We learned earlier this month that Nina Jacobson, a movie producer responsible for the the Hunger Games franchise, among other things, has acquired the rights to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and is looking for a director to make it into a film or mini-series. Lucky for Jacobson, dream-casting the movie version of a book is one of my life’s true passions, and my colleague Edan Lepucki and I hereby submit our ideas for the Goldfinch cast. The process reveals the bizarre extent to which I think I understand the Hollywood casting processes (and how often my first choice is ten years too late), which starlets we think play trashy the best, and how it might be worth it to turn the cast on its head to let Michael B. Jordan play Theo.
[Warning: Our discussion of what will be required to play these characters results in many spoilers.]
Janet: It strikes me that almost any beautiful actress past her starlet age could swoop in and play an angelic, sophisticated mother who loved art and New York and whom we will probably see in fuzzy, nostalgic flashbacks for the duration of the film. Ten years ago it would have been Julianne Moore’s in a heartbeat, but now I picture Rachel Weisz or Michelle Monaghan (probably because we all just saw her play a lovely woman who married the wrong guy young in True Detective).
Edan: I love the idea of Rachel Weisz playing this role — she does elegant/maternal very well. The same goes for Kate Winslet. (I’m sorry, but a chair can act better than Michelle Monaghan.) I’d also suggest Kerry Washington for the role; her face can go from assured to vulnerable in a millisecond, and she’s got a powerful presence that both Theo and the audience will grieve.
Imagine, too, a non-white Theo Decker…his outsider status might then take on a whole other dimension…
Janet: Theo’s father is complicated. At one point he wooed Rachel Weisz up there, and continues to be a charming, charismatic guy, but ends up running schemes in Vegas. The part of me that likes to think I understand Hollywood surmises that it’s not a big enough role for the likes of Ben Affleck or Bradley Cooper, who would both be great but might be too busy on the A list. I could see Josh Brolin or Mark Ruffalo, though. They’ve both got the range and the tragic good looks.
Edan: If Mark Ruffalo knocked on my door right now, I’d open it naked. Yes! Ruffalo! I also could see Peter Krause of Six Feet Under (and Parenthood) fame — he’s handsome enough, and he emits a slight aura of bratty rage that playing Larry Decker would require.
Janet: Larry’s girlfriend is introduced as “a strange woman, tan and very fit-looking: flat gray eyes, lined coppery skin, and teeth that went in, with a split between them. Although she was older than my mother, or at any rate older-looking, she was dressed like someone younger: red platform sandals; low-slung jeans; wide belt; lots of gold jewelry. Her hair, the color of caramel straw, was very straight and tattered at the ends; she was chewing gum and a strong smell of Juicy Fruit was coming off her.”
So not Amy Adams, is what I’m saying. I could see Anna Paquin (who already has a gap in her teeth) or Chloe Sevigny taking a fun trip to trashville to play Xandra, or, if they stick to the age described, Rachel Griffiths.
Edan: Like Hollywood would ever stick to the age described! I bet the producers cast Elle Fanning, those ageists! Though I love Paquin and Sevigny, Paquin strikes me as too round-faced, and Sevigny is far too rich girl for me to believe her as Xandra. She’d be better off as a Barbour with her George Plimpton-esque mid-Atlantic accent! My pick for this role is Taryn Manning; her meth-head-turned-religious savior in Orange is the New Black is by turns gleeful, hideous, frightening, and humanizing. That girl can trash it up, and she is so fun to watch. [Janet: With Peter Krause as Larry and Rachel Griffiths as Xandra we could have a Six Feet Under reunion on our hands. Think about it.]
