1. Funny Walls
When I was at school, we had a teacher called Mr Wall. When he wasn’t listening, we’d tell this joke:
(Kid mimes holding a phone.)
‘Is Mr Wall there, please?’
‘Is Mrs Wall there, please?’
‘Are there any walls there?’
‘You’d better get out because the ceiling’s about to fall down.’
This is the only joke in existence about a wall. Because walls aren’t funny.
In literature, there’s also one single funny wall and it’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Mechanicals, a set of poor players, put on a production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Tom Snout plays the wall that keeps the lovers apart.
In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a wall.
The comic possibilities of someone pretending to be a wall were lost neither on William Shakespeare nor the many thousands of English teachers obliged to stage a version of the play.
And such a wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a crannied hole, or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe,
Did whisper often very secretly.
As a schoolboy, I saw a production about which I remember nothing other than the Wall, as played by Snout, farting in the face of Pyramus, as played by Bottom (also funny). It was a light-bulb moment: maybe Shakespeare could be something other than a dead man teachers use to bore kids.
2. Scary Walls
Gothic writing, according to Angela Carter, “retains a singular moral function–that of provoking unease.” As the genre moved from the haunted ruins of Italian castles to more domestic settings, writers like Edgar Allan Poe employed bricks and mortar to do just this. A number of his stories rely on walls. Consider “The Cask of Amontillado,” for instance. Montresor, a nasty sort, takes revenge on Fortunato for an unreported slight. The unfortunate Fortunato falls for the trick of being invited to a private wine-tasting ceremony (wouldn’t we all?), only to be first chained up and then walled away in the catacombs underneath Montresor’s palazzo. In “The Black Cat,” the protagonist’s wife, accidentally axed in the head, is walled up behind a house’s interior wall. In “The Tell Tale Heart,” it is beneath a floorboard, rather than behind a wall, that a corpse is hidden.
H.P. Lovecraft, the spiritual descendant of Poe, came up with “The Rats in the Walls,” a short story featuring rats in the walls of an ancestral home. The scurrying sound, enough to drive anyone to distraction, leads the protagonist to discover the entrance to a subterranean city in which his family have raised generations of human cattle. To eat. Unlike the character in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator is driven mad by what lies behind the walls, rather than what covers them.
In these examples, walls screen past indiscretions. What you can’t see can’t hurt you. They obscure dark history, but only for so long, as in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Walls in literature, as well as history, have a tendency to collapse.
3. Prison Walls
We may suppose that walls are erected to keep a threat, be that a metaphorical secret or a literal danger, apart and out of sight. In Jorge Luis Borges’s “The House of Asterion,” it initially appears that the reverse is true. We’re introduced to a character of royal blood, Asterion. He tells us how he spends his days roaming the corridors of his infinite house. There are no locked doors, only endless passageways. His world is walls.
The story ends:
Would you believe it, Ariadne? The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.
The house is the Labyrinth, Asterion is the Minotaur. His walls are those of a jail. The reader understands that it sucks to be the Minotaur, especially as he gets killed and, who knows, maybe he’s not so much of a monster after all but, as my father used to say, it’s better to be safe than sorry. The Minotaur looks bad, after all.
Harvard University is transformed into a prison in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Prisons need walls, for, as in the story of the Minotaur, wardens tend to prefer prisoners on their side of the perimeter.
The Wall in Atwood’s story has “ugly new floodlights mounted on metal posts above it, and barbed wire along the bottom and broken glass set in concrete along the top.” Not a structure you’d fancy climbing and mildly reminiscent of English lower league football stadia.
You don’t need to have studied high-school English to mark the significance of a university converted to a prison. Citizens of Gilead are forced to attend ritual viewings of the dissidents that are hanged on the Wall.
4. Office Walls
There’s a chance that you’ve spent at least a portion of your working life gazing blankly at an office wall. In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Bartleby, the Wall Street worker who prefers not to, spends hours staring at a “dead” brick wall through his office window. The narrator describes these periods as “dead wall reveries.” When Bartleby is finally admitted to jail, he is found with “his face towards a high wall.”
Clearly, there’s something significant going on here. Bartleby begins the story walled off from his colleagues, his job the only thing with which he is able to form a connection. When even this fades, he stares at walls, symbols of urban separation in Melville’s story of capitalism’s forced individualism.
5. Biblical Walls
Let down by works of fiction, I look to The Bible because I remember that it’s full of good stories and also walls. The Walls of Jericho, felled by marching and horn blowing, is one of the most famous moments, found in Joshua 6:1–27.
