and screenplays. Per Wahlöö was a journalist and wrote other novels of his own. Maj Sjöwall was a translator and poet. They were also life partners for 13 years and self-declared Marxists. Not surprisingly, they represent an interesting wrinkle on the form. As usual, the police are presented as at least well-meaning and generally competent, but here they are also specifically functionaries of the state—the beneficent but not always competent state. The ambivalent attitude toward the police even as the work of some of them is valorized is a pretty neat trick. The Man on the Balcony is very sharply done, quick and to the point, yet thorough. It's just I could just do with a little less child rapist. They get better.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

The second Martin Beck novel takes a different tack from the first, in terms of the character of the victim. It's still based on established investigative technique, etc. But whereas the victim in Roseanna was a perhaps troubled but fundamentally innocent person, here it's someone who is a bit of a rat, a drunkard, a womanizer, and worse, as we come to find out. Alf Mattson is also a talented journalist. When he disappears on assignment in Hungary, Beck is called in to work the case unofficially. I'm not sure I understand this "unofficial" point. Hungary was rather different in 1966. The Cold War was on and it was in the Soviet sphere—maybe that explains it. At any rate, Beck goes there and pokes around a bit, accomplishing nothing. When he finally contacts the Budapest police, at first unwillingly, then the case slowly starts to crack open. Mattson had traveled to Hungary on assignment. He'd reported from there before, but this time he disappeared almost as soon as he arrived and nothing was heard from him since. This case gets a bit complicated as both the crime and investigation require a lot of subterfuge, with passport and visa manipulation, black market activities, and generally a high level of paranoia. Authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were not as good at spy stories, so this suffers a little in that regard. But it's police technique that solves it: a close analysis of descriptions of the victim's clothes compared with what was found in his abandoned traveling case and his closet at home in Stockholm. The most interesting point is the description of Budapest and Hungarian life, which of course in many ways is no different from Swedish life. I'm sure that was much of the intended point then, but it's lost a little in these post-Cold War times when it's harder to remember how real the divisions were. Only 10 years before publication of this novel Soviet tanks had rolled through Hungary asserting Soviet authority. Martin Beck's dour yet dogged personality is developed further, and we start to see a little more of the complex and interesting characters around him, such as Lennart Kollberg. As in Roseanna, Beck befriends a police investigator beyond Stockholm, who similarly just wants to use established technique to haul in the bad guys. It's a short novel too, perfect for an easy day.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Roseanna (1965)

According to the introduction by Henning Mankell for the 2006 reprint of the first novel in the Martin Beck police procedural series The Story of Crime, authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were heavily influenced by Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels. I actually hadn't known that when I set out to read through them again, beyond a general understanding that McBain is a milestone figure in the subgenre, perhaps even second only to Jack Webb. The Martin Beck novels—there are only 10, compared to 55 87th Precinct books—are better in nearly every way, more literate, more circumspect, and more carefully written (which is obvious even in translation from Swedish). More classy, as McBain might say. Or maybe that's the European glow to an American rube such as myself, but let me point out some facts about Sjöwall and Wahlöö. They were a couple during the collaboration, which ended with Wahlöö's death in 1975, and they also wrote and published separately. Wahlöö was a journalist with a bent toward social justice. Sjöwall was a poet and translator. These elements were alchemically blended to produce a foundation for what is called "Nordic noir," a kind of procedural tradition veering decidedly toward the dark, which includes Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and a raft of other books and movies too. This first novel, Roseanna, is very basic police procedural fundamentals, as if establishing bona fides. The nude body of a dead young woman is dredged from a Swedish resort lake. She hasn't been dead long, but no one matching her description has been reported missing. Investigating police detective Martin Beck and his colleagues have almost nothing to go on. They must put together the case painstakingly, one minuscule piece at a time. They use police routines, to quote Ed McBain, "based on established investigative technique." Certain familiar elements of those routines are carefully injected: the casual brutality of crime, detectives who become personally invested in solving crimes, the ways resources are deployed to track down detail. Written in the '60s, at the dawn of the imperial age of serial killers in pop culture, it's either well-researched on the behavior of serial killers or has spectacularly good instincts. It doesn't try to do any more than it has to. It's compact and dense with a momentum all its own. Don't hesitate. Start here.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

"The Wedding" (1982)

Story by Joy Williams not available online.

This Joy Williams story left me a little cold. It seemed too typical of a certain post-Carver mold, both in terms of its focus on vaguely underclass losers and its self-conscious minimalist aesthetics. The two characters who marry in this story, Elizabeth and Sam, are full-grown adults with previous failed relationships. She is 30 and has a 5-year-old daughter. He seems a little older, in his 40s, married three times. He's also likely an alcoholic. It feels like a marriage they are both settling for, don't exactly want, though Elizabeth campaigns for it and Sam goes along, popping the question not long after his third divorce has become final. Formally the story is on the order of a shattered narrative, with line breaks and new scenes every few paragraphs. The narrator is third-person mostly omniscient, mostly looking from Elizabeth's view. It seems to be about exercising the quixotic nature of the search for love as it existed in the early '80s. Except for certain details of ambience (such as prevailing technology) it could happen 100 years ago or 100 years from now. What seems unique might only be the itinerant nature of so many people's love lives, set free within this still relatively new liberated era of marrying for love and pleasure. In that context, in many ways the story focuses on the trauma of divorce. Both Elizabeth and Sam actively want to be married. That's the primary objective—that sense of security that comes from being cocooned with someone, fortified against the world somehow. But it seems unlikely this marriage will last either. They don't seem to know each other very well. Obviously neither means any harm. They are just two confused people, with a 5-year-old in tow. They feel hollow, without centers. I suspect that's the point. And it might have felt fresh or compelling in the early '80s, but now feels like we've been over the ground a few thousand times, like Vietnam.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks