19 June, 2012

The Big C Season Three

We’ve had a crazy season of ‘The Big C’ this year – everything was different to normal, and for the first time, Cathy has actually been a bit unlikeable. The show doesn’t get much press attention anyway, but any critics were left less than pleased with the series, and fans haven’t responded too warmly to the show’s new direction either. So what’s the problem?

Season Three woke up from the bombshell of Paul’s heart attack last season, and Cathy’s tumours were shrinking – she had ‘an ellipsis’ at the end of her cancer sentence, not a fullstop. Obviously this would change the entire dynamic of the show, and I think it’s clear this was intentional. In a time when you actually aren’t limited, how do you behave?

In this season, Cathy was encouraged to ‘find her Joy’ – a subplot Susan Sarandon assisted wonderfully in bringing to life. What we saw all season was a Cathy chasing the idea of happiness – babies, tattoos – without the feeling or rewards one acquires from happiness. She effectively lost her son, was distanced from both Sean and Andrea, and a wedge was driven between herself and Paul by the very thing that was meant to bring them both happiness – Joy.

What I think The Big C did this season (in keeping with the ‘stages of grief’ pattern to the seasons) was show ‘bargaining’, the third stage of grief. Cathy believed that if she had a child, if she was happy, if everything seemed, on the surface to be good, then she would somehow be allowed to live – whether that be through the Church Adam-style or through a more secular higher power.

As the series progressed (and I think we can all agree, the season improved massively around episode seven), Joy (a representation of fake, commercial and mercurial ‘Joy’) was eliminated, and Cathy’s life – Sean and Paul - began to unravel, showing that Cathy, as she admits in the season finale, has been chasing the wrong things.

The failings of the season, for a wide section of the audience, I think, were the ways in which Cathy didn’t behave, didn’t act, to make herself happy, and acted badly to the detriment of others around her. In the first few episodes, I honestly found her dislikeable. In the first episode of the season, she fell underwater through ice – she was submerged and overwhelmed and trapped – and that’s how I feel the season was attempting – in a hit and miss manner – to show: a Cathy that was absorbed in creating the image and the idea of a great life for herself, as opposed to seeking true happiness.
The show had difficulties in portraying this intention, it seems. The audience were distanced from Paul this season, Andrea’s name change seemed to go nowhere until the final episode, and Sean’s plots were quite ridiculous (I quite liked them but others didn’t – and on another note, does anyone think Sean could be gay? Answers on a postcard). Many people were left feeling discontented. A common complaint is that the season three episodes have lost the ‘feel’ or the ‘tone’ of the show, and in their concentration on doing something special and over-arching this year, I think individual episodes did fail, and despite an unbelievably strong cast, there was not much of the show’s true colours at times. We saw it when Cathy got her own back over the fake baby, we saw it when she drove Adam’s car out of the bazaar, and we saw it with Cathy’s scuba-diving and swim in the season finale.  These moments have been rare, but to say the show is unrecognizable would be unfair – the show is still above-par for much other television, and the cast and crew have still shown moments of brilliance.

So anyway that’s the entire season but what did I think of the finale? I BLOODY LOVED IT. I thought it added a whole new dimension  and meaning to the entire season, was an incredible piece of television in its own right, and a great way to move the show in a special direction. SEE BELOW FOR MORE.

The episode was the second of two set in Puerto Rico, the first of which saw Adam tell Cathy he prefers Paul, the marriage fall apart, and the entire season come to a head. Interestingly, this episode was one of those ‘main character stranded alone and doing monologues’ episodes which, though can seem cheap and contrived, worked excellently in this scenario. The language barrier didn’t detract from Linney’s acting at all; she could act against a wooden log and still be excellent.

The episode essentially had everybody given a foil/companion to shed light on themselves and their situation at this exact moment in time – Angel for Cathy, Brandy for Paul, Andrea for Adam, Jesus for Andrea, and the girl-from-the-bedroom-and-dive-lesson for Sean. Highlights were Andrea’s acceptance of her self rather than just hiding behind her heritage, Adam’s realization of how true Christianity could help his situation with Cathy.

