Thursday, July 29, 2010

Phillip Pullman: The Subtle Knife

"The Subtle Knife" is the second volume in Pullman's trilogy, "His Dark Materials," and picks up where "The Golden Compass" left off. Lord Asriel has killed Lyra's friend Roger in an attempt to create a window between universes. He passes through, then a short time later Lyra follows.

While "The Golden Compass" managed to enchant me, despite its narrative faults, I felt a good deal of disappointment with "The Subtle Knife." It was not just Pullman's tendency to pontificate (though that was certainly a factor), but the comparative lack of imagination, that dooms this book.

The novel begins in "our" Oxford, where we meet a quasi-urchin Will who is forced to flee after accidentally killing one of his mother's visitors. He stumbles upon a window between the worlds, similar to that created by Lord Asriel at the end of "The Golden Compass." He decides that this new world is a wonderful hiding spot, and decides to stay. He shortly stumbles across Lyra, who had crossed through Asriel's window into the same world, the ghastly Cittàgazze. They join forces, and soon come across the eponymous knife, with a blade 'subtle' enough to cut out new windows between worlds.

This felt like literary malpractice. Having established in the first novel the amount of energy it would require to open such a window, and that only a murder qua intercission released such energy, Pullman suddenly realizes that it would be tremendously inconvenient to add a murder ever time he wanted to move the characters from one world to another. So, the Macguffin of the first novel becomes a magic wand in the second. Worse, it is hardly necessary. Having offer a multiverse of possibilities, Pullman only broadens his horizons sufficiently in this novel to include the one world with which we are already familiar: namely, our own. (Cittàgazze hardly counts, as it bears more resemblance to "the woods between worlds" in C.S. Lewis's "Magician's Nephew" than to the fully developed world of Narnia.) Yet Pullman has already shown us pre-existing windows between our Oxford and Cittàgazze, and between Cittàgazze and Lyra's Oxford, and soon shows another window between the two Oxford worlds directly. Good stories are driven by insurmountable obstacles, and it seems hardly sporting for Pullman to rob us of an absolutely marvelous one by giving his characters this work-around. Wouldn't it be far more exciting for the characters to be forced through these smaller and fewer windows, creating bottlenecks and all sorts of opportunities for mischief (what if a crucial window were being guarded by the Magisterium? etc.)

After claiming the blade as his own, Will and Lyra return to the Oxford in his world and meet the physicist Mary Malone, who is experimenting with "dark matter" particles (or, as we soon learn, Dust). This begins a rather long section of exposition. Later, inspired by Lyra's alethiometer, she devises a computer program to "read" the Dust, or rather to let the Dust write back. It is here that we learn that the Lyra's alethiometer (along withMary's Dust-reader) is in fact an occult object. This was hinted at in "The Golden Compass" when Lyra became more familiar with the moods and whimsies of the alethiometer, but here it is confirmed that the compass is itself moved by fallen angels (or rather, 'independent' angels who have rebelled against the Authority).

Most works of fantasy recognize the dangers of unconstrained magic, even within their own worlds, and therefore seek to limit it in some fashion, most often by distinguishing between 'good' and 'evil' forms of magic. Pullman does away with that distinction entirely, or at least upends it beyond recognition. His characters accept that occult magic is perfectly acceptable, and hardly think twice about consulting such figures. The only exception is Mary herself, but she soon dismisses such reticence as a by-product of her cloistered youth (cloistered literally; she had been a nun).

This is perhaps the greatest flaw of the work. It is a straight-forward tale of good vs. evil in which the Christian Church (represented by the Magisterium) and God (represented by the Authority) are unquestionably evil, while fallen angels (led by Xaphania, whose name by Western tradition is properly Satan) and others are on the side of good. This upending of traditional roles might have worked as a background motif, but Pullman insists on drawing our attention to it at every step of the way. It is simply impossible to escape without being proselytized, as though Satanists had suddenly adopted the tactics of Jehovah's Witnesses. Pullman is imitating Milton in retelling the story of Genesis with Satan as a sympathetic figure, only without the finesse that made "Paradise Lost" so compelling. Literary historians still debate what Milton 'meant' in his presentation of Satan; no one will wonder where Pullman's loyalties lie.

