Not a dusty cave but a million dollar mansion. The intelligence has been meticulously gathered, the courier watched, followed and watched again. A highly trained team of professionals swoop in by helicopter and penetrate the hideout, at long last. Shots are fired and echo in the night; of course there is resistance. He won’t come quietly and perhaps they don’t want him to. After an intense fire fight, only deep silence reigns. The bullet battered body is bittersweet treasure. The hunt is over and the operation a success. No American casualties.
President Obama’s dramatic, triumphant but restrained announcement was long overdue. His predecessor had launched a largely misguided military mission across the world, with the objective to wage “war on terror”. Since the daring and devastating attacks of September 2001 though, the primary target has always been the apparent mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. There can be no doubt that his eventual death, and the American managed manner of it, will have widespread political ramifications. The significance of these, particularly in relation to the future threat of Al-Qaida, remain up for debate.
The first consequence commentators are quick to highlight is the boost to Obama’s presidency. Many are already saying that the deliverance of justice and his apparent personal involvement will prove the vital factor in tipping the balance of next year’s presidential election his way. Obama will already be the favourite and confident of securing a second term, mainly because of the meagre Republican candidates standing in his way. Sarah Palin’s ridiculous volatility makes her unelectable, whilst Donald Trump just seems ridiculous. The election will probably boil down to economic performance, as they always tend to do. But for independent voters and the more patriotically minded American, retribution for 9/11 could prove the difference between a Democrat and Republican vote. After all Bush failed to get real results and what would the new candidates offer, besides perhaps more foolhardy wars putting Americans in harm’s way?
The more globally contentious result of Bin Laden’s assassination, for that is what this was no matter how jubilant some people are, is what the future of Al-Qaida as an organisation will now be. Prime Ministers and heads of state are quick to urge “vigilance” and that the battle with extremism is not over. In a statement Tony Blair made this his key message in reaction to the news. Indeed security chiefs have even warned that the world should be on high alert and ready for a backlash; Al-Qaida will be invigorated to act soon through furious grief. But other experts are saying that apart from an initial anger driven response, we no longer have as much to fear from Al-Qaida. They are already a fading force and Bin Laden’s death is the final symbolic nail in their coffin.
Some articles are pointing to the peaceful dawn of the Arab Spring. Across the Middle East and North Africa, supposed Al-Qaida heartlands, revolutions are in full swing that are driven by peaceful protestors calling for democracy. Al-Qaida and indeed other extreme Islamists have failed to hijack the will of the masses in these revolts. If they cannot grasp the initiative and seize control in such turbulent times, what sort of a threat do they now pose? The evidence suggests their strength is severely diminished. Times are changing and this is a new decade of the 21st century.
I am no expert on Al-Qaida and it might be true that the evidence seems to suggest the organisation itself is growing weaker, despite Bin Laden’s encouragement of autonomous cells in numerous cities. I also listen to leaders using the word “vigilance” and can only think how hollow it sounds, how meaningless to the life of the ordinary citizen. I am inspired and awestruck by the historic peaceful stands in support of freedom being made in a growing number of Arab countries. But anyone can see that these peaceful protests are not the end of the story and they certainly don’t herald the end of extremism.
Extremism, by its nature, is pursued by ideologically brainwashed or ignorant individuals in the minority. This has always been a fact, always be known to the reasonable man, but occasionally obscured by reckless, inflammatory rhetoric and foolhardy foreign policy. The Arab Spring is driven by democracy because the majority of Arabs and Muslim share our desires, dreams and aspirations for rights. It’s not a new phenomenon, even if their sudden decision to act has created a shocking domino effect. The uprisings are a cause for immense hope and a huge step forward but they do not signal the end of extremism in these countries. And just because extremists are yet to influence the process, doesn’t mean that they won’t.
The ethical dilemmas of these conflicts and potential civil wars are already plain, illustrated best in Libya where we may or may not provide the rebels with weapons. History shows us what happened in Afghanistan where the people were armed against the Russians only to morph into the Taliban. It is difficult to know where and when the West should get involved for the best outcome. Why not Syria, right on the borders of Israel, when we’ve given support to those championing democracy in Libya?
For me the most worrying thing about the Arab Spring is what happens next, after the apparent victory and the departure of the news crews. If Gaddafi falls, hooray for Libya, but what takes his place? As rebellions ignite and swell everywhere, the outcome of the Egyptian rebellion, one of the most vital and influential countries to be gripped by trouble, is consigned to the past. Why are we not tracking the progress of democratic reform there, ensuring that something worse than a dictator cannot step into the vacuum? Why are we not helping the Egyptians achieve the democracy they covet and fought for?
Ok of course someone, somewhere is doing this job. People at the UN, in our own foreign office, are probably involved in the process. But the story of what happened next to Egypt and any other nation successful in overthrowing a long entrenched dictator is not being told in the news. And it should be. If leaders are serious about vigilance then that must be a part of it, keeping the spotlight on reform and not letting dangerous reactionaries creep in from the shadows. The public and the media should be aware of what’s going on and care beyond the drama and the headlines. I’m not saying Al-Qaida will revive in the thawing of the Arab Spring, but if we stop paying attention we can hardly complain when we find something or someone we don’t like with the reins to power and oil.
Bin Laden’s death is symbolic, perhaps as important as the Twin Towers bleeding smoke, and as Hilary Clinton said today, a time for renewed optimism and hope. It is not a time for barbaric and inflammatory jubilation, but for justice, relief and remembrance. And of course we must keep up that so called “vigilance”. Ordinary folk like us can do something more than being unnaturally wary in public places by keeping up the pressure on our media to show us the ongoing ends to their stories, not just the thrilling battlegrounds and premature triumphs.
