As I was a permanent client of stars, awaiting that moment before contract to fold back, edge of the page that was prior to birth. The sky is that page where everything saucy happens. If I feel ‘switched on’ it’s in fear of the light, scraping cutlery together to start fires with little intention of correct extinguishing. This is just an indulgent way of saying ‘fuck you’ to the spinney where I dropped a whole packet of sour cherry sweets that day after school with the song in my head. ‘Fuck you’ to the trees, like they own me forever. As I was defined by the willow I cried by, circa 2009. You only say ‘fuck you’, truly, to these sorts of vicarious parents, dragging their entrails along the water. They come in plurals; they have to eat each other just to exist. Something Eileen Myles says of a person, they can’t fully flourish till the mother tree falls. What was the one I saw by the golf course, Maybole, spear of the monument? Granite is war is radiation.
Someone replaced their tongue with a leaf of mint. They spoke in sprigs.
Things written in lieu of a nature poem:
A letter to washing machines all over the world
The lyrics to ‘Florida Kilos’
A list of snoring faces
Imitations of archived Twitter
Requiem for a useless wedding
Things I once wanted from the Argos catalogue
An inventory of much-despised artificial flavours
Amnesia’s archive of MySpace bulletins
Impressions of Shoreditch
An amateur walkthrough to ‘Star Light Zone: Act 3’
Homage to retro screensavers
Flyers for drugs
Hieroglyphs of ring-collecting sound effects
Many novelisable addictions
Screeds of abrasive html
Reasons why X should get paid more
Moderate to good assortment of sexual confessions
___The night in the casino felt like gold was butter, gold bars of the house we were chipping apart from the ingot. We hadn’t spoken in a very long time, so it seemed, galaxies of the year had passed already. In a land where I only reserve soft lyrics, hoard Milky Ways, know nothing of your suffering in that time except what you showed.
Taxidermic language, wrapping up the undead for the accidental. Reels of my body, scented magnolia layers beneath. ‘As for love’, Clarice says, ‘they weren’t in love, of course’. This is ‘The Message’.
Off the train the air was clear, smelled manicured. Click of the tape deck. He scorns me at the checkout, 2:am, buying my lightbulb. I could not live through the night without light. Haggard in Tesco blue he called me a moth and bared his teeth; I smiled and stepped into temperate February. Just flick the switch before you leave, that’s all. I’ll be a while, it’s no use waiting. My 1:09 Transpennine got stuck at Bellshill for hours and hours. I drank with a woman who did not know my name, as I lacked hers; we laughed at the pensioner commentaries, ordered drinks. We learned so much about trains in that time. I arrived back in the grey and longed for LED, Cornish horizons, the shape of his jaw like the edge of a country I might not visit.
It seemed impossible that I would ever fall asleep again. Veers of the wrist[?]
My sick heart is a small blue swollen ball.
In the novel I read there were always these nocturnal women, pacing around in foreign cities. They stayed in hotel rooms but could not last the night, they would slip softly into Parisian spring and trail the streets. It was often Paris, which rose in the back of my mind like something unfinished. It needed rendering. All I remembered was the razoring cold, the leers of buildings, needing to piss for hours and hours. The taste of cow’s milk, morning ache. Sometimes fancying the accordion song, impossible to exorcise.
[ The wreck contained mustard and scarlet, teal and rose. We wriggled a little. Missed a bit. ]
John Hall: ‘Can’t you see why I couldn’t be doing anything else?’
Tracing such palimpsests of light, we ask of the week a question. Will you stay this mild forever? Little interlude, it’s okay to feel nice for a while. That’s what he said, this is nice. The daffodils are out. Kneading the dough of a belly, I over-sleep each day until the hollows of my eyes smooth into cream. Life is a cheeky rose. Perhaps no one is in love as James on his album. Picture him at the window, clipping the extraneous stems from various houseplants, watching the syrup drip onto the leaves. Think of this synthwise. Maybe that is a loneliness, so absolute in your feeling. Imagine him paring his Joycean fingernails, the man at the window whose name was Blake with a kytten for history. There was nothing so bright as that. You could not say, hailing it, kytten, kytten! It was extra literary. It was sooo much of everything before even alive, hey.
__The kytten was made of milk. It was bound to leak out someday.
We’ve not had a chance at everything yet. We’ve burned it all! At dawn we drank algorithms and the well-bronzed man still kissing away on the fire escape. As if all of this happened, expensive drams and learning the words for variable clouds. We enter the storage facility. Your da, your da, your da sells—That bit where Don Draper gets all misty-eyed over Hershey’s. At the end I’m crumbling a little white cookie, Karen is wailing the way she feels, the inward razoring, and it’s all I can do to remember the bees.
Dyeing my hair with fresh cherries, yayo yayo, yeah they say it’s excess to do this again. She runs the punnet under a cold tap, rubs them clean with her fingers then scrunches them, crushes them luxuriously over my scalp till it all runs down and I’m shining again. There’s a baby at the back of my eye that screams and screams, maybe I pretend I don’t know her. The cherry girl in the bar was trapped in a basket. Lana says nobody dies in Miami! I remember the harsh sunsets of your Playstation 2, smashing ourselves into several pixelated seas. Rank best to worst our beliefs, this night that got away again. We looked up the cheats and looked into the future, pressed x’s and triangles together. I mixed up my consoles, remembering it. A hook, a hook.
It took me six months to write and then I scrunched that mess back into a planet!
Notes from my diary:
Today I’m heading south to learn about trees I could easily sit in a spoons and weep.
Goddamn stars what am I supposed to owe you! Held sequins in palm to insufflate, insitu. There was so much oil in my salad it looked unethical. Walking through the park at night, say this is balmy, so warm for the season but I don’t want to say unseasonable, and so feel like the narrator of another bored and beautiful New York novel. Don’t like the tonic in gin. Pay without debit; display songs in nested form. There are so many themes up my sleeve! Leave your key at front desk, darling I’m trying to reach it; white lines on the road wherever the silkworms—
[An essay on anorexia, femininity, adolescent pain & writing the body]
I distinctly remember the first time I watched someone apply liquid liner to their eyes. We stood in the Debenhams toilets before a sheet of unavoidable mirror. She emptied her rucksack of trinkets and tools, drew out a plastic wand with a fine-tip brush and skimmed the gooey ink skilfully over her lids, making curlicues of shimmering turquoise. Her irises were a kind of violent hazel, whose flecks of green seemed to swim against the paler blue. She was very tall and for a while, very thin. She had a nickname, a boyfriend and sometimes she shoplifted; in my head, she was the essence of teenage success. Only later, in the maelstrom of a drunken night out down the beach, do I discover she’s heavily bulimic.
A year or so passes since this first incident, watching my friend slick her eyes with electric blue. I have since learned to ink my own eyes, draw long Egyptian lines that imitate that slender almond shape I long for. My makeup is cheap and smudges. I have grown thinner and people are finally starting to notice.
My mother goes quiet when we do the shopping. She tells me to move out the aisle and I ask what’s wrong. People are staring, she says. I turn around and there they are by the stacks of cereal, mother and daughter, gesturing at my legs and whispering: stick insect, skeleton. A feel a flush of hot pride, akin to the day in primary school when I got everyone to sign my arms with permanent marker—this sudden etching of possession. I am glad I lack this conspiratorial relationship with my own mother, reserving comments on others for the page instead, for my skin. My pain and frustration are communicated bodily: I slink into the shadows, sleeping early, avoiding meals. When people stare, they imbue me with a visibility I desire to erase. I should like better to float around them intangibly, diaphanous, a veil of a name they can’t catch. Instead it rests on everyone’s tongue, thick and severe: anorexic.
It took a week for all the names to fade from my arms; it takes much longer to erase a single label.
In the television series Girls, Lena Dunham’s character reveals that she got tattoos as a teenager because she was putting on weight very quickly and wanted to feel in control of her own body, making fairytale scripture of her skin. In Roald Dahl’s short story, ‘Skin’, an old man gets a famous artist to tattoo the image of a gorgeous woman on his back, the rich pigment of ink like a lustrous ‘impasto’. Years later, art dealers discover his fleshly opus and proceed to barter, literally, on the price of his skin. The story reveals the synecdochical relations between the body, the pen and the value of art. Everything is a piece of something else, skin after skin after skin. In Skins, Cassie Ainsworth gazes into the camera: I hate my thighs. With black marker, she scrawls her name onto her palm; she’s got a smile that lights up, she’s in love. Everyone around her rolls cigarettes, swaps paper skins like scraps of poetry. It feels dirty, the chiaroscuro mood of sunshine and sorrow. Her whole narrative purpose is the spilling of secrets, of human hurt turned to vapour, smoke. Wow, lovely.
For a while, my name mattered less than my skin. There were levels of weight to lose, dress sizes which signified different planes of existence. Over and over, I would listen to ‘4 st. 7lbs’ by the Manic Street Preachers, Richey Edwards’ lyrics spat over a stomach-churning angst of guitar: ‘Self-worth scatters self-esteem’s a bore / I’ve long since moved to a higher plateau’. That summer, ten years ago now, I would walk for hours, the sun on my skin. All the fields stretched out before me like fresh pages of impossibility; my life was a mirage on the flickering sea. I thought of liquid turquoise ink, the friend in the mirror. I started to forget the details of her face, so she blurred into the impressionist portraits I wrote about in school.
Midsummer’s eve; I laid down in one of those fields. With bone-raw fingers, I counted the notches of my spine. Even in free-fall you never feel quite free.
I was obsessed with Richey’s ghost. He disappeared decades ago and they never found evidence of his body. I wanted to evaporate like that, leave my abstracted car somewhere along the motorway; step into the silence of anonymity. Richey wrote screeds of furious notes: ‘I feel like cutting the feet off a ballerina’. There it was: the dark evaporation of resentment and envy. Around this time, Bloc Party released A Weekend in the City, a record that uses Edwards’ lyric to express the racial frustration of being made Other by a racist society. I was acutely aware that the figure of a ballerina, the doll-like white girl, was a divisive source of symbolic desire. We inscribe such societal alignments on the female body, and shamefully I was more than ready to fall into place, to shed the necessary weight. But what I wanted was less the bloody violence of a crippled ballerina, and more the success of erasure.
In Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save Me the Waltz,the protagonist Alabama trains to be a ballerina late in her twenties, too late to ascend to any real career success. Here was ballet, the pre-adolescent world of waif-thin bodies and she was a mother, a woman—someone who once gave birth, who was strong in flesh. She reaches this frenzied state of beautiful prudence, honing her body to the point where every movement and thought is guided by the waltzing beat, the perfect arabesque: ‘David will bring me some chocolate ice cream and I will throw it up; it smells like a soda fountain, thrown-up, she thought’. I could attest to that. Ben and Jerry’s, swirls of it marbling the toilet bowl, clots of sweetness still clear in your throat. Fitzgerald’s sentences stream towards endless flourish. Alabama makes herself sick with the work, her desire is lustily bulimic. She gets blood poisoning, finds herself hospitalised with tubes in her body, drip-fed and cleansed by the system. I thought of how I wanted to photosynthesise, survive on nothing but air and light. Like a dancer, I was honing my new ascetic life.
Sometimes at night, the old ticker would slow to such a crawl and I thought it would stop in my sleep, sink like a stone. A girl I met on the internet sent me a red-beaded bracelet in the post and in class I’d twirl each plastic, pro-ana ruby, imagining the twist of my own bright sinew as later I’d stretch and click my bones.
I was small, I was sick. I used to write before bed, write a whole sermon’s worth of weight-loss imperatives; often I’d fall asleep mid-sentence and awake to a pool of dark ink, flowering its stain across my sheets. Nausea, of one sort or another, was more or less constant. Waves would dash against my brain, black spots clotting my vision. I moved from one plane or scale to another, reaching for another diuretic. I tried to keep within the lines, keep everything in shape.
Often, however, I thought about water, about things spilling; I drank so much and yet found myself endlessly thirsty. Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, trying to drown, being spat back out by the sea: I am I am I am.
I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine. The familiar litany.
Something buoyed up, started showing on the surface. People could read the wrongness in the colour of my skin, all that mottled and purpling blood like a contrast dye my body had been dipped in. Against my pallid aquatic hue, I used to envy the warm and luxurious glow of other people’s skin. I sat on a friend’s lap and he freaked out at the jut of my bones. Someone lifted me and we ran down the road laughing and they were like, My god you’re so light. The sycamores were out in full bloom and I realised with a pang it would nearly be autumn. Vaguely I knew soon I would fall like all those leaves.
Anorexia is an austerity of the self. To fast is to practice a refusal, to resist the ideological urge to consume. To swap wasteful packs of pads and tampons for flakeaway skin and hypoglycaemic dreams. Unlike with capitalism, with anorexia you know where everything goes.
The anorexic is constantly calculating. Her day is a series of trades and exchanges: X amount of exercise for X amount of food; how much dinner should I spread around the plate in lieu of eating? It was never enough; nothing ever quite added up. My space-time melted into a continuous present in which I constantly longed for sleep. The past and future had no bearing on me; my increasingly androgynous body wasn’t defined by the usual feminine cycles—life was just existing. This is one of the trickiest things to fix in recovery.
Dark ecologist Timothy Morton says of longing: it’s ‘like depression that melted […] the boundary between sadness and longing is undecidable. Dark and sweet, like good chocolate’. Longing is spiritual and physical; it’s a certain surrender to the beyond, even as it opens strange cavities in the daily. The anorexic’s default existential condition is longing: a condition that is paradoxically indulgent. Longing to be thin, longing for self, dying for both. The world blurs before her eyes, objects take on that auratic sheen of desire. Later, putting myself through meal plans that involved slabs of Green & Black’s, full-fat milk and actual carbs, the dark sweet ooze of depression’s embrace gradually replaced my disordered eating. I wondered if melancholia was something you could prise off, like a skin; I saw its mise-en-abyme in every mirror, a curious, cruel infinitude.
In Aliens and Anorexia, Chris Kraus asks: ‘shouldn’t it be possible to leave the body? Is it wrong to even try?’. What do you do when food is abstracted entirely from appetite? What happens when life becomes a question of pouring yourself, gloop by gloop, into other forms? What is lost in the process?
I started a diary. I wrote with a rich black Indian ink I bought from an art supplies store. The woman at the counter ID’d me, saying she’d recently had teenagers come in to buy the stuff for home tattooing, then tried to blame her later when they all got blood poisoning. Different kinds of ink polluted our blood; I felt an odd solidarity with those kids, remembering the words others had scored on my skin for years. Tattooing yourself, perhaps, was a way of taking those names back. In any case, there was a sense that the ink was like oil, a reserve of energy I was drawing from the deep.
Recovery was trying to breathe underwater; resisting the urge of the quickening tide, striving for an island I couldn’t yet see.
(…What I miss most, maybe, is the driftwood intricacy, the beauty of the sternum in its gaunt, tripart sculpturing. Thinned to the bone, the body becomes elegiac somehow, an artefact of ebbing beauty…)
I think about beef and milk and I think about the bodies of cows and the way the light drips gold on their fields sometimes and how I’d like to curl up in some mossy grove and forget that all of this is happening. Sometimes I worry that my body is capable of making milk, making babies; its design is set up for this nourishing. Hélène Cixous insists women write ‘in white ink’ but I don’t want to be that plump and ripe, that giving. I want scarification, darkness, markings. I want Julia Kristeva’s black sun, an abyss that negates the smudge of identity.
I try to find loveliness in femininity, but my hands are full with hair barrettes, pencils, laxatives, lipstick—just so much material.
As Isabelle Meuret puts it, ‘starving in a world of plenty is a daring challenge’. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Recently, I logged onto my Facebook to find an old friend, a girl I’d known vaguely through an online recovery community, had died in hospital. Her heart just gave up in the night. People left consolatory messages on her wall; she was being written already into another existence. Another girl I used to know posts regular photos from her inpatient treatment. She’s very pretty but paper-thin, almost transparent in the flash of a camera. Tubes up her nose like she’s woven into the fabric of the institution, a flower with its sepals fading, drip-fed through stems that aren’t her own. She’s supposed to be at university. I think of Zelda Fitzgerald, of broken ballerinas. A third girl from the recovery forum covers herself in tattoos, challenging you to unlock the myriad stories of symbol. Someone I know in real life gets an orca tattoo in memory of her sea-loving grandfather; she says it helped to externalise the pain. My own body is a pool of inky potential; I cannot fathom its beginning and ending. I wish I could distil my experience into stamps of narrative, the way the tattoo-lovers did. I am always drawing on my face, only to wash the traces away. I must strive for something more permanent.
Recovery, Marya Hornbacher writes in her memoir Wasted,
comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up and there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented, imperfect.
And yet you are all that you have, so you must be enough. There is no other way.
Every meal, every morsel that passes the lips, we tell ourselves: You are okay. You deserve this. Must everything be so earned? Still there is this girl underneath: the one that screams for her meagre dreams, her beautiful form; her starlight and skeletons, her sticks of celery. I try to bury her behind sheet after sheet of glass, lose her in shopfronts, the windows of cars and bathrooms; I daily crush out the bloat of her starched hyperbole, keeping the lines plain and simple. Watching others around me, I try to work out other ways of feeling full, of being free. There is an entry from 2009, scratched in a hand I barely recognise in the final page of a diary: ‘Maybe we are only the sum total of all our reflections’. I wonder what kind of sixteen-year-old wrote this, whether she is happy now and if that matters at all.
It’s not all about realising you can get 10% off at Topshop again (although my ID photo is so bad this year I’m no sure I can brandish it in public). I didn’t know what to expect, going back to uni after a year out. It all happened so fast. Working for over a year as a full time waitress, doing 35-55 hour weeks, I didn’t really give myself the headspace to prepare myself for what uni entails. Despite knowing for several months that I had secured my place, a Masters in MLitt Modernities at Glasgow Uni just seemed something far in the distance, the uncertain plane which I would embark upon after an endless summer.
No matter how it feels at the time, summer is never endless. August was a strange old month, and horrible, tragic things kept happening around me. Amidst all that, it didn’t seem real, making my way through the infernal labyrinth of MyCampus; applying for scholarships, spending inordinate time staring at screens again, making lists of things to be done. I found myself in a room up high in the Boyd Orr building, listening to the inimitable and infectiously enthusiastic Rob Maslen give a speech about the strange history of these hallowed walls; being introduced to the university as if it were the first time all over again.
It is weird going back to the same university after a year out, especially if you’ve not gone far. I walked up the hill listening to Tigermilk feeling blissfully like a total Glasgow cliché and it was like nothing had changed at all; it was my first seminar of the semester and I felt bright and hopeful. Glasgow gifted us with a particularly gorgeous autumn, trees bronzing languidly into darkening violet as twilight fell and I was still sitting by the fountain, making notes on poetry. I tried to take walks in Kelvingrove as often as possible. Quite quickly, however, the daylight ran out. Nights drew in. Still stuck in waitressing mode, such thing as a sleeping pattern proving an elusive remnant lost somewhere back in 2015, I found myself going to sleep at 5am every night, often staying in the library till everyone on the floor had left and the lights kept going out automatically. There I was, alone in the dark in front of a dull-glowing screen (though one must note the upgrade in PCs at Glasgow Uni Library, which are much preferable). It’s easy to spiral into that maddening routine, trying to do all the reading, make notes on everything. I’ve never been a meticulous note-taker, not by a long shot, but I like to handwrite things and have a tangible record of ideas and theorists and possible avenues for further study.
