Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Review: Number 11 (2015) by Jonathan Coe

There's a Christmas hamper quality to Jonathan Coe's writing--a really superior Christmas hamper, the kind Fortnum & Mason's sells, or the ones Billy Bunter lusted after. In both Number 11 and its prequel, The Winshaw Legacy, or What a Carve Up! (1994), Coe artfully and fluently combines multiple plot lines, a score of characters, elements of tragedy, farce, comedy, social commentary, and a touch of the the polemical. And in Number 11 Coe does all this while also slipping from one literary genre to another without, as it were, grinding the gears. This novel begins with a subtle pastiche of an Enid Blyton-ish story, then adds an epistolary quest tale, a Holmesian mystery, and ends with something that smacks of Dr Who. As a purely literary experience, Number 11 is almost overstuffed with pleasures.

Rachel and Alison are the central characters, and we meet them at age ten when they're staying with Rachel's grandparents while their mothers are on holiday together. The pair aren't really friends at this point, but after an Adventure with a Mysterious Stranger, the two form a bond that lasts, with some major detours, into adulthood. From this point on the narrative resembles a Venn diagram. The centre circle contains a set of Winshaws, a family of media barons, industrialists, and politicians who define themselves by how savagely they can remake Britain into their own avaricious, graceless, cruel and wanton image. The Winshaws were at the centre of the previous novel, but here it's their influence that's being felt--it's now the Winshaws' Britain, and everyone else is trying to eke out a living in it.

Coe uses his wide cast of characters to give us micro and macro views of what modern Britain has become. There's a failed singer who's lured into a dreadful reality show; an Oxford professor whose husband meets with what could be called death by nostalgia; an insufferably wealthy trophy wife whose architectural ambitions lead to disaster; a Katie Hopkins-like columnist who fabricates a story that sends a woman to jail; and a range of more minor characters who all have their role to play in illustrating the decline and fall of the social welfare state.

Although Coe has a lot to say about the state of the UK, Number 11 is not an editorial or opinion piece dressed up in literary finery. His writing is witty, psychologically acute, elegant, and he's not too proud to throw in the broadest of jokes occasionally. Coe is also acutely aware that his kind of comic writing does little or nothing to influence the political climate. In a section of the novel dealing with the murder of some stand-up comedians, he even argues that political satire can actually be counter-productive since it provides the illusion of lively opposition to people like the Winshaws. Another idea explored in the novel is that the speed and variety of modern communication is a poisoned chalice. A simple typo on SnapChat breaks up a friendship, and the cynical editing of a TV show almost ruins a woman's life. But Coe is not a Luddite. A sub-plot detailing a man's search for a lost film that he saw as a child in the 1960s is a warning that retreating into rosy memories of the past is not a healthy option.

The only problem with Coe's fiction is that it doesn't move at the speed of politics. The Winshaw Legacy seemed outrageous until Tony Blair and David Cameron came along, and Number 11, which was published less than a year ago, would undoubtedly be a much different novel if it had been written in a post-Brexit vote world. Fortunately, that means we're almost certain to get a third novel in this series, one in which Coe shows how the vulturous Winshaws plan and profit from Brexit. I look forward to it already. I even have a possible title: Wrexit.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Gialli Good Fun

You simply can't beat a giallo film for tawdry entertainment value. Gialli were one of the staples of Italian cinema from the late 1960s to the mid '70s, offering a lurid mix of violence, sadism, voyeurism, sex, and deeply twisted plots. They were what Alfred Hitchcock might have made had he let his freak flag fly. In Italian, giallo means yellow, and the films were given this name as a reference to a publisher who reprinted English mystery/thriller novels with distinctive yellow covers. The films themselves owe a big debt to Hitchcock, Psycho in particular. Many of the films feature heavily disguised killers who attack beautiful women (always with bladed instruments) for a variety of warped or mercenary reasons.

Exploitation elements aside, gialli deserve appreciation for their cinematic qualities and enthusiastic attempts to befuddle the audience with devious plots. These were low to middling budget films, but they certainly tried to put on a good visual show. The interiors and women's fashions in gialli are usually the epitome of '70s style, which is both good and bad, but always eye-catching and/or eye-watering. The musical soundtracks are a mix of the weird and the overblown, and even a big name like Ennio Morricone did work on some gialli. What really keeps these films worth watching are the plots. The producers couldn't invest much money in stars or stunts, but they certainly urged the scriptwriters give it their all. The mystery at the centre of each giallo may be highly improbable, but the plotting is often surprisingly clever and keeps the audience on board, which is crucial since gialli also suffer from some pronounced defects.
You don't watch these films for the acting. Or the dialogue. Some performances are respectable, the remainder range from wooden to overwrought. Interestingly, it's usually the women who give the better performances. The men often seem more interested in modeling their turtleneck sweaters (a fashion staple in gialli) than doing any actual acting.

