Monday, March 13, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Although I love George Saunders's short story collection Tenth of December and his pre-election essay on Trump's followers, I wasn't sure I was going to read his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The book is about the death of Abraham Lincoln's eleven-year-old son Willie, who died of typhoid in the early days of the Civil War, and reading historical fiction about actual people always feels weird to me. But when I saw the rave reviews (Caitlin PenzeyMoog of the A.V. Club called it "a postmodern masterpiece"), I knew I had to get it.

Lincoln in the Bardo is no ordinary piece of historical fiction, and its unusual format can take some getting used to. The story, which spans the night after Willie Lincoln's funeral, is mainly told through statements from the ghosts/spirits that are Willie's new neighbors. ("Bardo" is a Tibetan word referring to the concept of a transitional state after death.) The spirits are numerous, but there are three main characters who immediately take stranded soul Willie under their wing: Hans Vollman, a middle-aged printer who died in a freak accident; Roger Bevins III, a young gay man who committed suicide; and Reverend Everly Thomas, who died of old age. They finish each other's sentences, cut each other off, and elaborate on each other's points, as if all three were sitting in front of you, telling you what happened. This example should give you a feel for the style:

"Then it happened.
roger bevins iii

An extraordinary occurrence.
hans vollman

Unprecedented, really.
the reverend everly thomas"

As with the rest of the ghosts in the Oak Hill Cemetery, these three are staying behind on Earth voluntarily for their own reasons. Vollman's death happened just before he finally consummated his marriage to his beloved young wife, and he can't accept that he isn't simply sick and won't recover. As a manifestation of his sexual frustration, his ghost appears as naked and cartoonishly erect. Moments before dying, Bevins regretted leaving the world, with all its beauty, behind, and his ghost has many eyes and arms, trying to see and touch all nature has to offer. (The bond between kind Vollman and aesthete Bevins is now one of my favorite literary friendships.) Reverend Thomas's reasons are more elusive, but eventually revealed.

Despite their own desire to not move on, they are united in their determination to get Willie to leave Earth. In the book's universe, children's souls who don't move on are sentenced to eternal torment near their graves. The ghosts have already witnessed this happening to one young teenager, Elise Traynor, who is welded to the cemetery fence and writhes, full of rage, from one horrible form to the next. But Willie is delayed by his father, the President himself, who returns to the dead boy's side multiple times throughout the night (which Lincoln, an involved and loving father who had already lost his three-year-old son Eddie over a decade earlier, apparently did in real life).

Saunders frequently cites Keckley's Behind the Scenes
or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House

There are also narratives told through quotations from various cited sources. "Are the nonfiction excerpts - from presidential historians, Lincoln biographers, Civil War chroniclers - real or fake? Who cares? Keep going, read the novel, Google later," wisely advises author Colson Whitehead in his New York Times review. I mostly read on the bus anyway, which makes pausing to look up references cumbersome, so I indeed Googled later. As Saunders has confirmed, the citations are for a mix of actual and invented sources. Those quoted include Elizabeth Keckley (a former slave who was later Mary Todd Lincoln's stylist), bereaved parents who lost their own sons to the ongoing Civil War, contemporary op-ed writers, and later historians. As with the ghosts, these various narrators' voices come together as in an oral history. Here the sources "talk" about Lincoln's face:

"In repose, it was the saddest face I ever knew. There were days when I could scarcely look at it without crying.
In 'Six Months in the White House: The Story of a Picture,' by F.B. Carpenter.

But when he smiled or laughed...
In 'Lincoln's Photographs: A Complete Album,' by Lloyd Ostendorf, account of James Miner.

It brightened, like a lit lantern, when animated.
In 'Lincoln the Man,' by Donn Piatt, account of a journalist."

Willie Lincoln, age 5

I would be remiss in not pointing out what I felt was the book's weakness, which is its portrayal of black characters. While many of the white ghosts are quirky, different characters we haven't seen before, the black ghosts of the segregated cemetery are mostly archetypes, and we learn comparatively little about them besides their plights. I was also ambivalent about the ending, which I'm sure will be controversial among readers. In his review in the Guardian, author Hari Kunzru describes this ending as, "a move that seems glib and reductive, a blemish on a book that otherwise largely manages to avoid sentiment and cliche." Like Kunzru I found it cloying, but I can see how others might see it as transcendent.