Therefore he said unto Judah, Let us build these cities, and make about them walls, and towers, gates, and bars, while the land is yet before us; because we have sought the Lord our God, we have sought him, and he hath given us rest on every side. So they built and prospered. (2 Chronicles 14:7)
God loves walls. At least, according to the Old Testament, he does. I’ve been to cathedrals with fantastic walls and it’s a sin to doubt His judgment. Yet, like the notion of eternal grace in a place called Heaven, I still feel this nagging doubt. The Old Testament, like the modern world, may contain walls, but it also contains smiting.
Franz Kafka wrote about walls, most famously castle walls and bedroom walls, but in “The Great Wall of China,” written in 1917 but not published until 1931, he describes an elderly mason looking back at the piecemeal construction of the Great Wall.
Each team of builders is allocated 500 meters of wall to build over five years. When finished, they are transferred to a different region to do the same again. As they journey to their new project, they see other sections of the wall, built by other teams. This proves, therefore, the success of the project, despite there being “gaps which have never been built in at all.”
The “invaders from the North,” against whom the wall is protecting China, never invade.
When children are naughty, we hold up these pictures in front of them, and they immediately burst into tears and run into our arms.
It doesn’t matter, the construction occupies the people. And the building of the wall illustrates the power and wisdom of the Emperor, for such a huge undertaking cannot be anything but impressive.
Unity! Unity! Shoulder to shoulder, a coordinated movement of the people, their blood no longer confined in the limited circulation of the body but rolling sweetly and yet still returning through the infinite extent of China.
Fear of invasion, suggests Kafka, is a more powerful form of control than bricks and mortar.
7. Your Neighbor’s Wall
Robert Frost is no fan of walls. Or, at least, the poet-persona in “Mending Wall” isn’t. The verse describes a springtime meeting between neighbors, during which they repair the wall that divides their property. The speaker is happy for the structure to fall down.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was likely to give offence.
The neighbor isn’t persuaded. Described as “like an old-stone savage armed,” he “will not go behind his father’s saying:”
Good fences make good neighbors.
He builds a wall because we always build walls. There may be nothing to wall in or wall out, but that doesn’t matter: the wall is all.
Image courtesy of the author.
“All that he doth write / Is pure his own.” So a 17th-century poet praised William Shakespeare. This is not actually true.
Shakespeare was a reteller. Cardenio, also known as The Double Falsehood, which I’ve written about before for The Millions, was a retelling of the Cardenio episode in Don Quixote. As You Like It retold Thomas Lodge’s romance Rosalynde, The Two Noble Kinsmen comes from the Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The Comedy of Errors is Plautus’s Menaechmi with an extra set of twins. The Winter’s Tale retold Robert Greene’s novella Pandosto without the incest. Much Ado About Nothing is Orlando Furioso, although Beatrice and Benedick are original. King Lear, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew may be simple rewrites of earlier plays. In fact the only of Shakespeare’s plays to have original plots were The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. What makes Shakespeare, well — Shakespeare, is not his plots, but his language.
This month, Hogarth Press published the first entry — The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson — in a new collection of novels by today’s major practitioners that each rewrite one of Shakespeare’s plays. Tracy Chevalier will be retelling Othello; Margaret Atwood The Tempest; Gillian Flynn Hamlet; Edward St. Aubyn King Lear; Anne Tyler The Taming of the Shrew; Jo Nesbø Macbeth; and Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice. This is not a new endeavor, although it does seem to be a uniquely 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. (The Romantics preferred to think of Shakespeare as an artless genius working under pure inspiration.) But as scholars have begun to recognize the extent of Shakespeare’s own retellings — and collaborations — modern writers have taken a page out of his book by rewriting his plays. (I’ll mention here the newly announced project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but that seems to stem from a different impulse.)
Perhaps this narrative is too simple. It is not as if, after all, writers in the last century suddenly discovered Shakespeare as a source and influence. For the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have become as much a part of the common language and mythology as the King James Bible. In a sense, Noah’s flood is as much a foundational myth of our culture as the Seven Ages of Man. Like Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, we use Shakespeare as a way to understand and connect with each other. There is so much of Shakespeare woven into Moby-Dick, for instance, that the allusions and the words and the quotations feel like the warp and woof of the novel. The same could be said for just about anything by Milton, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Frost, Eliot — in fact I could name most of the writers in the English and American canons, and, indeed, abroad. Borges, to name just one example, found in Shakespeare a kindred spirit in his exploration of magical realism; and Salman Rushdie’s definition of magical realism as “the commingling of the improbable with the mundane” is a pretty good description of some of Shakespeare’s plays — A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind.
