Sperm donation is an ethical and emotional minefield. It’s one of those sensitive issues with equally passionate and valid views on both sides of the debate. Even bystanders not directly involved or affected will have a strong opinion on its morality. The consequences and motivations of such anonymous, industrial giving of life can be dissected and analysed again and again, for positives and negatives. Endless reams could be written on the subject without resolving the issue one way or another.
It’s also one of those topics that often only interests people when looked at from monstrous and extreme angles. For example a few years ago a documentary called “The Sperminator” about a man running a clinic who provided all the samples himself, when he told prospective parents that there was an extensive bank to meet their specific requests and requirements, caused a lot of controversy and generated a lot of interest. People enjoy being shocked by grotesque scandals such as this, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the potential for ignorant incest. The human side of this relatively new phenomenon is usually overlooked.
Donor Unknown is almost exclusively about the very human effects of sperm donation. It’s an extremely admirable and accomplished piece of filmmaking. Over the course of its engaging and economical 78 minute runtime, this film gradually and thoroughly explores the sperm trade by maintaining a tight human focus. Hollywood blockbusters lack both the heart and surprising plot twists of Donor Unknown and it deserves a grander home than TV screens. With its editing and pacing and diverse locations across America, this is a film that shows off the art of documentary storytelling at its best.
Much of the film is seen through the lens of JoEllen, a girl on the cusp of pretty womanhood, who has come to terms with her lack of a father throughout childhood. Her mother has always been honest about the way in which she was conceived, with a little help from “donor 150”. But although she’s grown up with the affection of a loving family and lived a privileged, seemingly happy existence, there is always something missing. A great big “what if” is constantly nagging at JoEllen’s wellbeing and sense of identity.
Meanwhile on Venice Beach in LA, Jeffrey lives with his four dogs and the occasional pigeon. He’s quite clearly a hippy, living a simple life in a RV, loving his dogs and being kind to those he meets. With his long hair and tanned, excess wearied face, it’s difficult to imagine he was once a muscular model in Playgirl who once made a living from stripping. He explains that he was asked by a woman he met at the hairdresser’s during those years of his prime, whether or not he’d like to donate sperm so she could have a baby. Obviously he was taken aback but after speaking to a close friend who was a loving mother, he decided to give this relative stranger the opportunity of motherhood and hope that fate rewarded him for his good deed.
Donor Unknown also talks to the staff at the Californian Cryogenic Centre, that aims to have the largest collection of sperm donors in the world. We see the specimens stored in huge vats and we have numbers like 200 billion fired at us. We’re assured that this centre alone could repopulate the world in the event of some disaster making such measures necessary. We’re shown the “masturbatory emporiums” with walls colourfully adorned to aid the donation process, with the more sample provided the better. The chambers increase in eroticism along the corridor, we’re told.
And so we are eased gently into sperm donation, with a balance of real human effects and the technology involved. JoEllen’s hole in her existence is contrasted with the motivation of mothers to turn to donors like Jeffrey, along with his reasons for helping out.
Then we’re hit with the bombshell of JoEllen finding a sibling. Her half sister lives in New York and they meet after discovering each other via an online register, where you simply register your donor number. Her identity issues are even deeper than JoEllen’s because she has been lied to until the age of about 14. She resents her parents for the deception and feels immensely confused and hurt. As a teenager it’s a lot to take onboard and extremely destabilising. Desperate for a link to a missing 50% of her, she finds JoEllen and then gets a story onto the front of the New York Times, without her parents’ knowledge.
At this point Donor Unknown becomes extremely uplifting, as more and more siblings come forward who were fathered by “donor 150”. Via the internet an unconventional patchwork family forms across America’s very different states, bringing absent intimacy, connection and love into the lives of more than a dozen children. JoEllen methodically keeps track of all her lost brothers and sisters, meeting most of them and forming attachments, filling in the missing side of her family tree slightly. The genetic quirks and likenesses are touching and fascinating to behold, as the screen flits rapidly through the faces and mannerisms of all the “150” siblings.
