Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Moonglow by Michael Chabon (4.5/5)

Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Moonglow, opens with the following:

“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to the facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.”

Anyone familiar with Chabon’s work will recognize his belief in elevating narrative over “truth,” or to put it another way, to acknowledge that Truth is always out of reach and thus is shaped by narrative. It’s safe, then, to say that we shouldn’t take Moonglow, which purports to be a biography of Chabon’s late grandfather, at face value. Out of fact and fiction, Chabon weaves a tale that spans a good chunk of the 20th century, but never loses sight of the beauty to be found in a life at turns ordinary and singular.

As the story goes, shortly after finishing his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, in 1989, a younger Michael Chabon found himself beside his ailing grandfather’s hospital bed. During his final weeks, Chabon’s grandfather unfolds a sprawling personal narrative of a Jewish-American whose life was disrupted by World War II and who struggled to maintain a family in postwar America, ultimately constructing a sturdy middle class life that was more easily obtainable and also expected in the second half of the twentieth century. Along the way, Chabon’s grandfather (who is never given a proper name) endures a stint in jail and the reverberations of traumas both global and familial.

Moonglow finds Chabon continuing to turn his attentions to the everyday interpersonal lives of his characters, much like his previous novel Telegraph Avenue, which took as its subject two music nerds living in the Oakland area. At the time, Telegraph Avenue was a departure from his more conceptually ambitious works, like The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The most surprising change in Moonglow is Chabon’s more restrained style. You won’t find the kind of stylistic gambles as there were in Telegraph Avenue, such as an entire chapter consisting of a single unhinged sentence or a visit from a pre-presidential Barack Obama into the lives of Chabon’s fictional characters. Some of these artistic wagers worked (the former) while others fell flat (the latter). By reining in his linguistic trickery, Chabon fashions a tone that’s appropriate for a more intimate and personal narrative, even if not everything in Moonglow is to believed.

That’s not to say that Moonglow isn’t a beautifully written novel just like everything Chabon has produced. Read this short passage about Chabon’s grandmother, who escaped Europe only after the atrocities of World War II:

“There were days, however, when being left with my grandmother was not very different from being left along. She lay on the sofa or on her bed with the curtains drawn and a cool cloth folded over her eyes. These days had their own lexicon: cafard, algie, crise de foie. In 1966 (the date of my earliest memories of her) she was only forty-three, but the war, she said, had ruined her stomach, her sinuses, the joints of her bones (she never said anything about what the war might have done to her mind). If she had promised to look after me on one of her bad days, she would rally long enough to persuade my parents, or herself, that she was up to the task. But then it--something--would come over her and we would leave the movie theater halfway through the show, conclude the recital after a single poem, walk out of the supermarket abandoning an entire cart of groceries in the middle of the aisle.” (19)

Just in this passage, you get a sense of Chabon’s innate sense of detail. He makes use of parenthesis to indicate his split understanding of these experiences, one that’s contemporaneous and another that clearly occurs years later. And then there’s how Chabon chooses to reach towards the hidden trauma his grandmother has endured, using pronouns and French words to prevent us from ever fully grasping this penumbral history. While Chabon has largely avoided the syntactical backflips of some of his other works, his writing is just as powerful as ever.

The themes common to Chabon remain in tact. As ever, he’s interested in Jewish identity, nostalgia, and mid-twentieth century history and technology. The most immediately gripping portion of Moonglow occurs during grandfather’s service in WW II. As an engineer, grandfather is tasked with capturing both a V-2 rocket and the Nazi scientist, Wernher von Braun, a man who was never punished for his involvement in Hitler’s regime.  Instead, he was pardoned by the United States and enlisted into the emerging space race. The story of Von Braun and the V-2 rocket speak to the multilayered aspect of nostalgia. We venerate WW II as the good war while often overlooking the moral compromises endemic to every armed conflict.

The rocket becomes a reoccurring motif through much of Moonglow. Chabon writes of the V-2:

“None of that, however, could be blamed on the rocket, my grandfather thought, or on the man, von Braun, who had designed it. The rocket was beautiful. In conception it had been shaped by an artist to break a chain that had bound the human race ever since we first gained consciousness of earth’s gravity and all its analogs in suffering, failure, and pain. It was at once a prayer sent heavenward and the answer to that prayer: Bear me away from this awful place. To pack the thing with a ton of amatol, to hobble it so that instead of tearing loose once and for all from the mundane pull, it only arced back to earth and killed the people among whom it fell, was to abuse it.” (167)

Like William Blake’s “Tyger,” the rocket is both beautiful and fearful. This image of the rocket reverse engineers the technological utopianism found in postwar America. The rocket is a symbol of human endeavor, but in reality more often becomes a tool of violence. This is also a reminder that technology does not exist outside of culture and history, but rather is always bent to the will of its users. In our present age of technological fetishism, it’s useful to consider technological progress does not automatically lead to human progress.