Let’s take, for an example, Woolf’s Between the Acts, her last novel. It is a book seemingly made entirely of fragments — scraps of literature spoken and overheard; parts of the village pageant, around which the novel centers, either omitted or the voices of the actors blown away by the wind; characters speaking to each other but failing to understand, or only managing to half-articulate their thoughts. In the midst of all this, Shakespeare is ever-present, a source for the poetry on everyone’s lips, inspiration for part of the pageant, and a symbol of what ought to be valued, not just in literature and art, but in life.
One of these piecemeal phrases that becomes a refrain in the book and in the consciousness of the characters is “books are the mirrors of the soul.” Woolf turns it around from meaning that books reflect the souls of their creators to meaning that the books we read reflect what value there might be in our souls. The person who is drawn to reading about Henry V must have that same heroism somewhere in him; the woman who feels the anguish of Queen Katherine also has some of her nobility. The younger generation of Between the Acts reads only newspapers, or “shilling shockers.” No one reads Shakespeare, although they try to quote him all the time. Shakespeare becomes a substitute for what they cannot put into words themselves, their “groanings too deep for words.” The worth of Shakespeare that emerges in Between the Acts is as a tap for the hidden spring in each of the characters that contains the things they wish they could say, the thoughts that otherwise they would have no way to communicate — instead of mirrors, books are the mouthpieces of the soul.
Shakespeare’s plays are a touchstone, and the way we react to them, the way we retell them, says more about us than about him. For example, Mary Cowden Clarke in 1850 created biographies for Shakespeare’s female characters in The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. Each are made paragons of virtue and modesty, reflecting Victorian morals and values. But Clarke was also coopting Shakespeare for her own interest in women’s rights, using his stories of women with agency and power, and clothing them in Victorian modesty in order to provide an example and a way forward for herself and her female readers.
To take another example, Mark Twain retold Julius Caesar (actually, just Act III, Scene i) in “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” but he used it to address the bully politics of his day. Shakespeare’s play becomes a news squib from the “Roman Daily Evening Fasces” and the title character becomes “Mr. J. Caesar, the Emperor-elect.” Twain’s Caesar successfully fends off each would-be assassin, “[stretching] the three miscreants at his feet with as many blows of his powerful fist.” The story also makes a claim about Twain’s status as a writer compared to Shakespeare: by mentioning Shakespeare as a supposed citizen of Rome who witnessed “the beginning and the end of the unfortunate affray,” Twain mocks the popular reverence for Shakespeare; he ceases to be a poetic genius and becomes merely a talented transcriber. But by doing so, Twain mocks himself as well; he is, after all, transcribing Shakespeare.
To turn to novels, I could mention Woolf’s Night and Day, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Robert Nye’s Falstaff, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, Rushie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, and a long list of others. In a way these are their own type; rather than appropriating Shakespeare, or quoting or alluding to Shakespeare, they purport to re-imagine his plays. Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear is probably the most well-known. A Thousand Acres manages to capture the horror of Lear. It is modern in that there is no ultimately virtuous character. Cordelia, or Caroline, becomes naive and blind and prejudiced as any other character in the play, and Larry Cook’s strange relationship to his daughters and the way it blows up says less about power and pride and love and aging than about abuse and bitterness. It is both horribly familiar and also fits surprisingly well into Shakespeare’s play. It becomes part of the lens through which we now must view Lear. It enriches our reading of Shakespeare while also giving us a new view of ourselves. And oh is it a cold hard view.
For her entry into the Hogarth series, Winterson had first pick, and chose The Winter’s Tale, which she says has always been a talismanic text for her. In The Gap of Time, Winterson has written what she calls a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. It’s a jazzy, news-y retelling, set insistently in a realistic world. Whereas Shakespeare takes pains to remind us that his play is just a play, Winterson’s emphatically tries to set the action in our own world. Hermione, for example, an actor and singer, has a Wikipedia page. Her acting debut was in Deborah Warner’s adaptation of Winterson’s novel The PowerBook, and she has performed at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Leontes lives in London, where he is a successful businessman with a company called Sicilia, and Polixenes, a video game designer, lives in New Bohemia, which is recognizable as New Orleans. The characters are renamed with short, jazzy nicknames: Leontes becomes Leo; Polixenes is Zeno; Hermione is Mimi; the shepherd and clown who discover the lost Perdita become Shep and Clo. Only Perdita and Autolycus retain their full names. (Autolycus is the best translation of the book: he becomes a used car salesman trying to offload a lemon of a Delorean onto the clown.)
