It’s a new year and a new universe (because, let’s face it, the universe is always changing, and always new) … and I’m now writing with a new name. So I thought I’d reach for something familiar and easy and tell you briefly about what I’ve been reading and enjoying lately. Here are three things — two new, one old — I’ve recently appreciated a lot.
Anomalisa by Charlie Kaufman
Charlie Kaufman is the screenwriter and filmmaker who took metafiction to an extreme in Adaptation and imagined a future in which we are able to medically eradicate our memories of bad love affairs in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman’s earlier screenplay for Being John Malkovich involved puppets, and when I heard that his new movie Anomalisa was a love story filmed entirely with lifelike puppets I figured I’d see what Charlie’s up to. It turns out the filmmaker is in a very poignant mood, and Anomalisa left me haunted by thoughts about the sadness of life.
This must be the simplest plot line Kaufman ever wrote: man is lonely, man meets woman, man and woman are alone again. It also must be the saddest, because the simple story allows no escape from the conclusion it draws. (In her review of the film, the novelist Zadie Smith compares Kaufman to the tragic 19th century existentialist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, which is smarter than anything I’ve got to say here.) The main conceit of the film — well, besides the fact that all the people are puppets — is that the film’s lonesome middle-aged hero has lost his ability to see and hear people with their own faces and voices. Everybody he meets has a different instance of the same face, and speaks with the same voice. He talks to his wife on the telephone, and she has the same voice as the clerk in his hotel, and the cab driver who brought him there. His wife then puts on his young son, and his son also has the same voice. He later meets an old girlfriend for a drink, and she has the same voice and the same face too.
When he suddenly meets a woman who speaks with a distinct voice and doesn’t look like everybody else, he knows he has found love, which leads to an extended scene that must include the most explicit puppet sex ever portrayed in a major film. These puppets have squat, ungainly bodies and when they nervously and gracelessly remove their clothing and flop around each other on his sterile hotel room bed, the effect is somehow not one of fabrication but of ultimate realism. Perhaps the reason Charlie Kaufman chose to make this movie with puppets who look like bumbling large marine animals is that it allows him to reveal the truth that any people having sex in a hotel room probably look like bumbling large marine animals. The fact that they are puppets only makes it bearable for us to watch.
This agonized man and sweet, generous woman survive their bedroom encounter, but don’t survive a scrambled egg breakfast shortly after. The entire arc of the movie turns hopeless at this point. I don’t like to think that Charlie Kaufman really feels this hopeless about the possibility of true love, because that’s unbearably sad. I prefer to believe he made this film to show us a worst-case scenario, and that maybe there is hope for all of us puppets in this tragic world we share.
Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello
I used to review memoirs by musicians, and if I had the time I’d love to write an in-depth appreciation of Elvis Costello’s Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, which delivers everything a great rock singer/songwriter’s autobiography should: an eagerly revealing narrative, a rich musical backdrop, a lifetime’s worth of frustrating misunderstandings to correct, an artful and keenly pitched voice that captures in prose what this artist became famous for capturing in music.
Elvis Costello is widely known to be an erudite and sophisticated lyricist, so it’s no surprise that he writes with tremendous power and felicity of expression. What did surprise me (perhaps because I had no idea about this, though I’ve been an Elvis Costello fan for decades) is the story Elvis tells here about his father, who was a cheeky and punkish jazz/pop musician on the British scene during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and who turns out to be by far the key influence on his son. Most remarkably, the father and son look alike! Here’s Ross McManus (Elvis Costello’s real name is Declan Patrick McManus) on a BBC broadcast of one of his signature comic numbers, “If I Had A Hammer”.
I’ve also recently enjoyed (but lacked sufficient time to write about) two other pop/rock memoirs that hinge upon family relationships: Anyone Who Had a Heart by Burt Bacharach, in which the songwriter speaks plainly of his daughter’s struggle with severe Aspergers syndrome, and The Living Years by Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford, a loving tribute to the guitarist’s heroic father. Like Mike Rutherford, Elvis Costello loves his father, though he’s not above making fun of him in his late 60s hippie phase, which might possibly have informed young Elvis Costello’s sarcastic rejection of hippie styles during the early years of the British punk/new wave scene. Here’s Ross “Dad” McManus at the height of the Summer of Love.
But the book reveals Elvis Costello’s own early hippie tendencies (as a teenager, he was a huge fan of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, the Band and the Grateful Dead), and explains why a completely non-punk San Francisco boogie-woogie band called Clover was chosen to back Costello on his masterpiece first album My Aim Is True.
I must admit that I don’t always listen to Elvis Costello’s newer records, and in my opinion he never equalled the early angry peak of My Aim Is True and it’s punchy power-pop follow-up This Years Model. His mature work is sometimes wearyingly ethereal, but Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink is a return to sharp form, and a very satisfying rock memoir.
Everything by Virginia Woolf
How is it possible that I have never read a Virginia Woolf novel — or anything by this obviously classic writer — until 2015? I really don’t know. Perhaps she was slightly out of fashion during my formative reading years, or at least she was less fashionable than Edward Albee, whose clever play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has nothing to do with Virginia Woolf but allows a character to use her name for the title pun. So I read Edward Albee as a kid, but I never read Virginia Woolf.
Ms. Woolf has thankfully become fashionable again, perhaps with the help of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, though seeing that movie didn’t even inspire me to read Mrs. Dalloway (my main impression was that I found Nicole Kidman’s beaked nose and frizzy hair very amusing). I was finally inspired by Anne Fernald’s new scholarly edition of Mrs. Dalloway to read the book I should have read long ago, and was amazed by the warmth, humanity and intelligence I found within.
I never knew that Virginia Woolf intended Mrs. Dalloway to reflect James Joyce’s Ulysses, nor that its fascinating characters include a shell-shocked veteran of the Great War and a lovesick middle-aged man who could have been played by a puppet in a Charlie Kaufman film. I now list Mrs. Dalloway among the cherished classic novels I love, and I now realize that Woolf is a writer I should have been reading all my life, along with Henry James, George Eliot and, yes, James Joyce.
I’m now finishing To The Lighthouse and am taking recommendations as to which Woolf to read next. Here’s the passage in To The Lighthouse that describes the coming of night. We’ll get to the lighthouse someday.
So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say, “This is he” or “This is she.” Sometimes a hand was raised as if to clutch something or ward off something, or somebody groaned, or somebody laughed aloud as if sharing a joke with nothingness.
Nothing stirred in the drawing-room or in the dining-room or on the staircase. Only through the rusty hinges and swollen sea-moistened woodwork certain airs, detached from the body of the wind (the house was ramshackle after all) crept round corners and ventured indoors. Almost one might imagine them, as they entered the drawing-room questioning and wondering, toying with the flap of hanging wall-paper, asking, would it hang much longer, when would it fall? Then smoothly brushing the walls, they passed on musingly as if asking the red and yellow roses on the wall-paper whether they would fade, and questioning (gently, for there was time at their disposal) the torn letters in the wastepaper basket, the flowers, the books, all of which were now open to them and asking, Were they allies? Were they enemies? How long would they endure?