February 26th: On I Care A Lot (2020)
I Care a Lot, the latest Netflix phenomenon to insist upon itself until I had no choice but to watch it, is not the kind of story I enjoy. And yet I enjoyed it, as I do most of the films Netflix features front and center. Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) embodies the precise species of desperation I seek in characters. A con artist, she fights for nothing except her own welfare. Even Marla’s partner, Fran (Eiza González), feels like an extension of herself, a necessary piece of set-dressing in an otherwise solitary life. When she goes on—and on, and on—it is for no loftier cause than inertia. At our worst, we are all Marla, fighting desperately without knowing why. Or for what. Only that we must.
Where the film fails is where many contemporary stories do: Marla, for all her competence, is cold. The character we are meant to root for is impossible to root for. In the scene in which we meet her, she’s tearing through Jennifer Peterson’s (Dianne Wiest) assets, whom she’s manipulated the legal system to place under her care. This, we soon learn, is her scam: to take advantage of the weak, the confused, the elderly. To wring from them every bit of wealth they’re worth.
This time, though, Marla has chosen the wrong septuagenarian to scam. Peterson’s son, Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), is a mafia boss, one who enacts swift and violent retribution on behalf of his mother. After a showdown in a wasteland, Marla is bound within her vehicle, which is sent rolling into a lake. Left for dead, she escapes, reunites with Fran, seeks her revenge on Lunyov, and gets it—and then makes a deal. She ends up wealthier and more powerful than when she started, and she does so by refusing to change her ways.
The film is an unsubtle critique of late-stage capitalism, and in this way cannot be said to lack a theme. Our world is a fallen one; only those without man’s softer sensibilities prevail. Where the film loses me, I think, is in Marla’s total inability to acknowledge the emptiness of this state. The most vulnerable we find her is in a gas station the night she nearly dies. She’s lost a tooth; she’s alone; she’s furious, scared—and still she preserves her tooth in a liter of milk. In a different film (a better film, if you ask me), she tosses this small part of herself away. She breaks down, at least a little. She still does what she does, is who she is. Now, though, she recognizes the cost. She considers, if only a moment, the idea that she needs to change.
February 27th: On The Republic of Wolves’ His Old Branches
My junior year of college, I wrote a sestina whose six line-enders were “west,” “build,” “tools,” “spirit,” “self,” and “iron.” The poem was a shout into a present from which I did not know what I wanted, and it was not answered. I was not yet twenty-one. The poem was about being not yet twenty-one and not knowing what I wanted, only that I wanted. The poem was bad. The six line-enders were cribbed from the end of “For His Old Branches,” the middle and pseudo-title track of The Republic of Wolves’ 2009 EP His Old Branches. My junior year of college, both this song and the EP that contained it colonized whole lobes of my brain. It is an album, I think, re-listening to it today, about finding yourself. About losing yourself. About the loss and the pain and the uncertainty these reciprocal acts require. My junior year of college, I lost my virginity to a girl I knew even then, even in the act, that I did not love, and whom I convinced myself I could one day love. My junior year of college, I quit an internship with KPMG after less than a day, trading six figures and a life of relative ease for a life of unacknowledged striving. I was happy, my junior year of college. There were many good days that I now only dimly recall. There were many nihilistic, inebriated nights that I now do not recall at all. I was not yet twenty-one. The momentousness of the EP struck a chord within me. The debut, when it debuted, was at first mistaken by the public for an album by Brand New—another, much bigger Long Island emo outfit—and for good reason. The loud-quiet-loud template perfected by that quartet was followed, here, to a tee. The backing vocals were not harmonies, but buried counterarguments, hoarse with helpless fury. Lines like “You can’t blame anyone / for what you’ve done” (from “Spill”) and “But I went out west to try to build a better version of myself. / My iron tools got swallowed up by spirits” (from “For His Old Branches,” the song that inspired my uninspired sestina) felt in line with Brand New’s lyrical sensibilities. Here, too, was a personal narrative of doubt, and self-loathing, and unreciprocated ache. Here, too, was the sense of a far older mythology at play. But with His Old Branches, it was clear that this was a band at their genesis. That they sensed the world, waiting. And they were scared shitless as to where their ambition would take them. Whom they would leave behind along the way. “Through Windows,” the EP’s closing track, ends with these lines: “Well, I’m floating down stream, chasing after my bones. / Well, I guess I grew old, but I never went home.” It’s a song about losing faith. About not ending up where you wanted to end up. I broke up with a girl I did not love at the end of my junior year of college, about a month after I’d turned twenty-one. I felt full of a terrible, terminal purpose. I felt that the world lay in wait. I was part of a larger story. I was on my way. I was a junior in college. I am twenty-five, now. The Republic of Wolves remain a small, underexposed Long Island rock quartet. Five years have passed. The EP is as good as it has ever been. I am as full of doubt as I have ever been. I do not want to go on, but I will go on. I am part of the longer story that is us. Me, you. Us. I will go on. It is the only thing we can do.