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Where is the optimum position to sit in the cinema? Actually that question is better put as, where is your favourite place to sit? For we probably all have differing, individual preferences. There are those that like to sit at the back of everything; the bus, the classroom, the theatre. There are those of a nervous disposition who like to have their seats adjacent to the aisle. Personally I prefer to sit against the wall in the upper middle section, usually away from others with a decent sightline, like the lonely uninteresting enigma I am.
But then perhaps where you sit also depends on the company you’re keeping that evening. If you’re on a hot date, somewhere close to invisible in the depths of darkness at the back, but within thrilling proximity of the projector, is a must. If you’re on a cooler date a discrete but ordinary and satisfactory view is preferable. With friends you want to bag a whole row for yourselves and avoid separation.
I’m the sort of person that requires exceptional circumstances to tolerate lateness. If I’m in charge of some sort of trip my contingent will be there early, with time to spare. I’m only late if I’m not bothered about said event, or if I’m trying to appear nonchalant and lose track of time. My point is that I’ve never timed my arrival badly enough to have to sit in the very front row of the cinema.
Arriving to see Paul it seemed my friends and I had plumped for this unknown space, the very front row, in order to give the appearance of being social. Of course it’s not as if, as decent human beings, we were going to have satisfactory conversations in the middle of a film, but that’s beside the point. Half way through the trailers however a handful loped away from the group for better seats. Leaving me in the front row, with others too embarrassed to surrender and back out of a commitment. Great.
I was thus anticipating a couple of hours of awkward discomfort, followed by a sleepless night due to chronic neck pain. And months of costly chiropractic bills. Which result in my financial ruin. I would drop out of university due to the endless agony and money worries. I’d then lose my car and find myself marooned at home. Scratching my constantly irritated neck in the shower I would slip, crack my head open and start losing unhealthy amounts of blood. I’d manage to drag myself to where my car used to be, but then remember I didn’t have one and die in a messy heap on the drive. All because I sat in the very front row; repeatedly contorting my neck and twisting my head from side to side, as if I were watching tennis, in order to see what was going on in a scene.
Before the end of the trailers though, I was beginning to view my predicament as an exciting opportunity for fresh perspective on the movie experience. Firstly there was extensive, ample leg room. I nudged a friend and performed erratic, normally dangerous, kicking movements in the air to demonstrate this. Perhaps what truly opened my eyes to the perks of the front row however was the trailer to Your Highness. Yes it looked like it might have the potential to be an amusing spoof, but more importantly Natalie Portman’s scantily clad features were rendered larger than life. I mean it was better than 3D.
When Paul the alien first appeared he loomed out of the screen at me. Even prior to this as loveable duo Pegg and Frost wandered in awe around a Comic convention, my proximity meant I felt as part of the crowd as they did. In the opening scene the alien crash landing seemed to happen right in front of my face, maybe because it literally did. The money ploughed into 3D is all well and good; but why not just make wider cinema screens with one endless front row, for the truly interactive experience?
Despite my obvious fascination with the novelty of my viewing position, I eventually lost myself in the film and forgot my surroundings. Because Paul is good enough to lose yourself in. I was really surprised by how much I liked it. Most critics have concluded it’s a poor offering from Pegg and Frost, far inferior to Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. Many thought that the marrying of American and British humour was uneasy and un-funny. I would agree that Hot Fuzz and Shaun are better films. But Paul is the most accessible movie this British comedy duo has ever made. It’s warm and affectionate and very, very funny at times.
I thought that far from hindering the film, the mix of American acting talent and humour with British comedy and perspective, gave this film something different, compared to the likes of Fuzz and Shaun. One minute you’d have a very British joke about tea, followed by some edgier comedy about creationism or physical, bumbling stuff from the pursuing FBI agents. None of it was groundbreaking but I laughed out loud several times. And there are some lovely touches for fans of sci-fi, with the appearance of a certain Ms Weaver and a recurring joke about the three tits given to a monster by Pegg’s illustrator.
There’s also a recurring gag about Pegg and Frost’s characters being a gay couple, which is nothing new to us Brits. Whilst this is predictable and not greatly funny, I didn’t find it an annoying recurrence but an endearing one. And if Paul has predictable moments it makes up for them with some really surprising twists at the end, even if they come alongside things you’ll see coming a mile off.
What about Paul himself then? Even for me, from my close up vantage point, the CGI looked pretty believable and flawless. I actually preferred Seth Rogen’s voice to Seth Rogen’s voice plus his body. As funny as he is he can also be irritating. I loved the concept of an alien influencing and absorbing our culture and it allowed lots of sci-fi related, more sophisticated gags alongside the obvious visual ones. Paul even mimics Rose hilariously from Titanic as Pegg draws him. I found Frost’s standard performance of a pathetic loser more touching in Paul than any other Pegg/Frost film, because of the way he can bond with both Rogen’s voice and the CGI Paul’s mannerisms. Pegg was the most impressive thing about the recent Burke and Hare, but here his acting is rather one dimensional and generic.
A supporting cast of Yanks including Jason Bateman and Glee’s Jane Lynch add flavour to the mix. But overall Paul is rather simple. This doesn’t make it bad. There is great to joy be found in the comic delivery of Pegg and Frost, and the fusing of thoroughly British funnies with American reactions in an American setting. The final, ordinary line of the film, hilariously delivered by Frost, sums up Paul: “That was good wasn’t it”.
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I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.
First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too. It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.
I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.
I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.
The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.
Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.
If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.
From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.
Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.
The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.
The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other. What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality? Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.
I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.
These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.
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