Lincoln and his son Tad, who would die at 18

Ultimately, through many voices both created and curated by Saunders we get a story about the griefs and joys of life and a man and a country in turmoil. We get a story about familial love, deep friendship, and second chances. This is a novel I'll treasure for years and one that has already been a comfort.

Elizabeth Keckley: Documenting the American South
Willie Lincoln: Wikimedia
Lincoln and Tad: Wikimedia

Friday, March 3, 2017

Scavenging for Scraps: Star Wars Aftermath Empire's End

Grand Admiral Rae Sloane on a poster for the book

Chuck Wendig's Aftermath series is set immediately after Return of the Jedi, and comprises three novels, two with multiple colons: Star Wars: Aftermath, Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt, and Star Wars: Aftermath: Empire's End. I have to admit I did not read the first one, instead jumping in at Life Debt last year. Empire's End, the final book in this trilogy, came out on February 21, and I finished it recently.

Empire's End is not high art, and it's not supposed to be. I bought George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo at the same time, knowing I was buying apples and oranges. Or maybe champagne and popcorn. And as popcorn, Empire's End is fine. It's good popcorn, but not the best popcorn. The point is, like Life Debt (and I assume Aftermath before it, which was not well reviewed), Empire's End is a bit chaotic and messy. The writing can be slapdash. It's overstuffed with original characters in a way that made me feel like I was constantly being presented with David S. Pumpkins - but David S. Pumpkins within the context of his skit's world, not in our world where he has become an ironic but beloved and newly vital part of Halloween.

Also, Wendig uses the word "tailbone" a weird amount of times. I didn't count how many, but it is a lot.

However, Wendig had an assignment that was as much nightmare as dream, and he used that opportunity to give us a fuller, more diverse Star Wars universe that peers into corners across the galaxy. We have new characters to root for and new perspectives on established characters*. And ultimately, the last two books gave those ravenous for the next Star Wars movie some hints at what might be coming. To be completely honest, that's why I read Empire's End and Life Debt (and also Claudia Gray's Bloodline): a desire to mine the novels for any clues to to the mysteries that The Force Awakens left us with, and to stave off the hunger pains for The Last Jedi.

I'm not doing a full review for Empire's End, but I have some thoughts below, because what Star Wars fan doesn't have thoughts on something related to Star Wars? This post is fairly spoiler-lite, in my opinion, except for the fates of two characters (if you want a proper review with no spoilers, check out FANgirl).

Norra Wexley on the reverse of the poster

-Rae Sloane: The Empire's principled but ruthless Grand Admiral, first seen in A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller, has become a fan favorite through these books and the comics. This is the biggest spoiler I will give here, and it's that Sloane does not die. Yay! However, her fate is uncertain, since she is last seen going off to what we know will become the First Order, and it seems unlikely she would be on board with what the First Order does in The Force Awakens. I am really, really hoping that Thandie Newton's mystery role in the Han Solo film is a young Rae Sloane.

-Sinjir Rath Velus: Sinjir, a former Imperial loyalty officer (a.k.a. internal torturer) turned New Republic ally, is my favorite character from the Aftermath books. He's a cocky, erudite, humorous guy who loves alcohol and hot men and is trying to redeem himself (just not too much). He had better not have fucking been on Hosnian Prime when Armitage Hux blew it up, because I hope this character makes an appearance in Episodes VIII or IX. Sinjir would be a great role for some suave silver fox of a Middle Eastern or South Asian actor.

-Greg Grunberg: In the Aftermath books, Temmin "Snap" Wexley, son of Norra Wexley, is in his late teens. "Wait a second," I thought while reading Life Debt. "That timeline doesn't work. Leia's pregnant with Ben. Adam Driver, who plays Ben in The Force Awakens, is 33, and his character is 29. Greg Grunberg, who plays Snap, is what? Late 30s, maybe 40?" HE IS FIFTY YEARS OLD. Congrats on your genetic luck, you youthful-looking middle-aged geek-specialty actor.

Snap, not looking like he could have babysat infant Kylo Ren

-Kylo Ren/Ben Solo: Ben spends most of the books in Leia's uterus, where, it's hinted, he is already being tormented by the Dark Side and/or Snoke. Fun! When he's a newborn, he apparently likes his parents ok enough and smells like fresh towels. Seriously, there is a lot about how good "star baby" Ben smells.

