Tag Archives: philosophy

The Adjustment Bureau


Chance and fate are like twin sisters; biologically related but far from identical. They are concepts we all know and experience day after day. Yet their effects fluctuate so wildly that no human being can define, prove or explain what exactly they are, or indeed confirm their existence with any certainty. The best, most brilliant minds throughout history have focused their attention on these beguiling, fascinating, unknowable sisters at some point. Everybody, from genius to crack addict, ponders the cruelties of chance, the favours of fate.

Was it chance that brought the girl of your dreams out onto the street in front of you? Was it just bad luck that you were spitting out your gum at the time, so that she walked head on into a potent projectile of sugared saliva and masticated goo? Or were you doomed to failure? Manipulative Miss Fate may have singled you out as her joke of the day. Then again, perhaps she was just redressing the balance after she took out the lights in the bar that time. Your powers of attraction increased tenfold in near darkness, allowing you to raise your standards considerably. That girl, let’s say Linda, barely noticed the peculiar crook of your nose, for instance, or the irrepressible leering tint to your eyes. But then again maybe there’s no balance at all, no order. Maybe it’s just Miss Chance, a bored, daydreaming secretary at her desk, absentmindedly jabbing at her keyboard.

Often the only way we can begin to explore or talk about these sisters is through storytelling. And George Nolfi’s first feature film as a director, The Adjustment Bureau, is fairly explicitly about the human relationship between our free will, each and every choice that we make, and our fate, the possible destiny that may be already determined for us, laid out beyond our control. The Adjustment Bureau is also a film that can claim to be a “sci-fi romantic thriller”; a distinctive and intriguing description of any story.

Indeed ever since I saw the trailer for The Adjustment Bureau I have been anticipating a thoroughly different blockbuster. Several of Phillip K. Dick’s stories have been taken on and adapted by Hollywood, and several more such as The Man in the High Castle (an alternative history of the Cold War), would make excellent movies. Dick had a knack for capturing fascinating science based or philosophical questions, within a captivating narrative framework that really made you think about the issue. Apparently Nolfi has expanded considerably on Dick’s short story, Adjustment Team, for this project, and that may account for some of its failings.

Numerous reviews have pointed out the plot holes in The Adjustment Bureau and lamented its implausibility. For a film marketing itself as exciting, the lack of engaging thrills has also been highlighted. It’s certainly something that requires a greater than usual suspension of disbelief to really enjoy it. However, critics have also been quick and correct to heap praise upon the performances of the two leads.

In interviews Emily Blunt and Matt Damon have talked of how they “dicked around” on set and tried to transfer some of this interaction, this genuine banter, to the screen. It’s a technique that worked tremendously well. Much of Nolfi’s dialogue in this film is good, but inevitably when trying to encompass such grand themes and deal with an issue like love at first sight, the odd passage is clunky, cliché and cheesy. These bad moments have the potential to seriously deflate the quality of a film. But Damon and Blunt’s brilliance ensures that these dances with disaster become strengths. Whenever an emotional speech is about to over step the mark, one of the characters, usually Blunt’s, makes a jokey remark to both lighten the tone and preserve the intensity of what went before. With such sensational plot components Blunt and Damon’s incredible, immense believability and appeal makes the romantic element of the story feel constantly real and affecting.

Damon in particular is excellent as the focus of the tale and adds another impressive notch to his CV. He appears to have truly arrived as a top Hollywood leading man. Here he plays up and coming senator David Norris, who concedes a mammoth lead in the polls thanks to some revelations about his wild shenanigans in the past. It was a step too far for voters, who had been willing to back the fresh faced, young and local candidate. Damon is completely convincing as a politician passionate for change but disillusioned with the system he must embrace to achieve it.

Underneath it all, Norris just wants company and affection, and this Damon portrays well too. In the Gents after his election defeat, he bumps into Elise, a contemporary ballet dancer. After an odd (but believable!) first meeting, Norris is as infected with the chemistry between them as the audience is. He abandons his conservative losing speech in favour of a frank, electrifying exposure of behind the scenes campaigning and the nature of politics as a whole. His popularity sky rockets (one of the film’s multitude of interesting ideas and points is how the public wants honesty in politics but good men are continually stifled from being themselves).

However when Norris tries to pursue his instant infatuation with Elise, he’s warned off by mysterious looking types in 1950s style period suits, wearing silly hats. This is The Adjustment Bureau; the people that make things happen according to plan. They are not all powerful, as they appear to be governed by their own set of rules and frequently require greater levels of “authorisation”, but they can flit about New York City by teleporting through doors and predict the choices you make. John Slattery, Anthony Mackie and Terrence Stamp, all give decent performances as agents of this supernatural organisation.