I would walk home at 2am, stumbling tired-eyed through Kelvinside, hoping for a glimpse of the river, some tangible reminder of nature. How long had it been since I’d seen the sea? During reading week, I allowed myself a cheeky day trip to Arran, which felt so unreal it was almost magic. The days passed and ideas started to percolate in my head. The power of procrastination unleashed itself again. I did more creative writing in the past three months than probably I’ve done all year. I guess the more you read, the more you want to write. I sat on level 11 and watched the sunset over Park Circus, making airy, vague notes about queer temporality and thing theory on a 60p sketchpad. I went to seminars and was reminded of how nice it is to listen to people share a subject, to listen to experts talk with passion about something they must have covered a thousand times before and yet still they can find fresh things to say about it. To actually talk to said experts about such interesting topics (instead of merely serving them glasses of wine and plates of fish, as the Oran Mor waitress will often do for GU academics). Although a bit scary at first (not least because I had a screenwriter and published author in one of my seminars!), it was nice to actually have proper formal discussions about books again. Often we veered slightly off-topic, with Trump becoming the proverbial wall against which we hit our heads in frustration, but everything felt prescient, useful. I went to visiting speaker seminars with the likes of Stephen Ross, Graeme Macdonald and Darren Anderson, who talked about all manner of interesting topics: Beckett’s invention of the teenager, petroculture and the politics of space and architecture. Having been at Glasgow Uni four and a half years now, I was still struggling to find half the rooms and buildings I needed to get to.
I went to a couple of nights at The Poetry Club in Finnieston and actually read poems aloud to real humans. Got a few wee things published here and there. Went to a ceilidh. Realised that I want to do lots and lots of creative writing and really try and learn from people. Started writing music reviews for RaveChild which has been really rewarding, not least because it’s encouraged me to broaden my musical horizons and go to more gigs. Started tweeting again. I managed to go to a few Creative Writing Society workshops, wrote a collaborative sonnet and played around with tarot cards. Went to Creative Conversations at the Chapel and saw very smart and fascinating people talk about writing: Amy Liptrot, Liz Lochhead, Mallachy Tallack, for example. Developed many creative crushes on various academics.
My stress levels tend to rise in tandem with the library’s rising busyness and so I stopped going altogether about a month ago. I’ve more or less forgotten what sunlight is, except for the wee slant that comes through the window of the building in Professors’ Square where every Thursday we had our Modern Everyday seminar. I sit in bed everyday and try and write and write. I spent the first four weeks of this semester trying to read a section fromThe Derrida Wordbookeveryday, until my brain started to melt a bit too much and I was thinking in riddles. One day I was so tired I woke up at 10.46 for an 11am seminar but somehow still made it on time, looking like something the cat had dragged in. I tried to get my head round Blanchot, and even went to a reading group where we poured over The Space of Literature and maybe I came out with some sense of the link between writing and death. I wrote reflective journals for my core course seminars and every time came back to Tom McCarty references. The man and his ideas are just so seductive.
Coming to the end of my first semester as a postgrad student, I’m not sure how I feel. I didn’t wash my hair for nearly four weeks. On the one hand, my brain feels heavier, I’m exhausted, probably much less fit; I’ve lost contact with a few friends. On the other, I’ve got ideas all the time, I’m meeting new people, I can understand a little bit of Heidegger. I’m extremely lucky to be able to study at all, especially on such a well-run, exciting course like Modernities.
Things I miss about waitressing:
Being on my feet all day. Coming home feeling like an honest hard day’s work has been done, that I really earned that massive block of chocolate.
Gossip. Constant streams of salacious stories.
The visceral fuck-strewn quality of hospitality patter.
Unlimited access to coffee at the point of need.
Making strangers happy through simple acts of kindness.
Being with friends all day and plotting grand schemes.
Telling ghost stories to tourists.
Having a reason to put makeup on in the morning/having a reason to get up in the morning before 10.
That amazing post-coffee rush feeling when you know your break is due and you’ve got a good book on you.
Finishing a shift and leaving it at the door for a Netflix binge.
Meeting new people more or less constantly.
Having actual muscles from plate carrying.
Playing the game of concocting life stories for strangers.
Teamwork! (which is sorely missed on an English Lit degree…)
Solving completely unsolvable problems, like trying to find and polish 50 champagne flutes in five minutes, or sourcing pathologically evasive salt shakers, or convincing the kitchen not to slaughter you because your table’s arrived 45 minutes late, just in time to clash with every other function in the building.
Unexpectedly deep conversations about love, life, literature, music, family, mental illness, travel, astrophysics, the ethics of illustration, Tumblr, queer theory, feminism, television, childhood memories and sleep deprivation all while polishing cutlery.
The thrill of days off.
Going part-time, I still get some of these fun things, and less of the bad things. Maybe that’s a nice balance. The Christmas period is always a test for our sanity and endurance. Still, hopefully the feeling of handing in my essays will get me through the rest of the season, and if not god knows I have enough books to read to escape into! Maybe I should tidy my room first.
“I guess it’s like, for the past seven months, I’ve felt like I don’t exist.”
A friend and I are standing down by the River Kelvin, watching the dark sloshy water unravel itself below us, the purplish October twilight settling around in the shadows and leaves. Part of our friendship has always been this: trying to fill in meaning and substance amongst the ghost-worlds of our lives. The drifting, disappearing act of routine. We agree that we are lone wolves; we pick apart the significance of things, every social occasion an attempt at just living. It isn’t easy. We write letters to each other with little drawings and pictures, sometimes forgetting to dot our i’s and cross the t’s. It doesn’t matter. The point is to communicate things, to write about the weather and the changing colour of the leaves and the way we are feeling. Relationships crumbling, people leaving. What stays the same is the insistence on memory. Remember this time. The walk we took out to Glasgow Green, sitting for hours in the glasshouse with the ripe spring sun so clear and gold on our skin, our talk of the future striving towards something tangibly positive. That night when the boy was sick and when the music was so loud it crashed in our ears for days afterwards; that night you dropped a pill and waited for the high to come, waited so long that you were outside of time, you were in a bubble with the world around you nebulous, distant, the high never coming and only that sense of being washed ashore, exhausted, after a long journey. I always sensed an ending and left the party early.
We write letters and they pile up in a shoebox in my bedroom, tacked together with coloured rubber-bands, as if candy-wrapped, waiting to be opened again after their first moment of preservation. Each one contains the microcosm of a whole moment, month, a jewellery case of feelings that glimmer in the arrangement of words, jotted down so simply but now rich with possibility. I can read this in your handwriting. I wonder if you do it too, if you like to trace the curls of my y’s and m’s. I am obsessed with materiality, as if it was the writing itself that keeps us being—making a record is insurance of existence, the future reassurance that I am alive, I did these things, I existed like this—once. I doubt anyone in the world cares so much about the little things as I do. It’s strange; I suppose it works against my exaggerations.
When you are sad, I say: keep a diary. It’s something I’ve done for years. Part of me truly believes there is no use in telling people certain things. I wonder, is this because I treasure secrets? Yes, I love to hoard. I keep jotters stuffed full of primary school scribblings, drawings of stick-figures falling from buildings. I keep clothes that no longer fit me, broken pencils, lipsticks long since soured but still heady with the smell of wintry, glittery evenings in bars I cannot visit again. There’s a box full of Game Boys, ancient crystals on the windowsill, fantasy novels whose worlds I feel cast out of forever, too old, too cynical.
Keep a diary. Is this my catchall advice for the lost and lonely? What is a diary? Why keep a diary…? Such questions are cast in the meaningless swirl of words; they float to one’s consciousness every time one sits down to write another entry. What is the point in this useless recording of words? Words, words, words. How hypnotic they are, how pointless! In keeping a diary, we make secrets. The secret lies behind every word. It is all decipherable possibilities that lead us back to the realm of the undecipherable. Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, in their playful, lyrical essay, ‘A Silkworm of One’s Own’, draw attention to the slippage between secret and secretion. There is something decidably intimate, eremitic, perhaps insect-like, about the human will to autobiography. As a silkworm or a spider spins its gossamer web, as the Lady of Shalott sits in her tower weaving her tapestry of the world, the diarist retreats to her solitary lair and writes of the day—that which has happened, that which is yet to come.
Unlike the fictional novel, the diary is more or less necessarily bound by the clock and calendar, as opposed to narrative time which might follow the personal experience of time, a more Bergsonian sense of duration. For Henri Bergson, our sense of time is not a mishmash of broken moments, memories to be recalled at will as if accessed from some inner harddrive, but rather that of duration: the accumulation of the past in the present, a ceaseless flow of unbroken moments. ‘The truth is we change without ceasing,’ and duration itself is ‘the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances’ (Bergson 2013: 69-70). There is a sense of our personal time as being in flux, more fluid than the linear progression of calendar time would suggest. The diary form negotiates between this structuring of days and months and the impressionistic rendering of moments, which flow between past, present and future. We experience the present through the memories which populate our past and colour our senses. I walk through these streets, which are palimpsests of years gone by, a split screen of seasons, the autumn leaves and Christmas frost, the corner where we stopped…the desk by the window on level four of the library where I first cracked the notion of différance, the place by the pond where the bluebells grow, the shop which used to sell ribbons and now lies empty, gathering lumps of broken plaster and dust. This place has a bittersweetness, a depth of shadows, which it did not have the first time. A diary grows fatter by the year; as time goes by and I read back old entries, the words have acquired a weight they lacked when first written in all instancy and innocence.
The Britannica Encyclopaedia Online defines the diary as a
form of autobiographical writing, a regularly kept record of the diarist’s activities and reflections. Written primarily for the writer’s use alone, the diary has a frankness that is unlike writing done for publication. Its ancient lineage is indicated by the existence of the term in Latin, diarium, itself derived from dies (“day”).
This foregrounds the essential relation between the diary and dailyness. We write to contain the day, to compare our days, to express the day, to make sense of the day, to merely record the day. Not everyone writes on a daily basis; nor are all diaries structured in a daily sense. Sometimes, vague and impressionistic renderings of a summer, a month or week, might be jotted down as an amalgamation of sensations and feelings. The summer a loved one died, when it rained for weeks on end, when the news was full of insufferable political travesties. A patch of time defined less by rigid temporal boundaries and more by a general mood, which like watercolour paint bleeds into its edges.
Writers use various metaphoric images to make sense of time. In a diary entry from 22nd July 1926, Virginia Woolf writes, ‘[t]he summer hourglass is running out rapidly and rather sandily’, an image which coalesces the objective measure of time with the abstraction of a summer and its accompanying texture—sandily—giving some experiential hint as to the abrasive ‘feel’ of that particular passage of time, ‘[h]ere nothing but odds and ends’ (Woolf 2008: 216). In a single entry we might note a month of great personal achievement, rapturous words on the fulfilment of a new job or relationship or project. For me, this style of diary-writing falls more into the remit of a journal. A diary, for me, probably has to be associated somehow with the daily. This is what makes it interesting, since in recording the day, the writer has little chance to reflect with all the hindsight of distance upon the events of the day. They are more raw, honest; they contain the energies of the present moment as it is borne upon by the immediate, pressing past.
Maurice Blanchot usefully if not obtusely describes the everyday as that which escapes: it is ‘the residual life with which our trash cans and cemeteries are filled: scrap and refuse’; however, ‘this banality is also what is most important, if it brings us back to existence in its very spontaneity and as it is lived – in the moment when, lived, it escapes every speculative formulation, perhaps all coherence, all regularity’ (Blanchot 1987: 13). There is then a sense that it might be impossible to represent the everyday as the everyday. In our experience of dailyness, we are so blinded by habit, routine, ritual, that we cannot step back to discern what actually happens. There is a strangeness to the everyday, its mediation of spontaneity and routine, which seems to elude attempts at representing the exact experience of encountering it. All reports of the everyday, whether fictional or in the form of a diary or ethnographic report, seem to fall prey to retrospective narrative organisation of some form or another. The truth is that in our daily lives we experience a particular texture to the passing of time, the passing through space and place. It depends on our job, our friends and family, our use of leisure time, our responsibilities. Time is experiential as well as ‘objective’. The diary, to some extent, captures this, with its vague sense of immediacy (something Samuel Richardson cashes in especially in his novel Pamela (1740), where Pamela is literally writing ‘to the moment’, as he puts it). The gush of sitting down to write before bed: here, I must capture it all before it fades into memory. The diary is a willingness to preserve the past, a form of archive fever, a possibility of dumping or offloading memories to be dealt with later. It is often prescribed to those undergoing psychological difficulty for that very cathartic reason: the possibility of sorting out the chaos of one’s thoughts and experiences by simply writing them down, thinking them through.
Diaries abound in literature. I will never have time to talk of them all.
There is a queer slippage between presence and absence in the diary. Think of Tom Riddle’s diary in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which Harry finds himself writing onto, into, watching ink dissolve and then materialise on the page after his own scrawled print, as if he were having some primitive MSN conversation with the realm of the dead. Riddle speaks through the diary, but it is a specific fragment of his character, the Riddle of the days when the diary was written. The diary is a puzzle to be solved; it is full of secrets (as the name Riddle suggests). We read a diary and we are confronted with a problem: it is chockfull of names, places, references that are never explained, since the person writing is writing not for an understanding readership but for herself alone. As readers we have to decipher the shorthand, the elliptical allusions to things that have happened, people who appear briefly but are then never mentioned again, though their unexplained presence haunts the diary like a ghost. You don’t have to justify your inclusion of certain characters when you’re accounting for a day. It’s just what happened. She did this, he had a go at me, the man that sits beside me at work, my favourite cafe, Mr. S and Mrs. C etc etc. We redact, unconsciously, as we write our lives (for reasons of repression perhaps but also brevity). The reader has to scour through page after page, trying to decode all the references. For what purpose, however? It’s not like in a novel, where you might be searching towards some argument, some overall notion of what the text is about. Doesn’t the diary elude this, in its very fragmentary nature, its resistance to the definition of closed art, its status as a kind of found object documenting a life (maybe even still living and thus not even closed off by death!), never intended to be published, let alone poured over by a curious reader or critic?
Perhaps, then, the diary is the perfect method through which to represent the unknowability of the everyday.
Think of the tape ‘diaries’ of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). Every year, on his birthday, Krapp indulges in the ritual of making a tape recording in which he accounts for the events of the year, his general impressions of life, hopes for the future and so on. Every year, on his birthday, Krapp also listens back to previous tapes. Some of the tapes thus constitute a dialogue between tapes, as the Krapp of the present or past tries to make sense of the Krapp of a more distant past. Much of this dialogue, this ‘reading’ of the tapes and their various temporal selves, is an encounter with moments of aporia, with references that don’t make sense anymore. Krapp scours his personal memory, but often the cognitive dissonance persists. The uncanniness of the diary is that it reminds us that we are always strangers to ourselves; there are things in our memory, buried subconsciously, that we cannot access or understand, and yet they are part of us. They are the other within us. As such, writing, as one form of what Derrida calls ‘originary technicity’, is a key technological mode which humans have used for thousands of years to generate and make sense of their being (there can be no outside text). Early humans recorded their memories and made sense of the world through cave paintings; later came language as such, the gramophone, the typewriter, the tape recorder (so far, so Friedrich Kittler). Memory and being, therefore, have always already been technical. The prevalence of the diary as discursive form throughout history attests to this.
The diary can be intimate and confessional, but also performative. Not performative in the sense of a memoir, which has the luxury of retrospective maturity to aid its arrangement and sculpturing of events (a diary has the rawness and disarray of immediate record), but performative in the sense that in language all attempts to express the self are inevitably cast into the play of difference and deferral. Let us make no mistake about the representative problems of writing. In writing, the self dissolves. This is the basic Lacanian assumption that when I identify myself in language, I also split myself as Other (‘I’ am no longer the ‘I’ of writing), just as when in the Mirror Stage, the child recognises their mirror image for the first time and sees herself as a coherent object—the initiation of the decentering of the human. It is perfectly possible to refer to ourselves in the third or second person, creating an even greater distancing effect (think back to our most emo of teenage diary entries: you’re so selfish, fat, useless, you might as well give up now and so on). So in writing, the self splits. It is referring back to itself from the position of another self. Blanchot attests writing as a kind of space of death:
The truth of the journal lies not in the interesting, literary remarks to be found there, but in the insignificant details which attach it to daily reality. The journal represents the series of reference points which a writer establishes in order to keep track of himself when he begins to suspect the dangerous metamorphosis to which he is exposed
All year I’ve felt like I don’t exist. There is a sense in which writing a diary is a desperate attempt to pin down the self, to attest to your existence—here, look, see all the things I’ve done so far!—but in doing so, the self stays fluid, under the signifying movement of language. You can’t pin it down and then mount it like a butterfly. The writer’s self undergoes this ‘dangerous metamorphosis’ in the play of words, a transformation and dissolution that she indeed ‘suspect[s]’ even as she writes. A diary indeed, is partly a performance, even if you never intend another soul to read it. You can’t quite get the right words to come out. You’re striving towards an ideal expression of an experience or feeling or even just the sense of your own personality. Perhaps that’s why diaries are full of repetition. Dates, names, phrases. I’m always talking about how sound a person is, how lovely the leaves are at this time of year, how nice to sit in bed like this at three in the afternoon, listening to Arthur Russell albums. Sometimes the music changes, but the habit doesn’t, the phrases might modulate but they’re mostly the same.
Flicking back, painfully, through some diary entries from 2012-2014, I’m struck by how much I just write about the weather. Lyrical descriptions of rain, the promise of summer, the ephemeral beauty of daffodils. Maybe there’s a way in which diary writing is also a kind of phatic speech act, in Roman Jakobsen’s sense of a deliberate establishment of communication for communication’s sake. Communication to whom? The self of the future? Some entries seem to me reluctant; angry somehow, pissed that I’m even having to write this stupid thing at all. The phrase ‘But I will keep writing for the sake of writing’ comes up a lot…Why then do I keep writing? It’s like I’m trying to work through things. I spend sentence after sentence rambling on about the books I’m reading, formulating half-baked ideas which in retrospect often seem deliciously twee and naive. I exert grand claims for my continued writing: ‘I need to find purpose and order in things again, instead of being content with chaos’; claims that are ironically followed with the rambling chaos of self-deprecation and a rather banal outlining of my day, as if I had never made such grandiose assertions of existential realisation a few lines before. I think the diary attests to existence itself and memory more than it does to subjectivity and self-awareness. This is partly why reading one’s diary is always going to incur cognitive dissonance. Yes it’s good to write things down, to work them out, but often the world gets even more confusing in the process of writing.