The highlights of this episode were Cathy’s boat scenes – not only were they beautifully written, but the entire backdrop of the boat and the ocean, were sublime. I watched Laura Linney in Behind the Actor’s Studio last week and she spoke about how some actors operate on another plane, another higher level of focus, and she graciously did not include herself in the list; I definitely would. Her scenes on the boat – every single one, from happiness, sadness, confusion, dancing - were all superb, and it is not an understatement to say that she is a truly uniquely exceptional actress. I cannot imagine ‘The Big C’ being half as good without her.

Monologues are not easy to write or pull off convincingly, but with the writing of the show’s creator Darlene Hunt and the acting of Linney, the scenes were elevated to a high level of brilliance. Cathy spoke about missing alone-time, and seeing herself outside of herself – as playing all these different roles, and I think part of Cathy’s journey is the importance of finding just one role – yourself.

For a while (this can be extended to the entire series really) Cathy has been too focused on making others happy, and sacrificing herself for them. She didn’t tell anyone about the cancer so as to not inconvenience them, helped Lee last season, has allowed Paul to gallivant off this season. It was great to see an episode that really put the character in perspective in such a unique and interesting way.

There was a sort of carnival/party soundtrack the whole episode, which jarred with the silence and pace of the scenes, but began to show that kind of life excitement which hopefully Cathy is starting to get back. Her choice at the end of the episode, although controversial, fitted into the plot. I’m sure she’ll return to suburbia ultimately, but that rejection of the paces and stresses and painful idiosyncrasies of modern life was important, and invigorating.  The production of the scene – editing, writing, acting, visuals – were outstanding. That, I feel, was a return to the true tone of ‘The Big C’. Cathy won’t just run off, I’m sure. She’ll come back ultimately, and probably tell her family before they worry that she isn’t actually dead.

In terms of a season finale, this worked excellently, and also worked brilliantly as a series finale if the unthinkable happens, and Showtime cancels the show.

If Season 4 returns, we have two options – we watch Cathy explore the world with or without Angel, finding her own happiness. Or, we skip out the travelling and the season starts back in Minneapolis, and we continue the stages of grief with ‘depression’ and ‘acceptance’ (maybe combine the two into one season – there might not be the viewing figures for a fifth). What we don’t want to happen is for Cathy to die on her travels, or stay with Angel – please let her return to her family and friends before she gets too ill to enjoy them. We also do not want a series built around ‘depression’ whilst she travels – either let her enjoy everything for a short time, or skip depression and let Cathy find her happiness whilst accepting the inevitable – that could work. Also, Cathy says ‘I think I’m going to die within the year’ – this brought the show back onto a focused path the audience feel it might have strayed from, and gives us a time-frame for the final season(s).

If this becomes the last we see of The Big C (honestly, we can’t let this happen everybody), the last scene had an important message involving a shorthand for the rest of Cathy’s life. She rejects the badness and anger in the world, she concentrates on herself, and on enjoying her life, becomes accepting of her fate, and flies. The boat could be a metaphor for Cathy’s angel taking her away, and so the final scene could be quite a clever way of finishing off the series – Cathy dies, but she comes to be happy about it, and enjoys her final months without the bad in the world.

(But we don’t want this – we want at least a Season 4 that the creators and writers can shape and build towards a proper ending for one of the most incredible and meaningful shows of recent years. Thanks in advance, Showtime).

Joe Dunthorne - Wild Abandon REVIEW

Joe Dunthorne has had a weird time of it. ‘Submarine’ was a runaway success of a first novel, and was made into a critically-acclaimed and cult film by Richard Ayoade. He’s released a poetry pamphlet with Faber and Faber (which is pretty difficult to get hold of.., anyone fancy a second print run?) and started on a ‘fantasy gangster novel’ for his difficult second book. He then gave up on this idea, and started ‘Wild Abandon’ – a wry/heartwarming look at family life in a commune, as the end of the world approaches. And once again, he’s written a quirky, funny and properly original book.