The dated look of the agents has come in for considerable criticism; but I rather liked it. Whilst the film could be more thrilling, it’s refreshing to watch a blockbuster that’s still exciting and engaging without being stunt heavy. The focus is not on the action but on the plot and the romance between Elise and David. As for the plot holes, especially increasingly silly ones towards the end, these are probably due to the fact that The Adjustment Bureau is ideas heavy. Sure some of these musings on such debated subjects as the limitations of free will, determinism, God, chance and love are far from subtle. But to me that doesn’t matter, especially given the convincing chemistry at the heart of the film driving it forward as the narrative focus. It’s extremely admirable, valid and bold to make a mainstream film about any of these ideas at all. The Adjustment Bureau will get you thinking and talking about them, and hopefully exploring these fascinating areas further.

Besides, in my opinion, not all of the film’s ideas are as flat and basic as some reviews would have you think. The corporation like structure of The Adjustment Bureau for example (with God referred to as The Chairman), made an extremely relevant point about the limitations of our free will today, in supposedly completely liberated western societies. We no longer realistically worry ourselves with tyrants and dictators, but money, class and big business can substantially shape our paths through life and the hold the powerful keys to turning points in our destiny.

I applaud the abundance of ideas in The Adjustment Bureau then, even if it could have been a better film. Because of all the talking points and its compelling romance, it is still a good and worthwhile watch. Perhaps the most resonant, but also cliché, point that it makes though, and chooses to conclude with, is that love is worth fighting for. Whatever uncontrollable obstacles life throws in the way, be it distance/geography, illness/injury or rivals/opponents, love can be enough and worth holding on to. No matter what.

Oh god. Did I actually just type that? Shoot me now. Yes their performances really are that good.

March is Reading and Writing Challenge Month on Mrt’sblog


In a few days time it is World Book Night. Books will be given away and a grand reading event, attended by thousands, will launch a general celebration of literature in London’s Trafalgar Square. As I started my Gap Year last summer I set about acquiring books that interest me along with books I ought to have read for my general wellbeing, enlightenment and intelligence. I vowed that whatever happened this year I would read books. I would emerge a more rounded, informed person, enthused with the vivid experiences of the page.

I also started to try and write more. I have done this and this blog has grown. But as my last post, celebrating this blog’s first birthday pointed out, my approach is somewhat higgledy-piggledy (what a charming phrase). I should be finely tuning my skills as a writer of fiction and non-fiction, rather than just learning about reviews by churning them out. I should be enhancing my writing abilities and knowledge in general by reading. I should be stimulating my brain more.

Today has proved the perfect example of why I must have the resolve to commit to this challenge – a month of extensive reading and writing. That’s right March is reading and writing month on Mrt’sblog. You’re welcome to read and write along with me if you read any of this. There will still be film reviews and I might occasionally be inspired by a certain other issue, but the main goal is to read as much as possible, write about books and try and produce my own work. Today I have been bogged down, struggling to write a review, distracted by the internet and a bombardment of texts. As a result I haven’t done any reading on the first day of my challenge (yet), the closest I have come is watching the final episode of Sebastian Faulks’ BBC series Faulks on Fiction.

But from tomorrow onward I will be posting daily updates about my reading. I aim to tackle a broad sweep of genres; classic novels, modern novels, short stories, biography, history, travel writing and philosophy. In recent months events in my life have meant my reading has ground to a halt, or become a mere trickle, and I really miss it. Last autumn I did read a lot of inspiring and fascinating new books and I aim to rekindle my love with the spring. I’m determined to cure my lack of activity and appetite with an all out blitz. Not only will I post about what I’m reading and how I’m progressing, but I’m determined to find the time to produce comparative pieces, articles, thoughts and creations of my own in the style of what I have read.

In short I’m going to try and study and work, simply from the books I’ve amassed and that I am yet to read. My brain needs exercise and I’ll seek to find it in the stacks of books on my desk. I hope that once the month is up my desire will burn brightly anew and I’ll post more regular reviews of novels or books I have devoured. I need to rediscover the knack and taste of reading before university. I need to end my Gap Year not disappointed by unavoidable confinement. I may not be able to live my dreams of travelling and work and experience of future careers, but I can go on journeys via the written word. I’m anticipating that I’ll still need stamina and resolve however, to get back into a mindset in which I ploughed through books, consuming facts and delightfully written imagery at a phenomenal pace. I want to start discovering all that various books have to offer once again.