It’s not a problem of empathy, it’s a problem related to the nature of subjectivity itself. Read back through old entries and yes the memory is stirred, you get a vague impressionistic matrix of sensations that to some extent recall the moment. But can you really remember what it was like to live it at that moment, with that particular naive frame of mind, untainted by everything that has happened since? I don’t think you can really. You get this sharp sense of empathy with the version of you in the diary, but in a way it isn’t really you. It’s quite sad actually. It forces us to deal with our own mortality, the irrevocable passage of time, that melancholy sense of the person we once were, the innocence we have lost. The diary is a record of traces of existence. They’re not necessarily mine. Maybe they’re filtered through dreams or literary narratives or imagined versions of what really happened. They’re attempts to make sense of the everyday, doomed always to fall back on the concrete detail which is its own story of surfaces over depth. As Jacques Lacan put it, the signified always slides under the signifier. The event always shifts under its representation in language. To make sense of one thing, you refer to another and so on, ad infinitum. There is an impossibility to the diary: is it bound to the self’s mortality? And yet it lives on, haunted with its revenants. The diary is always also a writing towards the future, a writing against death, a resistance to the ephemeral that extinguishes at the very level of the ephemeral. For in capturing a moment, perhaps you erase its elusive presentness…
In literature, the diary form is frequently used to make sense of the duality of personal time and clock time (which is itself historically, culturally and technologically relative). The metafictional chaos of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759) is a constant spillage of clock time, leaps between temporalities, anachronisms, the time of writing, the spanning of a lifetime, of a narrative. Its self-referentiality gives its time-space a maddening, recursive quality. One of the most famous encounters with the literary journal, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), is partly a rendering of the need to record time and daily rituals in order to maintain order and stability in a world outside of society. On his desert island, Crusoe marks the days in notches on a makeshift cross of wood but also notes with Puritan precision the days and dates and changing seasons. A significant chunk of the narrative is constituted by Crusoe’s journal, as he relates:
And now it was that I began to keep a journal of every day’s employment; for, indeed, at first I was in too much hurry, and not only hurry as to labour, but in too much discomposure of mind; and my journal would have been full of many dull things; for example, I must have said thus: “30th.—After I had got to shore, and escaped drowning, instead of being thankful to God for my deliverance, having first vomited, with the great quantity of salt water which had got into my stomach, and recovering myself a little, I ran about the shore wringing my hands and beating my head and face, exclaiming at my misery, and crying out, ‘I was undone, undone!’ till, tired and faint, I was forced to lie down on the ground to repose, but durst not sleep for fear of being devoured.”
Some days after this, and after I had been on board the ship, and got all that I could out of her, yet I could not forbear getting up to the top of a little mountain and looking out to sea, in hopes of seeing a ship; then fancy at a vast distance I spied a sail, please myself with the hopes of it, and then after looking steadily, till I was almost blind, lose it quite, and sit down and weep like a child, and thus increase my misery by my folly.
But having gotten over these things in some measure, and having settled my household staff and habitation, made me a table and a chair, and all as handsome about me as I could, I began to keep my journal; of which I shall here give you the copy (though in it will be told all these particulars over again) as long as it lasted; for having no more ink, I was forced to leave it off.
I love this passage. You get the actual tangibility and physical limitations of the journal (he runs out of ink – another indication of writing’s material and temporal basis). Defoe provocatively renders Crusoe’s sense of real terror—‘fear of being devoured’—alongside his grand exaltations and little self-congratulations. There is a touch of pathos in his solitary situation, but also a self-aware sense of humour. Crusoe sometimes interrupts his journal to give over the ‘present’ narrative to philosophical and religious musings which connect the reflective mode of his present self with the self of the journal, encountering trials and tribulations of solitary island life firsthand. This interplay is what gives us a sense of Robinson Crusoe’s Protestant work ethic, a work ethic which Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) defines as that of being thrifty, ordered, productive, rational, self-controlled.Crusoe is not only deeply religious and ascetic but also a rather zealous capitalist, a merchant tradesman who dabbles with various colonial trades, and the novel negotiates the ideological balancing of these two positions through its shift between journal and narrative reflection. As Thomas Kemple argues, ‘in spite of the boundlessness of nature, Crusoe budgets his time, rations his resources, and keeps a strict account of the tools he has been able to save from the shipwreck in a way that does not exemplify but only prefigures the logic of investment and savings which will later drive the expansion of capitalism’ (1995: 249). Part of this budgeting and rationing is conducted through the journal.
There is a sense in which keeping a diary or journal is a means of keeping the self in check. Disciplining the self in the Foucauldian manner of applying internalised beliefs and discourses of control to the self, which becomes an external product to be in a sense ‘worked upon’. Listing one’s eating habits, exercise, love interests and so on is a way of tying them to the day, making them concrete. There can be some things that are embarrassing to write about, and the diary forces us to moralise ourselves, to justify our actions in writing. This isn’t always pleasant and there is a sense in which keeping a diary reinforces our panopticon-like internalisation of morality, our self-surveillance on a daily basis. It is true that the wilder our lives get, the less we write in our diaries, and perhaps this isn’t just a practical issue of lacking the time, but a more evasive, psychoanalytic phenomenon. Crusoe is deeply reflective about his ‘journal self’ and by putting our own lives in writing, we are subjecting ourselves to a similar internal discipline. Think of how much Jane Eyre loves Pilgrim’s Progress, for example. Think of Pamela, in Richardson’s eponymous eighteenth-century novel, where the young servant protagonist writes both letters and a diary as an assertion of her virtue, a way of sorting out her emotions and assuring herself that she is not in the least tempted by the licentious advances of her master. Yet she must hide her papers delicately in her underwear, always on her person, raising the question as to whether we carry our secrets, our personal burdens, with us always. Even if our diaries are hidden under a mattress, at the back of a drawer or in some old box, they still speak of their very existence. Perhaps that’s why so many people burn them.
The diary then, has a deep connection to inner morality, to self-justification, to the secret. One diary that is seductively rich with secrets is The Diary of Laura Palmer (1990), written by Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David Lynch, co-creator of the early 1990s tv series Twin Peaks, from which Laura Palmer is drawn. Without delving into too many Twin Peaks spoilers, we can say that The Diary of Laura Palmer is compelling partly because it gives voice to a character whose absence defines much of the television show, far more than her presence. Laura’s death in the first episode overshadows the action of the Twin Peaks’ narrative; she is an object of memory and memorial far more than a subject in her own right: she’s the Homecoming Queen portrait; the beautifully still and glittering corpse, iconically wrapped in plastic; the name on everyone’s lips (I always think of that Bat for Lashes song, ‘Laura’, and the implications of the trace in the metonymic lyrics which attempt to grasp her presence as absence: ‘You’re the train that crashed my heart / You’re the glitter in the dark, oh, Laura / You’re more than a superstar / You’ll be famous for longer than them / Your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin’). In Lynch’s diary, we get access to Laura’s voice, which is a strange experience after knowing her only through the stories told by other characters. She gives detail and flesh to the entity known as ‘BOB’ and the psychological breakdown associated with her encounters with this torturing spirit. If you weren’t familiar with the tv series, you could probably read the diary as a standalone account of someone who suffered possibly schizophrenic tendencies, but with the weight of the show behind your reading, BOB is loaded with more sinister metaphysical and narrative implications and is certainly not just a psychological projection of Laura’s mind. Laura gets involved in all sort of sordid activities: lurid jaunts in the wood with a number of men, involvement with the local porno business (the creatively named Fleshworld magazine) and taking cocaine like it was cotton candy. What is haunting about Laura’s diary is that it troubles our easy narrative of corruption from small town innocence to debasement; the diary reveals that desire and its darkness were in Laura even as a child, as we see in her first entry:
Dear Diary, July 22, 1984
My name is Laura Palmer, and as of just three short minutes ago, I officially turned twelve years old! It is July 22, 1984, and I have had such a good day! You were the last gift I opened and I could hardly wait to come upstairs and start to tell you all about myself and my family. You shall be the one I confide in the most. I promise to tell you everything that happens, everything I feel, everything I desire. And, every single thing I think. There are some things I can’t tell anyone. I promise to tell these things to you.
(Lynch 2012: 1)
Lynch lets us into the taboo world of preteen sexuality which grows even more visceral as the diary progresses. Stylistically, we have the enthusiasm of someone very young, the peppered exclamation marks, the excitement, the promise. Towards the end of the diary, an entry from four years later, Laura remarks: ‘The girl who received this diary on her twelfth birthday has been dead for years, and I who took her place have done nothing but make a mockery of the dreams she once had’ (Lynch 2012: 167). This self-conscious sense of a fundamental splitting of self is not merely a moralising narrative about the loss of innocence, but is characteristic of our human condition as decentred subjects. With the archive fever of the diary (distinct from other forms of archivisation such as the blog or the social media profile by its privacy, its overt association with the intimate, ‘authentic’ self), we are forced to realise more vividly what we have gained and lost in the years, the sense of alienation that occurs when confronting the thoughts of our younger selves.
The secret is always a communication, even as it is concealed as such. You cannot have a secret without a hint of communication, otherwise it hardly exists. The promise of Laura’s diary entry is its seduction: ‘I promise to tell these things to you’. We are led to believe we are reading something intimate, never designed for public consumption. Yet as the diary progresses, we find that Laura is increasingly insistent on her narrative as narrative; she wants to write the diary to tell her story. When she realises she is in grave danger, she gives the diary to her friend Harold ‘for safekeeping’ (Lynch 2012: 184). She wants people to know how she ended up in such a twisted, seedy situation. Although Laura sometimes goes into detail about her trips into the woods with various shady characters, her dalliances in the Double R diner and hangouts with best pal Donna, the diary is often elliptical—especially elliptical in relation to Laura’s erotic fantasies: ‘ I went into a deep, drugged, happy, thoughtful, nasty, and still-innocent fantasy. I’ll have to tell more later…I feel so dreamy right now…’ (Lynch 2012: 120). The chain of adjectives is as bewildering as it is suggestive, the oxymoronic play between nasty/still-innocent disturbing our easy sense of the binary between good-girl and bad-girl. There is a sense of playful performance not unlike the deliberately seductive tone of someone selling phone sex, the elliptical gaps indicating that breathy space of erotic silence. Laura’s refusal, or inability, to disclose the details of her strange and alluring fantasy, seduce us with the promise of a secret. At some points in the diary, she lapses into poetry and what resembles a kind of displaced dramatic script, furthering the sense of the deferral of meaning, the weight of the secret and the struggle to articulate it which is the masochistic scene of both pain and play.
Indeed, some of the pages of the diary are noted by the editor as torn out, and often Laura alludes to something but never explains it fully. In a sense, this enables to maintain power over her secrets. As Jean Baudrillard says of the secret:
Everything that can be revealed lies outside the secret. For the latter is not a hidden signified, nor the key to something, but circulates through and transverses everything that can be said, just as seduction flows beneath the obscenity of speech. It is the opposite of communication, and yet it can be shared. The secret maintains its power only at the price of remaining unspoken, just as seduction operates only because never spoken nor intended.
(Baudrillard 1990: 79)
How unseductive it is to be explicitly seduced! Some cretinous man in a nightclub approaching you with his sloppily explicit sonnet of adoration. It is in the price of a glimpse, a smile or a chance, enigmatic word, that we are seduced. Seduction unravels in the realm of the clipped, the elusive and cryptic. Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel, Lolita (1955), is written as a diary and its beautiful language is not the only thing that seduces the reader: its disturbing seduction is the uncertainty as to how much of the narrative is truth, how much the projection of Humbert Humbert’s zealous, harlequin imagination. Think also of Amy Dunne’s diary in Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl (2012), which provides a reflective counter narrative to her husband Nick’s present control of the story. Later, we learn that her diary entries were fabricated in order to incriminate Nick in her disappearance. The diary here becomes a tool of seduction, the private sphere designed to cause events in the public. Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a comic novel disguised as a diary, satirising the cultural representation of the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype by having her blonde protagonist, Lorelei Lee, cannily trick men into various racketing schemes (including buying her diamonds), at the same time as negotiating a trickstery language which shamelessly embraces its spelling errors and grammatical faults, and as such pokes fun at both the Patriarchal Laws of Discourse and the whimsical gendering and power performance of Lorelei Lee herself.
The diary, as I have already said, is actually a form of communication, whether we like it or not. As a text, there is the implicit potentiality of its exposure to the world; a frisson between public and private that worms its way into the diary and infects the way we read and write, encouraging us to hold back or expose more, constantly engaged in the game of the secret, its slippage between presence and absence, silence and revelation. Perhaps no clearer is this visible in Laura Palmer’s diary than in her final entry, which is noted (presumably by the ‘editor’) as one of the torn pages:
Dear Diary, Undated
I know who he is. I know exactly who and what BOB is, and I have to tell everyone. I have to tell someone and make them believe.
Someone has torn the pages out of my diary, pages that help me realise maybe…pages with my poems, pages of writing, private pages.
I’m so afraid of death.
I’m so afraid that no one will believe me until after I have taken the seat that I fear has been saved for me in the darkness. Please don’t hate me. I never meant to see the small hills and the fire. I never meant to see him or let him in.
Please, Diary, help me explain to everyone that I did not want what I have become. I did not want to have certain memories and realisations of him. I only did what any of us can do, in any situation…
My very best.
(Lynch 2012: 184).
The fact that Laura does not reveal the true identity of BOB is compelling, because why should she? If this is a diary merely for herself, then there would be no need to recount the agony of his name in writing. She does not disclose the truth, but rather marks the pain of a burial. ‘I have to tell everyone. I have to tell someone and make them believe’: and yet we know she will never get to tell the secret, since, as the editor tells us, after this final entry Laura is found dead days later. This drive for knowledge which seduces us as readers, sends us scattering back over the text, searching for clues and codes as to the true nature of the entity that has tormented Laura for most of the entries. It is probably for this reason that the creators of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost and David Lynch, were so reluctant to reveal the identity of Laura’s killer halfway through season two, as their network pressured them to. What keeps us watching and reading is partly the seductive possibility of the secret; we don’t really even want to know, we just want the pleasure of trying to find out…
Still, while Laura’s diary was evidently written as an exploration into trauma and the problematic pleasure of voyeurism and secrecy, a similar teenage drug diary from the early 1970s raises questions about the ethics and polemic uses of the diary as a writerly form. Published by ‘Anonymous’ as Go Ask Alice (1971), but later discovered to be written by Beatrice Sparks; while initially marketed as nonfiction, it is now widely sold as fiction. There is some controversy over whether Sparks based the diary on the real diary of one of her patients, and the persistence of this controversy attests to our obsession with the slippery division between fiction and reality, a line that the diary form negotiates with only the most tender of distinctions. Like Laura Palmer, Alice is a young teenager who soon finds herself embroiled in a darkly muddled world of drugs (coke for Laura, LSD and heroin for Alice) and prostitution, made darker still by the hints of physical and sexual abuse incurred by both characters/diarists. There are striking similarities between the two diaries, but the crucial difference, to me, is that while Lynch wrote Laura’s diary to extend the thematic explorations of Twin Peaks, to give Laura a voice and deepen our knowledge of her character, Sparks wrote her diary novel with the didactic purpose of teaching an anti-drugs message to its avid teenage readers.
When I first devoured Go Ask Alice, a whole six years ago now, I found myself sucked into the sinister allure of Alice’s adventures, which were at once so far away and yet perilously close to my life in a rural Ayrshire community where many of us were bumming out on toxic legal highs purloined from the local sex shop. I found myself rather terrified of my edition of the book; after reading it I shoved it to the back of the shelf, behind my equally harrowing copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, and tried to forget about it. The cover has a picture of a skinny girl, face turned away from the camera, buried in her hand. It is all shadows; the title has ALICE and ANONYMOUS printed in harrowing block capitals. It reminds me of similar covers from the anorexic and depressive memoirs of Wasted (Marya Hornbacher) and Prozac Nation (Elizabeth Wurtzel). It cut a bit too close to the bone; I was worried that I’d get lost in the text somehow, the way I used to find myself lost in things that horrified yet seduced me.
Maybe part of this devouring was like Crusoe’s fear of being devoured: what scares him is the thought of being eaten alive by some unknown beast (think also of the Beast that haunts the boys in Lord of the Flies…). The fact that the corrupted fable of a contemporary Alice was meant to be anonymous probably made it scarier for me, because she was the everygirl, the possibility that anyone might be seduced by a life of self-destruction. Alice is the horror of the other within; the self-hating, monstrous self.
Reading it back now, however, with my vaguely improved and university approved capacities at close reading, I can see the slippages where the text reveals its true author, the moralising American therapist who wanted to push her opinions on sexuality and drug abuse. Maybe as a teenager I was too close to the subject matter to think about the tone and style, the actual form of the diary. Some of it is pretty accurate: the in-depth reflections on diet and weight and self-image which prompt Alice’s first trip down the rabbit hole of self-harm and addiction. However, it’s obvious to me that it couldn’t be the authentic discourse of someone Alice’s age. There are so many points where you have to stop and think, would a teenage girl really say that? Like when she reflects on her mother’s youth and whether her mother got so hung up on boys as she did: ‘I wonder if boys were as oversexed in those days as they are now?’ (Sparks 1994: 9). ‘Oversexed’ reads like the kind of word that would crop up on Mumsnet if it was around in the 1970s. There’s a general tone to the novel, a kind of failed attempt to script the logic of a teenage mind through an emphasis on ‘cool’, that reminds me of those 1970s and 1980s sex ed documentaries they used to wheel out the telly for in Personal Social Education at school. You’d be so distracted by the bad haircuts and the terribly stunted dialogue that you forgot about what the documentary was supposed to be teaching you, even as the narrative hammered it home so overtly that you’d have to be asleep to miss it. The ‘editors’ of Go Ask Alice claim the book to be ‘based on the actual diary of a fifteen-year-old drug user’; ‘It is not a definitive statement on the middle-class, teenage drug world. It does not offer any solutions’. Nevertheless, the definitive statement that you can extract from Go Ask Alice is clearly: don’t do drugs. Don’t have casual sex. Don’t runaway from home. Alice does all these things and it only ends badly from her and occasionally, Robinson Crusoe-style, she chides herself with an almost religious morality for falling into such vices and immoral behaviours. Sometimes, Alice’s anxiety is rendered with such clunkiness it’s surprising the reading public didn’t pick up on the diary’s inauthenticity sooner:
I hadn’t thought about being pregnant before. Can it happen the first time? Will Bill marry me if I am or will he just think I’m an easy little dum-dum who makes it with everyone? Of course he won’t marry me, he’s only fifteen years old. I guess I’ll just have to have an abortion or something. I certainly couldn’t stand it if I had to leave school like_______did last year. The kids talked about absolutely nothing else for weeks. Oh God, please, please make me not pregnant!
(Sparks 1994: 30-31)
You could take those first few sentences as the cover quotes on leaflets from a vintage NHS ad on pregnancy and birth control advice. It’s so obviously contrived. There are other parts of the text where the slippage between teenage imagination and cringe-worthy adult representation is a bit more ambiguous; for example her description of sex with her drug dealer boyfriend, Richie, as ‘like lighting and rainbows and springtime’ (Sparks 1994: 43), which is naively refreshing at the same time as being a little too absurd for someone who is supposed to premise her existence on being a hyper-cool teenage dropout.
While Laura’s last diary entry is genuinely pretty harrowing, Alice’s is laced with a queasy sense of self-awareness that seems filtered through textbook rhetoric on adolescent mental health, as if the wiser voice of Sparks (therapist and Mormon youth counsellor) were speaking through her:
I used to think I would get another diary after you are filled, or even that I would keep a diary or journal through my whole life. But now I don’t really think I will. Diaries are great when you’re young. In fact, you saved my sanity a hundred, thousand, million times. But I think when a person gets older she should be able to discuss her problems and thoughts with other people, instead of just another part of herself as you have been to me. Don’t you agree? I hope so, for you are my dearest friend and I shall thank you always for sharing my tears and heartaches and my struggles and strifes, and my joys and happinesses. It’s all been good in its own special way, I guess.