Young Theo/Young Boris:
Janet: The first section of the book follows Theo from age 13 to 18, and Boris comes in about halfway through, so it’s hard to know how that will be cast—maybe they’ll shrink the timeline so that one actor can play all those years, because I can’t imagine them getting both a middle school Theo and a high school Theo. Teenage Theo and Boris are also pretty weighty parts, so they can’t just find kids who look like a young version of their leading men to fill in for the first 20 minutes — like Jennifer Garner’s doppelganger in 13 Going on 30. Not that any of this matters, because I’m not familiar with a lot of young teenage actors, so I’ll just name the three I know because of Divergent or The Fault in Our Stars: Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, and Nat Wolff. (Ten years ago: Nicholas Hoult.)
Edan: I have no opinions about man-boy actors. Just don’t cast the teenage son from USA’s Necessary Roughness; I have nightmares about his Ken-doll face.
Janet: Theo is an intentionally divisive character. I found myself loving and hating him in equal measure, and getting the wrong actor could push the character too far in either direction. And, like his father, Theo is equally conversant in New York society, the antiques world, a life of crime, and a drug habit, so the actor has to have the same versatility. Andrew Garfield and Joseph Gordon Levitt both came to mind as bankable leading men, but they might be too adorable for Theo. (And can you imagine Joseph Gordon Levitt pining for but never winning Pippa? Hahahaha no.) Our colleague Lydia suggested Adrien Grenier, Adam Brody, and Zachary Quinto, each of whom have varying degrees of edge. My prediction is Jake Gyllenhaal, because I think he’s established enough that a studio would trust him to carry the movie (why am I talking like this?). But my dream actor is Emile Hirsch. He’s that perfect tragic-hero mix of magnetic, melancholy, doomed, but likable, and I’ve been waiting for the rest of America to fall in love with him since Into the Wild.
Edan: You think Joseph Gordon Levitt is that irresistible? [Janet: YES.] I mean, he’s adorable, yes, but he’s also small — he looks short on screen, which must mean he’s a teeny-tiny person. There’s also a strain of nerdery in him that could work for this role and make him less Mr. Cool. However, I love your idea to cast Emile Hirsch — what a phenomenal actor.
If Kerry Washington is cast as the mother, however, might I suggest Donald Glover from Community in this role? Or, the incredible Michael B. Jordan from The Wire, Friday Night Lights, and Fruitvale Station? (Hell, cast Jordan anyway! His eyes — they convey innocence, rage, curiosity and longing all at once!)
Janet: Oh Boris, you lying knave. I can’t get past the idea of how great a younger Leonardo DiCaprio would be, so I have no ideas. Lydia astutely suggested Paul Dano. But I know you have a strong opinion…
Edan: Adam Driver is the only man for this role. That pale skin! Those jug ears! He looks like a boy raised on vodka! Driver continually surprises me as Hannah Horvath’s boyfriend on Girls. He imbues every line of dialogue with unexpected nuance, and his physical presence is fascinating, discomfiting, sexy, comic, and tragic. Plus, he’d do something great with Boris’s accent!
Janet: This will probably be some child actress we’ve never seen before, but Kiernan Shipka would be great.
Edan: I vote for an unknown here.
Janet: Saintly, delicate Pippa is the European boarding school-educated flautist whom Theo doesn’t know how to quit. I think Emma Watson would do nicely. And she kind of looks like Kiernan Shipka!
Edan: I’m the only person (on Tumblr) who hated the film adaptation of Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Emma Watson’s bad American accent was part of that hatred. Shipka can have it. Or perhaps Saoirse Ronan (from Atonement and Hanna) is available? She’s like a younger, prettier, and more ethereal version of myself, so of course I’m rooting for her always.
Janet: Widely decried as the most two-dimensional character in the book, lovely old Hobie could basically be played by any amicable actor who has time on their hands. I thought of Michael Gambon, who is most likely too old. Jeff Bridges or William Hurt would also be good, although both too American. Screw it, let’s give it to Cumberbatch.
Edan: I would have loved to have cast Philip Seymour Hoffman in this role. If we want bona fide English, I’d go for Steve Coogan. Everyone loves Coogan, right?