This blog is a year old. And it’s time I upped its quality and ambition. It needs a challenging project with some sort of narrative worthy of people coming back day after day. Inspired by my girlfriend’s fabulous recent efforts on Love Pink (see Blogroll right), I am taking my blogging duties further into everyday life so that they become a part of it. Join me as I try to beat the book snobs, harness the power of books and nurture my writing so it’s more concise, original and high quality.

Egypt: Mubarak’s fall opens a new chapter in history and diplomacy


Faint columns of twisty smoke on the horizon. Dry dirt and dust whipped into clouds by the commotion in the street. Baking rooftops stretching for as far as the eye can see in the hot sunlight. Your guide ranting in impassioned Arabic, the immense weight and colour of the rich past hanging in the air around you. You can feel it stirring, something new and meaningful adding to it. Chants and songs of freedom from the crowds below, being marched into action and reality. A sense of being at the eye of a storm of change that will define generations. Then loud voices, angry noise and pounding footsteps on the stairs. Bangs as doors crash open; guns and uniforms glistening. An adrenalin fuelled fear as your face is shoved to the gritty floor.

During recent events in Egypt, articles with these sorts of ingredients and phrases were cropping up on the front pages of newspapers every day. Somehow journalists and writers managed to weave their own extraordinary experiences into some sort of comment on events and the news from the ground. Personally I can’t imagine anything more exciting and fulfilling than to be at the heart of such a historical event; effortlessly writing incredibly, simply by saying what your eyes see happening all around you. To work in such a fascinating country at a time of such dramatic upheaval and change is satisfying enough and probably would have overwhelmed me. But consider the implications of the outcome of the protests in Egypt and the ongoing rebellion in the Middle East, and the unfolding story of history becomes even more intoxicating, inspirational and important.

The opening months of 2011 are proving to be nothing short of momentous. I do not need to use hyperbole. Seemingly permanent regimes, which were unquestionably entrenched through power and fear, have crumbled and sprouted glaring weaknesses. As if this weren’t enthusing enough, the forces that have brought about such changes have been new, modern and democratic. People taking to the streets, tired with repression and the state of their economies, have brought about reform and the toppling of infamous regimes. Mass meetings were organized and propelled by tools alien to historians and political analysts, like Facebook and Twitter. Despite distrust of the West, fuelled by its support of the dictators being ousted, most demonstrators called for democratic systems similar to our own that could transform the way the world works together. The true power of politics has been restored.

Egypt is the most high profile case so far but the disruption is ongoing. At the moment it’s Libya in turmoil. We are living through a new age of productive and successful political action. The scenes in Egypt put student protests in this country from the tail end of last year in the shade, but all the demonstrations are part of a global trend. In the continuing difficulties lingering from the economic crisis, we are once again witnessing the interconnectivity of the modern world. And in a rare time of genuine history in a world which had seemingly seen everything, the need for a new form of diplomacy once again emerges.

It was frankly embarrassing for Britain and the US to have such an ever shifting, vague stance on the Egyptian crisis as it unfolded. Of course the dangers and difficulties were plain. We could not tolerate another radical Islamic country, another Iran in a volatile region, particularly in the place of a moderate tourist destination with a stable relationship with Israel. But it was rapidly clear that President Mubarak’s situation was untenable. As soon as this became obvious it became self-defeating to continue to offer even the slightest veil of support for him. Especially when even before the crisis, particularly with Liberals in government, Britain should have been adopting a more comprehensible, pro-democracy/anti-dictatorship stance. Eventually Nick Clegg refreshingly admitted that events in Egypt were “exciting”. Of course they were, this was a whole new kind of revolution; 21st century and democratic, not 20th and Communist.

Britain may no longer be a big player on the world stage, but it once was. As a result of the actions of the British Empire in the past, British governments shall always have a strong duty to nations it has had a considerable hand in shaping. William Hague therefore, as Foreign Secretary, should always have been supportive of the wishes of the Egyptian people. For too long democracies in the West, cajoled by America, have tolerated regimes that abuse civil rights in favour of “stability”. The events of early 2011 have proved that perfect stability is a myth. Any leadership is prone to volatility and violence. Therefore it’s time governments started to stand truly by the philosophies and politics they claim to espouse, and have faith in the people of other nations to make the right choices. There’s a long way to go in Egypt, but so far the people have proved they want democracy, not just a new controlling leadership in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Debate continues to rage about the best way to deploy the foreign office in the 21st century; what is Britain’s global role? In the past I’ve argued it should be combating climate change and this remains important. But now, given the changing tides, it’s time we started ending support for corrupt governments and supporting the spread of democratic values in a hands-off way. With influence shifting east to China and India, a process of democratisation in the Middle East could prove crucial to the direction of the next century, given the treasure trove of natural resources and energy stored there. A spirit of cooperation, empathy and understanding is needed to face the numerous oncoming challenges and hurdles. Democracy and the UN can help with this.