(Sparks 1994: 151-152)
Would a teenage girl really use the word ‘strifes’? Would she really, in the midst of a drug-addled breakdown, sound as lucid and lofty as to say ‘I think when a person gets older’? There is though some genuine pathos in the simple, casual ‘See ya’ followed by the overtly political and moralising register of the epilogue:
The subject of this book died three weeks after her decision not to keep another diary.
Her parents came home from a movie and found her dead. They called the police and the hospital but there was nothing anyone could do.
Was it an accidental overdose? A premeditated overdose? No one knows, and in some ways that question isn’t important. What must be of concern is that she died, and that she was only one of approximately 50,000 drug deaths in the United States that year.
(Sparks 1994: 153)
This overtly cold and clinical passage is obviously rendered as a contrast to the preceding philosophising from Alice herself, who is here transformed into the impersonal ‘subject’, whose identity is subsumed into a broader narrative about drug problems in the U.S. However, the canny reader should be suspicious of the way that Sparks clearly set up Alice’s ‘epiphany’ as the ironic precursor to her death, which was obviously meant to emphasise the tragedy of her wasted life, the cause of which is explicitly rooted in drug abuse. There’s that famous phrase of second wave feminists, the personal is political: it resonates throughout Go Ask Alice in the sense that Sparks is making a political statement on sexual morality through the denigrating circumstances that Alice finds herself in as a result of reckless, premarital sex—which in the diary’s narrative is almost always tied to drug abuse, to being irresponsibly stoned out your head. The familiar narrative of suburban girl gone bad appears as a microcosm for a wider point about the ‘50,000 drug deaths’ across the rest of the U.S that year. Thus the diary in literary fiction serves to blur the line between fiction and reality, the personal and political.
This blurring of the personal and political is also evident in the actual diaries of various authors. I take as my example Virginia Woolf, who wrote on the brink of World War II a vision of a perfect pastoral afternoon in the English countryside as a counterpoint to the ominous coming of war:
I stay out here, after bowls, to say – what? On this possibly last night of peace. Will the 9 o’clock bulletin end it all? – our lives, oh yes, and everything for the next fifty years? Everyone’s writing I suppose about this last day. I walked on the downs; lay under a cornstack and looked at the empty land and the pinkish clouds in a perfect blue summer afternoon sky. Not a sound. Workmen discussing war on the road – one for it, one against. For us its [sic] like being on a small island. Neither of us has any physical fear. Why should we? But there’s a vast calm cold gloom. And the strain. Like waiting a doctor’s verdict. And the young – young men smashed up. But the point is one is too numbed to think. Old Clive sitting on the terrace, says “I don’t want to live through it.” Explains that his life recedes. Has had the best. We privately are so content. Bliss day after day. So happy cooking dinner, reading, playing bowls. No feeling of patriotism. How to go on, through war? – that’s the question. Yes, its [sic] a lovely still summer evening; not a sound. A swallow came into the sitting room
(Woolf 2008: 459).
There is something rather uncanny about reading this passage, blessed and cursed as we are with retrospective knowledge of what was to come in the war, its atrocities, its rupturing of this simple, innocent life forever. Woolf is clearly already aware of what is to come; she has learned from the first war: ‘young men smashed up’, a ‘vast calm cold gloom’ – images which seem incongruous against the ‘perfect blue afternoon sky’. Woolf effectively evokes that awful limbo feeling of waiting for something terrible to happen. The diary form is especially suited to capturing such moments, the in-betweenness of present and future, the ‘strain’ of this waiting, writing as if to pass time. Woolf notes the futility of writing at such a time: ‘I stay out here, after bowls, to say – what?’, the dash emphasising that aporetic sense of meaninglessness in the face of the unknowable war to come. It is the granular details of everyday life that remain concrete, that seem to ground her, as they ground the reader against the shadowy abyss of war that hangs over our reading of this piece: ‘cooking dinner, reading, playing bowls’. The strange interruptions that mark a routine day: ‘A swallow came into the sitting room’. That Woolf flits indecisively between describing the beautiful pastoral scene and thinking ahead to the war suggests the struggle to capture the everyday, the struggle to pin down in language that elusive sense of momentary calm which is swept up in the grander historical events. I wonder, if I had kept a diary as far back as 9/11, would I have written much about the event itself? One of the few ‘flashbulb memory’ events from my lifetime that I remember vividly is the London 7/7 bombings. I was on a boat on the way to Tobermory and the youth worker who was looking after us got a text about it. I think she had the same Nokia 3220 phone as me. She mentioned the terrorist attack briefly but I have no recollection of how I felt about the event itself, whether I was stricken with grief or worry for London family members. I seem to remember more the fact that someone was playing 2Pac on a crackling ship radio; we were drinking watery Ovaltine and sharing a bar of Cadbury’s Mint Chocolate. I remember feeling very calm and safe, being rocked to sleep in the dark little cabin with the boat moored at some bay, the feel of the water sloshing up against the walls so comforting. Perhaps it’s only the tangible details we can cling to.
Woolf’s diary entry brings us to the question of the cultural function of the diary. The diary gives us a bottom-up, microcosmic insight into a specific experience in a specific time and place. Woolf: the middle-class writer’s view of the interwar years, told from the position of poetic eloquence and reflective precision. Then there’s perhaps the most famous of all ‘historical’ diaries: Anne Frank’s. Arguably, what draws people back to Frank’s account of living as a Jew in that perilous moment in German history is not the overall backdrop of historical and personal trauma but the focus on everyday detail. We want the tangible reality of how someone like Anne lived, survived and loved at a specific, dramatic moment in time. It’s the classic liberal humanist narrative of empathy. The Diary of Alice James (1934), sister of Henry and William James, is an interesting case as a ‘real life’ diary, not only because it was published after her death (and thus raises interesting ethical questions about whether one’s diary is up for grabs after one’s passing), but also because of its representation of illness. Alice’s struggle with physical illness plays out in the diary as a conflict of mind and body, will and impulse, power and impotence. She describes abandoning her body in order to preserve her mental sanity. It is a candid account of illness that shirks away the need for sympathy and never skirts around the difficult issues of assuming the ‘sickness’ identity. It is also rather funny in parts (as in Frank’s), delivering an array of scathing opinions on figures known to the James circle.
The diary form, then, has a clear lineage within ideas of trauma and authenticity, gender and genre. If the diary is associated with dailyness and immediacy, it seems the ideal form to express the experiential ‘reality’ of everyday life, which is at once the most obvious and most elusive aspect of our existence. Most of the texts I have discussed so far have been written by women, about women (including themselves). Dorothy Wordsworth wrote several beautiful journals rich with everyday description and nature writing, imagery which her brother William plucked scrupulously for his poetry.She talks about illness, frustration, the loveliness of her garden. While William’s poetry is hugely famous and taught in school curriculums, Dorothy’s journals remain a niche interest for Romanticists and academics. While William enters literary stardom, even into the twenty-first century (though Carol Ann Duffy seems to have overtaken him in the Higher English poetry stakes…), Dorothy remains cast aside as a kind of fragile, queer and weak Victorian woman.
I could reel off a list of other texts by women writers which use the diary to thematise and dramatise psychological and/or historical trauma: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892) and Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple (1982) being two strong examples. When we think of writing a diary, do we think of teenage Sylvia Plath wannabes (Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You), wearing all black and scribbling furiously, alone in a bedroom adorned with Cure posters and feminist slogans? Do we think of the innocent young woman, maintaining a diary to make sense of transitions in their life—Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (1949), Marielle Heller’s 2015 film The Diary of a Teenage Girl? Why is the diary form traditionally associated with women? Perhaps it’s for the same reason that women are traditionally associated with the everyday as such. This is because, as Rita Felski (2000) has suggested, women (because of their biological ‘rhythms’ and link to domesticity) are connected with repetition, with tasks that repeat day after day; whereas men are associated with the dramas of the public sphere, the dynamism of war, work, politics and so on.
There is obviously a rich array of texts which fit into this gendering of the diary. When one tries to think of a masculine tradition of diary writing, one realises that diaries by male authors tend to be subsumed into the category of historical artefact, rather than the comparatively ‘feminine’, domesticated diary. Think of Samuel Pepys’ diary for instance, which was certainly focused on details of everyday domestic life as much as it was on the politics and social events of the time, but is largely considered as a loftily important historical document. Think of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938), which is modelled on the 18th-century fictional convention of presenting itself as a diary, but in fact is generally conceived of as a philosophical novel rather than a diary as such. There are far more texts to be discussed here and critical issues at stake, but clearly there is a lot to be said about the gendering of the diary as ‘genre’ (genre in the sense of form but also content, i.e. philosophy, everyday life, adventure, young adult etc).
…Admittedly some people live more than others. The excitement curve of a telephone operator, white-haired, lumpy as a pallid pudding with knots of blue arthritic veins for raisins, would no doubt be shallow = a slow undulation with a monotonous mechanical basis, heightened by a slight bump for a movie or dinner with the “girls.” But the life of a Willa Cather, a Lillian Helman, a Virginia Woolf – – – would it not be a series of rapid ascents and probing descents into shades and meanings – into more people, ideas and conceptions? Would it not be in colour, rather than black-and-white, or more grey? I think it would. And thus, I not being them, could try to be more like them: to listen, observe, and feel, and try to live most fully
(Plath 2011: 44).
As Sylvia Plath muses in her diary entry above, everyone has different ways of living, and in a sense, some people ‘live more than others’. Why do we (as the consumers, the reading public — to use a rather gross term) lust after the details of famous people’s lives, while leaving the case of ‘people like us’ to the ethnographers, to the experimental sociology of the Mass Observation project? Perhaps it is because of the magical realisation that such extraordinary people actually led ordinary lives: Virginia Woolf cooking her dinner, Sylvia Plath enjoying a couple of sherries before bed, Beyoncé perhaps clipping her toenails and settling down to an evening with Big Brother (okay, that last one is clearly fantasy – Beyoncé surely wouldn’t clip her own toenails?!). While Plath makes the point that some people have more colourful lives than others, she also usefully foregrounds the role of the diary as a way of rendering one’s life as more exotic, regardless of how famous or exciting one is. Plath refreshingly admits to ‘try[ing] to be more like them […] and try to live most fully’. Maybe there is a sense in which the impulse to record the daily occurrences of your life encourages you to live more fully, to embrace the moment, to linger over the good things and make their significance more concrete in writing, to start weaving a web of associations that will linger on in memory and perhaps provide the treasure of discovery for a future reader…
And even if nobody ever reads your diary, I still think it’s a useful form of self-expression. I’m pretty sure it’s done wonders for my own mental health, and also it means that nobody has to listen to me bang on about my problems for too long, because I’ve already sorted them out in writing, stashed them away at the back of a drawer. Decanted them, like Krapp, if only temporarily (the written has a habit of breaking out into the real, as anyone who has read Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart will attest). Anyway, sometimes it’s fun to have a casual flick through old diary entries. While it generally feels self-indulgent, there’s a certain pleasure in being reminded of wee embarrassing and maybe endearing details of your old life that you’d have totally forgotten otherwise. Like celebrating sixth year exam results with ‘Pimms in the West Kirk’ (Ayr’s finest…), like writing a poem called ‘The Sirens of Ibiza’, like having a weird addiction to sweet’n’salt popcorn, star jumps and Downtown Abbey, like ‘feeling nostalgic for Comic Sans’. Like the morsels of venom or wit I must’ve mustered in the flush of the moment, describing the ‘wankery South London yuppies who didn’t tip’ ; the silly wee quirky conversations you had with people: ‘I stopped at the bridge to gaze at the near-full moon and told Douglas it made me feel primal somehow so he told me when he was twelve he used to have a Ghostbusters calendar which told him to go outside and howl at the moon. I just adore Douglas’. It’s an opportunity to revisit your first impressions of people (who later become friends or enemies), albums, poems, novels, political events (the 2015 election and 2014 election gaining a particular amount of page coverage–Brexit being too depressing to even write about), travesties and celebrations. Sometimes, my diary makes absolutely no sense to me, often because I neglect the provision of context— ‘At the Burns party upstairs, I talked to people about brewing magic crystal meth, learning Japanese, and postcolonialism, among other things’—but I think I’m comfortable with the mystery. I like that there’s a part of myself that I might never know again; it’s like the relieving of some burden. Maybe that’s the beauty of the diary in general: its sense of controlling one’s life but also its possibility of escapism, paradoxically, through reality.
A Select Bibliography
Baudrillard, Jean, 1990. On Seduction, trans. by Brian Singer,(Montréal: New World Perspectives).
Bergson, Henri, 2013. ‘From Creative Evolution’, Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. by Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), pp. 68-72.
Blanchot, Maurice, 1982. The Space of Literature (University of Nebraska Press).
Blanchot, Maurice, 1987. ‘Everyday Speech, Yale French Studies, Vol. 73, pp. 12-20.
Cixous, Hélène and Jacques Derrida, Veils, trans. by Geoffrey Bennington, (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
Belle & Sebastian are one of those bands that give you a warm, fuzzy and nostalgic feeling. As much as they’re often lazily attributed to the cultural realm of the ‘indie kid’ or the ‘Glasgow hipster’, this neglects the fact of their wider popularity. They are, after all, a band who’ve been around for over 20 years now. I’ve played their tunes in the restaurant where I work and witnessed middle-aged folks who look like they’re off to a Springsteen concert humming along to ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’. Their songs have popped up on plenty of popular tv shows and films (‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ on Girls, ‘I’m a Cuckoo’ on The Inbetweeners, ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ in Juno – to name just a handful).Like a sweet, familiar honey, their music just sticks to you, whether you wanna spread it on your toast or not. Sure, they get a lot of hate: their songs are cloying, the singing a bit too saccharine at times, the lyrics silly, the sound the same on each album. I’ve heard them being called ‘beige’ music.
For me, Belle & Sebastian make pastel coloured music. I don’t know, maybe it’s a touch of the old synaesthesia but I’ve always imagined their songs awash in delicate shades of blue and pink, green and yellow and orange – a bit like the colours of sorbet. They’re just the perfect summer band. Some bands it’s easy to have a colour for, or even a texture: Mogwai are deep deep green and black, LCD Soundsystem are bright, shiny white, Mac DeMarco all denim blue and dirty mustard yellow, Kate Bush is a luscious kind of cherry red, Bjork is all the hues of a pearl, Tame Impala are psychedelic greens and blues and oranges, Aphex Twin is ink black, but sometimes yellow, blue or bubblegum pink. In the same vein, Belle & Sebastian to me are all about pastels, sometimes a wee bit brighter but never beige, except when it’s that classy kind of chino beige that you might see paired with a yellow blouse and pink ribbon. I want to be dressed up with a funny hat, a mini skirt and retro sunglasses when I listen to them. Something lilac, a stick of ice lolly. Hell, maybe even rollerblades. I find myself immersed in the stories of the songs; I sort of want to be a character in one of them – a lost twenty-something with her school days long behind her, figuring out how to deal with the world and enjoying living in the city.
Listening to them involves a kind of camaraderie: you’re sharing the world with them, with all the voices of each song’s narrator; sharing Stuart Murdoch’s hazy, romanticised version of Glasgow, the lives of the quirky characters he writes into his lyrics. The musical arrangements in their songs vary between stripped back and fragile, sometimes very much Smiths-influenced (inherently, B&S are an ‘urban’ band, right?), with pretty melodies adorned with piano, acoustic guitar, maybe a bit of bass (‘We Rule the School’, ‘It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career’, ‘Dress Up in You’ – these are some of my favourites), to zany and fun and maybe even lovably chaotic, with some of the earlier songs sporting surf rock guitars (‘La Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’) or (in the early days, Cubase-arranged) electronic numbers (‘Electronic Renaissance’, or, later on, the near seven minute ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ which frames its tribute to the late great poet inside a Europop epic), as well as the Beatles-influenced ‘chamber pop’ (of which they share the influence mantle with Camera Obscura) – see, for example, The Life Pursuit. Their songs are often self-conscious, writing about the importance of losing yourself in books and songs (the final song of Tigermilk, ‘Mary Jo’, references the fictional book that titles the album’s first song: ‘You’re reading a book, “The State I Am In”’), referencing themselves, other ‘indie’ bands (Arab Strap being the most obvious), creating this whole dreamworld of literary and musical references which itself becomes the fantasy world of the songs. When you listen to them, it’s impossible not to lose yourself slightly to this pastel-saturated universe. It’s not just twee; it’s bittersweet happiness, nostalgia, personal and cultural reflection – they began making music in the 90s, after all. That’s why I smile when I see someone sporting a wee Belle & Sebastian tote bag or t-shirt: you know there’s someone else out there who shares that sweet and silly, slightly sad but hopeful little world.
In a way, they’re a band for the underdogs. They cut their teeth on the Glasgow open mic circuit, with its crowds veering between adoration or ruthless indifference. Every Saturday, under the guise of various band or solo arrangements, Stuart and his pals would appear in the Halt bar on Woodlands Road (sadly it no longer exists) – you can read all about it in bass/guitar player Stuart David’s memoir, In the All-Night Café, which geekily delves into early musical experiments, the songwriting process and all the crazy moments that brought the band together in their formative year. So yeah, it’s worth a read if you’re a B&S fan or even just a musician. It’s important to remember that the band produced and recorded all their early songs (came together, essentially) at Stow College’s now slightly legendary Beatbox course, which at the time was more or less a course that unemployed musicians in the area took to ensure they kept receiving the dole: ‘From what I could tell,’ Stuart writes of his first impression of the course, ‘[Beatbox] was a total shambles. Just scores of unemployed musicians sitting around in a dark, airless labyrinth, doing nothing. […] I wandered around on my own trying to work out what was what, while people scowled at me, or just stared blankly into space. A thick cloud of cigarette smoke pervaded the place, and something about the absence of daylight and the lack of fresh air made me wonder if the place was actually a detention centre set up by the government to incarcerate all the people they’d caught using Social Security benefit as an arts bursary’ (In the All-Night Cafe, pp. 10-11). This is probably an impression of college hallways and classrooms that most young adults of Generation X or millennials growing up in Britain can relate to: the flickering strip lighting, the apathy amongst both staff and pupils, the sense of suffocating bureaucracy, of life in suspension. And yet out of that dark and maybe even Kafkaesque environment, sometimes the magic happens. People come together and make the best of things – it’s inspiring.
For me, it’s also inspiring that Stuart Murdoch is actually from Ayr. The only other celebrated artist I can think of off the top of my head that hails from Ayr is none other than Robert Burns, so yeah, it’s been awhile since the place has been put on the map, artistically speaking. Belle & Sebastian are usually associated with Glasgow (especially the West End), but for me it’s important to remember their humble beginnings. Ayr still has a pretty cool music scene in terms of acoustic nights in local pubs, but there’s definitely a dearth of actual decent gig venues, especially when it’s producing so many talented musicians through, for example, the well-respected Commercial Music course at the UWS Ayr Campus (see for example Bella and the Bear and the wonderful Shanine Gallagher).
ANYWAY, back to Belle & Sebastian. I wanted to talk about Tigermilk as an example of their oeuvre in general – as the raw, often forgotten diamond. It’s their debut album, though I actually came to B&S first through If You’re Feeling Sinister, having picked it up from Fopp when I moved to the West End for university and decided a B&S CD was a good way of immersing myself in local culture. Tigermilk reminds me of that lost and lonely summer feeling, walking around the city killing time before going to work, worrying about all the books I had to read before September, the people and things and memories I was in love with, that paranoid and desperate desire to write myself and indeed keep writing. It’s a lo-fi sort of album; it feels sweet and magical in that simple way, and you can tell that it marks the moment when the band discovered they had something special going on.