February 28th: On Tigers Jaw’s Tigers Jaw
In 2008, I was thirteen, and ought to have been experiencing for the first time everything Adam Mcllwee, the main vocalist on Tigers Jaw’s debut LP, was shouting about. Thirteen is an age at which one is expected to ache. Instead it wasn’t until I was twenty that I found myself head-banging in time with Tigers Jaw’s vented grief.
Bouncing deliriously between guitar solos and quieter, breath-catching refrains, the album embodies a number of dualities: love and its absence, singularity and ubiquity, hope and despair. So it is that Mcllwee, on “The Sun,” Tigers Jaw’s opening track, can unironically ask, “And what about your friends? Do they make you happy?” So it is that “Never Saw It Coming,” the album’s closer, can lead with the lines, “I learned a lot about falling in love / when I fell out of love.” The thing about heartbreak—whether from realizing you do not (or no longer) love another, or realizing another does not love (or no longer loves) you—is that it feels horribly, hopelessly unique while you are living it. The same can be said of an adolescence. Like a lost love, your lost youth is (was) yours alone. Only in the aftermath can you perceive it as what it is, or was: as common and as unwanted as dust.
Not until I was twenty did I find myself able to shout along with Tigers Jaw’s eponymous LP. I did so years after the fact, at last laid low with the hormonal myopia that ought to have afflicted me in my teenage years. In the moment, I deemed myself pitifully, pitiably unique. Years delayed, the narrative I’d been denied had a bitter taste. And yet I ate it, and thus became it. Every one of the album’s ten songs. Every single line. Every little bit.
March 1st: On Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms
I looked for a story within this anthology that was shorter than the title of the anthology itself, but the closest piece I found was “Companion,” by Lydia Davis. “Companion,” at twenty-eight words long (beating out the anthology’s title’s count by eight), goes like this:
We are sitting here together, my digestion and I. I am reading a book, and it is working away at the lunch I ate a little while ago.
Great, right? Economical, stark. Davis’s prosody (particularly the iambic-ish patter of the last six words) pleases me disproportionately. If the diction is simple, it’s only to draw attention to the ambiguity of the syntax. Is it the narrator’s digestion that is “working away” at the lunch she ate a little while ago, or the book? Does the “I” stand for only the narrator herself, or does this represent the much larger lyric “I”? Who is the “companion” of the piece’s title: the narrator’s digestion, the book, or the reader (in this case, me) who has now been roped into this ontological tangle? Like many of the stories in Short, the act of reading it doesn’t take long: seconds, in this case; three or four minutes, at the absolute upper limit. Instead, it’s the re-reads that occupy the reader’s time and mind. Brevity demands that one lingers.