Other developments in diplomacy mean that we in the West do not merely have to talk the talk of peace either. There are new methods of direct action to punish inflammatory behaviour and enforce calm. Recently details emerged of the Stuxnet computer virus attack on Iran’s nuclear programme, which set it back years. It was a major boost for President Obama’s approach, which has come under fire for its lack of action. Obama can continue to seem reasonable, as he’s always offered the chance of negotiation to Iran. But despite the attack not being officially linked to any government, it’s obvious certain governments sanctioned it. This sort of non-deadly cyber warfare could be the far preferable stick in future diplomatic disputes, as opposed to the nuclear weapons of the Cold War era. Of course not all cyber warfare is so harmless; certain attacks on infrastructure have the potential to reduce societies to chaos and cause scores of deaths. But that’s just a further reason to develop our capabilities, both defensively and offensively, and deploy them in conjunction with our diplomatic aims. Trashing each other’s technical hardware is a far nicer scenario than devastating our cities and if nothing else it will give the West a genuine moral high ground for a change.

As Egypt and other countries begin a transition to fairer governance, it’s innovative methods like these we should use as a last resort to hinder and halt dangerous elements plotting to seize control, as opposed to rash deployments of armed forces. In this new era of history and diplomacy it’s vital we respect the people of other nations and keep them onside. For they now know where the real power lies; with themselves.

A History of Contradictions: Freedom, Servitude and Niall Ferguson


Last week I rekindled my love for History and looked forward excitedly to the day I would begin my own studies of the subject. Attending a friend’s lecture on Freedom and Servitude at York University, I was reminded of the myriad of issues and possibilities that arise studying the subject, and the endless opportunities for arguing varied points of view. The lecturer did an admirable job, without a PowerPoint presentation, of skimming through an incredibly contentious theme of history in a thought provoking way. He never became boring or grating, alleviating heavy philosophy and figure based sections of his speech with lighter links to an interview with Kate Moss in Grazia about her idea of freedom and an amusing, scandalous Bible story used as bewildering justification for the slave trade for centuries.

I made my own notes and learnt that Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson described freedom as an under theorized concept; something which made a lot of sense. Like love or beauty, freedom is something easier to understand through experience and hard to articulate. Its vagueness adds to its allure though. Equally interesting is that some cultures, particularly in Asia, attach much less importance to what we in the West might term “freedom” or liberty. In Japan they have no word for freedom. Our guilt and direct experience of slavery has led to a freedom fetish in our culture, stemming particularly from the American fascination with it.

The lecture rose numerous other interesting points, which it is not my intention to delve into here. It highlighted aspects of history, such as Greek and Roman dependence on slaves, and the cultural slavery instigated by some tribes, never so much as touched on at school. But crucially its conclusion threw up a controversy, a set of conflicting views about the overall interpretation of slavery.

Traditionally it’s assumed that after the Declaration of Independence in America, the North phased out slavery, and the South didn’t, which led to Civil War and the North imposed the right way on the South. But the North continued to condone slavery in several ways and the push for freedom was far from strong and complete. Inequality would remain even as slavery faded, as any minor knowledge of the civil rights movement will reinforce. The challenge to conventional history then, was did Americans, be it the establishment or the majority or whoever, realise in some way that their considerable freedom depended upon the servitude of others? Just as Sparta’s mechanised and elitist form of society in Ancient Greece depended on the labour of enslaved Helots, did the blossoming prosperity of white Americans depend on the comparable hardships of their black workers?

I relish the considerable crossover with other subjects in History; be it politics, literature or philosophy. And in philosophical terms the conclusion of the lecture could be boiled down to: can freedom exist without slavery, or vice versa? Something that’s always appealed to both the realist and idealist in me is that things can simultaneously be their opposites. By this I mean, as Orwell notoriously wrote in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery”. Perhaps one really cannot exist without the other. I think that when studying History it helps to remember that there will always be a contradictory view and that just because it might completely oppose the more sensible option, does not mean it does not have value or truth or validity. I’m not expressing myself very well, but hopefully my point will become clearer.