Shakespeare’s play is focused almost equally on the parent’s story and then the children’s, but Winterson’s focuses almost exclusively on the love triangle between Zeno, Leo, and Mimi. Whereas Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that Leontes may have some grounds for jealousy (though if we believe the oracle of Apollo, no room for the possibility of Hermione being guilty of adultery), Winterson is explicit that a love triangle does exist, but she inverts it. It is Leo who loves both Mimi and Zeno, Leo who has slept with both. And it’s clear that though Mimi chose Leo, there was a distinct connection between her and Zeno. Winterson even takes a hint from Shakespeare’s source in Pandosto and makes Leo consider romancing Perdita when he meets her. “As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I’ve always worked with the idea of the lost child,” Winterson has said. The part of Shakespeare’s tale that spoke to Winterson was the origin story, why the child was lost.
Shakespeare’s play, because it doesn’t insist upon existing in a realistic world, is full of wonder and mystery. It’s that magic that happens when you hear the words “Once upon a time.” The closest Winterson’s version gets to that place is in the scenes that take place inside of Zeno’s video game, when Zeno and Leo and Mimi play themselves but also become something a little grander, a little wilder, a little more numinous. But there is little of Shakespeare’s language present. Winterson’s The Winter’s Tale is as much a retelling of Pandosto as Shakespeare.
Why do we return again and again to Shakespeare’s plays, why do we keep rewriting them? Is it in hope that some of his genius will rub off? Are we searching for new possibilities for interpretation, hoping to mine new ore out of well covered ground? Or are we going toe-to-toe, trying our strength against the acknowledged genius of English literature? Perhaps it is simply that creativity is contagious. When a piece of art inspires you, it literally in-spires, breaths into you. It makes us want to create new art. Or, maybe it’s a more basic instinct. From the beginning of our lives, when we hear a good story, a story that as Winterson says becomes “talismanic” for us, what do we say? “Tell it again.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
The Heart Goes Last — Margaret Atwood’s first standalone novel since The Blind Assassin, which won the Man Booker in 2000 — is a novel that teeters on the fine edge between comedy and horror. The writing is full of Atwood’s wry humor, but the dystopian world in which the characters live, whether they are a sleeping in a car and fleeing thugs or under surveillance in a tightly controlled community, is an alternate world that is full of horror.
The novel tells the story of Stan and Charmaine. After a great financial crash, their home is repossessed, their credit is frozen, and they are left to eek out a meager life living in their cramped Honda for shelter. Stan sleeps in the driver’s seat so they can flee quickly during the night if need be. With only Charmaine’s money from a bartending job, they dumpster dive, eat day old doughnuts, and have no viable prospects for their future. When Charmaine sees an ad on TV for Consilience, a suburban utopia and a ‘social experiment,’ she signs them up to take a look. Participants are given a home of their own in exchange for going to prison every other month.
The idea behind Consilience is that a full prison creates full employment and all prosper. While Charmaine and Stan do their month in jail, they swap places with an alternate couple who live their life, drive their scooters, and sleep in their bed until the month is up and they trade places again. In a set up that recalls a Midsummer’s Night Dream-like mix up, unknown to each other both Stan and Charmaine have chance encounters with their alternates. Confusion, obsession, and mistrust turn into revelations about the truth about Consilience.
The more I read, the more I questioned whether I could describe the community of Consilience and the chaos outside its gates as taking place in an alternate world. So much of what happens in this novel, from foreclosed houses to private prisons, is already part of our world. The world of The Heart Goes Last feels more like a twisted version of our current reality. Only small changes would be needed to make it all ‘true.’ Just as Charmaine and Stan’s lives contort when they seek out their alternates, utopian turns dystopian and comedy bends into horror with, as Atwood says, “one small turn of the wrench.”
I interviewed Atwood over the phone from her hotel room in New York. We spoke about not having sex with furniture, Pepper the greeting robot, themes in Victorian literature, and quotas in private prisons.
The Millions: The Heart Goes Last has your trademark humor, but the circumstances that Stan and Charmaine find themselves in are horrifying.
Margaret Atwood: A lot of things are funny to those watching them, but not to the person undergoing them. The person who slips on the banana peel doesn’t think it’s funny as a rule.
TM: Charmaine says near the beginning of the book that, “comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people’s sadness.”
MA: It does, unfortunately. Sometimes people make fun of themselves, but if you dig down there’s a bit of that too. On the other hand, where would we be if we couldn’t laugh? I think they’ve always been joined at the hip.
TM: At the beginning of the novel, you quote Ovid, William Shakespeare, and a blog post by writer Adam Frucci — who sets out to test an ottoman with a fake vagina. I have to ask: Did you have sex with furniture to research this novel?
MA: I think that piece of furniture is intended only for men?