The novel’s premise is simple, but the wealth of characters complicates things and brings Dunthorne's controlled chaos to the forefront. Albert, eleven, and Kate, seventeen, live with their parents Don and Freya on a communal farm in South Wales, and as the end of the world approaches, the commune attempts to bring itself into the modern age, because numbers are down, and interest is falling. At the same time, secondary characters like Patrick and Isaac provide a backdrop to both the rest of the commune, and of the outside world, often providing foils to the main characters or complicating events with opposing viewpoints to the main cast. Whilst seemingly a bit dated, the commune exists next to the present day, and Dunthorne makes interesting points about seclusion, technology and youth.

In two books, Dunthorne has – well, he’d pretty much done it after one – carved his niche as a purveyor of weird teenagers. His kids are likeable, and funny, but they talk like prim adults and are quite strange. For example, Albert says, in a relationship breakdown with Kate, ‘It’s your boyfriend’s fault you’ve turned like this. I would like to destroy him’, and whilst Dunthorne’s books have that dark humour, he manages to move beyond the simply ironic, and say something profound.  In ‘Wild Abandon’, he gets into the heads of Kate, Albert and Isaac to show the failings of the adults, who, by extension, exhibit a stubborn inability to adopt in the modern world. Kate’s slow but sure escape from the trappings of her upbringing – through her boyfriend, schooling and UCAS plans – show the importance of being yourself, and reaching your potential.

Whilst Kate can easily make plans to move away and can experience the modern world, Albert must stay in the commune, and despite being offered a real school, states ‘I don't have anything in common with people my own age’. The essentiality of allowing change and freedom in children is stressed by Dunthorne, who champions teen individuality. He satirizes communal life and the modern world, introducing altered attitudes to the commune itself, and differing opinions within the community. What Dunthorne does brilliantly is take disparate and varied elements and characters, and fine-tune them into a varying third-person narrative, all of which come to make a fine point – everyone should reach their potential without restraint. At times, he struggles with the sheer number of characters whose stories must be rounded off and completed, but then I considered the book more focused and plot-driven than ‘Submarine’, so you win some, you lose some.

As the book hurtles towards its conclusion, characters separate and come together, and Dunthorne makes some surprisingly profound and salient points about capitalism and community. ‘Wild Abandon’ is a comedy, but intensely moving, and is a relaxed and controlled novel on family, innocence, childhood, maturity and potential – about living for you, and living for others. The highlight of the novel is the Kate and Albert sibling relationship - one reviewer said that considering so many have them, true sibling relationships are rare in the novel - and here, Dunthorne captures the love, distance and trust of said relationships perfectly. For a clever and witty summer read, pick Dunthorne – a naturally talented writer.

17 June, 2012

Reading Carver, Lethem and Némirovsky

I don’t think I have a stalker but just in case, I might aswell keep them up to date on my literary tastes.

‘Beginners’ is the unedited, full and original text of Carver’s famed ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Taken from the American writer’s own handwritten manuscripts, the text is a fuller and more lengthy version of the original work, and as with everything else Carver does, it’s bloody good.

Carver wrote in a blunt and minimalist style, which is evident in his early works, less so in his final collections. But ‘Beginners’ is a lengthier tome than the edited version, and regardless of his editor’s revisions, one is reading the stories as Carver first intended them – giving a fascinating insight into his work, and into the art of a good edit.

The best stories in the collection, as with much of Carver’s work, focus on the downtrodden or what we currently group with the awful phrase ‘the ninety-nine percent’. ‘Beginners’, ‘Pie’ and ‘A Small, Good Thing’ at once depict bleak tales of despair and difficulty, but with a charming and ironic optimism. They’re not always enjoyable or obviously uplifting stories, but they’re good. They’re like Keret without the whimsicality, or Yates without the harrowing sadness – Carver has a unique voice that can be picked from amongst his rivals with ease.

So give Carver a go – his short stories are excellent, and the poem ‘Gravy’ is around online; it is basically a fifteen-line poetic snapshot of what Carver is about. I also highly recommend ‘Fires’, a collection of essays, poems and short stories, that gives an overview into the style and themes of a clever, witty and important writer.