I’ve always admired the historian Niall Ferguson. I discovered him through extremely engaging programmes on Channel 4, about Empire, America and War. His ideas and theories challenge traditional views, and this is something the historian should always be looking to do. His interpretations of the past connect and enlighten our immediate future. Often his focus will be economic but he rarely alienates with too many figures. He simply selects the right ones to back the thrust of his story. For me he achieves all the things an historian ought to. This doesn’t mean his conclusions have to be full-proof. Indeed it’s because he recognises History is not straightforward and that it’s constantly evolving and full of contradictions, that I admire him.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/20/niall-ferguson-interview-civilization

In yesterday’s Observer Ferguson gives an insightful interview. The writer, William Skidelsky, does a superb job of marrying the probing of Ferguson’s personal journey with his world view. There is some interesting background to Ferguson’s works, which shed light on them. Overall it’s a fantastic article about the man as well as the ideas. He is truly a remarkable human being and looking suave at 46 I would go as far as to pop him in my exclusive idol drawer.

His latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is closely linked to an idea Ferguson has been espousing about History teaching in schools. The curriculum, most accept, is too narrow and sporadic. Students leave having studied Hitler countless times but with no clue of History’s broader sweep and its overarching connections. It’s something that puts the comprehensive school pupils at a disadvantage against more traditionally educated, public school types. I can personally vouch for this and as a keen History student would welcome the subject being both better taught and more attractive for future generations.

Ferguson’s new work is targeted at 17 year olds, he says, and it charts the ascendancy of the West over the East since Early Modern times. Ferguson’s recent back catalogue of works have focused on Empire and his views, particularly on the British and American systems, have been controversial. His fusion of idealism and realism is tremendously inspiring. What I tried to express earlier is brilliantly summed up in the conclusions to his work: for example, the British Empire did bad but also a great deal of good or Americanisation can be a force for immorality but also if applied more earnestly and thoughtfully, bring immense prosperity and freedom. I am generalising and simplifying, but as I said he is the best of historians; accessible but scholarly supreme, dynamic and revisionist but pragmatic.

I look forward to his latest work, both in TV and book form and wish him the best of luck with his crusade to evolve the teaching of his subject; just as history itself and his views have done.

A History of Violence


(some spoilers)

I was keen to see A History of Violence, but I also sat down to watch it with trepidation. The title of this film had me envisaging a brutal compilation of some of history’s goriest moments or something similarly horrific like a serial killer’s holiday snaps. Director David Cronenberg had a reputation from what I’d heard, as he followed up the success of this film with hard-hitting gangster story Eastern Promises, containing its own controversial fight scenes. I haven’t much stomach for excessive blood and guts.

 The opening scene was indeed chilling; brilliantly so. From the very start A History of Violence declares itself to be a film that will give its actors room to act, its story room to grow and unsettle, and yet with a runtime of 96 minutes it’s no tedious slow-burner.  The action kicks-off at detailed walking pace, with two shady but calm types loitering outside a motel. They exchange perfectly ordinary, mundane words. One of them disappears inside whilst the other moves the car a little further along. Then we see which man wears the trousers as the driver’s ordered to go and get water from the cooler in reception.

Inside he dawdles, the camera slowly following his casual, deliberate movements. Then he nonchalantly passes the bloody scene of carnage behind the counter to fill up his container with water. By this point the tension’s been skilfully raised to breaking point. A crying girl appears, clutching a soft toy. The man freezes. The gentle manner he adopts to reassure her, to stop her running or screaming, makes you wonder if he’s a reluctant pawn in a criminal world. Or at least he has enough heart to keep children out of his messy business. But then he gradually reaches for his gun.

The next scene starts with a girl waking from a bad dream, worrying about monsters. Viggo Mortensen appears to comfort his child, instantly establishing himself in the caring everyman role he played so well in The Road. He tells her: “There’s no such thing as monsters”. And yet the inhuman calculating coolness we saw in the preceding scene lingers hauntingly, encouraging the audience to feel differently.

The first twenty minutes of A History of Violence following its disturbing opening scene, caught me off guard for their ordinariness. Mortensen’s character Tom Stall is a simple country soul, running his store and looking out for his family. Far from being dull these establishing scenes are touching and add to the meaning of later events. Stall’s relationship with his wife, played by Maria Bello, is tenderly romantic and loving despite the length of the marriage. His daughter is cute, his friends and colleagues kind and his teenage son remarkably perceptive and intelligent for his age.