TM: Frucci warned that it was, “no Kleenex clean up, my friends.” Actually, what he endured to test the ottoman is a good example of something that is funny for the reader, but not so for the person going through the experience.
MA: One of the headlines of that post is “I did this so you don’t have to.” Frucci has probably woken to find himself strangely famous. A lot of people are reading that blog post.
The other thing that has to trouble your mind is — who had this idea for this piece of furniture? And would you have this in your living room? I have many questions.
TM: Maybe you’ve given the ottoman maker a little sales bump?
MA: I have a feeling that a piece of furniture with a sex thing built into it came and went fairly swiftly. If that blog post was written in 2009, the furniture has fairly quickly been superseded by the advances in robotics.
Do you know about Pepper the robot? Pepper is not a sex robot. In fact, Pepper comes with instructions that say explicitly that you are not supposed to use it for sex, though I don’t know how you could.
Pepper is a greeting robot, like one that Stan, the main character in The Heart Goes Last, is working on before he gets fired at Dimple Robotics. Except that Stan’s is a grocery bagging robot. It is supposed to smile at you.
Pepper is supposed to be able to read your emotions. They were installing Pepper as a greeting robot in Japan where greeting is a social custom. And then they put him/her on for private sale and he/she sold out very quickly. Apparently we want someone who can read our emotions.
TM: At Dimple Robotics, Stan’s job, before he looses it, was working on the empathy module of his robot.
MA: Personally, I don’t want someone who can read my emotions, because then you can’t dissimulate, can you? If somebody asks if you are having a nice day and you say yes, but you’re actually not…it spoils your act.
TM: It’s the white lies that get us through.
MA: I’m afraid that’s correct. They do. “That’s a lovely dress! You look wonderful!”
TM: The novel is filled with this kind of joke — your humor is always close to hand. I love a line on writing from Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?: “You have to know where the funny is, and if you know where the funny is, you know everything.” Do you agree?
MA: No, but it’s a good hint. You don’t know everything if you know that, but you know some things. It’s true in a negative way. If something is unintentionally funny, you ought to know. If you intended it to be very serious and dramatic, but actually it’s funny, then you are in trouble.
There is a wonderful book called The Stuffed Owl. It’s an anthology of good, but bad, verse. It’s well worth reading. It is full of writers who were aiming for the heights and tripped on the banana peel.
TM: As I was reading The Heart Goes Last, I kept thinking back to Survival, your thematic guide to Canadian literature that was published in 1972. In it you said: “I read then primarily to be entertained.” Do you still?
MA: Go back to what the ancients used to say, that art should entertain and instruct. They didn’t say to what degree. If it doesn’t entertain, and by entertain I don’t mean just frivolous, I mean engage your attention and keep you going. If that doesn’t happen, you’re not going to turn the page. So there has to be something engaging enough to keep you reading.
That is why first chapters are so important. If you can’t get the reader through the first chapter, they are never going to get to your pithy piece of wisdom on page 85.
On the other hand, if there is nothing serious in it, you may be entertained on a superficial level and it’s a one time read. Or it’s what we call a “beach read.” Or what I sometimes call a “hotel room drawer read.” I leave them there for others to enjoy. I did that in Hong Kong once and they were so screamingly honest that they collected the books and mailed them back to me. I thought that was so sweet.
TM: The Heart Goes Last is about characters who give up their freedom for comfort. When Stan and Charmaine tour Consilience for the first time they both feel reason to worry about how it runs. However, after experiencing the discomfort and fright of life in a car, they opt for comfort, “the bath towels clinched the deal.”
MA: Yes. It’s also about how circumstances cause people to do things that they would otherwise not do. That is a human universal truth. Stan and Charmaine give up their freedom, but of what does their freedom consist? They don’t have a lot of money, they are living in their car, they are subject to every thug and criminal that stumbles across them, so that is maybe “freedom,” but of a very limited kind.
TM: Can we expect a scared or thirsty human to make good decisions?
MA: You can’t. Self-preservation kicks in. A person will make the decision that you think gives him or her the best chance of getting through.
TM: In that way, is The Heart Goes Last a survival story?
MA: A lot of people lived that, or something close to it, when the 2008 crash happened. They were thrown out onto their front lawn or living in their cars. That is ongoing.
There’s a movie that just came out that I must go and see called 99 Homes — it’s the story of a man who evicts people from their houses because they couldn’t pay their mortgages. As I said, the situation is ongoing.
I was listening to the radio in London, England, and there was a show about people who had moved back into their parents’ houses, or parents who have had their kids move back in, because they could not afford to either rent or buy in London. It was too expensive.
