After the Fire, a Still Small Voice
Fathers and sons
Frank and Leon are two men from different times, discovering that sometimes all you learn from your parents' mistakes is how to make different ones of your own. Frank is trying to escape his troubled past by running away to his family's beach shack. As he struggles to make friends with his neighbors and their precocious young daughter, Sal, he discovers the community has fresh wounds of its own. A girl is missing, and when Sal too disappears, suspicion falls on Frank. Decades earlier, Leon tries to hold together his family's cake shop as their suburban life crumbles in the aftermath of the Korean War. When war breaks out again, Leon must go from sculpting sugar figurines to killing young men as a conscript in the Vietnam War.
Music for Torching
A. M. Homes
As A.M. Homes’s incendiary novel unfolds, the Kodacolor hues of the good life become nearly hallucinogenic.Laying bare th foundations of a marriage, flash frozen in the anxious entropy of a suburban subdivision, Paul and Elaine spin the quit terors of family life into a fantastical frenzy that careens out of control. From a strange and hilarious encounter with a Stepford Wife neighbor to an ill-conceived plan for a tattoo, to a sexy cop who shows up at all the wrong moments, to a housecleaning team in space suits, a mistress calling on a cell phone, and a hostage situationat a school, A.M. Homes creates characters so outrageously flawed and deeply human that thery are entriely believable.
Homes is a good writer with some great turns of phrase and the book has some set pieces that are laugh/cry aloud. But the characters are just so bad, so one-dimensional, so much like cardboard cut-outs, that ultimately I didn’t really care about them. Yes, there’s a little bit of me in Paul and think that’s what the page-turning appeal is. But there’s a lot more that isn’t and this is the bit that I wish Homes had grappled with. For an exploration of American angst time’s much better spent with De Lillo’s White Noise.
I remember using one of those audio tour headphones at an archaeological site years ago and being so immersed I completely ignored who I was with for a good 40 minutes. Now we’ve got an App which does something very similar. Detour offers location-based audio tours designed to help us look around and take notice of the urban landscapes we spend our lives walking through.
Although it seems a bit daft to me – why can’t we simply slow down, look around and appreciate our environment without some kind of digital augmentation? – it did get me thinking. How about a situation where a person suffering from dementia gets lost when they’re out shopping. They come out of a shop … pause … and think ‘is it left or right up here …? Dammit, I can’t remember.’ Now if they had a phone which identified where they were (through GPS) and a speed dial which connected them to where they wanted to go (their home), they could then listen to an audio description of how best to get between the two points. This wouldn’t be a curt car-navigation type voice (‘at 300 metred turn left …’) but a more friendly story of the landscape through which the person would be accompanied and reassured in order to get home safely.
Channel Four has just released a film to promote the night of fundraising, Stand Up to Cancer. If you go to the cinema in the next few weeks, you’ll see it. It’ll be all over Channel Four in the next few days. Here it is on Youtube.
As you can see, it uses all the worn frames/cliches of the disaster movie genre to pull people into the story. However, it interestingly flips the normal cancer killer narrative by showing the cancer cells, rather than humans, being destroyed. In doing so it’s emphasising the news that more people are recovering from a diagnosis of cancer than dying from it. The film is clever. It’s well-made. And I hope that it meets its objective of increasing the viewing figures and donations for the fundraising event.
But. What the film also does is reinforce the idea that the most appropriate #metaphor (in language and visually) for cancer is the battle, the fight, the war, good v evil and the struggle to win. It’s language that #susan sontag examined in her wonderful, short book on the subject Illness as Metaphor. In it, she argues that the most honest, clear and truthful understanding of cancer (she wrote it while she was being treated for breast cancer) is the one which does not make use of metaphor. It’s a difficult one. We undoubtedly do make use of metaphor in order to understand experience; to translate our thoughts and actions. Metaphors are ingrained in our language in ways that we are often unaware of: why is ‘down’ not so good, and ‘up’ pretty good as in, “I’m really down today …” and “Wow, yep, I’m really up for that …”?
Sontag reminds us that when we are being careful about understanding our own experience, and especially those really significant experiences, we need to be careful about the metaphors that shape our understanding. It’s definitely not easy. But I think the writer Christopher Hitchins had a good go at it when he chronicled his own demise through cancer in his last posthumously published book, Mortality. This is what he said about the metaphor of the battle, of the struggle to beat the killer disease:
Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.
When Apple launched the iTunes celebrity playlist feature way back in 2003, the practice of creating and sharing personal selections of music from your own ‘library’ quickly replaced those mixtapes which some of us spent hours splicing together from various cassette decks, vinyl records and radios. It ushered in a revolution in the ways in which we filter culture through our radar and how we discover the new by sharing what we already have. Since then this idea of pulling things of interest into our radar and organising them into #playlists or ‘boards’ has been adopted by all digital platforms which claim to be in any way ‘social’. So, YouTube introduced playlists to enable people to bundle their favourite videos together, Flickr offered galleries, and Amazon introduced Listmania lists suggesting that they were tapping into a real frenzy for collecting and sharing. Then came Pinterest, Learnist, Pearl Trees, Paper.li … the list is added to daily.
Everybody suddenly became their own DJ, Magazine Editor, or film club curator. Or at least everyone under the age of … 60?, 50? But what of those people who didn’t switch from the analogue to the digital when Apple first started the playlist revolution? What about those whose musical tastes remained firmly bounded by the gramaphone and who, as they entered into those fragile years, lacked the confidence to make the switch? Not only are many missing out on the joys of carrying a lifetime of music and memory in their pockets, but doing so looks like it could have some amazing health benefits for those slipping into memory loss and #dementia.
If you have ever doubted the power of music, have a look at how Henry reacts to hearing music of his own era.
The video comes from the non-profit organisation Music and Memory which uses ipods in nursing homes to enable residents with dementia to connect to memories and times past.
But if nursing homes had wireless internet access … and Spotify … and iPads, what memories might be kindled, what happiness might be sparked?