Sometimes the lyrics are a wee bit strange and surreal; the cast of characters Murdoch evokes in his lyrics can be pretty bewildering. The band’s slightly surreal vibe is indicated by the cover art for Tigermilk: a black-and-white picture of Murdoch’s then girlfriend, Joanne Kenney, apparently breastfeeding a toy tiger. Then take a look at the lyrics to ‘My Wandering Days are Over’ for example: ‘Six months on, the winter’s gone / The disenchanted pony / Left the town with the circus boy / The circus boy got lonely / It’s summer, and it’s sister song’s / Been written for the lonely / The circus boy is feeling melancholy’. You’re never sure if the characters are metaphors for existentially pained middle-class indie kids (lost in the job market/lost in the adult world circus of mad capitalism??), or actual protagonists in B&S’s musical universe. That’s the poetry of it – you get to decide. It all sort of makes sense, this girl with spiky black hair nourishing a toy tiger; sure, you can take it as symbolic, but it’s also just intriguing and slightly controversial enough to draw attention to a debut album.
One of B&S’s unique selling points is the whimsical fictions they weave through their ‘brand’ as a band. Take, for example, the sleeve notes to Tigermilk: they detail a cute little tale about Sebastian and Isabelle, the namesakes for the band.
Sebastian met Isabelle outside the Hillhead Underground Station, in Glasgow. Belle harassed Sebastian, but it was lucky for him that she did. She was very nice and funny, and sang very sweetly. Sebastian was not to know this, however. Sebastian was melancholy.
He had placed an advert in the local supermarket. He was looking for musicians. Belle saw him do it. That’s why she wanted to meet him. She marched straight up to him unannounced and said, ‘Hey you!’ She asked him to teach her to play the guitar. Sebastian doubted he could teach her anything, but he admired her energy, so he said ‘Yes’.
It was strange. Sebastian had just decided to become a one-man band. It is always when you least expect it that something happens. Sebastian had befriended a fox because he didn’t expect to have any new friends for a while. He still loved the fox, although he had a new distraction. Suddenly he was writing many new songs. Sebastian wrote all of his best songs in 1995. In fact, most of his best songs have the words ‘Nineteen Ninety-five’ in them. It bothered him a little. What will happen in 1996?
They worked on the songs in Belle’s house. Belle lived with her parents, and they were rich enough to have a piano. It was in a room by itself at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara. If Belle’s mum had known this, she would not have been happy. She was paying for the guitar lessons. The lessons gave Sebastian’s life some structure. He went to the barber’s to get a haircut.
Belle and Sebastian are not snogging. Sometimes they hold hands, but that is only a display of public solidarity. Sebastian thinks Belle ‘kicks with the other foot’. Sebastian is wrong, but then Sebastian can never see further than the next tragic ballad. It is lucky that Belle has a popular taste in music. She is the cheese to his dill pickle.
Belle and Sebastian do not care much for material goods. But then neither Belle nor Sebastian has ever had to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Belle’s most recent song is called Rag Day. Sebastian’s is called The Fox In The Snow. They once stayed in their favourite caf’ for three solid days to recruit a band. Have you ever seen The Magnificent Seven? It was like that, only more tedious. They gained a lot of weight, and made a few enemies of waitresses.
Belle is sitting highers in college. She didn’t listen the first time round. Sebastian is older than he looks. He is odder than he looks too. But he has a good heart. And he looks out for Belle, although she doesn’t need it. If he didn’t play music, he would be a bus driver or be unemployed. Probably unemployed. Belle could do anything. Good looks will always open doors for a girl.
You’ve got it all here: the playful and ultra twee imagery ‘(she is the cheese to his dill pickle’), the hint of queer culture and crossdressing that sometimes runs through B&S songs (‘This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara’), the DIY elements, the spatial immersion in Glasgow’s West End as a kind of leafy wonderland where people own pianos in airy rooms overlooking gardens. It’s honest and cute and totally unashamed, totally uninterested in being cool. Compared with the stylised, rock’n’roll swagger of Britpop, this album (originally released in 1996 then rereleased in 1999) is so refreshing. The tale of Belle and Sebastian is a short story, more than an explanation of the album’s lyrics or ‘concept’; it’s a bit ambiguous, a touchstone for all the other B&S characters who populate later LP – it’s perhaps, most importantly, an indication of the band’s consistent literary bent.
‘Sebastian was melancholy’. Well, melancholy is probably the overriding emotion on Tigermilk. Melancholy being that feeling of sadness, yearning and inexplicable loss. An indulgent feeling, a languid and probably narcissistic feeling that is almost pleasurable despite lolling around in the negative. Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia (1915) famously distinguishes mourning and melancholia thus: ‘In mourning the world has become impoverished and empty, during melancholia, it is the ego itself’. Mourning is about the loss of a specific object, whereas melancholia is a vaguer feeling, a depression with no apparent or obvious source, a swallowing up of selfhood into narcissistic darkness. One of the reason’s I really like ‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ is its in-your-face rejection of the Coca Cola style let’s-all-hold-hands-and-be-happy version of love, the assertion of personal endurance and the often denigrated value of independence in a world where we’re all supposed to follow the crowd: ‘But if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still a child / It’s to take a hiding / Yeah if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still at school / It’s to be alone’. I was that kid who sometimes liked to walk around the playground alone, making up stories in my head – adults just assume it’s because you’re being bullied but there’s a golden value to imagination and it’s easier to forget that as an adult, easy to forget that sometimes you need time out from your friends to be in your own mind.
A lot of Tigermilk is about trying to negotiate personal identity in an often problematic adult world with few opportunities for anyone vaguely creative. It’s worth quoting a hearty chunk of ‘Expectations’ to demonstrate this:
Monday morning wake up knowing that you’ve got to go to school
Tell your mum what to expect, she says it’s right out of the blue
Do you want to work in Debenham’s, because that’s what they expect
Start in Lingerie, and Doris is your supervisor
And the head said that you always were a queer one from the start
For careers you say you went to be remembered for your art
Your obsession gets you known throughout the school for being strange
Making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay
In the queue for lunch they take the piss, you’ve got no appetite
And the rumour is you never go with boys and you are tight
So they jab you with a fork, you drop the tray and go berserk
While your cleaning up the mess the teacher’s looking up your skirt
We’ve all known (or been ourselves!) the weird kid obsessed with music, inviting abuse with every strange word spoken. Wear something black, a bit of eyeliner and you’re inviting folk to ask you if you “shag dead folk”. There’s always the one of many that has a whole collection of cool things to say, to contribute to the world, but ends up in retail, in a call-centre, maybe waitressing. Again, Belle & Sebastian are the band of the underdog, the folk (and there are a lot of them) who slog away at day jobs but don’t give up on their dreams – whether those dreams involve becoming a star of track and field, a model, artist, musician, writer.
Tigermilk, then,isn’t just a melancholy album; there are some feel good moments, such as ‘You’re Just a Baby’, which features handclaps and a nice rock’n’roll beat with a simple, serenading refrain: ‘You’re just a baby, baby girl’. Fundamentally, Belle & Sebastian are a pop band, and a damn good one at that. Stuart Murdoch recently wrote and directed his own film, God Help the Girl, which more or less demonstrates his near-religious philosophy of pop music, as the character James (fittingly played by the singer from pop/electronic band Years & Years) proclaims:
A man needs only write one genius song, one song that lives forever in the hearts of the populous to make him forever divine. […] Many women and men have lived empty, wasted lives in attics trying to write classic pop songs. What they don’t realise is it’s not for them to decide. It’s God. Or, the god of music. Or, the part of God that concerns Himself with music.
This is some fairly interesting religious imagery coming from a singer (Murdoch) who has always been openly Christian. And of course, the hyperbolic emphasis on music’s divine significance here is perhaps a cheeky dig at the ego of the pop star, but it also touches on the importance of universalism for pop. It’s easy to consume, it should transcend generations, it should be technically perfect – the satisfying work of a ‘genius’. But good pop, as Belle & Sebastian demonstrate, isn’t all bubblegum songs about loving your sweetheart – it also has that spark of something else. For me, B&S capture a very specific experience of existential bewilderment in the modern world, combined with the right amount of romance, comedy, storytelling and a healthy streak of cynicism. God Help the Girl is twee as hell, but it’s also a loving portrait of Glasgow, of the early days of being in a band, the freedom of summer days drifting down the canal with the world shining bright around you. It’s maybe also a portrait of unrequited love. And, crucially, it transforms that cliche, the power of music, into something sparkly and fun as well as serious and uplifting – it is a musical after all. Its ambiguous ending, with the heroine (significantly called Eve – more religious imagery!) finally leaving the city and on a train ride to London where she intends to try and make it ‘alone’ after her existential rebirth and artistic awakening in Glasgow, is perhaps its strongest point – it’s a feminist assertion of personal creative desire as opposed to remaining tied down to the things your friends want.
Once again, Murdoch puts complete faith in his slightly damaged protagonists; he encourages us to just trust our creativity. Maybe that’s why I love Belle & Sebastian so much, because sure, their songs are mostly golden, pastel-hazed pop, but it’s not that simple; they embrace that wavering, magical and sad place between warm dreams and cold reality, and represent all the poor souls who live there in that limbo, such as the eponymous heroine from ‘Mary Jo’: ‘Your life is never dull in your dreams / A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it’. And even though such songs are full of melancholy, you’re still treated, as in an Arctic Monkeys song, to some brilliant lyrical candy: ‘Cause what you want is a cigarette / And a thespian with a caravanette in Hull’. So maybe that’s the special element, the thing that makes the everyday divine, that elevates the ordinary into a valid subject for pop music. And maybe, pleb that I am at heart, that’s why I love it.
Every time I close my eyes, It’s like a dark paradise
There’s something apocalyptic about a Blood Moon. The sense of waste and transient beauty, light and life shedding away. The moon takes its thirty-year delayed menstruation; red cloud wisps over its shining face like clots of blood being pulled across a pool of silver. Somewhere out there, lovers are lying in lush paradise, staring up at this white eye opened by god; far away, drowned in stars. A voice swirls like smoke over soft, shimmery guitar. It’s the eclipse, sometime about now, then, yesterday, and I am or I was listening to Lana Del Rey.
Honeymoon, then going back to Dark Paradise. Insomnia in the space between night and day; between one universe and another, always afloat in claustrophobia. Returning to this song again and again, its repetition, invoking the familiar sadness and masochism that Lana dreamt up only a few years ago, you’re surrounded by an eternal world of neon palms, boulevards dripped in milky dusk, the sickly excess of tequila sunrise against soaring choruses and stripped-back lyrics. In a way, you fall or sink into Lana Del Rey’s music. Like Kubla Kahn, the eponymous Chinese emperor of Coleridge’s opium-provoked fragment poem, you are sucked dreamily into the sultry visual world of dark objects, consumer heaven, the young and beautiful place of honeydew where you are invited to drink ‘the milk of paradise’. Lana’s swooning melodies charm over time, drawing you into an atmosphere of narcotised darkness which evokes a silent movie – even as the interplay between sound and image is as crucial a set of semiotics as anything Roland Barthes might analyse. You could fall back into the darkness, be seduced by the languid timeless sigh which slides over memories, nostalgia for lost evenings, red dresses and cigarettes, lost girls pressed up against bad boys in clubs, feeling like their whole existence is just a vision, propelling their electric bodies on and on as if in tune to Freud’s death drive.
Much of Lana’s music is about desire: the kind of desire that doesn’t leave you cut-up on the kitchen floor in crude emotion (a la Natalie Imbruglia, ‘Torn’), but passes through that place in the heart of culture that falls into absence and darkness. The secret hollow of modernity. It makes sense that she sung the sultry standout track for Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 The Great Gatsby adaptation, ‘Young and Beautiful’. Del Rey’s America is so Art Deco, from the typeface of her new album, to her obsession with cars and jazz and girls called Carmen, the fragile magic of Hollywood glamour which often bleeds at the seams. Lana returns to that dull wound and picks at it, indifferently, till it’s fresh again – a more ethereal thing that transcends the rotting body of America’s culture. Sex, violence, money, power, charisma; they all blur together in Lana’s fixated, addictive lyrics. In her performance, she already knows the irrelevance of authenticity; it makes her internet-immune, a kind of perfect. Nobody can critique her, because she’s always one step ahead. Despite the success of Lady Gaga, who wears her gender performativity on her sleeve, American culture remains obsessed with the cult of authenticity. Lana has been attacked for ‘making up’ the stories portrayed in her songs, the easy-love lifestyle she presents; for having plastic surgery and performing under an alias that nods more to Hollywood mythology than the girl-next-door vibes of her real name, Elizabeth Grant. Remember James Frey, the ‘man who rewrote his life’ and was subsequently attacked by Oprah when she discovered he’d fabricated and exaggerated a hefty chunk of his memoir of drug addiction? Lana, like James Frey, like Hemingway, is interested in the interplay between real life and fantasy, performance and authenticity; importantly, however, she shows how real life is itself played out and realised through the lens of mediated fantasy. Her songs betray a Baudrillardian ecstasy of communication, simulacra and simulations, updated for an age where the past is showered with the longed-for shroud of Hollywood glamour, where the present is fragmented, split across the Internet (where Lana first made her success, sensation).
Isn’t it lovely when somebody makes albums that really feel like art? From Born to Die’s glamorous sadness draped in an American flag, to the monochrome somnolence of Ultraviolence (produced, appropriately, by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys), each of Lana Del Rey’s records captures a persona, but one which shifts and gathers nuance in the filters of crooning choruses and soft guitars, the distinctive colour charts of an album cover. Born to Die: pastel blues and palm trees, red lips and smoky eyes; the glossy, time-travelling Americana of her short film Tropico (2013), whose flashy symbolism mixes purity with moral pollution, the Garden of Eden with unicorns and gangsters. Ultraviolence: black and white, the spare sex of sorrow. Her latest offering, Honeymoon, sinks deliciously a familiar aura of daydreams, heartache and a sense of mesmerising stasis captured in Lana’s recital of ‘Burnt Norton’ from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, which evokes an abstracted and absent conception of time, slipping away into endlessly echoing, impossible memory…
Footfalls echo in the memory. Sound effects; quiet sirens, the soft familiar crackle of static, reminding us of the temporal duration, the space of presence that opens up with each play of the song, then closes again in silence – but always there, always there waiting in possibility, for the next click, the next play. Down the passage which we did not take.
In the album sleeve, the white printed lyrics to ‘High By the Beach’ flicker and disappear in the yellow-gold light of a glossy photo depicting a tree-lined avenue. Lana Del Rey songs always paint little vignettes of stories, but her characters frequently disappear from view, their situations dreamlike, slanted towards death but never reaching conclusion. Like any avant-garde novel worth its salt, Lana Del Rey’s music often bears a slightly creepy, unsettling quality, a sense of never being quite finished, a sense of repetition, frustration and surrealist reality. While she can master a good pop tune, Lana never gives us that self-satisfied pomp and narrative closure of a Taylor Swift song; there is an almost uncanny quality to her musical arrangements: the drifting melodies, tinges of trip hop, strings, rippling snares and minimal beats. Literary references abound: from that iconic reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in Tropico, to the album title Ultraviolence (alluding to the random acts of ‘ultra-violence which the teenage protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange is addicted to) and all that sinister seduction of ‘Carmen’: ‘It’s alarming, honestly, how charming she can be’, in a nod to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. In ‘Ride’ she references the sexual plight of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, drifting through life by ‘relying on the kindness of strangers’; in a way, Blanche is a perfect Lana Del Rey heroine. Not only is she a ‘fallen woman’ but she is also an alcoholic, guzzling bourbon and symbolically-charged cherry soda (My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola, / My eyes are wide like cherry pies – ‘Cola’), and longs to die in a most extravagant way, conflicted by her desire for purity and her sexual appetite: first, she will eat an ‘unwashed grape’ (the poisoned fruit of Eden, the rotten core of carnal pleasure) then be ‘buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard—at noon—in the blaze of summer—and into an ocean as blue as my first lover’s eyes!’.
My baby lives in shades of blue
Blue eyes and jazz and attitude
Well New Orleans – the setting of A Streetcar Named Desire – is a city rich enough in jazz and attitude, especially in the 1940s. In a way, all of Del Rey’s characters are caught up on the deathward drive of streetcars named desire, only her streetcars have morphed into getaway vehicles and limousines, or else the rides of suburban rockstars: I spend my whole life driving in cars with boys / Riding around town, drinking in the white noise. The white noise? The ever-present static reality of radio and television, life flickering on amidst its background hum and rush. It’s an edgier version of Lorde’s ‘400 Luxe’, a delicate, pulsing tribute to the romance of small-town time wasting on roads where the houses don’t change:
We’re never done with killing time Can I kill it with you? Till our veins run red and…blue We come around here all the time Got a lot to not do, let me kill it with you
You pick me up and take me home again Head out the window again We’re hollow like the bottles that we drain You drape your wrist over the steering wheel Moses can drive from here We might be hollow, but we’re brave
On the subject of heroines, Lana is constantly critiqued for her portrayal of women; namely, her ensemble of doomed and lovelorn characters who lavish over their hopeless agony and fail to resist the anonymous bad boys which recur in her songs. Yet there is an irony to this critique, because critics seem to forget that it is a woman who is pulling the strings over all these puppets. Lana slips in and out of her roles as easily as she slips between haunting, orchestral notes. She is always in control, her voice brilliant as smoky quartz crystal, even as she sings about being out of control. There is a litheness to her performance that indicates the strength of her fiction: Lana is like a novelist, fabricating a shadow world which shows up the underbelly of American culture, from its Golden Age of 1950s glamour to the fractured present, where alcohol and club culture meet the melting pixel pot of the Internet. I wish I was dead already, she can say in a Guardian interview, incanting it like a spell, letting Twitter fall on its knees with spits and stirs of protest and loathing. Prostitutes, gangsters, trailer trash alcoholics. These people, these liminal figures on the margins of society – stereotypes, yes, but vivid ones nonetheless – are the lifeblood of Lana’s music and as she renders them, they have emotional depth, a soulless soul, unlike hiphop’s deadpan delivery of gangster vocabulary. As her voice swells to a pitch we realise that Lana has already dismissed something as ‘crude’ as identity politics, embracing instead the freedom land of the seventies, free because America, land of opportunity (for white women, at least) had then opened up a new lifestyle, a new kind of being. There is power in being a sad girl, nasal and depressed but somehow free, as in the paean to glamorous dishevelment, ‘Cruel World’ (from Ultraviolence): I like my candy and your heroin, / And I’m so happy, so happy now you’re gone. / Put my little red party dress on, / Everybody knows that I’m a mess, I’m crazy … ‘Cause you’re young, you’re wild, you’re free, / You’re dancing circles around me. There’s that cliché of Americana: being young and wild and free – think of Bruce Springsteen’s celebration of wild youth – and again, Lana places her voice in the hullabaloo of this tornado of deathly ecstasy, making herself the static one in the centre, languishing over her candy and heroine while everyone else dances circles around her.
‘I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo’ — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.