But then a handful of fleeting moments change everything. The thugs we saw at the start of the film turn up at Stall’s diner and proceed to terrorise his staff and customers. Reacting instinctively Stall intervenes to save everyone and inadvertently catapults himself to fame. His picture covers the town’s paper alongside the headline, “Local Hero”.

At this point A History of Violence’s title starts to make sense, as the film becomes a meditation on the consequences and ethics of violence. We’ve already seen some High School moments in which Stall’s son, played by Ashton Holmes, rose above the aggressive taunts of the sports hot-shot. Now Stall tries to deal with the accompanying trauma of killing a man, two men, in unforgettable close-up fashion. His family and the community rally round to comfort him. We never see the reasons behind the thugs’ killings. Cronenberg is careful to make most of the violence purely about how it makes a deep, repressed part of some people feel; how it satisfies them.

With the unwelcome arrival of more mobsters to Stall’s quiet town, the plot takes another unexpected twist. The story shifts from a thoughtful exploration of the nature of violence, to tense suffocation as the gangsters stalk Stall’s family, to suspicion and confusion as ghosts surface from Stall’s past. It’s all marvellously subtle, but hints from earlier in the film begin to make sense. Those establishing scenes really were good as you hope with Stall’s family that the demons go away. But of course they don’t.

The acting is superb. Mortensen and Bello are not just excellent as a couple early on in the idyllic stages, but wonderfully convincing and captivating later as destructive events unravel. There are memorable cameos from William Hurt and Ed Harris. The way the performers completely inhabit their characters ensures A History of Violence works masterfully as a gripping, suspenseful and action packed thriller, as well as an insightful film questioning ideas like the American Dream, identity, relationships, humanity and the past.

And the cherry on top of a filling, tasty and sumptuous slice of movie cake is a final scene as stylish, patient, subtle and moving as the opening one. If you haven’t seen A History of Violence, do so soon. It was not at all what I expected it to be and well worth a watch. Don’t be put off by the title or the 18 certificate because ultimately it’s a first-rate and surprising story. It won’t mentally scar you, merely make you think.

The best of today’s opinion in The Guardian: plus some music


A number of articles have caught my eye today, the best of which an exploration of the pitfalls of adaptations by Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. Principally she focuses on a foolhardy forthcoming adaptation of Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel The Great Gatsby, which is to star Leonardo DiCaprio and be directed by Baz Luhrman, who seems to only churn out turkeys of late (eg the dismal Australia). I found the article to be brilliantly insightful as well as accesible, as I have not yet read The Great Gatsby but Churchwell explains the nature of the book and how any film will inevitably fail to capture its crucial essence so well, without ever patronising. I find the whole business of transforming pieces between genres of immense creative interest, and enjoyed playing with the craft during my English A-Level. There are certainly many reasons for adapting great works if they are adapted well, but Churchwell makes a vital point that some qualities simply cannot be transferred and filmmakers and playwrights would often do better to acknowledge this fact. Her well expressed and insightful musings on Gatsby’s theme of possibility over actuality and the idea that a film adaptation is trying to realise the dream and therefore destroys it, seem particuarly spot-on. I am encouraged to read the novel and discover what the fuss is about, especially before I view the planned film.

The title of her piece is also a clever play on Dawkins’ The God Delusion, perhaps simply inspired by the Gs.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/nov/15/great-gatsby-delusion

Also on The Guardian website is an articulate expression of the grievances of students following the Coalition’s recent announcement of planned education cuts. Lizzie Dearden, a student at York, highlights far more clearly and simply than I the devastating impact the cuts and raised fees will have and are having on young people, and how these impacts contradict the progressive message of economic recovery continually broadcast by the government.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/16/liberal-democrats-betrayed-students

A final piece from The Guardian‘s opinion section is an interesting piece by their prolific commentator Polly Toynbee, investigating the government’s announcement of the development of a “happiness” index. Now even from my basic knowledge of philosophy and ethics and limited life experience, I can confidently state that happiness cannot be measured and in any case attempting to is nothing new; just look at the long history of Utilitarianism. However it does seem obvious as well that the concerns of voters are not purely economic and the development of a country and its world standing cannot simply be categorized through GDP alone. So like Polly in this article I applaud the attempts to broaden data, under whatever dubious banner (“well being” certainly stirs understandable derision), whilst also joining Polly in being clear that Cameron’s Conservatives take no credit for the changes, at a time when inequality is increasing and therefore well being declining.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/16/unhappiness-david-cameron-wellbeing

And to finish off, a link to a brilliant band. Their recordings simply do not compare to seeing their electrifying live performances, but nevertheless wonderful lyrics and uplfiting melodies can be found. Seek them out for the real experience but I give you Tankus the Henge:

http://tankusthehenge.bandcamp.com/album/tankus-the-henge

Thoughts on … Never Let Me Go/The Canal/The Dice Man


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.