TM: The set up of your novel felt so real.
MA: It is real.
TM: But it’s not necessarily your reality. David Mitchell wrote about how he imagines the far past or the far future, that to get in the right mindset he thinks about the things that the characters might take for granted in life.
MA: We did a lot of car travel when I was a child. We also did a lot of camping out. So that wasn’t under duress, but I know what it’s like to sleep in a car.
TM: There are other parts of the book that could be taken as speculative fiction, but aren’t, like private prisons.
MA: There are private prisons in the U.S. The Atlantic just did a huge piece on this. There is nothing in the U.S. constitution that says you can’t make people do enforced labor if they are convicted criminals.
There’s a history of that kind of prison as enterprise. The Australian penal colony was one of them. They would send people to work off their sentence. Someone was making money out of it.
TM: I also read that in Arizona there are three private prisons that require 100 percent inmate occupancy.
MA: You have to keep them full to make them profitable and that is a recipe for creating more prisoners.
TM: In 2008, when you published Payback, a book of non-fiction about the nature of debt, it almost felt like the world of finance had collapsed at your feet. The timing was quite something. Tell me about your crystal ball?
MA: I don’t actually have a crystal ball, but I do read advertisements when I’m sitting on the subway. I was seeing a lot of them that said “let us help you get out of debt.” I thought, boy, if there are all these enterprises doing that, there must be an awful lot of people in debt.
The other thing is that, if you are a student of Victorian literature, as once I was, debt is a big theme. Not only with Dickens, but a number of other writers as well. So is the prison system.
TM: In Survival you wrote, “Literature is not only a mirror; it is also a map.” Can The Heart Goes Last be read as a map?
MA: Maybe a map, but also a door. Open the door and what’s inside? Stan and Charmaine are in a planned prison system, a for-profit enterprise. What they don’t know when they go in is how the enterprise is making its money. The thing to ask about private prisons is who is making the profit? And how much are they making. Maybe it’s time to rethink. What should we have instead?
 I contacted Adam Frucci, author of “I Had Sex with Furniture: The Shameful (NSFW) Fleshlight Motion Review,” to comment about the honor of becoming an Atwood epigraph: “I didn’t really believe it at first — Ovid, Shakespeare, and my goofy blog post from 2009. I can’t say that of all of the things I’ve ever written that this is the one I want people to remember and attach to my name, but what can you do? All I can really do is be honored and assume that Margaret Atwood is a huge fan of all of my work and looks to me for inspiration all the time. That’s about accurate, right?”
Put yourself in her shoes. She is a performer. She is slim and poised and recondite insofar as her comportment seems to withdraw her from the rest of us, who are mortal and dim in contrast. I am fixated on a shred of almond skin wedged between my teeth. I am worried about a flap of cuticle come loose from my nailbed. I am in the audience at the New York Public Library for a celebration of the director Robert Wilson’s 70th birthday. The performer is joined by other luminaries — Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed. Each has something hagiographic to say about Wilson. Lou Reed previews his collaboration with Metallica, citing Wilson as its impetus. Wainwright is forced to sing a cappella when the audio system craps out, proving that his voice really is that good. The performer recites a passage from Wilson’s collaborative opera with Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach. She has the text in front of her, but she does not need it; she’s had this part memorized for years. Her recital is lovely, and the lilt and cadence of her voice are mesmerizing. But then halfway through, something happens that gets me thinking about artistry and solipsism and the fallout of one marrying up with the other.
What happens is: A giant fly begins to circle the performer’s face. She is wearing a bone microphone, which amplifies the buzz as this fly alights on her forehead. Her nose. Her eye and even on the microphone head, itself. The buzzing is so loud, it feels like this fly is in my own ear canal. So. Put yourself in her shoes and what would you do? Swat the fly. Ten out of ten of you swats the fly. Gets up. Stops reciting. What none of you do is carry on as if unaware of the fly. As if possessed of such composure, you are the most unflappable person on earth. The very essence of the show must go on. Lucinda Childs finished reciting without having acknowledged the fly in any way. The library might have caught on fire — hell, the entire city might have caught on fire — but Childs would carry on. Unperturbed. Impregnable.
I have thought about this moment in the library with pathological intensity since then. I have told the story of the Artist and the Fly many times, but always with the same awe. Awe and anxiety because the degree of professionalism on display in Childs’s refusal to admit the fly into her dispatch of Einstein on the Beach seemed to encroach on a category of behavior that doesn’t, for instance, concede the fly exists at all.