Hiphop melancholia, narco-swing, vintage pop; whatever you wanna call it, Lana always kinda slips the net. Its her characters, her musical and metaphorical landscapes that draw you in. In a way, her songs are just as literary as any old poem.
Crying tears of gold, like lemonade. Here we are on ‘Ultraviolence’, drowning in violins and vats of sadness, relishing the salt taste and thinking of the ocean. The ocean haunts Honeymoon too. It’s there in the California blues, the ‘blue nail polish’ that’s her ‘favourite colour’ and ‘favourite tone of song’ in ‘The Blackest Day’, the sultry ice cream gleam of ‘Salvatore’ which glides in and out of languid Italian and consumable nouns (cacciatore, limousines), perhaps like a narcotised, Sinatra-style swing version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘By the Way’ (the bit where they seem to throw a demented grocery list at you). Shady blue, summer rain, sparkling lights; it’s a beautiful snowflake of a song, catching its glitter in the strings and the la-da-da-da-daaaas which fall around you, soft and sad yet somehow delectable. The ocean is the darling of the suicidal American woman: it is the world’s womb, the waves that embrace desire, the space of endless multitude, escape from restrictive culture. In ‘Dark Paradise’, the singer is lying in the ocean singing your song – is this a meta statement, one persona talking back to the distant maker? All of Lana’s heroines are looking for that dark paradise; that refrain, But I wish I was dead.Think of Edna in Kate Chopin’s 1899 (later banned) novel of sexual awakening, The Awakening: Chopin’s impressionistic purple prose isn’t so far from the poetic melodrama of Lana’s lovelorn world: ‘The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude’. Chopin’s onomatopoeic prose chimes with Lana’s frequent use of sound effects, from the Fourth of July fireworks which open ‘National Anthem’ to the glitchy blips of ‘Video Games’ and twinkling bird sounds of the Hollywood hills in ‘Is This Happiness’…Expressions of desire flicker with the imagined bliss of paradise.
In the conclusion to The Awakening, Edna steps out into the ocean, never to return, remembering as the horizon catches her eyes the sounds and scents of her childhood: the simple ‘hum of bees’ and ‘musky odour of pinks’ which fill the air narcotically. Walking into the ocean as Lana’s heroine writhes on her bed and balcony, longing to just get high by the beach, longing for that preserved moment of perfect stasis, the endless waves, the endless boulevard leading to a distant horizon of fathomless dark glass, tall buildings rising up amidst pink flamingoes like surrealist paintings. Haze of smoke, daytime closing.
There is a passage from Don DeLillo’s debut novel, Americana (1971) which David Foster Wallace happened to underline in his copy of the book:
“David, I truly love you and hate you. I love you because you’re a beautiful thing and a good boy. You’re more innocent than a field mouse and I don’t believe you have any evil in you, if that’s possible. And I hate you because you’re sick. Illness at a certain point inspires pity. Beyond that point it becomes hateful. It becomes very much like a personal insult. One wishes to destroy the sickness by destroying the patient. You’re such a lovable cliché, my love, and I do hope you’re found the centre of your sin”.
A ‘lovable cliché’: the sort of thing Lana embraces, makes raw and coats in her voice of smoke and silk. The antithesis of beauty and disgust, love and hate; how our attempts to disinfect the one from the other are doomed to fail. Culture is a contradiction. In Americana, the protagonist David Bell is a TV executive who finds himself deeply apathetic, despite being attractive, sharp and popular with the ladies. He frequently articulates his experiences, his life at large, as if they were a film. He becomes obsessed with finding meaning, embarking on a Kerouac-esque quest at getting to the nitty-gritty of America’s heart of darkness, but this documentary gets messed up in his attempts to re-stage and re-enact events from his past. I guess it’s true that the novel is all about unattainable desire, whether this is desire for meaning, personal fulfilment or something more carnal – the search for the centre of your sin which could easily be a Lana lyric. What’s more, this pathological fixation of DeLillo’s David Bell to some extent parallels Del Rey’s obsession with the silver screen version of America; the photography of Honeymoon’scover even resembles a sexier version of the Penguin cover for Americana:
While Del Rey’s female characters languish in their statically trapped daydreams of love and violence and Hollywood glamour, DeLillo’s version of Americana is largely embodied in the road myth and its cult of masculinity:
There is a motel in the heart of every man. Where the highway begins to dominate the landscape, beyond limits of a large and reduplicating city, near a major point of arrival and departure: this is most likely where it stands….Men hold this motel firmly in their hearts; here flows the dream of the confluence of travel and sex.
This kind of commentary permeates the book, often arriving at a kind of religious, anthropological rapture which lacks the self-consciousness of DeLillo’s later novel White Noise, but provides a rambling cultural landmark that paves the way towards the sort of position Del Rey occupies in the mainstream. The Beats, protesting consumerism even as they gorged on apple pie; Bret Easton Ellis, with his deeply despairing coterie of psychopathic, serial-killer yuppies and sexually-violent, chronically-bored L.A teenagers; Lana Del Rey, voicing the glorious wastage of our postmodern wasteland, our beaten bodies and minds, voicing her vision through scenes of sun-drenched nostalgia which evoke a beautiful and terrible America, made glossy and pure through stars and stripes, a delicate riff; drifts of strings, jazz, Instagram filters. That golden period where love suffuses with the candy-flavoured stuff of daydreams, movies: Honeymoon. The whole album renders a narrow reality of the past and present: it’s pastel-shaded afternoons lost to the call of the ocean, sad ballads of frustrated love (I lost myself when I lost you), electro blues; it’s The Blackest Day, with Billie Holliday, palm trees and prescription pills, throwing up the lilac and cinnamon-scented ash of society’s ills – emotional debris, disconnection, slowing tempos, the hullabaloo of static thrills.
I first saw them at Wickerman Festival, god knows how many years ago now, and we went to see them on recommendation of my brother. It was probably raining a bit but maybe there was sunshine coming out there from behind us as we stood at the stage. I think they were on before or after Fenech Soler, who you should check out if you like electropop, Friendly Fires, White Lies and all things with synths. Anyway, the band in question who we were watching are called Little Comets, and they play what can only really be described with any accuracy as ‘kitchen sink indie’. I’ve seen them so many times since – basically any time they come to Scotland, which is usually twice a year.
A cold windy Glasgow Monday and I’m sitting in Slouch on Bath Street, watching the snow fall down behind a window of fairylights. We’re discussing what songs they might play. We’re reminiscing about old festivals and terrible and great music from the past. The walk to King Tuts is short from here.
I’ve been to King Tuts many a time before. Embarrassing to admit though it is, the first gig I saw there was You Me At Six. There’s an energy to the place that seems to billow about like the dust off the walls. It’s a wonderfully tiny basement venue with clean toilets and a decent bar and lots of posters from bands that have played there before. There’s Belle & Sebastian and The White Stripes and Pulp on the wall. We go down the stairs and the air is close and thick and hot. We watch two support acts, one of which was the Dundee band Model Aeroplanes, who have a nice amount of energy and lots of lovely, floppy, sweaty hair and bouncy guitar riffs. Oh, and we sussed that the bassist looks kind of like Adam Driver from Girls.
Reasons why I love Little Comets:
They sing about so many different subjects, from adultery to love to fatherhood to sadness and hope and sorrow and domestic violence and corrupt politicians and poverty and girls named Joanna, Matilda and Jennifer.
They tour the U.K all the time and always come to Scotland.
They write lovely little blog posts about their lyrics.
They seem to genuinely care about the music over everything else and even founded their own record label to avoid being sucked into corporate pressures.
There are little snippets of poetry which adorn their songs: ‘tension in the twisted silence of our sheets’ (Isles). They like to talk about metaphors and similes and often their songs tell stories.
After gigs they sometimes give out cards for fans and they write nice silver messages on EPs when you order them.
They sound so tight live, with amazing harmonies and clear, bouncy percussion.
‘Dancing Song’ is just the best thing ever to jump around too, even if it means you’ll get trodden on and elbowed in the ribs by teenage boys.
They write political lyrics without being remotely sanctimonious about their status as musicians writing about politics.
Their artwork is really cool and they do it themselves.
They are maybe the best male feminists in the music industry of this period, at least as far as lyrical content goes. I don’t know, show me anyone better.
Well last night they opened with a track off their new album, ‘The Gift of Sound’, which in a corny kind of way was appropriate because that’s what musicians do, give us the gift of sound. They moved through a few new songs off of Hope is Just a State of Mind and also I was pleased to hear them play ‘Isles’ off the first album because it’s been a while since I’ve heard it. The gig was over-14s and standing there behind rows of fourteen-year-old girls and far-too-tall fourteen-year-old guys, listening to those opening lines ‘Economic downturn you can get a job | Apologetic parents you can get a job’ and I’m thinking god I’m so old that when the economic downturn was happening back in 2008 I was about fourteen and probably discovering Little Comets for the first time.
The last couple of Scotland gigs have been in Edinburgh and you could definitely tell that this was a Glasgow crowd. There were a bunch of lads around us who were giving it the ‘oggy-oggy’ football-match style chanting in imitation of the songs which was actually quite sweet (and funny and annoying) and the band looked sort of bemused and taken-aback; Rob at one point finished the song (can’t remember exactly but I think it was ‘Little Italy’) then said in wonder, “nobody’s ever done that before”. I spent half the gig sort of laughing at the absurdity and magic of it all, that strange reaction people have. I mean, it’s amazing to listen to ‘burly’ (haha) young (and middle-aged) guys with tribal tattoos shout out lyrics like: ‘And like for every victim | It seems the pain will not subtract or even calm | All this protracted by a state | In which the poor conviction rate for rape | Can often leave a woman feeling | More at blame than able’. And even if it’s just words being thrown out, at least they’re being thrown out into a room full of likeminded people who believe in the words that the band are singing; even if just for the melodies being woven, even if just because it plants that tiny seed of thought in their heads. It feels empowering, somehow.
Well they fired into well-loved tracks like Joanna and Dancing Song which got everyone jumping about like crazy. One of my favourite things about Little Comets gigs is that you get gorgeous ballads and also songs you can jump about and dance to. I saved my Converses from being pulled off, survived a mosh pit and did my fair share of hair swooshing. It wasn’t all that pleasant being flung against guys who stank of sweat and cheap aftershave and hair that reeked of Chilli Heatwave Doritos, but that’s just a gig curse and the music makes it worth all the stitches.
A highlight was everyone singing along to ‘Coalition of One’, which is probably my favourite track off their last couple of EPs. It’s a song that opens with the lines: ‘food banks spring open | like jaws dropping in time | the weight of man is measured | by the depths of a carrier bag’. It’s simple and powerful and it hits you and makes you think how wrong everything is in the world right now; specifically in Britain. In comparison to the heartbreak-heavy lyrics of other ‘indie’ bands, Little Comets are genius. In fact, you get the sense that people can’t believe they’re singing along to it. It’s almost like a surrealist image, dragging up some common found object and assigning a kind of tragic beauty to it, and then getting such a mix of people to sing it back to you, to throw it out into the air like a lost plastic bag drifting in the wind. There’s a frailty to many of Little Comets’ images: you only have to look at songs like ‘Waiting in the Shadows in the Dead of Night’ (It’s like barbed wire, this crucial touch | That holds me here, expects so much) and ‘Early Retirement’ (‘the promises you sew are | shallow footsteps in the snow | that you cover up’) to feel their concern with the beautiful ephemerality of experience, the soft alliteration that slips between their words. Watching Rob, lead singer and guitarist, standing over his keyboard, drenched in stage smoke and blue light, singing ‘The Blur, the Line, and the Thickest of Onions’, is enchanting and inspiring. I don’t mind throwing those cosy words around because these guys deserve it, they’re so dedicated and passionate. What other band has the guts to take on Robin Thicke-style sexism in the industry with lyrics like this:
But this filth stands on a quicker sand
Next to cold hard fear and the deeds of man
The abuse of body image as a form of control
And the typical portrayal of the feminine role
I have never been more appalled.
Pick me up with rhythms and waveform
That can symbolise a culture lost
Sing about the future like you mean to
I’m never going to count costs
Question the agenda of an industry
That only can objectify
You write about a non-existent blurred line
But not about abortion rights.
OK, so this might not be Mary Wollstonecraft or Virginia Woolf, but for an all-male band to write these lyrics and perform them gig after gig with heartfelt expression is a victory for any kind of feminism in the modern age. It’s questioning an industry from within and writing about issues that are hugely important to women and men – abortion, media objectification and so on – without framing them in a kind of gratuitous ‘pity’ narrative or ignoring them altogether. Music can be political without a band having to tie politics to their t-shirts, and Little Comets demonstrate this perfectly.
Indeed, the feminist content of their lyrics is also evident in ‘Violent Out Tonight’, which I would argue is a masterpiece of a song. With elegant, soaring harmonies (performed so well onstage too), a thumping, emphatic heartbeat of a drum rhythm, and haunting sliding guitar, it conjures a dark story that follows a brutal encounter between a man and a woman on a lonely street. It’s filled with poetry that shifts between the subtle and stark and by the end we too are left bruised and battered by the sad narrative it tells:
As they step into the dark
Only moonlight hides his treason
And the shadows skip like sharks
Through the gasps of air between them
She says: ‘Becalm your hands boy I thought
restraint was now your sentiment of choice?’
But as his fingers strike her blouse
All the words that he espoused
Lie deftly scattered on the ground amidst
the buttons he’s torn open
When sung aloud, the rhyming works here in a really interesting, disturbing and dissonant way. It’s a song that can silence a rowdy crowd into awed absorption. You let the sounds slide through you and you listen, as Rob’s voice ranges from painful constraint to effortless flowing notes. There is a tension and a release. You feel this release with more uplifting songs like the opening track from Hope is Just a State of Mind, ‘My Boy William’, which Rob describes on the Little Comets blog as ‘really the most emotionally honest song that I’ve ever written, and also one of the simplest – it is just a message to my little boy William: my hopes for him’. You could tell the crowd loved every minute of the gig from all the clapping and shouting and singing along and jumping (might I remind you how rare it is to see people actually dancing at all at an ‘indie’ gig), but especially with these numbers you could tell how much everyone really respected these songs for what they were and the sort of joyful simplicity of innocence they evoke. It’s all fuzzy and you get that great feeling when you’re in a crowd and lots of other people are experiencing similar things to you and even though you might not be a father or mother yourself, you still feel that raw sort of love shine through, in a way that feels uniquely authentic rather than cheesy or sentimental. As the hard-looking bald guy with the tattoos chanted at the end of ‘My Boy William’: ‘he’s going to be a superstar when he grows up, just like you Rob!’. And well, if that’s not cute I don’t know what is.
One of my favourite parts of the night was when they were chatting between songs and Rob said that Matt (the bassist) had just noticed some wires on a bar above the stage which were still there from years ago when they last played. The band used to bring an assortment of pots and pans with them which they hung above the stage and used with their percussion, which I suppose justified the ‘kitchen sink indie’ label in addition to the soap-like drama and domesticity of songs like ‘Adultery’ and ‘One Night in October’ (I’m never going to get over the lines: ‘So I sit her down | And say this must stop | ’Cause all we do | Is argue and shop | She goes to Boots | I go to Argos | Complete with deceit | We stalk each aisle’). Well I thought it was very sweet that this little mark of days gone past was still there, even though King Tuts (mostly the bar) has undergone some renovation since. I remember that gig very vividly; I was in second year at uni and had just finished my horrible essay on The Tempest and Heart of Darkness and I was drinking Jack Daniels alone in my room and doing cartwheels I was so excited. My favourite album so far is the second one, Life is Elsewhere. I think it works best as an album (I need to give the new one some more listening to judge though) and the lyrics are sweetly dark and just the right level of mournful, joyful and sentimental. And I like the line: ‘I’d rather starve than become a member of your old boys’ club’ in a dig at Oxbridge culture which permeates the top levels of governance in Britain. All these songs have a double layered nostalgic quality for me now, reminding me of feeling a bit more lost and hopeful and innocent as I stumbled through my first years at uni. Now I’m coming to the end it feels right that there should be more songs to form associations with. It’s actually pretty weird because they tend to release a new EP with every semester, so it’s almost like a kind of diary where I remember things through Little Comets releases. Oh well, if you’re going to support your memory with techne then maybe it’s better that it’s music from one of your favourite bands rather than just shallow social media statuses…oh well, just my two cents to future generations… (and I should stop trying to understand Heidegger).
It’s also fitting that before their last song (well, I think it was their last song unless there was an encore – which they usually resist doing due to the arrogance and cheesiness of encores – we had to leave early so the troops could get the last train home), Rob was telling the audience that he likes this song because it reminds him of their early days of playing. ‘In Blue Music We Trust’ is one of my favourites off Life is Elsewhere: again it has that haunting, nostalgic quality that builds and swells as the song progresses and proves the perfect ending to an awesome gig. How magical too that it was so cold and crisp outside, and that I walked home through Finnieston in a snow storm with all those swirling flakes glowing orange under the lamplight, and feeling so calm and serene and dreamy because it’s rare that things in life can make you so happy, but I guess good music can, and feeling fresh and freezing after a steaming hot gig.
‘I suppose the thing I am proud of with our music is the fact that we’ve always followed our hearts and stayed true – we do what we love, and we work very hard but we’ve never compromised ourselves for it. If I could pass one message onto my little boy, other than how much we love him, is just to be true to himself and keep an open mind – there’s always more to learn…’ (Little Comets blog).
I have just read a book that has all at once captivated, disgusted and intrigued me; a book that has left me strangely both emotionally drained and intellectually stimulated. Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho plunges the reader into a world of late 1980s ‘yuppie-ism’: the world of Wall Street, hyper-consumption, misogyny, racism, inane pop culture, television, sex…and violence. Written from the first person perspective of its protagonist (although somehow I find the term protagonist with its heroic connotations inadequate), Patrick Bateman, the novel has an unusual cyclical structure that plays out as a repetitive narrative of visits to classy restaurants, mundane descriptions of the latest consumer goods, chapters that read like music reviews and then the most controversial element: the horrifically graphic scenes of sexual violence and psychopathic slaughtering that got the book banned by its initially intended publishers.
Yet I don’t believe that Ellis includes these gruesome chapters just as a twisted indulgence, a pornography of violence. As I will discuss, they play a part in Ellis’ searing, often satirical portrayal of the Reagan era in America: a critique of neo-liberal values, consumerism and technology that is arguably more pertinent today than it was twenty years ago. The heartlessness, depravity and monotony of this culture and the novel itself is summed up in the opening line: ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here’, which is ‘scrawled in blood red lettering’ on the side of a building. This quote is an intertextual reference to Dante, who in his Divine Comedy suggested that this was the written passage that appeared in the entrance to Hell. When you pick up American Psycho and read the first lines, which immerse the reader immediately in the divided cityscape of 1980s New York – a world of graffiti, advertisements and pop culture – you cross over a threshold, you cross over into a tightly-confined mind that experiences its own corruption in a fictional universe that is all too like our own. What is interesting about the novel is on the one hand its hypothetical exploration of the thoughts of a psychopath, but also its trenchant critique of a society obsessed with surfaces, purchases and the perpetual presence of the flickering flow of television; a society plummeting towards absurdity and the eradication of all meaning – at all levels from the individual mind to the collective conscience.