Kitsey “Kitten” Barbour:
Janet: Theo’s high-society, two-timing fiancee. Leighton Meester or no one at all.
Edan: I’ve never seen Gossip Girl, but I’ve read the gossip rags for many years, so I am all about Ms. Meester and her snobby, beautiful face. She looks like she was born wearing a sweater set and pearls.
Various Barbours and background players:
Janet: Mrs. Barbour is a surprisingly complex minor character that you’d just have to be elegant and icy to play. Jennifer Connelly, perhaps (ten years ago: Joan Allen). I have a sinking feeling Paul Giamatti will be Mr. Barbour because he shows up everywhere, and I don’t have any strong opinions about their children other than Kitten. Matt Dillon could show up as the guy who comes to threaten Theo’s dad with a baseball bat.
Edan: Let’s just call Meryl and see if she’ll play Mrs. Barbour, though I also love Connelly’s skinny-woman-ice. I’d love to see Robert Englund play a member of the criminal art underworld. Oh, and of course: a little known actor named Omar Little would be perfect as Popchik. (I’m Omar’s momager; call me if you’re interested!)
I learned about the unfathomable amount of cash that Yahoo planned to throw at Tumblr last month, when the news inevitably crept up on my Tumblr dashboard. The reactions were predictably negative, and the general sentiment was clear: “They are going to ruin all of what we’ve built.” For the most part, they echoed the reactions of the press at large, questioning yet another one of these crazy big internet deals, the wisdom of banking so much on users as advertising targets, and the near-universal assertion that you “can’t buy cool.” Was there ever a more stark contrast than between the purple-and-white tabloid jumble of Yahoo’s homepage and the stripped-down malleability of Tumblr? Yahoo went on record promising “not to screw it up,” which was somehow less reassuring than it should have been.
But I lead a double life on Tumblr: I follow bookish people and things, posting my own work there, attached to my real name, but I also lurk around a number of interlocking fandoms — interlocking because one has inevitably led me to the next: as people whose taste I trust migrate towards new obsessions, I sometimes migrate in turn. They have begun to crowd my dash, the weight of a thousand animated gifs slowing the site’s functionality to a crawl — and I love everything about them. There is a vernacular that links these communities, some of it held over from the time when LiveJournal ruled the fannish world, and some of it new and constantly evolving, borne on a blogging platform designed for sharing and speed and expansive warm-heartedness — I spend so much time smiling while scrolling around on Tumblr that it’s kind of alarming. (I browse Twitter stony-faced, occasionally barking out a harsh laugh, which means I’m either doing it wrong or Twitter and I just aren’t meant for each other.)
For the most part, fan communities seem to shy away from any organization that tries to insert itself from the top down. There is a sense that on Tumblr, fandom is planted and cultivated — grown, in a way that feels more palpable than LiveJournal ever did. It’s in your average stack of reblogged posts, fanning out in a sideways pyramid, each subsequent comment riffing on the one before it — and then seeing it days later, the joke or the expression of sympathy of the series of gifs piling up exponentially. You go to “like” it and note, with some surprise, that you already have. You can literally build on an idea, and this is how fandoms blossom and thrive.
It is an organic space, which must be at the heart of what’s made it such an unprofitable space, the sponsored posts unobtrusively tucked over to the far right, simple enough to train your eye away from, and subtle enough to even invite a curious click or two. But how would the intrusion of an organization as heavy-handed as Yahoo affect these communities? Rumors began to spread suggesting that content would soon be censored, and that advertisers would be given much more space within a matter of days. Nothing was confirmed, but a vague sense of foreboding persisted: would they know to leave well enough alone, or would all of this organic community building prove too tempting not to attempt to monetize, to control, to ruin?
The answer, of course, remains to be seen — it’s far too early in the game. We woke up to a blogging platform that looked much the same as the day before; a week later, no discernible change. The site chugs onwards, a million little corners of the internet, perfect little microcosms of the world — or the world as we wish it could be. For now, anyway.