Now, I am not claiming that Childs is, herself, a solipsist (if you watch the video, you can see her flinch ever so slightly) but that she performed a brand of solipsism that is anathema to what art does so well, which is to engage, however obliquely, with the fraught stuff of our lives. Art that does not do this — art that cannot see past itself — is gospel. Propaganda. It is removed and distant and wholly ineffective when it comes to providing us with a chance to take shelter in each other’s humanity.
I left the library feeling uncomfortable. And a little depressed. After all, Childs was just doing her job. Childs was just doing what most of us artists are taught to do, which is to preserve what John Gardner has famously called the “fictional dream” — the sustained and vivid universe of a novel or story that is successful only if it resists puncture. The “fictional dream” does not acknowledge itself; it does not acknowledge us. Ninety percent of fiction operates with the “fictional dream” in mind. My fiction operates with the “fictional dream” in mind. So what, exactly, is the problem?
Well, okay, perhaps I can best answer this by thinking through our romance with bloopers. Turns out I have a friend who watches blooper reels with some frequency. On YouTube, where a search for “bloopers” turns up 11,900,000 results while a search for “cats” — and who doesn’t love a cat video? — turns up a mere 11,400,000 results. Bloopers appeal to people because they are genuine. And more importantly, they are genuine precisely because they break form. They expose artistry as a sham and, in so doing, relieve the anxiety of distance that attends all our experiences of art. My friend watches bloopers when he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He says they orient him. That they remind him people are real and he is real, which is by way of tethering us to each other.
Naturally, then, many artists have decided that one solution to the problem of art and artifice is to recreate the effect of a blooper. Hence the long tradition in the arts of breaking the fourth wall on purpose. Shakespeare did it with aplomb. I’m thinking of Henry V (and of course a Midsummer Night’s Dream) where Henry and Puck, respectively, apologize for the plays’ shortcomings or at least beg for our indulgence. I’m thinking of Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote, which are overtly aware of themselves as art. I’m thinking of the Muppets, whose “Pigs in Space” skit always had the astro-swine shocked whenever the skit’s theme music played (which trope was picked up and amplified by the lyrics of the theme song for “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”: “This is the theme to Garry’s show, the opening theme to Garry’s show, this is the music that you hear as you watch the credits.”) I’m thinking of the many many novels that toy with themselves as novels, which is all by way of foregrounding how deficient art must be when it comes to representation.
More recently, I am reminded of House of Cards, which I watched obsessively over three days a couple months ago. Do the math, that is four+ shows a night. Kevin Spacey, whom I last saw play Richard III at BAM, plays Francis Underwood, who is Richard’s equal for monomania and malice. And just like Richard, Underwood frequently breaks the action to soliloquize the audience. He tells us what he’s thinking. He tells us who everyone is. He makes us accomplice to his plans just for being privy to them. To start his first address to the audience in episode one, he looks at the camera and says, “Oh!” as if startled to find us there watching him or perhaps startled to have forgotten we were there. The gambit is designed to immerse us more completely in his universe, though it actually has the opposite effect of reminding me that his universe is not real.
You’d think, given my reservations about the fictional dream, that I’d find comfort in these metafictions. That I’d feel closer to these works for being acknowledged by them. But I don’t. On the contrary, I generally find them ridiculous. Whenever Francis soliloquizes the screen, it seems ridiculous! When Shakespeare enacts what the academics call “medium awareness,” it feels too clever by half. And if I read one more novel that pokes fun at its being a novel, I might cry. Look at me, I am art! I am foregrounding problems of representation! Work like this often feels more egocentric and solipsistic than art that just leaves it alone.
My friend who watches bloopers thinks the problem here is about responsibility and distance. The fictional dream allows us to abdicate responsibility: we can turn ourselves over to a knowing authority and check our incredulities at the door. But the dream, for being a dream, can also distance us from the very thing the dream depicts, no matter how seamlessly it is done. Alternately, the bloopers reel and self-reflexive fiction feel intimate though perhaps onerous for burdening us with evidence that our lives are real, and that real life is hard.
And so, a problem that can be recast as a debate about the efficacy of art. One the one hand: art has an asymptotic relationship with “truth,” with the world, so that to be an artist necessarily means to be a failure. Always and only a failure. On the other hand is an idea advanced by Tim O’Brien, who is endlessly quoted in this context — “Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth” — and hailed for his notion that “story truth” is a highly manipulated version of the real deal that equals and often exceeds the real deal’s power of effect.<
O’Brien neuters the problem of artifice and remove by recasting them as assets in the project of isolating and dramatizing what is powerful in our experience of life. Who needs to see someone swat madly at a fly when you can better experience its pathos (e.g., an elegant woman accosted by the humdrum) in a play or novel that will do it better? Such, at least, is what Tim O’Brien might say.