The most impressive aspect of Short is the variety Alan Ziegler, the anthology’s editor, has collected for our digestion. I mean this less in a quantitative sense (although Short, which features almost two hundred contributors spanning over five centuries and twenty-four countries, most certainly fits this bill, too) than a qualitative sense. There are pieces within these pages—W.S. Merwin’s “The Dachau Shoe” comes to mind, as does John Wideman’s “Stories”—that are as painfully intimate as a gut-kick. In prose, too, it turns out, grief can be brief. But there are also joyous pieces among Short’s works, stories that improbably soar; I count David Eggers’s “The Accident” and Etgar Keret’s “What Do We Have in Our Pockets” among this number. There are fragments—like Francis Ponge’s prose poems, or Lynne Tillman’s Lunacies”—that do not feel like narratives at all, but verbal bundles wrapped and tied and presented for our pleasure with only our delight in mind. There are narratives—like Max Frisch’s “Catalogue,” or Raymond Queneau’s “A Story of Your Own”—that are composed of fragments, but nevertheless manage to tell a compelling tale. Constraints, it has often been observed, engender creativity of the most startling sort. Again and again across its nearly three hundred pages, Short bears this truth out.
In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect describes the phenomenon wherein an activity that has been interrupted might be more readily recalled. In creative writing (or any kind of writing; or art, for that matter, of any form), the Zeigarnik effect, I think, explains the appeal of short forms, both from the creator’s and the consumer’s perspective.
As far as the writer is concerned: the task of jotting down two hundred cohesive, compelling words is eminently completable. If one sets aside an hour of their time and devotes their entire attention to the job at a hand, they can see an idea through to its end. Uninterrupted, the project is offloaded from their frontal lobe. They may forget it. They may move on.
As far as the reader is concerned, though, the Zeigarnik effect manifests in a different way. The magic of a fragment is that it is at once a part and the whole. It exists and functions in and of itself, but it also opens up a world. It transfers the itch of an idea from the writer’s to the reader’s brain. It is a thesis brought to fruition, but it also suggests interruption. It begs to be recalled, and revisited, and reread again.
That each short in Short accomplishes this paradoxical feat—and that each piece does this in a different way—is why I can recommend it without qualification. Not all of the pieces were precisely my thing (none ever are), but all left me thinking. For this reason and more, I plan on keeping Short close at hand.
March 2nd: On It Devours
It Devours delights for the same reason Welcome to Night Vale, the podcast out of which it arose, delights. Just like Night Vale, the novel reframes the unexpected as the expected, the surreal as comfortingly mundane, the quotidian as horrifically uncanny. The desert world the podcast and the novel share is one in which wheat (and wheat byproducts) are outlawed, while helicopters piloted by Secret Police hover always overhead. It’s a world in which longtime residents of Night Vale shout “Interloper!” at newcomers, while angels, all of whom are named Erika, watch on. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the writers behind Welcome to Night Vale and It Devours, describe their universe as one in which every conspiracy theory is true, while the truths we take for granted—that science is unglamorous and slow, that the use of writing utensils is legal—are not. The strange is mundane; the mundane is strange.
The humor (and, to a lesser extent, the horror) that arises from this inversion is in abundance in both the podcast and the novel. Part of this humor is in the absurdist vein—think Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series—but an equal part traces to Fink and Cranor’s backgrounds in theater. Much of the novel consists of nothing but Nilanjana, the young scientist at its heart, talking with the various residents of Night Vale as she investigates the mystery of the Smiling God. It’s a testament to the co-writers’ ears for dialogue that these conversations never get old. Nilanjana alternates between flippancy and gravity, seasoned competence and youthful naivety; Darryl, her romantic interest and primary conversational partner, responds to these tacks with a matching range. Their back-and-forth is uniformly funny—but it’s also honest. Their banter rings true. And the same can be said of the set-pieces and scene beats of It Devours, no matter how absurd. The impossible in Night Vale feels and looks and tastes (shudders) impossibly possible. Writing for the stage demands that one keys in on telling, tactile details, and Fink and Cranor are masters of this skill.