It is fitting, perhaps, that the same week as the Yahoo/Tumblr acquisition, Amazon announced a project entitled “Kindle Worlds.” It feels like more of a broader trend than a coincidence, because the Kindle Worlds endeavor is about an organization inserting itself from the top down. “Worlds,” we learn, are Amazon-ese for fandoms — individual universes constructed by books, movies, television shows, comics, etc. — and the program is a platform for publishing fan fiction — quoting myself here, from a year ago (I’m currently accepting my lot as The Millions’ official fanfic correspondent): “fan fiction is original work with largely unoriginal foundations, in which writers take established fictional worlds and spin them into something else entirely.” Yeah, I apparently used the term “worlds” as well, but at least I didn’t capitalize it.
The Amazon deal was struck with Alloy Entertainment, the YA juggernaut behind Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars, amongst a number of other ubiquitous book-cum-television-show enterprises about teenage girls being cruel and/or sexy. These three are the official launch-point for Kindle Worlds: fanfic writers in these communities (and elsewhere eventually, Amazon promises, with “licenses for more Worlds on the way”) will be able to digitally publish their stuff for Kindle via Amazon, exchanging full rights to their ideas for somewhere between 20-35% of the profits, based on the length of their stories. The first offerings when the store launches in June will be commissioned works, the Worlds homepage filled with cheerful testimonials from these writers beside a dusting of hard facts and figures.
Much has already been written on the financial and legal details of Kindle Worlds, and the interpretations tend to vary based on the source. With a few exceptions, fan fiction is written, disseminated, and consumed entirely for free: obvious legal reasons compel writers to mark each story with very clear disclaimers, crediting their source material, however far an interpretation strays from the original. In the extremely rare instance that a fan work is published for money, it is after the story has been transformed beyond recognition — the Fifty Shades trilogy is the most famous example, evolving from 100 chapters of Twilight fan fiction. To the casual observer, Kindle Worlds might seem like a vast step up for your average fanfic writer, the best of whom are paid in praise alone. There’s actual money here, though, to be fair, not a whole lot of it, accompanied the establishment’s stamp of approval, published by Amazon and sanctioned by the corporation that owns the source material.
The actual money leads to other financial questions, because with Alloy, we’re not talking about borrowing the characters of a single author: these books, and the scripts of the accompanying shows, are written by a slew of work-for-hire writers. Book-industry types far more familiar with media tie-in writing than me have suggested that the Kindle Worlds move might be another Amazon attempt to circumvent traditional publishers and writing models. If this actually catches on, Alloy and other organizations may come out winners, because by publishing on this platform, a fan fiction writer gives up rights to the content of their stories — Alloy and Amazon will have full rights to original characters and ideas. Why hire a team of traditional writers when your fans can generate new ideas for you — at no cost beyond the few cents per Kindle single you’re required to pay them?
The whole venture hints at broader questions that swirl around a lot of Amazon’s recent projects as they attempt to knock traditional publishing models out of whack. If it didn’t feel like such a fundamental and remotely insulting misunderstanding of fan culture, if it didn’t feel like a prime chance for corporations to exploit rather than promote, I might even praise Amazon (praise Amazon, for Christ’s sakes) for trying yet one more thing that deviates from the publishing status quo. If the barriers for entry are lowered, does publishing great fiction becomes a question of talent alone — even as something crucial is given up in the exchange? There are parallels with self-publishing and parallels with the broader Kindle Single platform. Who deserves to be published? Why isn’t it simply the person whom people would most like to read?
Surely every person in the entire realm of fan fiction is tired of the monetization question by now. The simple answer is that it really, really isn’t about the money. But people keep on asking anyway: how can so much time and energy and a sheer dizzying number of words be spent on something for no financial compensation? It’s easy enough to say that the person who asks that question doesn’t understand the idea of fan fiction, or doesn’t fully grasp what it means to be a fan of something in general — but that feels dismissive and unhelpful. There is a disconnect here, though, and it’s one that’s tricky for me to articulate, between Amazon and Alloy and the fan fiction community, or between Tumblr and Yahoo and the people who look at 100,000 reblogs and can only see a missed opportunity for advertising.