-Armitage Hux: Kylo's future co-commander is four years old and also having a shit time. In Life Debt, we not only finally learned Hux's first name, but also that he's the illegitimate child his father (Brendol Hux, who ran the Empire's military academy) had with a household servant. Rax, the Empire's shadow leader, has Brendol and Armitage extracted from Arkanis because they need Brendol's troop-training abilities and, ominously, "children." Armitage is abused by Brendol, who is described as pretty much looking like Brendan Gleeson, because how the hell else would he look? (Armitage Hux is played by Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan's son.) Things start getting better, but also weirder, for Armitage when he's given, at four, a battalion of brainwashed feral children and then forms an alliance with Sloane. That's a lot to deal with pre-kindergarten, but you probably don't end up giving this speech if you had a normal childhood.

"Does he know I'm thinking about that time I almost wet myself?"

-Luke: Luke is not present. He's away doing Jedi things by himself. It's not even clear if he visits Han and Leia once Ben is born (it's reported as a "rumor" that he might have made a quick appearance). In Bloodline, he was away, for years, doing Jedi things with Ben. In The Force Awakens, he was away, for years, presumably doing Jedi things, again by himself. For all his time spent doing Jedi things, it sure doesn't seem like he's discovered anything useful, given the state of his family's lives, his own life, and the galaxy at large. What if he's just crazy and has been wandering around aimlessly for decades? What if when The Last Jedi starts, Luke is like, "Let me show you the ancient Jedi's most powerful artifact" to Rey and then hands her a fucking empty blue milk carton he found in the trash somewhere?

-Rey: As in Bloodline, we don't explicitly learn anything about Rey, but given what happens on Jakku and the hints of what's going on in the Unknown Regions, I think Rey's background is going to be bonkers. I think it is going to be batshit-bananas-bonkers, and I am waiting on tenterhooks.

*Edited to add: Wendig also does a great job handling two toxic properties of the Star Wars universe. One is a fitting coda to its most hated character. The other deals with a character originally from the dreaded Holiday Special. Can you guess who? If not not, you get a lump of coal in your stocking. Ho, ho, ho!

Rae Sloane and Norra Wexley posters: Star Wars Underworld
Snap: Star Wars official site
Hux and Kylo: Wookieepedia

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Shelley Gets Her Due in Dance: Frankenstein the Ballet

A new version of Frankenstein's Creature

As someone who's been a little obsessive about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I was ecstatic when San Francisco Ballet announced last year that they would be staging Liam Scarlett's new ballet Frankenstein, which promo pics indicated would be close to the novel, in 2017. On Halloween, I scored a $45 orchestra ticket in a special sale and guarded it as if it held the secret to life. But in the final weeks before the North American premiere, I wasn't the only one shivering with antici...pation. I've never seen this much excitement about a ballet. Co-workers, my roommate's classmates, acquaintances on twitter: everyone wanted to see Frankenstein. I finally got to see the ballet on 2/18/17, and it did not disappoint.

The biggest draw for me was that unlike the many movie versions, Scarlett's ballet is deeply rooted in its source novel. The lack of an adaptation loyal to Shelley's work is why I ended up planning my dream cast, and this ballet is probably the closest fulfillment I'll get. There are no Igors; castle laboratories; or green, bolt-necked behemoths here. Instead, even with the changes needed for three acts of dance, we get Shelley's novel. We get the stories of Victor Frankenstein, a university student who messes up big time; of his loving family and friends, whom he loses; and of the tortured life he recklessly brings into the world.

Although its world premiere was less than a year ago, Frankenstein feels like an established classic. It's worth noting that Liam Scarlett is only 30. With young choreographers like him and Justin Peck, ballet's future looks bright.

Frances Chung as Elizabeth and Joseph Walsh as Victor

I looked at casting as soon as it was available, but I accidentally looked at the matinee, the casting for which were principals Aaron Robison as Victor, Dores Andre as Elizabeth, and Luke Ingham as the Creature. When I checked again before leaving on Saturday night, I realized my mistake, and saw the cast would be Max Cauthorn, Lauren Strongin, and Taras Domitro. "Who is Max Cauthorn?" I wondered. He's a corps member - and a young one at that, being just a few years out of San Francisco Ballet School. He's also the only non-principal in the role. Likewise, Lauren Strongin, a soloist, is the only non-principal Elizabeth. (Both are also Bay Area natives. High-five!)