Jonathan Lethem, famed American novelist, was pretty much unknown to me, and then I got offered some free books and ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’ looked interesting, and if you’re going to get free books you may aswell take hefty hardbacks (value for money etc).

ANYWAY the book is a collection of previously-published and new writings on such a wide and disparate range of topics, it’s surprising that they can all legally be published together. But they can, because what links culture, 9/11, literature, Brooklyn, book tours, comics and Bob Dylan is Lethem’s zest for good writing, and his insight, which he deftly and seemingly effortlessly transfers to print.

It’s all very nice. Lethem writes in a relaxed and conversational style, and with a sometimes quite abstract tone, clearly about topics he loves and knows. Highlights of the book are the bookshop stories, 9/11 section and ‘Wall Art’ chapter – the book constitutes a sort of autobiography, essay collection and overall world outlook all in one, and it’s fascinating. Read it.

So I was making my way through some classics I didn’t know much about and I read ‘Suite Francaise’ by Irène Némirovsky. It is a collection of the only two completed novels in a projected five-part series. A piece about a collection of characters in France during the Occupation, the planned work was sadly cut short when Némirovsky, a French writer of Ukranian-Jewish origin was taken to Auschwitz.

Written during the very time it depicts, the book is a true and raw (to be fair, it does feel unfinished but it’s possibly all the better for that) depiction of a dark time in French history. It’s strangely apolitical, in that it depicts the lives of a wide array of characters at this time, but without much clear or manipulated subtext in the words themselves. Adding to this, the book wasn’t even published till 2004, as the manuscript fell into the hands of Némirovsky’s daughter after being stuffed in a suitcase during the panic of the time – it’s a wonder the text exists at all.

But at its heart, regardless of its conception and incredible backstory, it is a tale of the individual and the collective, a tale of what to do when life gets a bit shit, and a marvellous testament to story-telling and survival. Its writer may have been taken from us too soon, but this incredible piece of work will live on.

12 June, 2012

Winterson World (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? - Jeanette Winterson)

In 1985, ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ was published, Jeanette Winterson’s admittedly ‘semi-autobiographical’ story, a masterpiece of a novel on innocence, childhood and homosexuality and since then, nobody has known just how much of ‘Oranges’ relates to Winterson’s own life, in a book that toes the line between fiction, life and meta-fiction. Until now.

‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ is put in the non-fiction shelves of the bookshop, but could happily be placed in almost any genre – it’s Winterson’s life, but told with her insightful and comedic tone. It reveals just how important a novel ‘Oranges’ is, and puts Winterson’s life in context to the legendary status now afforded to the ‘Oranges’ tale, from the novel’s generational success and the BBC TV adaptation.

Winterson’s writing elevates what is essentially quite a bleak tale of adolescence to quite dizzying heights of poetic beauty, intense meaning and wise connections. Her prose style comprises the traditional expectations of storytelling (references to fairytales and traditional story models) with her own fresh and individual voice. She perfectly conjures up a picture of bleak village life, but brings an aesthetic value to the scenes, and cross-references her tale with cultural references from that time, and from today. The book is less like reading a chronological list of things that happened in her life, and more a brilliantly realised collection of what Winterson’s life has meant to her, and how it manifests itself in her psyche, in forming the Winterson of the present day.

The book, like the writer, has a knack for the soundbite, for the succinct meaning to every word – ‘Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it’. Every line, despite her writing being simplistic in lexis, is heavy with the weight of Winterson-world. Whilst careful with her words, Winterson does not leave out information (trust me, she does not hold back – some of the things included will shock you) and instead, makes sense, in literary terms, of what has happened to her. Whilst she may hide and disguise things that will happen, Winterson’s tale (arguably, like ‘Oranges’) is one representation of her story.