Is a person who believes in the ultimate democratizing power of the internet bound to be disappointed sooner or later? That scrappy start-ups inevitably sell out — great ideas get acquired by big companies, then twisted beyond recognition? Of course, those great ideas can come from anywhere, right? Perhaps that’s not enough to stem the disillusionment. So maybe that’s one of the appeals of fan fiction, or of the exchange of images and ideas amongst fandoms on Tumblr and elsewhere: there is absolutely no endgame there, beyond the satisfaction of sharing something you like, obsess over, deeply love with other people who love it just as deeply.
There is an enormously freeing diversity in the world of fan fiction. I don’t mean that the writers are diverse — they are mostly female, and surely there must be socioeconomic implications in the ability to sustain such a hobby. I mean that the whole point of it, beyond all that deep love and celebrating any given fandom, is taking a character or a setting or just the tiniest inkling of an idea and rolling with it. The possibilities spin off into exponentially increasing permutations, spurring weird stuff and beautiful stuff, quite often fiction that’s better written than the source material that inspired it, creating fandoms that are so broad and varied and encompassing that a person can usually find whatever they’re seeking within. If not, well, that person may as well just write it herself. If that’s not the most accurate reflection of the rest of the internet — the organic, cultivated internet, grown from the bottom up, with no contracts, no exchanges of cash — then I don’t know what is.
Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Tyrant Memory is a book of revolution, of tanks rolling through city streets, of intrigue, imprisonment, and exile, of torn families and firing squads — but it will not for that reason be passed around dorm rooms, nor is it likely to feature on Glenn Beck’s old chalkboard. In El Salvador in April 1944, the dictatorship of Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, a fascist who welcomed the advance of Hitler, suffered first a coup, then a general strike. Led by a coalition of patrician families, businesses, and banks, the strike succeeded in toppling Martinez, nicknamed “The Warlock,” and winning its general demands: greater liberty, stable export prices, and closer ties with the USA.
Vive la Revolution! Revolutions, it seems, like recessions, take many forms, not many of them communist and none of them purely “from below.” The rich are in revolt at least as often as the poor, against others of their class and, more familiar to those of us in the United States, against the social and political pretensions of the poor themselves. At any rate, that stubborn image of the great unwashed leaving their humble chores — as maids and coal-miners and such — to topple statues and write inspirational graffiti, is not a great deal of help.
In Tyrant Memory, recently translated by Katherine Silver and released by New Directions, the poor aren’t even given a chance. The novel begins in the diaries of Dona Haydée Aragon, a patrician mother whose husband Pericles has been jailed for writing polemics against the Tyrant. Over the course of the novel, she gradually transforms from a loyal wife with connections into a zealous political agent. This is, of course, the glorious transformation prophesied by a great deal of revolutionary agitprop: that in the moment of struggle we will cease to be ourselves.
But Tyrant Memory is closer to The Prince than The Wretched of the Earth; and in El Salvador, politics is the birthright of an extraordinarily small number of people. The poor have food riots; the rich have the state. Our Haydée is a typical member of that transnational network of elite families, that class of multilingual Hilton hoppers who have business interests with the gringos and educate their kids in Paris and the Ivy League. These are the people with different schools, different hospitals, and different suburbs; and they expect a different police force, a different political apparatus, and ultimately a different law.
To Haydée’s mind, the terminal crisis of the 1944 revolution and the fatal mistake of the Warlock is his impertinent disrespect for the privilege of this patrician class. When Pericles is jailed, Haydée pulls her various strings: with the chief of the prison, with her family in the army, as well as with the general ass-kissers which populate the bureaucratic establishment. The extraordinary overlap of her social network and the networks of power extends to Pericles himself, who — we are hardly surprised to hear — was once the Warlock’s personal aide. As we come to see the insular connections of the network, the historical epic of a nation of millions comes to resembles the drama of a high school of several hundred — Tyrant Memory thus lying somewhere between The Battle of Algiers and Gossip Girl.