Up in the Air


There are basically two George Clooneys. There’s the lovable, charming, cocky George. You know the suave Danny Ocean type with that irresistible playful glimmer in his eye. And then there’s cold, calculating, enigmatic Mr Clooney, who oozes just as much mysterious charisma as George, but from a more serious, furrowed face. Like the bearded suit in Syriana or what I imagine the detached, ruthless assassin to be like in Anton Corbjin’s upcoming picturesque character study, The American. The grave Mr Clooney doesn’t get out so much, not because he’s not up to scratch, but because the whole wide world can’t seem to get enough of George.

And it’s definitely the face of likeable bad boy George that Clooney wears in Juno director’s Jason Reitman’s 2009 rom-com Up in the Air. As you might expect from the director of Juno however, this is a rom-com with a twist and consequently a different take on George’s familiar face of fun. There are lashings of misery, isolation and loneliness in this movie that ought to deflate it and well and truly puncture its comedy moments. The audience ought to despise central character Ryan Bingham’s cheery detachment in the midst of the gloom, but it’s a credit to Clooney’s sheer charisma that you’re almost always rooting for him and seeing the pluses of Bingham’s bleak and extreme philosophy of life.  

Put simply and less eloquently, persuasively or amusingly as Bingham phrases it, this philosophy is; travel light. Ditch not only the material possessions but the emotional baggage of normal existence to stay on the move and thus continue to feel alive for as long as possible. Wrap yourself in a cotton wool world of luxury that you are fully aware is fake and artificial but nevertheless gives you a simple satisfaction and loyalty. Embrace exclusivity and inhabit a cocoon of consistency away from the volatile real world. Spend the bulk of your time away from the worker ants tethered to the ground but weightless, floating and drifting, blissfully Up in the Air.

It’s essentially the dream life on the road and Bingham has achieved it so that it has become his normal existence. He has refined and perfected his life to tailor his ever moving, but basic needs. But then two things happen to shatter the cycle of bliss. Anna Kendrick’s Natalie devises a cost saving strategy for Bingham’s company, whereby people like him who skilfully fire people no longer do so face to face across the nation, but from a remote computer screen in the company’s base in Omaha, via the wonders of modern technology. And Bingham meets Vera Farmigan’s Alex, who seems to be his perfect match and as Alex puts it essentially him “with a vagina”. Initially they enjoy each other’s company, are extremely compatible sexually and amusingly synchronise their schedules for further bouts of spontaneous passion. It’s safe organised fun and Bingham doesn’t consider a future with her.

Bingham reacts with scorn to Natalie’s idea of modernising his company and swiftly destroying his way of life. He successfully wins himself the chance to take the young upstart on a brutal tour of the realities of “corporate downsizing”. It’s in this portion of the film that Reitman’s fondness for making us simultaneously laugh and cry at deep, depressing subjects comes into play. It’s also where we see not only an extremely familiar charismatic George, charming people in impossible situations, but also a character who underneath it all does care about the impact of his work, and regards what he does as an art, in that if it is done right he genuinely believes he can steer the newly unemployed on a dignified path to a new life. There are a number of awkward, funny and emotionally affecting scenes where either Clooney or Kendrick must fire someone, and each person offers a new challenge Bingham insists cannot be dealt with via webcam.

Away from the backdrop of a new wave of unemployment, philosophies of life and exploiting misery, Up in the Air becomes a simple love story, in which Bingham realises he wants something, or someone, weighing him down in his previously empty rucksack, giving his life meaning by grounding it. Kendrick’s performance as Natalie is wonderfully believable and funny at times, and it is she who forces Bingham to accept his loneliness, his prolonged state of running through the crowd from his unhappiness. Tragically, even after Bingham has accepted Alex into his life as his guest at his sister’s wedding and physically abandoned his philosophy by running away from a speech he was giving about it, we are reminded of the attraction of travelling light. Bingham finds Alex at her home with a secret family of her own, a real life. He cannot believe he was foolish enough to think she was sharing a real life as empty as his own with him. By packing people in our rucksacks we risk being hurt by them.