Despite being the novel’s narrator, Bateman reveals little about himself other than his routines, his clothes and his opinionated taste in music. He indulges in lengthy passages detailing his workouts, his use of face masks, his appearance, eating habits, sexual interests; but the novel provides little in the way of solid character description. The narrative is therefore intensely claustrophobic, as we are restricted to Bateman’s narrow, white, narcissistic upper-class view. Moreover we know nothing of the Bateman behind the suit and Ray-Bans; we don’t know about his childhood, his relationship with his parents is only briefly suggested in a single flash of a chapter, and although it is the source of so much expendable income, we never find out what he actually does at work, other than order his secretary to make him dinner reservations. This latter point is especially interesting within the context of contemporary culture, where people are becoming ever-more critical of what these high-flying guys in banking and finance actually do; as bonuses and salaries remain sky-high in spite of the recession, there is increasing concern with regards tothe elaborate and obscure games that these ‘yuppies’ spend their time with – playing with money, justifying their existence. Ellis clearly does not seek to redeem the Wall Street yuppie, but instead caricatures his position and the career in general – which for me culminates most humorously in a chapter where Bateman and his coworkers engage in a highly-charged comparison of the stylishness of their respective business cards, that reads like a competition between prehistoric men flexing their muscles or showing off their hunting skills.
This leads into the question of masculinity and self in the novel. In a world where the most socially-esteemed jobs require what might be considered traditionally ‘emasculated’ behaviour – Bateman, it seems, is a proto-metrosexual – how do men assert their masculine identities, especially with the increasing challenge of the rising status of women? Bateman’s gendered self is ambiguous: on the one hand he is obsessed with his physical appearance – going for regular manicures, massages, constantly working out and asking if his hair looks good – and on the other asserting patriarchal dominance by literally killing, and in some cases torturing, those that either threaten his position (e.g. his colleague Paul Owen who has the superior business card) or those that he is different from and wishes to demonstrate are beneath him: women (especially models and prostitutes), beggars and homosexuals. This creates a bizarre, twisted sense of capitalism gone mad, of the ‘dog-eat-dog’ ideology of everyman for himself, of free market competition gone out of control. The individual, in his quest for success, seeks a greedy taste of the ‘Swordfish meatloaf with kiwi mustard’; that is, the excess and the addictiveness of the American Dream.
The novel thus remains engaged with material inequality, even though its focus is on one end of the scale – the high-flying lifestyle of yuppie clubs and restaurants. Throughout the book, Bateman and his friends taunt the plethora of beggars that haunt the streets of New York, holding out bills of money only to snatch them away in front of their starving eyes. At one point, Bateman even shoots a busker, just because he can; because he has the urge to kill and feels the man’s life is worthless. Yet there is an ironic discrepancy between Bateman’s behaviour and the outward image he projects of someone in tune with social problems. Early in the novel, Bateman delivers a speech that reads like the words of a politician: ‘we have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger…strengthen laws to crack down on crime and illegal drugs’. All this from a man who personally terrorises the poor and vulnerable, regularly takes cocaine and is quite happy to waste money on often-uneaten restaurant food whilst trampling all over street beggars. Perhaps, therefore, Ellis meant to parody the hypocrisy of governments that proclaim their acknowledgement of socioeconomic problems but do nothing or little to actually tackle them. The irony of Bateman’s ‘identity’, then, is the way in which his words do not distinguish him but blur him further into convention, as he constructs his self by appropriating the words and values of others – particularly his hero Donald Trump (which says a lot about yuppie conscience). Indeed, this is humorously parodied in the fact that all food and tastes are judged not by individual experience but by reviews characters have read in glossy magazines.
So in spite of Bateman’s carefully constructed external self as a socially-conscious businessman, his identity remains a space of vacuum. Everything around him – his friends, his values, his lifestyle – is utterly superficial, and it turns out that he is too:
‘…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there […] My self is fabricated, an aberration. I am a non-contingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent.’
When it was first published in 1991, American Psycho was accused, among many things, of being a poorly-written, immoral book, but I believe these early critiques were based on strong misreadings. The above passage, with its incisive insight into the thoughts of someone staring into the abyss of his own personality, its chillingly controlled and intoxicating prose, shatters any accusation that Bret Easton Ellis is a bad writer. It opens up the concern of many ‘Generation X’ writers: the paradox of identity in the late twentieth century. In a world where identities become more important, as each person seeks to distinguish themselves within the ocean of material things, selfhood in fact seems to dissolve, fragment, disintegrate under the weight of excessive choice and infinite expectations. Bateman reflects that ‘there is no real me’ in spite of the solid flesh, the personality moulded out of a particular consumer lifestyle, the ‘illusory’ mask of self presented in the fashionable clothes, the haircut, the voguish business card. American Psycho challenges many conventions of the novel, and one is character development: Bateman may become more reflective as the narrative ‘progresses’ but he does not undergo transformation or redemption. He remains all surface, with no core sense of morality and self beneath the veneer of his existential acts – he ‘simply [is] not there’.
This reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, written a hundred years before American Psycho at the fin-de-siècle of the nineteenth-century. Like the ‘yuppies’ of Wall Street, Dorian and his friend Henry Wotton not only challenge traditional masculinity, as appearance-obsessed ‘dandies’ (the late Victorian metrosexual), but they are also excessively idle and spend their privileged lives like Bateman and his colleagues, indulging in sensual pleasures, conspicuous consumption and attending the finest venues of society. Narcissism and art are thematically central, just as narcissism and pop culture are to American Psycho. The fable-like plot of Dorian Gray turns on a Faustian bargain Dorian makes with the devil, whereby he barters his soul in exchange for eternal youth, so that his portrait grows old and twisted while he remains all surface, forever flawless and smooth. Dorian’s narcissism and pursuit of pleasure leads him into a spiral of moral corruption, visits to opium dens, murder and sexual depravities which, while completely removed from the Ellis’ gore, were nonetheless shocking at the time.
Each novel has lengthy passages cataloguing the material objects that consume the lives of its protagonist, emphasising the vacuity of their identities beneath the sheen of their flawless appearance. Yet Wilde, unlike Ellis, gives his novel closure: he provides some moral consequence to this hedonistic lifestyle, rather than as Ellis does allowing the reigning continuity of surface he gives some ethical depth. While American Psycho’s plot is an endless repetition of music reviews, restaurant, concert and club visits and violence, from which emerges no character development or moral conclusion, Dorian Gray traces the deterioration of a character whose initial purity is corrupted by a range of identifiable sources including art (notably, a ‘poisonous book’ thought to be J. K. Husyman’s A Rebours) and the influence of those around him. Dorian Gray ends with final punishment as Dorian tries to destroy the painting but in doing so reverses the mysterious spell, so that he acquires all the ugliness of his sins and the picture is restored to its original purity. Perhaps this structural difference can be attributed to the distinctive literary contexts of each book: while Wilde was writing in and to some extent subverting Victorian realism, Ellis is embedded within a more postmodern tradition that is sceptical about there being a moral centre to which texts can turn to, and is instead interested in showing how the boundaries of morality and self are not only fluid but at times seemingly invisible.
Indeed, what is particularly intriguing about Bateman’s monologue is the statement: ‘my self is fabricated, an aberration’ (my emphasis). Bateman spends his entire time striving to fabricate a self that fits in with the expected and respected norm embodied by the clone-like yuppies (indeed, because of their similar clothes and haircut they often mistake each others’ identities and this largely goes unquestioned in the narrative) and yet Bateman himself is an ‘aberration’ of this mundane normality. He’s an anomaly, defined by his psychopathic serial killer tendencies. Yet by linking the two – conformity and deviance – the text suggests that perhaps Bateman’s psychopathy is a product of society; it is not just a personal pathology but deeply embedded within the frustrating, depthless culture in which he finds himself skidding along with no hope of even drowning in. There is no way of drowning in a postmodern, or what Baudrillard calls a ‘hyper-real’ world where everything is interchangeable and signs refer to nothing but an endless stream of more signs – a choking bombardment of advertisements, appearances and vacuous conversation. Murder, rape and drugs provide some alternate reality, something real and solid and potent, that produce actual effects and allow Bateman to distinguish himself in some dark, significant way, even just as an ‘aberration’. It’s a chilling thought.
Although the novel never punishes its serial killer – Bateman is never caught, even though he drags a body-bag through the street, is helicopter-searched by police and leaves rotten body parts stewing in his apartment – the absence of a moral framework actually adds to the richness of the text. In his essay ‘From Work to Text’ Roland Barthes argues that the ‘writerly’ text offers up a plurality of readings rather than containing a single concrete meaning. It is in a sense an ‘event’, a surface (particularly relevant to American Psycho!) which engages the reader in a ‘practical collaboration’. This is achieved by the proliferate meanings offered up by the text: the intertextual references (abundant in Ellis’ novel, from Dante to Satre to Whitney Houston) and the elaborate web of signification spun in the writing, which encourages the reader to weave a fabric of meaning from the complexity of clues scattered throughout the prose. The pleasure of the text is our freedom to skip over passages, and to pay more attention to others. To endlessly reread and gain new insight, to create new meaning from. I find myself skim-reading the endless monologues about the latest technology, and often skipping entirely the really graphic parts; but this is not necessarily a bad thing, it merely prompts me to reflect on my role as reader in playing a role in constructing meaning in the text. It isn’t just there, but I actively make it depending on what I want to get from it.
Ellis also engages the reader in the ‘free play’ of meaning by leaving significant gaps in his text; the most notable of these gaps is the question of the unreliable narrator. Wayne C. Booth defines the narrator as ‘reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author’s norms, unreliable when he does not’. The subtle but at times overt irony that plays out in American Psycho, from Bateman’s extreme sexual and violent conquests and the ease in which he gets away with them to the literary language itself, is essential to raising questions about Bateman’s reliability. The tone he uses to describe the monotony of having to make reservations and his matter-of-fact description of his gym is the same tone used in his description of the scenes of grotesque and sadistic torture, necrophilia and cannibalism. Not only does this suggest that Bateman has been desensitized to pornography and violence but it also blends the normal and the abnormal together into a disturbingly hyperreal narrative of contemporary life. A life where rape and murder deserve no more expressive prose than a trip to ‘return some video tapes’. The prosaic language used to describe these scenes evacuates all possibility of the erotic or suspense that characterises porn or horror and instead foregrounds the acts themselves as real, painful and distorted occurrences – which in turn leave us with a sickening sense of our own voyeurism, raising wider questions about society’s enjoyment of such explicit forms of cultural entertainment. This notion of voyeurism is also highlighted by the repeated occurrence of such scenes (often signified by the foreboding chapter heading ‘Girls’ which I came to dread), creating a circular narrative which emphasises the text’s sense of claustrophobia and entrapment and recreating the inescapability of the distastefully explicit within modern culture.
Moreover, in relation to unreliable narration, the absurdity of Bateman’s rampant and seemingly meaningless killing sprees raises the question of whether what Bateman does is actually occurring, or whether it is an extended fantasy he projects as a way of indulging in his feeling of vacuity and ‘heartlessness’ within a featureless life of mind-numbing consumption. Is he merely fabricating his own alter-existence that plays out just like the pornographic films he rents from the video-store? The text provides little evidence to confirm or deny Bateman’s reliability, and this is what is so seductive about American Psycho: the fact that we as readers are left to judge the veracity of Bateman’s narration, which in turn leaves us within a complex moral vacuum. Unlike other books about serial killers, American Psycho doesn’t contain a detailed narrative explaining the root causes of Bateman’s pathology – abuse in childhood, a defined psychiatric condition etc. Bateman pops valium, Halcion and various other ‘pop’ drugs but he is not on medication for paranoid schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder or the like; the blame for his condition is thus found within a complexity of societal factors rather than an easy psychological diagnosis. The exact cause is left for the reader to decide: we have to map out Bateman’s life – his pleasures, his friends, his behaviour – in order to make judgements about the myriad origins of his psychopathy.
Another area of contemporary society which Ellis explores critically in American Psycho is technology; specifically, television and the telephone. The telephone was invented to improve communication, but in the novel it is the site of communication breakdown. For example, when Bateman and his coworkers make a conference call to decide their evening plans, the conversation breaks down into meaningless and often disconnected statements. There is nothing efficient about this communication. Moreover, the telephone presents an uncanny means of correspondence, since it removes the face and replaces it with the voice. This makes the person at the end of the line both familiar and unfamiliar, which raises interesting questions in terms of the fluidity and fragmentation of self depicted in American Psycho. At what could be argued is the novel’s most intense point, whereby Bateman has been on a killing spree, is chased by police and is now hiding in his office, he makes a call to his lawyer and leaves a message detailing all the murders he is committed. Yet when he meets his lawyer the next day, the lawyer not only refuses to believe the answer-phone message but he actually thinks Bateman is someone else – he thinks that the message was a joke played by someone else at Bateman’s expense. Telephone technology has not increased the potential for meaningful and intimate human interaction but merely created further distance, and in doing so distorted what is real and disconnected the ‘I’ that is speaking.
In terms of television, the book is rich with critical analysis. The debate about TV images and their influence on human behaviour goes all the way back to Plato. In The Republic, Plato puts forward the analogy of a cave in which prisoners have been chained since childhood so that all they can do is stare at the shadows on the wall which create shapes and sound; this is the only reality they know of, yet it is a reality constituted merely by the shadows of things, not the things themselves. If one prisoner escapes and sees REALITY itself, it will seem less real than the shadows. Like the prisoners of the cave, most people in contemporary society are in a sense ‘chained’ to the all-pervasive presence of television, which has become the source of much of our knowledge: the ‘shadow’ images of television are used to shape our morality, ideals, values etc – our whole perception of the world. Television, moreover, provides a perpetual ‘flow’ of time, squashing the past and present together in an ‘extended present’, which gives a rhythm and routine to our daily lives. Bateman’s life is partially constructed around his watching of the morning The Patty Winters Show, Late Night With David Letterman and endlessly re-watched video tapes such as the thriller Body Double in which a girl is murdered by a handheld drill.
When television images are extreme ones of hardcore pornography or violence, questions are raised about how far they can be blamed for real life violent behaviour. Perhaps Bateman can so easily murder without remorse because his acts of violence seem less real than the highly stylised images he consumes on a daily basis. This is a real life concern: the murder of James Bulger by two young boys in 1993 was blamed by some on the film Child’s Play 3, leading to calls for a ban on the film. Anthony Burgess’ novel also explores this link between video images and violence in A Clockwork Orange, where classical Pavlovian conditioning is used to re-calibrate the protagonists’ perception of violence: Alex is strapped to a chair, injected with a nausea-inducing drug and forced to watch violent films so that he learns to associate cruelty with sickness. Yet eventually, this ‘Ludovico technique’ is reversed and once again he is back to the same old daydreams of bloodlust; it is only through a process of experience and growing up that Alex comes to leave his days of brutality behind. Thus rather than allowing for a simple causal effect between images and action, Burgess overall complicates the relationship between television and violence.
A more recent play by Martin McDonagh, The Pillowman, is also a useful text for grappling with the link between art and violence. The play’s storyteller, Katurian, claims that ‘the only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story’, yet his stories become implicated in criminality as they have influenced others to commit crimes that copy the sinister plots of his fables (which involve swallowing apple-men containing razor blades and child crucifixion). It’s an infinitely dark and at times sorrowful play, but also it’s very funny: it raises a myriad of questions about authorial responsibility but rather than answering them The Pillowman blasts all moral closure with nihilistic conclusions, green pigs and its at times absurd, circular dialogue. It is a very clever, layered, metafictional commentary on the relationship between art, suffering and violence and I highly recommend it.
So to what extent is Bateman’s behaviour the product of the films he watches, or the TV shows which range in topics from ‘Toddler Murderers’ to ‘a man who set his daughter on fire while she was giving birth’? Again, the text offers no straightforward answers, and indeed it is possible that the orgiastic violence he indulges in isn’t real at all but merely fantasies extended from the flickering images he sees on television. This is an intriguing idea, especially going back to Plato’s notion that the man who leaves the cave will find reality less real than the shadows; the text leaves the question of what is ‘real’ in the novel, and even – what are the implications for the violence of American Psycho itself? It may be classified as fiction, but feminist group NOW attacked the novel upon publication as ‘a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women’. Will some readers read Ellis’ text naively? Can it be blamed for furthering society’s desensitizing towards violence through its graphic scenes?
I think what redeems American Psycho in this respect is its self-conscious irony. Yes, it is horrifically graphic, but it does so for a purpose: to deconstruct and expose the way in which slasher movies, porn and the like have become part of popular culture, and to restore a shocking element to these forms of entertainment which have become so stylised and normalised. Additionally, like The Pillowman, Ellis’ book is also inherently funny. There are random standout lines such as the comment ‘”I bet Bono has a small dick,”’’ when Bateman and his friends go to a U2 concert, and also the narrative contains many running jokes, such as Bateman’s compulsive need to ‘return some video tapes’, and several repeated miscommunications such as when Bateman says he works in ‘murders and executions’ but this is interpreted as ‘mergers and acquisitions’, thus blending together ironically Bateman’s mundane day-job with his vicious night-job. There are also surprising parts of the book which seem human, such as when Bateman visits his mother in her care-home and all he can do is look at himself vainly in the mirror that he’s ‘insisted’ on having there and think about are the expensive things she’s wearing (bought by him). When Bateman asks his mother what she wants, her reply: ‘“I don’t know. I just want to have a nice Christmas”’ is tearfully poignant in that it summarises the inability of consumption to fill the gap in their relationship, to fulfill the mother’s spiritual need to enjoy Christmas, a traditionally family-orientated event. The maternal relationship is hinted as strained and distant as all mother and son can say to one another is ‘“you look unhappy”’ and talk ‘“uselessly”’ of a recent party. This breakdown in communication is actually full of pathos and presents a refreshing break in the text, but one that opens up another possible, yet unexplored, avenue of explanation for Bateman’s insanity.
In sum, the text offers no answers. Bateman’s violence we must explain ourselves by piecing together the various sources in the text – from television to consumerism to a societal crisis of masculinity. Ellis doesn’t pretend to moralise, and his book ends with the ambiguous reference to Sartre’s play No Exit, as Bateman stares at a red-lettered sign on the door of a bar saying ‘this is not an exit’. The text thus begins and ends with a textual allusion to hell, but hell itself is not contained within the novel – the end is not an exit from the tortuously mundane, unequal and cruel world Bateman exists in – it is firmly our own world, from which there is no exit. This is an unsettling and nihilistic vision, but one in which unfortunately resonates as violence, consumption, immoral bankers, social inequality, identity crises and televisual domination are all swarming features of life in the twenty-first century; perhaps even more so than back in the late 1980s where the novel is set. The musical backdrop may have changed, but largely, the culture has not. And this relevance factor is why I recommend American Psycho.
I really don’t know what convinced me to watch Sex and the City 2. I suppose it was a case of finding something that wouldn’t require much brain power; some easy viewing for after exams. Little did I know the film would prompt some serious feminist and post-colonial rage.
Sex and the City 2 is, like the show that ran from 1998-2004, a romantic comedy. It follows Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda as they travel abroad to a holiday in Dubai. Like the show, the film engages with the issues of being a woman in a ‘post feminist’ age, but also involves itself in questions of cultural difference and orientalism. Sex and the City 2 was released in 2010, in the midst of the turbulent relations between the West and East defined by the on-going war in Afghanistan.