But then Donor Unknown changes gear to look at yet another aspect of the trade. After gently gaining your attention and emotional investment, we finally come to the really dark side of sperm donation. One of the siblings, Rachelle, expresses her constant doubts and worries about dating. She has specifically stuck to foreign guys or people that for other reasons definitely could not be related. An interview with the founder of the online register, a mother of a donor child herself, reveals that there are no limits on the number of children a donor can father, despite the claims of clinics.
The Californian Cryogenic Centre is also at pains to point out their range of choice and the extensive information they offer. But the answers of donor questions can be as misleading as they are informative. Jeffrey for example, said he was a dancer when he was a stripper and said he studied philosophy when he spent little time in college. His spiritual waffle won over scores of prospective parents but he is in reality something of a waster, an idealistic hippy and eccentric weirdo. He believes in worrying conspiracy theories and has an unnatural attachment to animals after a troubled childhood.
Beneath it all though he is a kind man and the ending to Donor Unknown is unquestionably back in the uplifting zone. Whatever the dangers and wrongs of the sperm industry, it has the power to create the amazing gift of life. Without the fakery of actors to bring it down, Donor Unknown soars to interesting and touching heights, telling the modern, interconnecting tales of real people.
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Two men sit across from one another at a small table. They both have coffees. A’s is untouched, B regularly sips from his.
A: How would you do it?
B: Pills probably.
A: I can definitely see the appeal of pills.
B: I mean in a way it could be awful…
A: (interrupting) But they’re always to hand.
B: Yeah exactly.
A: I know what you mean though don’t want it to go wrong.
A: Looks really amateurish if it does.
B: Yeah you wouldn’t want all the questions, the officials, the procedures etc.
A: Absolute nightmare.
B: Yeah right, worse than things were already.
B: Actually like you say pills are a bit dodgy and low key. I always imagined I’d go out with a big bang, something spectacular like.
A: How do you mean?
B: Well I’ve often pictured it, you know sketched it in daydreams.
A: Go on.
B: There are these cliffs at the coast near where I live. You can drive right to the edge almost to park your car.
A: Yeah. Are we talking Beachy Head-esque?
B: Not really. Isn’t like I have a loved one to jump hand in hand with.
A: Nah me neither.
A: What would you do?
B: Well I’d still take a good load of pills. Then I’d tape the locks down inside my car, in case some survival instinct kicks in if I land up in the water.
B: Then depending on where I manage to park, either drive off the edge or just let the handbrake off. Ideally I should accelerate I suppose for added impact and in case some good natured passerby attempts to stop me. But then I’m not sure what the pills would have done to me by then…
A: It’s certainly dramatic.
B: Yeah and a reasonable fail safe.
A: What about people below?
B: Yeah there is that. I guess I could do it at a time of night when there’d be no one about, have a quick check first.
A: And definitely nothing could stop the car?
B: Nah. There’s a rope at the most between you and a rocky fall.
A: There’s still a chance you could end up trapped and awaiting rescue with horrific injuries and no escape.
B: I don’t think anything’s full proof though.
A: No I guess not, certainly not 100%.
B: And the pills would hopefully take me beyond rescue.
B: And like you say, it’s dramatic. I don’t see the point unless it’s more thrilling than the monotony of life.
A: Of course there’s a point, escaping that day after day pain.
B: How would you rather do it?
A: I’d rather a gun. Classic roof of the mouth. But fat chance of getting hold of one.
B: I wouldn’t know how to go about that.
A: Yeah exactly.
B: I’d be scared of just mutilating my face too. Isn’t like I know how to use a weapon properly.
A: Oh it’s pretty easy I think.
B: You reckon?
A: From what I’ve researched I think I could do it. Over in a flash.
B: Oh right…
(A lengthy pause)
A: Do you think that we all discover the same truth? Or something similar?
A: I mean, do you think that no matter what the personal reasons, everyone that decides to do it uncovers some sort of universal fact? Like a kind of enlightenment. That it’s all pointless.
B: Umm…I guess it’s possible. Certainly they must all reach roughly the same conclusion about the world.
(Another long pause)
A: Has something always defined your life?
B: That’s quite a vague question.
A: I don’t know how to express what I mean.
B: That’s alright. The most worthwhile things are difficult to articulate.
A: Yeah I agree.
B: So give it a try.