Indeed, it is in his book that Pullman finally gives us the broad-brush outline for the entire trilogy. Lord Asriel is not content to merely defeat the Magisterium, but is ambitious enough to strike at the very heart of the Magisterium's power: the Authority Himself. Pullman overcompensates for whisking us through the first novel without a clue as to the ultimate plot, by showing us all of his cards. Throughout the book, Mrs. Coulter seeks information about her daughter by interrogating witches. Eventually she learns that her daughter, Lyra, was prophesied to be "Eve." Mary Malone likewise discovers her destiny as the "Tempter." These archetypes promise to resolve themselves in the next installment, so I will reserve judgment, but the question remains. After all the plot, all the narrative hoopla, even after the twist ending, can there be any doubt as to how the third book will be resolved?

The writing is splendid, the imagery remains consistent and pleasing, and the plot is satisfactory. Pullman has indeed cut a window into another world, and allows each of us a glimpse into another universe. But unlike the first book, these virtues are overburdened by narrative flaws and an unbearably preachy tone that ruins the effect. The imaginative quality is at least temporarily deafened by his apologetic tone. Pullman neither shows nor tells, but defends; this book could be as easily classified as philosophy as it could be as fantasy, and that is no virtue.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

"Bleak House" (2005)

I have little patience for Charles Dickens. If I desired large serialized tomes with meandering prose and a cast of caricatures, I might find more value in his work, but for the present, my appetite for social drama must be whetted by Jane Austen. All that said, I found the BBC adaptation of "Bleak House" so compelling that I overcame my prejudices and tried to read the novel itself. I failed, but after re-watching the series I shall certainly redouble my efforts.

The BBC miniseries "Bleak House" has received virtually universal acclaim, at least according to Metacritic, and I can say little to dispute that it deserves it. Even the premiere episode somehow succeeds in introducing us to the typically Dickensian back-story and a massive cast of characters within its brief 30-minute window while still somehow maintaining our interest. It is a remarkable tribute to Andrew Davies, the screenwriter who also boasts the writing credit for the 1995 "Pride & Prejudice" miniseries, that he manages to cover so much of Dickens' plot while trimming the fat. "Bleak House" is simultaneously faithful to the source material, while excising the novel's qualities that would not appeal to a modern audience (such as, say, the ungodly length and tediousness of it all). It's rather difficult to evaluate the cinematography and soundtrack when they are so bipolar. The director did an exceptional job when showing action or dialogue, but for the establishing shots of landscapes and locations both picture and sound become melodramatic and obnoxiously percussive.

Now for the characters. Gillian Anderson (the actress who plays Lady Dedlock) attracted the most attention from U.S. audiences due to her role as Scully on "The X-Files, and she certainly deserved the laurels for her portrayal of the depressive wife of an aristocratic septuagenarian. Yet hers was not the only great performance in this series.

Anna Maxwell Martin effectively carries the entire series as Esther Summerson, the shy but exceptionally kindhearted young lady who was raised as an orphan but is discovered to be the illegitimate child of Lady Dedlock's youth. Her performance is consistently understated, which fits the character, and even when not onscreen she arrests our sympathies and grounds us in the world of Victorian England.

I was less impressed by the acting for Ada Claire and Richard Carstone (by Carey Mulligan and Patrick Kennedy, respectively), though it should be said that both of their characters were not written with much complexity in the first place. The most dramatic moment for Mulligan's character came in her embrace of Esther recovering from smallpox. Yet we hardly see Ada's face during the scene, as the camera remains entirely on Esther. Meanwhile, Kennedy effectively conveys Richard's fundamental transigence, and slow descent into obsession with the Jarndyce court case, but is left with little else to do. His is more a performance of makeup than a performance of spirit.