So the reason for this post is that I recently got a Roku attachment to my TV, which means I can stream films from YouTube onto the big screen, and the first thing I did was have a giallo film festival with myself as the guest of honour. Herewith are some of the better ones I've seen.

Death Walks on High Heels (1971)

Did I mention that gialli often have ludicrous titles? This one starts out as a standard story of a beautiful woman pursued by a masked madman, but then gets progressively more complicated and surprising. When the mystery is finally unraveled you'll be applauding the scriptwriter for his amazingly intricate and logical, if  bizarre, plotting. The acting here is mostly over the top, at times leading to unintended laughter, but everyone attacks their roles with gusto, especially the actor who utters the immortal line, "Porco!" when confronted with a transvestite.

Who Saw Her Die? (1972)

The young daughter of a sculptor living in Venice is murdered and he tracks down her killer. The plot isn't much to speak of, but the location photography is stunning. The director, Aldo Lado, was from Venice and he clearly knew all the best locations for capturing the spooky oddness of the city. I can't help wondering if this film somehow inspired or influenced Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now which came out a year later.

Death Walks at Midnight (1972)

Another Byzantine plot from the director of Death Walks on High Heels. This time a fashion model witnesses a murder in the building across from her apartment but can't prove that it actually happened. There are some plot holes in this one, but it's still very intriguing and the look of the film is '70s to the max. A sidenote: based on all the gialli I've seen, 80% of the Italian female population at this time were models with the remainder strippers and/or homicidal maniacs.

The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972)

If you're going to dive into the giallo genre you have to see at least one starring the gorgeous Edwige Fenech. Fenech is to Italian B-movies of the '70s what the Virgin Mary is to Catholicism. She starred in gialli, cop movies, horror films, and lots and lots of sex comedies. In Iris she wears a variety of improbable outifts, including body paint, and spends the rest of the time forgetting to lock her windows and doors, thus allowing maniacs access to her at all hours of the day and night.

Footprints on the Moon (1975)

This is the outlier in the giallo genre. It begins like many gialli, with a beautiful woman facing a seemingly impossible puzzle: she appears to be missing two days from her life. It's soon clear that this isn't any kind of exploitation film. Florinda Bolkan plays the lead character and she's a superb actress. More importantly, the cinematographer is Vittorio Storaro, the genius behind the camera on films such as Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, and Woody Allen's latest, Cafe Society. The look of the film is amazing, and the story is an elegant, mysterious, subtle attempt to visualize a kind of waking dream. There's no big pay-off to the film, but it's a crime that it's not more widely known or available on DVD. Are you listening, Criterion Collection?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Book Review: The Lie Tree (2015) by Frances Hardinge

Part of my job at the Toronto Public Library involves selecting books for shut-ins, a few of whom are teenagers. This means I regularly spend time combing through dozens of thumbnail descriptions of young adult novels. That translates into a lot of stories about dystopias, mental illness, broken homes, and the paranormal. Most YA novels are written for girls, and one trope that seems to be common to many of them is that girls can and should kick ass, metaphorically and, in the case of dystopian and paranormal lit, literally. In short, there's  a strong and healthy feminist streak running through contemporary YA writing.

Frances Hardinge's novels have all featured underage heroines who get things done through grit, bravery and smarts. So far, so normal. What sets Hardinge apart (far apart) from others in her field is her rich, inventive prose. In The Lie Tree she tries something a bit different. Whereas her previous novels were firmly and fully in the fantasy wing of the YA building, this one has is more grounded in reality. But not entirely.

The story mixes together archeology,  the debate over Darwin's theory of evolution,  and a murder mystery in a late-Victorian setting. The heroine is Faith Sunderly, the teenage daughter of  Erasmus Sunderly, a reverend who has lost his faith and replaced it with a mad passion for archeology. On a trip to Asia he acquired the eponymous plant, which grows when it's told lies, and produces a fruit, when eaten, that reveals secrets. This is the most fantastical part of the story, but the tree exists more on a symbolic level than as part of a fantasy world. Faith's father is murdered (it looks like a suicide) and she must investigate the crime.

The plot synopsis makes it sound just another example of YA historical fiction in which a plucky heroine proves that the "fairer" sex is no to be taken lightly. Hardinge goes beyond all that by giving her novel a psychological depth that's missing from almost all YA titles of this type. Her focus is on the sheer mental torture suffered by women who have wit, talent, intelligence and ambition, but are denied the chance to use their skills at every turn. Faith isn't the only woman caught in the webs of Victorian social strictures. Her mother must play the coquette to acquire a new husband after the death of Erasmus. Faith is initially shocked at this, but by the end of the novel realizes that her mother is doing the best for herself and her family given the limited arsenal she has to work with. Without an income to fall back on, a middle-class woman must be wed. The fantasy elements are deftly handled, but what makes this book stand out (and covered Hardinge's mantelpiece with awards) is its examination of the psychological toll exacted on people who are denied basic rights by virtue of their gender. And on that basis The Lie Tree also carries a lot of contemporary resonance.