A: Well for me…well I guess that truth I was talking about is for me that everyone has a particular conflict that defines them. For me it’s always been a conflict between a desire to make a mark, make a difference, leave some sort of permanent bettering legacy behind and an overwhelming fear of being alone. I don’t think everyone’s conflict is the same, but I think everyone has one. And I think that those of us who decide to escape that conflict have seen the one truth there is.
B: Which is?
A: Life is an insurmountable challenge. You can’t reconcile that conflict, you must choose between one or the other.
B: Which did you choose?
A: What do you mean?
B: Did you choose to make a mark or to avoid loneliness?
A: I chose nothingness.
B: Because you couldn’t succeed in either?
A: I think so yeah. It’s better than the panic.
B: Don’t you have friends?
A: Of course, technically.
B: What do you mean “technically”?
A: Well they are acquaintances. I disagree with that old saying that you can choose your friends but not your family. I was always just lumped together with people; my “friends” were as determined as my relatives.
B: Well determinism is a whole different debate.
A: Is it? Most things are connected, probably underpinned by that.
B: To an extent. But I’ve had the illness I told you about all my life, and it didn’t stop me achieving certain things. I was limited but not beaten by it.
A: Thank you for agreeing to meet me.
B: It’s no problem, I find it interesting.
B: Yeah people won’t discuss this sort of thing openly, sometime it’s more difficult with people you know.
A: Yeah. Why do you think that is?
B: I’m not sure, too uncomfortable I suppose. People let their guard down online.
A: I know what you mean. But normally it’s…it’s just…
B: Yeah you delve through a lot of scum for something resembling conversation. It’s not really a good place to search for it.
A: But it’s the only place.
A: What about a date?
(B nearly chokes on his coffee)
A: Would you rather do it at a particular time of year?
B: Oh! Well I don’t know…I guess it’s more about when you feel you’ve had enough.
B: Do you have a favourite date for it then?
A: The 6th of September.
B: That’s soon.
A: I know.
B: How come?
B: Why then?
A: It used to be the date we’d usually go back to school.
B: Were you unhappy at school?
A: Not especially.
A: I don’t really know why. I don’t tend to get things done unless they have to be, by a certain date.
B: Yeah I get that. It’s impossible to motivate myself sometimes.
A: Yeah same.
B: And I completely understand what you mean about life being this whole, this unconquerable and insurmountable thing. There are so many things I want to do but the reality is I won’t even manage half of them. Even books I want to read, they just sit there on this imaginary checklist. It’s not just about time…
A: Yeah you want to do it but it’s like you don’t have the energy reserves.
B: Yeah or not even energy, just the will to do it sometimes.
A: Perhaps it’s because you understand the futility of it all underneath.
B: Maybe…maybe yeah…(checks his watch) Blimey I better be going I guess!
A: Oh right ok…Somewhere you need to be?
B: Yes meeting with a student.
B: This was really interesting as I said. I talk about ideas in my work all the time but this sort of blunt; stripped down conversation…it’s intellectually refreshing!
B: These things are usually off limits I suppose, for “civilized” conversation, but they’re facts of life like anything else.
A: Intellectual facts right?
B: I’d love to meet again. Are you free at the same time on the 10th? I have to say I’d never have thought a meeting with someone from online could be so rewarding. You tend to think it’s all just superficial, all fake on there.
A: That’s after the 6th.
B: Wait…you’re not…you’re not actually serious about…about all this?
A: (hesitates) Course not… (forced laugh) Course not, course not, God no!
B: You’re alright then?
A: I’m alright?
B: Ok for the 10th? Here again?
A: Yes, yeah why not.
B: (standing to leave. Puts some cash on the table) My shout!
B: (walking away to exit, calls back) Till the 10th then!
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Tagged Beckett, Bennet, Bennett, Black, black humour, characters, chat, climax, coffee, creative, dark, date, death, depression, detached, determined, dialogue, discussion, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Fringe, emotion, engaging, Festival, fiction, film, Fringe, funny, hilarious, humour, idiolect, intellect, intense, international, internet, intimate, life, literary, loneliness, melancholy, misery, misunderstanding, novel, Pinter, play, playwright, rooms, screenplay, script, serious, Shorts, sketch, suicide, The Debate, themes, turns, tv, twists, writer, writing, York
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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