In a society that is placing less and less value on books, and in which libraries are facing unprecedented scrutiny and difficulty, Winterson champions books, libraries and culture as an important path away from bigotry, and as a nurturing force for children. Her book is scattered with literary references, and in particular, Winterson recounts how, despite books being banned from her childhood home, she would make her way through every book on the shelves of Fiction, alphabetically. Winterson writes that ‘A tough life needs tough language… That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is’. Winterson values culture – the cultural heritage of a village or town, of the country, and of oneself and one’s family. The unifying extent of her cultural references – from La Morte d’Arthur to Toy Story 3 and Harry Potter – emphasises the value of culture in any age, especially for children.

What is at once arresting about ‘Why be Happy?’ is that it reads, to an ‘Oranges’ enthusiast, like a story you know, familiar and yet different. I have said that both books are different depictions of one childhood; only Winterson will know how true each is to her past, but there are notable differences between the two. What is glossed over in Oranges, or is less weighty by its fictional nature, is the extent of the hardship that Winterson suffered. This book truly brings home the extent of isolation one can encounter in a society they don’t fit into, a feeling that I think is universally damaging to a child, regardless of the exact circumstance. And it is in this way that Winterson, a roaring success as an adult, makes at once the points that culture and literature is truly life-changing and essential, and that one should not regret one’s past or upbringing, as it makes us who we are today.

The differences in tone between ‘Oranges’ and ‘Why Be Happy?’ are slight. But the most obvious difference in that, with the benefit of hindsight, and the success that Oranges has brought her, Winterson shows a better and more mature understanding in this book – on her mother, she writes ‘I was fatally unknown to her, and she was afraid of me’. And without spoiling anything, Winterson tracks down her experiences, with and without her mother, to one powerful emotion. Not many writers can take such a varied and disparate set of ideas, and write a streamlined and succinct book, in such an entertaining fashion.

So, what else is there to say about the book? Read it. Winterson writes with a fierce comedy, a balanced outlook and similarly to ‘Oranges’, writes a book which is at turns uplifting, devastating, ambiguous and clearly empowered. Winterson is a tour-de-force, a testament to character, and in this ode to intelligence, heart and imagination, she shines. 

Danny Wallace turns to Fiction (Charlotte Street)

Danny Wallace, ace author of ‘Yes Man’, ‘Join Me’ and ‘Awkward Situations for Men’ has turned his hand to fiction. It was only a matter of time, but does ‘Charlotte Street’ live up to Wallace’s previous books, does it warrant the marketing hype and does it differ from the non-fiction? Here’s what I thought.

‘Charlotte Street’ has a simple premise.  Boy meets girl, girl drops camera, man has photos developed, gets into all kinds of weird situations and tries to track down the girl without being stalky and murderous. A modern fairytale, if you like.  Our protagonist is ‘the thirty-two-year-old Jason Priestley who lives on the Caledonian Road, above a videogame shop between a Polish newsagents and that place everyone thought was a brothel, but wasn’t… who’s ended up single and going to cheap restaurants and awful films so’s he can write about them in that free newspaper they give you on the tube which you take but don’t read.’ He’s basically a downcast Danny Wallace, living in London, trying to get by in work, friendship and love.

The book’s plot is a bit romance, a bit bromance and a bit ‘find-yourself in the modern world’. Wallace has a knack for comedy writing, and manages to include deadpan and subtle humour whilst still writing prose, in the same vein as Joe Dunthorne or Joe Stretch. Wallace writes slyly, including humour as an aside to the action: ‘I noticed his fleece… No bobbles, no fluff. This was a fleece he took care of’.

‘Charlotte Street’ is not, and I don’t think Wallace would say it is, that far removed from his non-fiction successes.  It is a simple plot, comprising a Wallace-like character in relationship and work troubles, with friends around him in a big town – but this book just happens to be fictional. But this doesn’t really matter. They say stick to what you know, and Wallace knows his craft. With lines like ‘Life isn’t a series of Martin Clunes references’, no one could deny that Wallace is a very comedic, and surprisingly touching, writer.

The novel is fun, comedic, moving and plot-driven, with the classic Danny Wallace humour and deftness of character. This is an excellent summer read, perfect for the beach. ‘Charlotte Street’ is a good light read; if you like Wallace, you’ll love this.