Firstly, the question of feminism. Sex and the City 2 is a salient example of a ‘post feminist’ film. According to Angela McRobbie, in her work ‘Post Feminism and Popular Culture’, popular culture of the 1990s reflects a turn away from the gains made in the second wave feminist movement, through an exhibition of what McRobbie calls ‘post feminism’. Post feminism, for McRobbie, entails the notion that contemporary culture relies on the achievements of second wave feminism. Indeed, it takes these achievements – equal rights, liberated sexuality, economic independence etc – for granted, takes them as socially ‘obvious’ and in existence without need for critical reflection. The widespread assumption that women are sexually, economically and socially ‘liberated’ allows popular culture to represent female characters who embody an autonomous, self-reliant and empowered lifestyle: this includes having high-flying career women, sexually-liberated women; women with choice, education, power. It doesn’t take much effort to see that Sex and the City is a prime example of this: there’s Samantha the PR businesswomen, Carrie the writer, Miranda the lawyer.
Nevertheless, the empowered women portrayed in popular culture do not fit the aims of feminism, even though on the surface they appear strong and ‘free’. These women are presented as self-made, fully in control of their own destinies, fully unshackled from the chains of patriarchy and power and also the feminist movement itself. Their achievements are represented as examples of personal triumphs rather than identified as part of wider shifts in female employment and gender roles enabled by the feminist movement and its transformation of the systems of power and social mores which formerly would have constrained them. Since these women are depicted as independent and disengaged from feminism, their representation contributes nothing to the political ambitions of feminism, and also undermines the need for any contemporary feminist movement. Indeed, many popular renderings of the modern, empowered women (the post feminist female subject) in fact not only detract from the political weight of feminism but they also associate this new freedom with certain practices which actually restore traditional gender roles – the gendered behaviours that feminism set out to radically change.
In Sex and the City, both the show and the films, female liberation and empowerment is predominantly expressed through sex and consumption. Yet it is debatable as to whether these practices actually enable the women to free themselves from conventional gender norms or whether they in fact throw the characters back into the cycle of cultural constraints that rigidly define ‘women’ and ‘feminine behaviour’. Samantha, for example, is frequently depicted as the most sexually voracious of the four women. She enjoys the kind of sexuality – one night stands and the like – that men have been enjoying for centuries; she offers no apologies for her behaviour; it is, at least from the two films I have seen, seemingly morally accepted. Moreover, as a successful businesswoman, Samantha enjoys an economic independence which allows her to splurge on clothes, holidays and anti-aging products. It isn’t difficult to see where post feminism fits in here: while Samantha does have an assertive sexuality and personality, her empowerment is presented chiefly through consumption. Rather than making any significant political statement about female power or positioning, the show and films seem to reaffirm the status quo by confirming consumption as not only the vital source of contemporary identity but also the glittering route to status and power; yet a route that leads continually to traditional female objectification, with the body becoming a cultural mannequin, dressed up with the latest dresses, shoes and anti-aging potions to create the perfect sexualised subject. Of course, there is an inherent ambiguity about whether the woman is in control of herself, as she travels down this route of credit cards and department stores, or whether she is pressured by the powers of female-directed advertising and capitalism.
In any case, Sex and the City may appear feminist but it certainly contributes very little to the political movement of feminism. The girls may spout their girl power in a karaoke session singing second-wave feminism’s theme song ‘I Am Woman’, but their empowerment is arguably a superficial concealment of how they are trapped by the mind-numbing machines of advertising and the fashion and beauty industry which continue to pressurise and mould women’s sense of self, perpetuating gendered regimes and practices. Samantha, the only unmarried character, uses her economic power in ways that confirm her adherence to standards of femininity that are perpetuated by the beauty industry in order to exploit and extend female insecurities. She enhances her libido in the wake of menopause through guzzling handfuls of pills, to ‘trick [her] body into thinking it’s younger’, to which Miranda adds: ‘I’ve tricked my body into thinking it’s thinner – Spanx!’. While feminism as a movement attempted to open up new kinds of beauty, which included those who were not young, white and skinny, the characters are depicted as mindlessly striving towards and approving the stereotype, rather than in any sense shattering it. As Hadley Freeman of The Guardian astutely describes this scene: ‘it’s like being lobotomised with a pink teaspoon’.
Well this is all fair enough: perhaps you could argue that she is making the conscious choice to do so. Other characters have different means of empowering themselves, after all. There’s Miranda, the lawyer, and Carrie, the fashion-crazed newspaper columnist. Yet all these women are privileged: rich, often from affluent backgrounds or have wealthy husbands. They are friends for one thing because they have a shared class position. Their empowerment through shiny New York careers and the shopping is more of a class privilege than a political statement about girl power, and in this sense I would argue that the show is highly problematic in its potential to be cast as ‘feminist’.
While the issue of feminism and Sex and the City is ambiguous, I would argue the sequel film leaves little ambiguity about the issue of racism; or, more specifically, orientalism. The film follows the four girl’s holiday escapades in Abu Dhabi, the second biggest city of the United Arab Emirates. Hadley Freeman contrasts the ‘smart, funny, warm and wise’ TV show with the ‘pink-fringed, cliché-ridden, materialistic, misogynistic, borderline racist’ film; while the show ‘had genuine emotional truth’, the films are all about the ‘sex and shopping’. I’ve never watched the shows, so cannot make a judgement other than my impression of the films. And my judgement is that their vision of women, homosexuality and ‘the East’ is distinctively narrow, shallow and hollow.
With Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte sent off to Abu Dhabi, the film immerses itself in a world of blatant, unapologetic orientalism. Edward Said in his book Orientalism described orientalism as a concept which encompasses the binary distinction often made between West/East. This distinction comes with other stereotyped and hierarchical binary pairings such as civilised/uncivilised, us/them. Charting the history of colonisation, Said suggests that Europeans have for many years set up Eastern countries as ‘oriental’, as exotic Others by which they may define themselves against. For Europeans, whatever the Orientals were defined as, they (the occidents) were not. This allowed the West to position themselves as an inherently superior ‘race’, which in turn provided the justification for colonisation by using the ‘white man’s burden’ of civilising the ‘uncivilised’ world to legitimise their imperial domination of Eastern countries. As with most stereotyping and binary oppositioning (think man/woman), this process involved enormous cultural and social simplifications and generalisations which shaped prejudices against the ‘orient’ commonly held in the West. You only have to take a glimpse at today’s papers, with the generalisations about Islam and terrorism, to see how Orientalism still operates. Indeed, the USA in particular has frequently justified its occupation and invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of tackling the women’s rights records of these countries; but it is possible that this constitutes an imposition of Western norms on different cultures, and moreover, the USA’s record for women’s rights is itself questionable, as it is one of the few countries that has refused to ratify CEDAW, the UN’s Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This is just one contemporary example of how the West stereotypes Eastern cultures in opposition to its own cultural model, and reflects a complex entanglement of neo-imperialism, orientalism and feminist issues.
Back to Sex and the City 2. The representation of the Middle East is highly stereotypical, and makes a great effort to exoticise Middle Eastern men and women into characters which perpetuate traditional oriental images of the East found in films like Arabian Nights. The men are presented with a glamorous strangeness: with the mundane, clichéd dialogue and the glittering, stereotypical oriental music that accompanies their appearance. Upon arrival, the American women are treated like queens, each getting their own taxi and personal man-servant who stays up all hours to service their every petty whim. This sets up a kind of neo-colonial relationship where the ‘respectable’ Eastern characters are represented as intrinsically deferential to their Western ‘superiors’.
Additionally, the cultural status of sex is clear-cut into a binary issue, with Western liberation contrasted with a complete repression in the East – Samantha’s kissing on the beach is met with armed response and a permanent criminal record. Rather than acknowledging the nuances that characterise how sex is accepted and perceived in different contexts, the film forces the issue once again into stereotypical binaries.
Perhaps most significantly, the film also cashes in on stereotypes of the mysterious veiled Muslim women. Carrie and co ruminate over the sartorial restrictions of wearing a veil, and watch in awe as one eats her chips underneath the burqa. The Muslim woman is thus shown as an object of curiosity, and we viewers are forced to voyeuristically observe her eating chips as if she is some strange, voiceless creature. By minimising the actual interaction between the American women and the Middle Eastern women, the film negates any possibility for exploring the unique subjectivity of Muslim women and their experience of wearing a burqa as well as their religious beliefs. Instead, they remain Oriental objects of Western curiosity. Rather than respected for having their own minds, they remain quite obviously in this film, to borrow Chandra Mohanty’s phrase, under western eyes.
And indeed the moment that really struck me was when the Muslim women were given a voice. After helping the four girls escape a mob of angry Arab men (who Samantha has offended by spilling condoms all over the floor and announcing loudly that ‘yes, [she] does have sex!’, so yes – another stereotype about all Arabian men as women-haters) a group of Muslim women shed their niqabs to reveal they are wearing the latest New York runway collection. Delighted, the four American women laugh and praise their fashionable style. This is so obviously patronising that even after a film peppered with references to magic carpets and other Middle Eastern myths I was shocked. Being the primary scene where the main characters actually interact with Muslim women, it states, quite clearly, that Western and Eastern integration can only occur through consumption. Moreover, Muslim women can only be liberated from the ‘shackles’ of their own culture and religion (defined in the film by the recurrent veil image) by conforming to Western stereotypes of beauty and fashion. It’s a sickening simplification of the complexities of female identity within different cultural contexts, and seems to send out the message that globalisation (or rather, Westernisation) can only be a good thing because it is spreading a ‘liberated’ (or rather, shackled to consumerism) Western femininity to the poor, silenced Muslim women, who live in a culture that remains ‘backwards’. In doing so, it leaves out other more critical consequences of globalisation that could be explored, such as migrant labour in the Gulf, which is only skimmed over in Carrie’s conversation with her Indian servant Gaurav – who she benevolently bestows her money upon, as if this single lavish expenditure makes up for the capitalist restructuring which has necessitated Guarav’s move abroad away from his wife in the first place. Another example is in the nightclub where ironically the girls play karaoke and sing ‘I Am Woman’ while at the same time they are probably in the company of trafficked sex workers. Charlotte asks why the club’s belly dancers are allowed to show lots of flesh while every other woman in the East seems to cover up, and Miranda provides the pathetic response that there is a ‘nightclub loophole’. Many of the single women in Emirati nightclubs are indeed trafficked sex workers, but the film completely glosses over the possibility of critically engaging with this.
Finally, the wedding opens with another obvious stereotype that should’ve prepared me for the cliché trail that characterises the rest of the film. The wedding of two gay characters involves many stereotypes attached to homosexuality – infidelity, flamboyance, the pomp of a completely OTT ceremony, complete with boy choir and Liza Minnelli performing ‘Single Ladies’. It’s utterly cringeworthy and I had to temporarily mute the film so that my flatmate didn’t have to wonder what the hell I was watching. A fitting beginning to a film rife with caricature, condescension and cartoonish representation.
I can’t, however, completely make my mind up how I feel about the representation of women in this film. While there are many simplifications and the fact that the women conform to gender stereotypes through shopping, there are some moments where the difficulties of trying to ‘have/do it all’ are reflected. It is possible to look upon Samantha with pity, as a character who isn’t liberated but sucked too far in to the rigid, gendered standards of the beauty industry, and perhaps the patriarchal expectations of the area she works in – PR – which is based so much on appearance. Another example is the scene where Charlotte cries in the cupboard, hiding from her screeching children in a moment of genuine motherly breakdown. Nevertheless, these remain very limited representations, in that Charlotte’s troubles are the troubles of a privileged housewife. She’s crying because she worries about her husband having an affair with the nanny (an idea bizarrely stemming from the fact that the nanny doesn’t wear a bra) and because her daughter messed up her designer jeans. Not because she doesn’t know where her children’s next meal is going to come from, or because she’s overworked with three jobs to make ends meet.
So while the film touches on feminist issues, its dealing with class and ethnic difference is shockingly narrow. I couldn’t even enjoy it as a slice of indulgent consumerist fantasising, because the racial, sexual and cultural stereotypes, and the flat script and conventional female behaviour ascribed to many of the characters were so obvious and unsettling. It almost makes you feel guilty to watch. Of course, it all ends happily, with Charlotte’s nanny turning out to be a lesbian and thus in no danger of seducing Charlotte’s husband, and with Samantha finally consummating her passion for the Danish guy she got arrested for kissing in Abu Dhabi. Well, of course, the film suggests, everything happens correct and best in the West. Yet I’m not sure that all’s well that end’s well: the film prompts more questions about the implication of its depictions of women, homosexuals and the Middle East than it answers.
McRobbie, A. (2004) ‘Post Feminism and Popular Culture’ in Feminist Media Studies, vol. 4, no. 3 , pp. 255–264.
Feminism and video games are not two concepts often linked together. However, after reading recently about the shifting representations of Lara Croft and her potential as a ‘feminist icon’ I was inspired to reflect on my own experience as a gamer while growing up.
I was never one for playing hard-hitting action games like Tomb Raider; I was more of a Nintendo – and sometimes Sega – girl myself. My childhood was a fusion of Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, and then as I got older games that demanded more of my time, games that immersed you in their alternative worlds. The ones that spring most vividly to mind are Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon. Finally, a preteen, I dabbled in the exciting Playstation 2 games that my brother owned – Grand Theft Auto and a number of car-racing games which I cannot recall the name of.
It’s an interesting thing, thinking back to all those virtual scenes you encountered in childhood, and trying to recount the representation of gender within them. The really retro games played on brick-like black-and-white Game Boys become submerged by the pastiche of all the newer, technicolour versions, with 3D characters that had realistic clothes, voices, breasts.
Yet when I do think of it, I realise just how gendered my whole video-gaming experience was. Certainly, there was a dearth of what might be (cringingly) called feminist heroines. Even the very early Mario games, which involved navigating a barely perceptible pixel man over a flat world of fatal drops and question-mark boxes, bore out the signs of gender stereotypes within their very narrative. Rescue the princess. I remember the motivation for getting to the next level was the little cut-scene where Princess Daisy (or was it Peach) would proclaim helplessly ‘Oh Mario!’ and transform shockingly into a spider-like creature, hopping away as if cursed to a land to be later rescued. This story is hardly surprising, given the perpetual presence of damsel-in-distress narratives within our culture, and I’ll admit that throwing an Italian plumber rather than handsome prince into the works is a little subversive – but Mario is always a good place to start.
Maybe Sonic is a little more interesting. Although the characters are weird, anthropomorphised talking hedgehogs, echidnas and the like, they still carry conventional gender distinctions. Well first there’s Amy Rose (strangely enough, that was almost my name), the pink-haired hedgehog with the obnoxious girly voice who is desperately in love with Sonic, the hyper-cool protagonist who frequently shirks her advances with an air of embarrassed affront. The game thus dramatises a kind of courtly love, but in parody, with Amy represented as silly, indeed somewhat ridiculous, in her affections for Sonic – who is evidently so totally out of her league. The unequal power balance reinforces ideas about female irrationality, and the deprivation of agency in the face of love. I won’t go too far with this though; after all, I didn’t play all the games, or watch the TV show. Maybe Sega threw a bit of kick-ass feminism into Amy’s character somewhere down the line?
They did have one character, at least in my favourite game, Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, that could give Lara Croft a run for her money. Rouge was a lipsticked bat with knee-length leather boots, a sassy, femme fatale always teasing Knuckles – the dread-locked echidna always punching the air and grunting to show his strength. Although she had her shortcomings, being on the dark-side of the game’s narrative, Rouge was perhaps one of the first feminist video game characters I encountered.
Following my Sonic and Mario phases, there was a period where Harvest Moon took over much of my Friday nights. I loved this game; it had a slightly surreal, old-fashioned atmosphere, with its sweet music and appealing graphics, but reflecting back the gender question is pretty damning. You played a young man who ran a farm, and got to grow your own crops, milk your own cows and keep the village tramp, Murray, out of your food-stash. Moreover, one of the central aims of the game was to choose and court a wife. There were three options, each embodying female stereotypes of a sort. First there is Celia, the warm-hearted farm-girl who can be easily wooed by presenting her with flowers. She is a bit pathetic; she wasn’t even offended when I gave her a bit of ragwort. Then there was Muffy, the blonde barmaid in a red-dress with a ‘fun’ personality. I don’t think I have to elaborate much further there. Lastly, Nami, a kind of New Age type with vivid red hair, who was a bit more interesting – a wandering traveller. The whole ‘wooing’ process, looking back, is a bit farcical – not just quaint but pretty hilarious – but I realise that maybe for the young children to whom this game was designed, playing a game that trains you to court a wife by giving her flowers is probably not the healthiest of socialisation processes. On that note, there was a Harvest Moon game where you got to play a girl, but I couldn’t comment as I have never played it.
A similar style of game to Harvest Moon is Animal Crossing, where you owned a house in a village of charismatic animals. The chief aim of the game was to pay off your mortgage, a fact that you were constantly reminded of by the maddening presence of Tom Nook, the local entrepreneur who you are forever in debt to. Animal Crossing lets you play either a boy or girl protagonist, and I would argue is a little bit more deconstructive in its representation of gender roles. At least, it gives you a lot more power over your character. Gender is less prominent – although the villagers occasionally make stereotypical comments, Tom Nook is patronising to your character whether you are a boy or a girl and the hair salon allows you to experiment with an array of bizarre hairstyles which undercut traditional gendered appearances. Playing Animal Crossing allows you to feel in control, to experiment. You can even design your own t-shirts, and decorate your home with a myriad of furniture (at a cost). No, I think this game would be better read from a Marxist perspective (Tom Nook as evil petit-bourgeois tyrant).
This leads me finally on to the more obviously problematic gender representations in games like Grand Theft Auto and all the racing titles. Women are stereotypical, red-dressed, often voiceless prostitutes (indeed, ‘picking up’ is often part of the storyline), or else draped over flash cars, offered as rewards for race-winning but never racing themselves. Indeed, I’m sure there was one game where the amount of money you had from winning races determined the kind of ‘girlfriend’ you could have. Persistently, women are absent from the action except as hyper-sexualised commodities.
What seems consistent in the very different games that I played throughout my childhood is both their underrepresentation of women and their portrayal of women as objects. In Mario, the princess is the goal object, spurring the player onto the next level. In Harvest Moon, women are presented merely as potential brides, whose courting is in itself a ‘level’ to be achieved. In the more violent (and should I say 18+) games, women are basically sexual commodities to be bought and abandoned at the player’s will. In Sonic, female characters have more autonomy, but still fall back into stereotypical roles: helpless, childish lover-girl and femme fatale. Perhaps only Animal Crossing offered a bit of transgression of rigid gender binaries, with its largely asexual characters and emphasis on player choice in terms of outfits and style.
My readings, I’ll admit, are of course narrow, and perhaps all of the games have now not only changed with the times (it’s been a good few years since I’ve picked up a game console) but even the ones I played may have had exceptions to the gendered rule. The point of this article is to flag up the more obvious problems video-games present for feminism, in reproducing highly-conventional stereotypes in their representation of female characters. Achieving gender equality is difficult when children and adults are like are literally immersed in virtual realities where characterisations mirror all too vividly the limited representations of gender that have for decades pervaded society. Art and life are always going to bounce off one another, and this is why, reflecting back now with the maturity of a critical mind, I am able to realise the stereotypes I was exposed to – stereotypes which back then probably seemed normal and natural. I am sure there are numerous games which dissolve stereotypes in their representation of gender, and maybe Lara Croft could be a postmodern feminist icon. I won’t know until I play.