The whole film is wonderfully acted, right down to the performances of those freshly fired employees and their varied responses. It also looks great, emphasising the glamour of the hotel bubble world Bingham lives in, as well as its isolation. The opening titles of the film play out to jazzy music and some stylishly edited shots of the ground from above, taking in a multi-coloured picture of America. Despite the good points it’s never actually that funny, with the humour being more of the slight smile at the corners of the mouth than roaring chortle variety. However ultimately the onscreen magnetism of George Clooney drives Up in the Air and is all the more compelling for channelling it in a refreshing, alternative way.

Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman


This is a truly fantastic book full of profound, witty, clever and exciting musings. Each tale lasts around a couple of pages and every one offers an incredibly concise exploration of huge questions and ideas that have always concerned humanity and some raised specifically by the modern age. The brilliance of some of the ideas here warrant novels and series of films in themselves but Eagleman deftly crafts them in so few words that the debate will continue in your mind for hours afterward, filling in the gaps. I need say little else except buy this book, it’s the sort of writing that feels so true that it must have been said before, but here is said originally and skilfully in a way that can really affect your life. It’s also possible to read again and again and turn to any page and it will simultaneously be comprehensible and unfathomable. Stephen Fry’s endorsement is on the cover if mine is rightly doubted! But needless to say it’s the best thing I’ve read so far this summer. Below is my own attempt at an interpretation of a possible afterlife, in the style of Sum, but written with less enthralling and concise expression. Enjoy, but do not let it put you off the book!

Islands

When we die there is a Heaven. There is also a Hell, but you’ll be glad to know God is understanding and compassionate enough to hand out the punishments and rewards based upon a morality close to our own. Therefore the odd impure thought and vindictive act are overlooked and the ultimate punishment, refined over eternity, is reserved for the murderers and rapists. All of this is gently explained to you in the soft tones of a wise old sailor, moments after you are plucked from a perfectly calm indigo sea.

You felt many pairs of hands on you as you were rescued from the depths but now only you and he sit on deck, quite alone. All around vast swathes of blue reach in every direction, interrupted only by what must be distant land masses. You listen as an invisible sun’s tropical gaze warms, boils and snatches the beads of water from your skin. The Almighty, he says, feels He made a mistake during creation. Humanity was crafted in God’s image but His decision to encase us in physical bodies without adequate means of interaction was effectively torture for minds of divine form. The process could not be undone but a means of satisfactory compensation was devised and placed here in the afterlife in the space between death and paradise.

In mortal life, the sailor concludes, you may have felt isolated and distant, even from those you loved and who professed love in return. Trapped in their tombs of bone and flesh people were islands and could never truly touch. Before passing on through the gates of Heaven the sailor may grant you the opportunity to explore one island representing a person you knew; containing everything they ever were or could have been.

The vast majority of the recently deceased think this a marvellous idea and believer or not in their mortal lives, praise the empathy and wisdom of God. Most people also know exactly whose island they wish to explore, although some change their mind several times during the course of the journey. Some spend a great deal of time, there is no limit set, wondering whether to discover the truths of their wife, their friend, their father or their teenage love. The wise however react less positively, recoiling in fear, trembling, shedding tears fuelled by dangerous unknowns not happy, grateful emotional release. None choose to proceed directly to the gates of paradise though, even those that fear the worst. No one makes them pick an island but to enter eternity with regrets, paradise or not, would be to unleash demons upon the bliss.

So the sailor drops you at your chosen destination and you dash ashore free to explore, while the boat waits patiently to transport you to eternal happiness. Much of what you find you may already know but there are also surprises, good and bad. You may weep at their unfulfilled dreams at the foot of a palm tree, smile at memories too hazy for them to share with you glimpsed in a rock pool and bawl in betrayal as their true, unblemished view of you is uncovered in the sand. You might glow inside as you see the essence of them carried away by a monkey in the shape of a banana or feel totally alive and wanted as you wade in the stream of their passions. You’ll hack your way through thick undergrowths of superficial details only to stop now and then, caught off guard by an obvious one you overlooked or temporarily forgot. You’ll come to know each and every track and memorise vividly each detail of the clearing dedicated to you; its light, shadow, flowers and mud. There is no rush, eternity will always be there.

And yet no matter how complete the exploration no one leaves their chosen island. The gates of Heaven are glued shut and behind them God despairs in lonely squalor. His creations, not content with the total truth granted them, seek again and again the truth they wanted to find. The Angels, unemployed and wasting away, urge the Lord to erase the ocean of islands, to simply take souls as He used to and still does so for Hell. But the chorus of voices reaching Him daily convince Him that to undo the islands would be pointless, as without them He cannot claim to provide paradise.