Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A book and a movie

Not to imply that there is any connection between them other than my experiencing them in tandem, but they both have me thinking about what exactly is this thing we call reality.

There are spaces in between the material substance of our world, and sometimes you can see them, but no one else will see what you see, and it will form you, become a part of you. Wherever you go, there you are. You cannot get out of your own head.

The book
I finished reading M John Harrison's Light — has anyone else read it? I'm still not quite sure what to make of it. It's unlike anything I've ever read before, which is a fairly meaningless statement given that I haven't read very much SF, even if I read somewhat more than do people who don't read SF at all. I'm told it's both hard science fiction and space opera.

There's Michael in our present day, doing research in quantum physics. And he's a serial killer, which fact is revealed on page 3, so I don't think I'm spoiling anything for you, and besides, it has next to nothing to do with the plot. (Except for hinting at that he may be insane, or schizophrenic. I did find myself wondering about his brain chemistry, how he sees fractals everywhere, and feeling that he had episodes (alternately of sanity, genius, and murderous rampage, all inextricably linked and triggered by I know not what (though this "imaginary" ghost/demon Shrander connective tissue/god(?) is somehow a factor)), kind of like how epileptic seizures can be brought on by video games, strobe lights, etc.) Four hundred years in the future, there's Ed, who seems to be living his present in a tank, having his reality piped in to him, as a means of escape from reality as well as from the people to whom he owes large sums of money; and Seria Mau, running missions as a disembodied pilot who interfaces directly with the mathematics — she is the ship. Their plots are connected and have interesting parallels and intersections.

Weirdly, they're all rather sympathetic, haunted by the question of being. Ironically, it's Seria Mau who's the most sympathetic of the lot, though arguably she's the least human, having given up her physicality to technology, or maybe her humanness has been distilled to its essence, or maybe I find her so because she's female. They do all find "redemption," whatever that means.

It's a very uncomfortable read, partly because it's so unfamiliar (in its world setting, but also in my reading experience), partly because of the violence — not because it's graphic, though it sometimes is, but because it's so casually dismissed. But mostly for its attitude toward women, I think — I can't quite put my finger on it. They indulge in pleasure-seeking behaviour as much as the males, but it feels like they're being victimized — I can't tell if this is deliberate and essential to the novel's workings or if it's something else, or if it's even there. It just feels uncomfortable.

Iain Banks says "Harrison is the only writer on Earth equally attuned to the essential strangeness both of quantum physics and the attritional banalities of modern urban life." I don't know that Harrison's the only such writer, but the basic assessment of his ability is valid. (If you can call senseless murder a banality of urban life.)

If anyone has read it, I would love to hear what you make of it and where you think it fits within the genre and within its canon.

The Literary Saloon review, with links to others.
M John Harrison's top 10 "books which link the inside to the outside, the scientific to the personal, the individual to the universal."

The movie
Last week I came across a mention of a novel, La Moustache, the premise of which greatly intrigued me (so I looked it up!), amid refections on the uncanny. Naturally, everywhere I turned in the ensuing days the author's name, Emmanuel Carrère, popped out at me — in my internet reading, in my real-life bookstore browsing, and at the videostore.

While I didn't find a copy of the novel La Moustache, I had to rent the (freshly released on DVD) film adaptation (directed by the author himself).

The plot: man shaves off his trademark mustache and nobody notices.

It's quite funny to start with, in an it's so absurd you chuckle out loud kind of way. Then it gets a bit weird.

When he confronts his wife she insists he's never had a mustache the whole time she's known him, and over the next few days the status of things — varying in significance from restaurant menus and wardrobe contents to her denying the existence of friends they dined with last week to whether his father is alive — slips into uncertainty and beyond.

When he first shaves, he hides it from her, waiting for the right moment to spring the surprise. He couldn't answer the door for her in time, he lies, because his shoelace broke. About halfway through the movie, his shoelace really breaks, as if the little white lie started him on the road to total breakdown. Maybe.

It's deliberately ambiguous, from beginning to end: we never know what really happened, is this all in his head, is it an elaborate joke cum conspiracy against him, is he insane, or maybe his wife is insane, or is it a splicing of universes, one where he's always had a mustache and one where he never did. Did he ever have a mustache and did he really shave it off?

(There are a few scenes of evidence being washed away or erased, maybe just forgotten, a reminder of how tenuous, and individual, our grasp on identity can be. For example, I've misplaced my jump log, the only physical evidence I have of the fact that I ever parachuted out of a plane. I'm no longer in contact with those people who witnessed it. The older I get, the less likely, I feel, I am to be believed. Does it matter? Not really. Except for that I feel this act is somehow essential to my identity, at least to the person I once was, and it would be weird and I would be sad if it unhappened. For another example, my mother in the last few years has "invented" an Easter ritual that she claims has been forever a family tradition. Her insistence has led me to doubt my own memory, once unwavering in the belief that this tradition was not part of my childhood, to the point that I'm not comfortable to proclaim I'm 100% certain on this anymore. And rather than dwell on it (which I still do in my head) and upset her, it seemed easier, and kinder, to let it go, because it doesn't really matter. Or does it?)

In my opinion the acting is superb; there's not a lot of anything you could call action, and no superfluous dialogue. Mostly there's the lead character, Marc, looking at people, waiting for a reaction, and people looking at Marc, wondering what the hell he's looking at or waiting for, and Marc looking at his wife, thinking she must be thinking what he thinks she's thinking, and then knowing she must think he's crazy, and her watching him, knowing he knows she thinks he's crazy, and no one ever actually knowing what anyone is thinking, which is kind of the point.

(I rarely bother with foreign movies anymore — the price of compromise in my cohabitating condition. Which is a shame. I miss them. Their pace. Their ambiguity. The leaving of things unsaid. The not always happy endings. The naturalness of bodies and of living spaces (with bookshelves, and books strewn about!))

From a review:
At first "La Moustache" seems to be a darkly witty commentary on what we notice or don't notice about one another; we're so lulled by the predictable and the commonplace, it implies, that we fail to recognize change. Then it widens into a reflection on marriage and the notion that two people, no matter how intimately connected, inhabit separate worlds. An illusion of oneness requires each partner to overlook or deny the other's unknowable qualities.


Official website.


litlove said...

Isabelle I'm so thrilled you posted on La Moustache! I've been longing to get hold of the film but can't unless I buy it at great cost. I so wanted to know what they did to the premise in the novel (remained true to it, I'd say). I had exactly the same impression from the book, namely, is knowledge an agreement within a community, nothing more, nothing less? Can we ever have objective knowledge on something as subjective as life? If you can read the novel, do. It's a terrifying journey into intellectual uncertainty.

Renee said...

La Moustache sounds great. I can't seem to find it here in the US, so maybe it's not released here yet.

A couple months ago, my husband decided to grow a mustache and every few days I say, are you almost done with that mustache? He answers, yeah, soon. He says that the best thing about the mustache is that "nobody cares." He says there is essentially no difference between how people interacted with him before it and now. hmmm.

I love this ambiguity of objective knowledge that litlove talks about.

The Squeaking Noodle said...

I like this - I like it a lot. Will be linking to mine.
All the best.

Isabella K said...

I'm definitely looking to get my hands on the book.

Litlove asks: "is knowledge an agreement within a community." I can't help but think of 1984. Terrifying prospects indeed.

amcorrea said...

Thanks for posting about Light! I was very interested in reading it when it was first published, but couldn't afford buying it at the time and none of the local libraries carried it. A good reminder for the reading list.

Dennis Fleming said...

I read the novel about 15 years ago and found myself pulling the pages apart at the end. Did the DVD you purchased come with wide screen format?