But upon finishing the novel, I found myself feeling the same way as when I got caught up on the most recent episodes of Welcome to Night Vale in 2018, when I gave the narrative a break and didn’t return to it for over a year. In a world in which Truth, capital t, has been dismantled and hilariously (and horrifyingly) reassembled, the potential for thematic richness is high. Despite its tonal lightness, the questions raised by the podcast are heavy-hitters: is there a God? Why go on, when nothing is real? The same is true of It Devours, whose central debate is this: is it better to have faith, or to question? In the absence of certainty, is it better to construct your own truth or to endlessly, anxiously search? Where Welcome to Night Vale and It Devours fall short, as I see it, is in failing to lend these questions their proper weight. In her unraveling of the Smiling God’s mystery, I never once feared for Nilanjana’s soul. But good God, I wanted to.
March 3rd: On Pan’s Labyrinth
Ofelia, the ten-year-old protagonist of Guillermo’s Del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, splits her time evenly between avoiding and confronting her fears. The first time she flees is from her stepfather, the pitiless Captain Vidal, who is in charge of hunting down republican rebels in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. She follows a fairy into the titular labyrinth, where she meets the titular faun, who assigns her three tasks. The completion of these tasks will grant her immortality, and a return to her rightful status as Princess Moanna, daughter of the king of the underworld.
The first time she confronts her fears is when she completes the first of her tasks, retrieving a key from the belly of a monstrous toad. There then begins a sequence of escalating conflicts and flights, as Ofelia alternately seeks sanctuary from one world in the lands of the other, only to realize (or remember) that the other world is just as grim. The underworld’s Pale Man is a nightmarish manifestation of gluttony and greed, but at least he isn’t Ofelia’s stepfather. In the real world, in 1940s Spain, Ofelia’s mother is dead. Mercedes, her closest ally, has fled. Ofelia, only ten years old, is left to care for her newborn brother, alone. And yet: at least here, unlike in the underworld, she is not expected to murder an infant in order to satisfy an ancient prophecy. This world, our world, is one whose rules are similarly cruel—but at least they are comprehensible. All Ofelia must learn to do is abide by them, and then she may go on.
Of course, though, Ofelia does not murder her newborn brother. The push and pull of her two worlds ends not with a final, capitulatory act of violence, but a moment of grace. Ofelia spares her brother, and is killed for her mercy. And yet, in doing so, she succeeds in passing the final test, whose terms were a trick. Unlike Vidal—who meets his end at the hands of the rebels—Ofelia becomes immortal, and rules for many centuries in the underworld. The moral of Del Toro’s parable is borne out: despite the cruelty writ large in our world—in all worlds—goodness remains possible. And this goodness, for those who know where to look for it, can still be found.
The lesson on craft at the heart of the parable that is Pan’s Labyrinth, as I see it, is this: a story, if it is to succeed, needs to be emotionally true. Where fantasy and science fiction so often fall flat is in attempting to substitute this emotional truth for one more mathematical in nature. Is it nice if a film like Interstellar, or even the original Alien, meets our threshold for believability? Sure. But the surface plausibility of these stories is not what makes them tick. Rather, Interstellar works because it shows the lengths to which a person will go for the sake of love. Alien works because it is a story about the horror of the unknown, and of being violated by this unknown. That neither film checks every quantum-mechanical, xenobiological box is irrelevant. What matters is that the emotion at the heart of each story feels deeply, violently human. These are desperate people, in a desperate world, and I will follow them to this world’s end.
As a parable, Pan’s Labyrinth doesn’t, and shouldn’t, abide by the same logic as other, more realistic forms of stories. That being said, even for a fairy tale, Pan’s Labyrinth ends on a purposefully ambiguous note. It is unclear if Ofelia was Princess Moanna, or if this was simply a tale Mercedes told her, and then she told herself, as a means of escape. It is unclear if she is truly dead, or if she lives on in the underworld. It is unclear if the labyrinth is a symbol alone, or if it is a symbol while remaining, still, a labyrinth.