And Haydée is a sort of historical gossip: a smart, articulate, and compelling guide through a revolution cast almost entirely from her network of friends and associates. And what gossip! Pericles, when he was at the Warlock’s side, once reported the successful execution of communist leaders. Later, he returns to find “ ‘the man’ in his office, his eyes red and moist, as if he were suffering a bad conscience, trying to expiate his guilt for his crime, aware that he had stepped over a line and that there was no going back.” Moya, as usual, tends to paint-by-numbers (“stepped over a line,” “there was no going back”), but the scene itself is a wonderfully gross example of political connections, made more effective by Moya’s typically straight face.
If the book lacks a Che Guevera — and is perhaps written almost entirely against that particular myth — it has a number of potential Castros. While Guevara left his post in the fledgling bureaucracy of Cuba to make revolution across the third world, Castro stayed for the long game of politicking and propaganda. So does Pericles, the rather unsatisfying star of Haydée’s affections. Pericles is a communist of sorts, but a peculiarly well-connected communist, who finds himself allied with the coalition of coffee growers and bankers against the Warlock. Unlike the Bolsheviks, for whom banks were there to be robbed or “expropriated,” and for whom social democracy was a bridge too far, Pericles’ communism is much like communism in the United States today: a curious but tame affectation which is not held against him but which, like an interest in Heavy Metal, is not taken particularly seriously either.
Regardless, his imprisonment is an effective “McGuffin,” as it propels Haydée’s transformation, by far the most interesting part of the novel. With tanks in the streets and her family on the run, we watch as she teeters on the edge of collapse:
I somehow believe that my son and my husband will suffer terrible consequences unless I can muster all my strength. But the streets have been taken over by the general’s troops, nobody can get near the barracks, the government buildings, or the Central Prison; the authorities are telling people to stay at home. Thus my agitation flounders in a sea of impotence. I will finish knitting Belka’s sweater.
The situation, of course, is a gift — the quiet moment of reflection in the eye of a storm — and while Moya does not send it into the stands, here we see him give it a bloody good whack.
Tyrant Memory thus shuttles between scenes of political suppression and the splendor of the Latin American bourgeoisie. When the coup fails, Haydée’s family is split by the result: her son, a radio announcer during the coup, flees his probable firing squad, while her grandfather in the army stays loyal to the regime. With the general strike on the horizon, and the tyrant’s repression extending into the patrician class, Haydée begins to organize. As events zip by, the pages of Haydée’s diary resemble a catalog of historical facts, threatening to become nothing more than a superior Wiki entry, a version of the textbooks Moya canvased in his research.
At times, this novel grabs you by the collar, as it pulls you though the confident mind of Haydée. If only it stayed there. But after the excellent first section, we move to the story of the fugitives, Haydée’s spoiled playboy son Clemente and Jimmy, her lout of a nephew. Here, Moya’s formal and conceptual choices weigh rather heavily, as he decides to balance the monologue of Haydée by giving the story of the two boys almost entirely in speech. Here, the technique is unreflective, with the sentences functional and ordinary — ugly, even — next to the careful meditations of Haydée. Some of the prose, the standard filler of the airport novel, is dead on arrival: “Jimmy turns to look at him disapprovingly.” “Go ahead, keep making fun of me, see if I care.” “Oh no, we’re capsizing!”