And what I say, too, thanks to the following experience I had at the Metropolitan Opera, where I saw Don Carlo a few months ago. In the first act, Don Carlo and his betrothed sing of their love. They are in a forest and Don Carlo, being the gentleman that he is, makes a fire. A real fire, on a flammable stage at the Met. Ten minutes later, a man in jeans and T-shirt marched onstage with a fire extinguisher. He didn’t look at the audience, he even seemed bored, but in front of a full house, while the singers were performing, he blasted the fire and walked off. At first, I thought he was part of the production. Don Carlo finds out his fiancée is actually intended for his father (ah, opera), at which point some guy destroys the emblem of their love. It seemed apt. Quickly, though, I realized this was not part of the plan. The audience started to laugh. I was sitting three rows from the pit, so I could see the conductor (full disclosure, the conductor was Lorin Maazel, who is my father) carry on as if nothing had happened. Meantime, the stagehand, whose intentions were good, did not actually manage to put out the fire. Instead, he left it smoldering, so that the stage began to fill with smoke. How can you sing when your lungs are filled with smoke? But the performers sang on, though the soprano had to turn her back to the audience (possibly to stifle a laugh) while the tenor seemed less than committed to the moment. They did not swat the fly but they did acknowledge the world’s intrusion on their art.
The upshot? I felt badly for the singers. I felt badly for my dad. And I felt somewhat self-conscious about being at the opera, whose pretensions and artifice were made uppermost thanks to the stagehand. But mostly, for that moment, I felt cheated of the magic that is Don Carlo. A three-hour disquisition in song on the big, human feelings: love, grief, rage, despair. Which is when I began to feel good about art that refuses to concede I am alive.
From Einstein on the Beach: “These are the days my friends and these are my days my friends.” So long as art continues to record those days, why should it have to acknowledge my days in particular? I don’t need to be noticed in the moment, just in the main. I am, after all, but a fly. One among many. So, yeah, don’t mind me. Carry on.
Image via Ali Arsh/Flickr
My Shakespeare intake is up sharply this season. So far, I’ve attended about one performance every six weeks. Two comedies (a .333 average), three tragedies (.500), and even one romance (.167). My mother, a high school English teacher, must be pleased with the numbers I’ve been putting up. And I’m prepared to testify before any grand jury that will have me that the only performance-enhancing drugs I’ve touched have been brewed from the choicest hops and barley.Here in New York, it’s possible to indulge in Bardolatry whenever you want. At least two Shakespeare productions are running on any given night. And of course, the plays are meant to be seen, rather than read. Or so say the experts. This week’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream left me wondering, though… are they right?Having read AMND thrice and having seen four previous stage productions, I was surprised at how many great speeches I’d managed to forget. “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / are of imagination all compact,” Duke Theseus theorizes. “Be as thou wast wont to be,” Oberon tells a sleeping Titania, on the verge of reconciliation. “See as thou wast wont to see.” On a more Global level, though, the Shakespeare-in-the-Park production was a mess – part Broadway razzle-dazzle, part Three Stooges routine, part Ibsen. Rather than mining the subterranean connections between the play’s disparate tones and textures, director Daniel Sullivan seemed hellbent on obliterating them.Yes, it was free, on a beautiful night in the Park, and yes, there is fun to be had picking holes in any performance. But the contrast between this Dream and Michael Grief’s Romeo and Juliet (this summer’s other Shakespeare-in-the-Park offering) suggested a crucial lesson for any director of Shakespeare: one must surrender to the imperatives of the material, rather than trying to bend it to one’s will. Such a surrender does not slough off the burden of interpretation; indeed, it requires it. But Grief’s decisions about the nature of love and lust, the relative costs of innocence and experience, and the place of the individual in society, flowed from Shakespearean preoccupations; whereas the current production lacks a point-of-view on love, on imagination, or on anything at all. Sullivan’s rope tricks and glowsticks threaten not just to jazz up but to gloss over A Midsummer Night’s Dream.Grappling with the big questions Shakespeare wrestled into blank verse can yield a refreshlingly classicist take on a play, like Grief’s, or something as riotously new as the Wooster Group Hamlet. In the case of slightly weaker source material, such as The Taming of the Shrew, strong direction may produce something in between, like Propeller’s excellent staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music… while commenting on our own times.When a director aims to displace the Bard’s magic with its own, however, I’d just as soon save my money, drag out my brokeback Riverside Shakespeare, and stage a play in the round of my own mind. Which doesn’t mean I’d ever pass up tickets to any live performance… provided someone else is buying.