The thing about Pan’s Labyrinth, though, is that it doesn’t matter what is or isn’t real. The theme feels true; all the ambiguity of the ending is meant to do is draw attention to this truth. This is a lesson all stories, not just those of a fabulist bent, need to take to heart. It’s a lesson I myself won’t soon forget.
March 4th: On Brand New’s Your Favorite Weapon
The great irony of Brand New is that no music they made in their sixteen-year run was entirely new. Sure, from a genre perspective, they relentlessly reinvented themselves. Your Favorite Weapon, their 2001 debut, represents the best of the emo-inflected pop punk to come out of Long Island in the early aughts. Deja Entendu, their sophomore effort, set the standard for emo over the next few years. The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, the best of their albums (and one of the best albums of the decade), resists classification, blending post-hardcore and emo and alt-rock elements with faith-shaking disregard. Daisy, the followup to this triumph, resurrected grunge, effacing as it did so everything that came before. Science Fiction, the last of their albums, resurrected (however briefly) the band’s reputation as experimental rock’s torch-bearer, atom-smashing together emo and folk and indie in a melancholic capstone to their arc as a band. Through this, though, the subjects they screamed about never changed. They began and ended as a band mourning the people they once were, skeptical of the people they’d become, and fearful of the people they would one day be. The only thing that changed over the course of their run was the maturity with which they tackled these themes.
On Your Favorite Weapon’s “Secondary,” Jesse Lacey, the band’s frontman, repeats the line, “This isn’t high school.” Although “Secondary” is far from the best song on the album (that honor goes to “Soco Amaretto Lime,” and it’s not very close), it encapsulates not only everything Brand New were trying to do on Your Favorite Weapon, but also everything they keep trying to do—and almost always succeed at doing—over the next decade and a half. The album is undeniably pop punk, but it’s pop punk whose thesis is to deny itself. On “Seventy Times 7,” as Lacey sings, “Everyone’s caught on to everything you do,” there is the sense that the “you” he’s addressing is not only Taking Back Sunday’s John Nolan (a long story; please, please Google it, if you’re even a little bit curious), but himself. It’s with the same species of self-hate that he sings, “I’m another day late and one year older” on “Failure by Design,” or “You’re just jealous ‘cause we’re young and in love” on “Soco Amaretto Lime,” which closes the album. Your Favorite Weapon is an upbeat, lively album, infested with hooks, weedy with shout-along choruses. It is also a fundamentally fatalistic work, though. Except for on a handful of songs, Lacey shouts his lines—only to be shouted back at, via recorded backing vocals, by a buried version of himself. “Soco Amaretto Lime,” despite its closing lines, is a song about loss. About recognizing the naivety of your past self, and choosing to mourn it instead of mock it. Ignorance—especially with regard to one’s own shortcomings—is a thing to be missed, even if its end leads to future growth.
Listening to Your Favorite Weapon in 2021 is a melancholy experience. Now that Brand New is done, undone by the very misogyny they casually endorsed in their first two albums, so much of their work seems loaded with portent. Already, Lacey was aware that the space the band occupied, the person he was quickly becoming, was one accompanied by the potential of doom. No matter how many times Brand New reinvented themselves, they were still who they were—ill at ease with themselves, terminally unable to find peace. It’s telling that on “Soco Amaretto Lime,” one of the few songs the band played from their first album in the last years of their career, Lacey edited the subject of the song’s closing line. No longer was it “you’re,” but “I’m.” In 2001, he was already aware of the impermanence of youthful love, the naivety that leads one to believe in such a thing. In 2017, though, he envied this ignorance. Brand New’s doubt (and hate, and disgust, and rage) had always been directed at themselves. Lacey, with the band’s end fast approaching, pined for a time when he could believe in anything else.