If this is a tax on the novel, Moya seems aware that he is paying it. Elsewhere, he manufactures drama with glee. Haydée is made to write such sentences as, “where is my son at this moment?” Elsewhere, her declarations are like shots of juice: “They’ve sentenced Clemente to death!” “What a day, dear God!” “Once again, intimidation and violence!” “What a day! My goodness!” “Juan is dead!” “The warlock is resigned!” Such tactics, if cheap, are effective enough, and Moya seems happy to sacrifice a sentence or two for the speed and clarity of the plot. And while he often overplays the callous banter of the young men (“I almost fell and broke my ass!”), his set-pieces are a laugh, as when Clemente and Jimmy dress as fellows of the church and stop to hear the confessions of soldiers who are ostensibly on their trail. If Haydée’s diary is a portrait, these sections read like the quick banter of golden age movie scripts.
But Moya is mean to these boys, who are caricatures — which is not to say they couldn’t be real — and they are given the techniques of caricature with which to relate their story. The dialogue quickly becomes tiring, as it is no doubt meant to; but Moya leans too heavily on the norms of farce and the rapid quibbles of the generic odd couple. He wishes to show their immaturity, with fart jokes and dreams of fucking; but his technique means that this is all he is able to show. Novels exist, in part, to teach us that there is nothing more complex than ordinary experience: god knows it is harder to write the story of “Joe the Plumber” than Lenin or Mao. It is not that Moya aims at this complexity, but misses: it seems that he does not wish to try.
To Moya’s credit, the novel avoids the stale romanticism of most revolutionary tales. There is, of course, something wondrous about such movements, so prominent in the last two centuries: dissent so carefully organized that it can topple a state. This unattractive pair, at any rate, does not transform for the better; they do not represent some new and vital humanity. Our Marxian tradition — from Lenin and CLR James, to Frantz Fanon, who ought to have known — always returns to this basic assumption: that when societies are overturned, we who are formed in society are overturned as well. As we follow these boys, Moya’s counter-lesson becomes apparent: wherever heights are found in the glory of revolutionary action, they do not last. There is no permanent revolution. Soon, the new structures of power will find their normal work; institutions will ossify; the cruel distributions of misery and wealth will return, until one more crisis upturns the social order, and the profound energies required to confront sedimented power are discovered anew. Or: if you are a douchebag before the revolution, a douche you are likely to remain.
But there is more to it than that: the revolution of Tyrant Memory is not the revolution of Marx or Fanon, but of Bentham and Mill. It is not a fight between two great classes, but a skirmish within the ruling classes themselves. Coups are not often the work of the poor, and the 1944 coup in El Salvador is no exception. Class haunts this novel, and the new state desired by our heroes — characterized by financial reform, greater ties with America, etc. — is not a state organized for the benefit of the rural and urban poor. Haydée is not the only character to fear the “hordes of peasants.” Moya, to his credit, does not argue this case, but lets it sit, mostly unsaid, the constitutive hypocrisy of the lives of the revolutionary rich. As Moya hints at the novel’s close, the outrage of the rural poor would erupt in later years, a violent coda to the relatively bloodless general strike related in Tyrant Memory.
Moya begins his novel with a rather great epigraph from Elias Canetti, on the burden of remembering the dead, which concludes, “Perhaps human beings are not free because they contain too much of the dead and because this surplus refuses to ever be abolished.” The novel we might expect to spawn from this terrific sentiment, plump with modernist introspection and various kinds of Madeleine cakes, is clearly not in Moya’s wheelhouse. Tyrant Memory is mostly a novel of the immediate and spontaneous. With this epigraph, we are left with an uncertain fusion: the excitement of revolutionary action, of life in the flux of history, and the memories, in quieter times, of the sadness of living through these old plots.
It is only in the epilogue that Tyrant Memory is faithful to its title, when our absent hero Pericles arrives, now elderly, to wax mournful with an old friend. Though Moya frames the epilogue as the profound decline of two potentially great men, their conversations droop into easy ironies and pat Nietzscheanisms, as Moya spends his energy tying ends that were not particularly loose. Haydée’s is the only perspective, after the farce and the revolutionary kerfuffle, that we really give a fig for; when she leaves, the novels wilts.