I feel similarly towards the character of Allan Woodcourt (played by Richard Harrington). He is clearly a sympathetic figure, and we see his growing affection for Esther, but he is not a compelling character. He is seen only on rare occasions throughout the miniseries, and those moments are not enough to define his character. This is perhaps due to the character's role: he is a foil for Esther, and is treated accordingly. Yet the obsessive and neurotic Guppy (played by Burn Gorman) is given a more definitive personality, though he is just as much a foil for Esther and for Esther's plot.

The character of John Jarndyce, played by Denis Lawson, is for me a much more engaging and sympathetic character, as Esther's guardian and host, who discovers that he is falling in love with his (much younger) ward. Even though modern audiences are sufficient attuned to the plot of romantic comedies to know that Esther is destined to love and marry Woodcourt, and we therefore rejoice in their happy ending, it is Jarndyce who carries the story and much of our sympathies during it. He is the more rounded character, and more central to the story.

The police constable, Mr. Bucket, is played by Alun Armstrong, who is not given much opportunity to shine until the second half of the miniseries, after the death of Mr. Tulkinghorn. I cannot tell if credit goes to the actor or to the director, but this struck me as one of the best performances on stage. When I saw him sipping wine while gazing at the corpse of Mr. Tulkinghorn, my first reaction was to laugh at the absurdity of it, then shrug at the appearance of another self-centered weasel who would use his position for no good. But then I realized how sharp Mr. Bucket actually was, how he was using nonchalance to coax cooperation from Mr. Clamb, the law clerk. He used his ability to put people at ease, to ensure that he could gather all the requisite evidence, and to ensure that everything worked out for the best. His passing comment to Mr. George, that arresting him falsely for the murder did him good because it reunited him with his mother, was brilliant, and made me realize that he actually had no concept of George's guilt in the first place. George, Dedlock, Hortense, Smallweed, and all the other schemers in the story, anyone with their own secrets and motivations, they were all outsmarted by a man who on first glance seemed a dunce, who bore more resemblance to Watson than to Holmes.

There is a panoply of other minor characters, each of whom are with few exceptions well-drawn and well-acted, and even those who are not are often hilarious (I'm thinking at this moment of the giggly Mrs. Guppy). However, as with so many stories, it is the villains who have the best scenes and best stories. It is hard to conceive of a more repulsive character than Mr. Smallweed (Phil Davis), the paralytic moneylender who barks orders at everyone and whips the servants who must carry him around everywhere. He is truly vile, and almost certainly barking mad besides ("Bad debt! Bad debt! I hate it!"). On the other hand, Harold Skimpole (Nathaniel Parker) is an atrocious specimen of amorality. He professes his ignorance and innocence ("I am a perfect child in such matters"), but his parasitic ability to feed off the livings of John Jarndyce and his wards and his willingness to sell the smallpox-stricken boy Jo defines this character as truly loathsome. He appears almost as an aristocratic Mephistopheles, a smooth surrogate of evil. There is a intriguing moral point to his protestations that "I am a child!" John Jarndyce points out that "I'm not sure if there is any other such child in all of Creation," but Skimpole does seem truly childish in his inability to support himself and his inability to understand the good motivations of others. He is genuinely out of his depth, even if he is a manipulative wretch.