While disappointed that I wouldn't get to see Dores Andre again after she was such a standout in Program 1, I looked forward to seeing Strongin and Cauthorn, who are possibly under consideration for promotion [update: Max Cauthorn was promoted to soloist on 3/13/17]. It's great to see home-grown former SF Ballet School students, like soloist Wei Wang, who was an apprentice the year before Cauthorn was, rise in the ranks. And (this is where I clarify that while a ballet fan, I am not a ballet expert) I really enjoyed Cauthorn's and Strongin's performances. They were lovely and youthful together, and their early effortlessness together made the emotional impact of Victor's later distraction and avoidance all the stronger.

Meanwhile Taras Domitro, in a scarred, nude bodysuit as the Creature, brought maturity and depth to his coltish, heartbreaking, menacing character. His pas de deux with Strongin, as his terrified would-be stepmother, and then with Cauthorn, as the immature father who regrets him, are both standouts. (Domitro isn't tall, but he's like 80% muscle, and Cauthorn seemed to have zero problems tossing him around like he was a willowy ballerina.)

From the original Royal Ballet production

Other things I loved:

-Henry Clerval! Although there was one huge Henry-related problem (see below), I was thrilled that happy, doomed puppy-dog Henry made the cut in this adaptation. Soloist Angelo Greco played Henry Saturday night, and brought lots of sweetness to the role.

-Justine Moritz! One element of Shelley's novel that Scarlett kept but altered was that Frankenstein family maid Justine Moritz's mother hates her. In the novel, Justine's mother is just part of her backstory, but in the ballet she's present as the housekeeper. Even though Victor and Elizabeth see Justine (soloist Julia Rowe) as a friend, Madame Moritz (soloist Jennifer Stahl) coldly and relentlessly keeps her daughter in her place as a servant.

Scarlett's reason for this subplot becomes clear at the end of Act II, when Madame Moritz's desperation, regret, and seconds-too-late arrival to Justine's execution add an absolute gut-punch. Characters danced by Stahl, who was promoted to soloist after her starring role in 2013's Rite of Spring, just have bad luck with executions.

-Music: composer Lowell Liebermann's music is sumptuous and intense.

-Anatomy Theatre scene: the anatomy lab dance, with a dizzying array of students, medical assistants, beakers, and body parts, is a visual delight with lots of great little details (the lechery of soloist James Sofranko's professor, an assistant's curiosity, Henry's queasiness).

-Talented kids: there are a few SF Ballet School students in this production, but the child dancer with the most time on stage last night was Jonathan Yee as Victor's little brother William. It's a demanding role for a kid, with lots of acting, a duet with the Creature, and a fair amount of time playing dead, and little Jonathan did great. Good job, Jonathan!

I've got some things to say about this

Things I didn't love:

-Here is the biggest problem the ballet had: Henry Clerval's costuming. The opening scenes establish Victor as wearing a red coat. He wears a red coat in childhood. He wears a red coat as a teenager. So when Act I, scene 3 starts at the university, and we see a guy with Victor's same wig wearing a red coat, it's obviously Victor, right? Wrong! It's Henry. When Victor arrives with his red notebook, everything becomes clear, but I was confused at first, and from what I overheard at intermission, a lot of people were.

Then in Act II, Henry is wearing a green coat. I will admit to owning more than one color of coat, but I'm not in a ballet where people in the balcony need to quickly recognize me. Since other characters' clothes stay similar throughout, why not just have him wear a green coat in Act I so we can easily distinguish him from Victor and the other neutral-wearing students? But the worst is yet to come. In Act III, he's wearing another, different red coat. You're killing me, costume designer John Macfarlane!

-Henry and Victor: also, I wish Victor and Henry's friendship had been better established in Act I. I feel that would have been a better use of scene 4, rather than the "college students gonna college student" episode in the tavern. Scarlett has Victor and Henry meet as freshmen rather than as children, but they barely interact before Victor's breakdown lands him back at home, at which point Henry is living with them and practically part of the family.

Liam Scarlett featurette with the Royal Ballet
SF Ballet's Vitor Luiz on dancing the Creature

Frankenstein continues at San Francisco Ballet through 2/26/17.

Image info:
Header: Erik Tomasson and AKA
Chung and Walsh: Erik Tomasson
Royal Ballet: Bill Cooper
Corps member Esteban Hernandez in that damn Act III coat: Erik Tomasson
Programs and tickets: my own crappy photo