The greatest character of the entire miniseries, however, is easily Mr. Tulkinghorn, played by Charles Dance. His entry on Wikipedia shows him holding flowers, and it is hard to imagine a more incongruous image after watching his performance in this miniseries. It is unfortunate that the directing and sound editing did not let his performance speak for itself, as the ominous music clearly marked him as The Bad Guy in his first appearance. Yet it is not until halfway through the series that we see him at his most villainous, in his dealings with Mr. George. Holding the threat of eviction over his head, to break down the roots of George's honor and loyalty to his dead friend, then executing that threat even after getting what he wanted, just to teach him the price of "defiance." Even the usually imperturbable Mr. Clamb did a double-take at that point. Tulkinghorn appears the true gentlemen around Sir Leichester Dedlock, only becoming menacing around Lady Dedlock. There is a wonderful scene where he expresses in the most genteel of words his devotion to the Dedlock family... only to follow with words of steel that he is loyal to the family "whatever the cost to others." It is a chilling moment, as the battle lines are drawn between Lady Dedlock and her solicitor. However, it cannot even come close to the scene where Tulkinghorn encounters Mr. Guppy in a sitting room with Lady Dedlock. Lady Dedlock explains that they had just concluded business, and as Mr. Guppy tries to exit, Tulkinghorn turns a positively monstrous gaze upon him. I did not think it was possible, but at that moment I felt genuine sympathy for the poor Mr. Guppy, and Tulkinghorn is the only possible character who could have inspired such feelings of pity for such a repulsive creep that Guppy was.

As for the story, it is almost impossibly complicated, yet it is not so difficult to follow once you're in the thick of it. Thus, it cannot be easily described, but I'm not even sure if it ought to be, since the story really isn't the point. Besides a few unpredictable twists that provide dramatic flair (such as the first literary instance of spontaneous combustion), the plot proceeds along familiar lines, and the ultimate resolution is telescoped from early on. It is not hard to predict where the characters end up. My one complaint about some of the plot points was that, while Dickens knew how to set up a dismal atmosphere, he really didn't know how to dispatch characters easily, or how to integrate their elimination with the plot. The first death, that of Captain Hawdon (alias Nemo), is from opium overdose -- very convenient, to die just before he would have had a role in the story. The second death, of Mr. Krook, is by spontaneous combustion. In this instance, Krook's death was necessary to enable his collection of papers to circulate, but Dickens clearly didn't want to be bogged down with another court case involving murder or even accidental death, and thus resorted to a freak of nature. The third death, involving Mr. Tulkinghon, was at the hands of a minor character who had the least possible reason for wishing his death. Dickens set out two immensely plausible suspects -- Lady Dedlock and Mr. George -- both of whom wish him dead for intensely personal reasons grounded in the story, but it turns out that Tulkinghorn was murdered by Hortense in a rage because he did not find her a job. The murder investigation was a single, giant head-fake by Dickens. [UPDATE: I forgot to mention the death of the boy Jo, which was effectively portrayed and quite powerful, but did not affect the plot in any significant way.] The fourth death, of Lady Dedlock, makes more sense in the novel than in the miniseries (in the book, she is being harried and suspected as a potential murderess; in the miniseries, she was already cleared, but had fled Chesney Wold to preserve Sir Leichester's honor). The final and fifth death, of Richard Carstone, was prefigured much early in the novel by Mr. Gridley, and was therefore not as affecting. I would have found it more effective if he had either a) died before the 'true' will was discovered and he came into his fortune or b) recovered from his illness and made a fresh beginning. This would have caused quite a stir in purist circles, so I absolve the miniseries from blame, but I cannot help but hold the novel responsible for this failure of imagination.

I also found the ending to be a bit hasty and slightly dissatisfying. Ada went from losing her husband to holding her child (with the requisite tears and smiles at each) in about two seconds flat. Mr. Guppy is reintroduced and dispatched in a single scene. Esther was at one moment happily installed with John Jarndyce, then suddenly launched into happy matrimony with the other love interest Mr. Woodcourt. Having taken its precious time to deal with the intricate relations and movements in the story, the miniseries suddenly realizes it has a plane to catch. I cannot begrudge it the eight hours of its run-time (I wasn't aware eight hours of television could be so happily spent), but I definitely begrudge its inability to use any of those eight hours to craft a happier ending.

Yet, in the end, the joy and beauty of the work is not in where it resolves, but in how it gets there; it is the journey, far more than the destination, that sustains this story. It is a delight and a pleasure to watch. It made me laugh, shed a few tears (tears of manliness, mind you), and drink deep the pleasures of good literature. It is highly recommended to anyone, especially those who dislike Charles Dickens.