Moonglow can be read as a story of the twentieth century as filtered through a particular American family. In this sense, there are some interesting parallels between Chabon’s latest and the Chinese author Mo Yan’s novel of the mid-twentieth century, Red Sorghum. Like Chabon, much of Mo Yan’s novel takes place during WW II/the Second Sino-Japanese War, and he refers to characters solely in accordance to their familial relationship to the narrator (father, grandfather, grandmother, etc.). Despite the countless amount of reminiscing we’ve spent on the twentieth century, we’re still forced to look back, attempting to make sense of the strange mix of destruction and unbridled optimism that impossibly stood side by side. And in doing so, we might somehow understand where we are and how we might move forward.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (3.5/5)

When Disney first announced that they were planning on taking the Star Wars IP (ugh) and submitting it to the Marvel model, where they produce one or more films a year, I was skeptical. As someone who grew up watching the original trilogy on TV and VHS, I felt there was something special about Star Wars, something that differentiated it from other big franchises. Sure, there were plenty of Star Wars material floating around outside of the main “Episodes”: comic books, novels, cartoons, video games, and even a soundtrack unencumbered by an actual film. And there’s been plenty of detritus within Star Wars, including terribly written novels, those Ewok movies, and the godawful holiday special. But these were easy to ignore because they weren’t meant to be experienced on the big screen. By pumping out a film every year, I reasoned, Disney was diminishing what made the experience of seeing a new Star Wars movie in theaters special.

The first of Disney’s anthology films, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (okay, they’re still sticking with that subtitle), does a fine job of justifying the practice, even if it doesn’t completely quell my worries that the Disney machine will grind Star Wars to dust in order to suck out every last cent. The plot of Rogue One is extrapolated from a line from the original film, and the movie recycles much of the aesthetic, character motivation, and even the macguffin from A New Hope. Jyn Erso, the film’s protagonist, is a lapsed rebel who now finds herself jailed by the Empire. She’s broken out of a labor camp in order to aid the Rebellion. As a child, Jyn’s mother was killed and her father was pressed into service by the Empire to help build the Death Star, which means this is the fourth film featuring some version of the original superweapon.

But what the Rebellion really needs her for is to make contact with Saw Gerrera, a rebel extremist who leads a guerrilla cell on the planet of Jedha (for some reason the film flashes names of locations in the bottom corner of the screen like we’re watching a Jack Ryan thriller). Gerrera has come into possession of information regarding the Empire’s new superweapon. Jyn, her handler, Cassian Andor, and his surly droid, K2SO follow these breadcrumbs all the way the film’s impressive third act. Along the way they pick up a motley crew, including Imperial defector Bodhi Rook and odd couple Chirrut Îmwe, a Zatoichi archetype, and Baze Malbus.

Most of the characters are quickly sketched, which isn’t necessarily a problem. In the great superhero tradition, Baze Malbus is defined by that massive gun he totes around while his friend Chirrut Îmwe is mostly defined by actor Donnie Yen’s beatific smile. Jyn, played by Felicity Jones, serves as the main character, but her story arc seems incomplete, like a Jenga puzzle threatening to topple because of its missing parts. At one point she must give a rousing speech to the troops, mostly because she’s the protagonist, so of course she does. But Jones’s prim Britishness can’t quite sell the dialogue, and it makes you appreciate Jennifer Lawrence’s conviction to deliver whatever hokum was necessary in those Hunger Games movies.

Part of me wants to snark on Disney’s four-quadrant, tentpole filmmaking, but another part of me has to acknowledge that this film is the product of a well-oiled machine. Director Gareth Edwards nimbly directs the action, and the quips are delivered right on time. The antagonism between Jyn and K2SO provides one of the film’s chief delights. And when the movie turns into the Star Wars version of The Dirty Dozen, it’s easy to lose yourself in the spectacle. Rogue One contains a number of striking imagery of imagined planets and environments that the series is known for.

**SPOILERS AHEAD** And yet, I still felt like the movie never came together like it could have. I love the idea of making a Star Wars movie in the direct mold of those WWII movies from the 50s and 60s, but the need to connect this to A New Hope continually threatens to undermine Rogue One. The Easter eggs come at a regular clip. Some of these make sense. It’s great to see Bail Organa working with the Rebellion, and the glass of blue milk in the opening scene is an unobtrusive nod to Luke’s favorite drink on Tatooine. But do we really need to see Evazan and Ponda Baba bump into Jyn? (For those who weren’t into the habit of tracking down the names of obscure Star Wars characters in their youth, these are the dude with the messed up face and the walrus-looking fellow who pick a fight with Luke in Mos Eisley’s Cantina. Ponda Boba’s arm sees the wrong end of Obi-Wan’s lightsaber.) And while Darth Vader’s inclusion makes sense up to a point, the tacked on ending that connects the film unambiguously to A New Hope seems unnecessary and superfluous, as if Disney felt the audience wouldn’t realize these are the same Death Star plans mentioned in A New Hope. If anything, it undercuts the arc of the characters we’ve been following for two hours by reminding us that they’re just minor people in the grand scheme. Finally, I’m flummoxed by the inclusion of a creepy CGI version of Peter Cushing’s Tarkin. I’m sure there are sexagenarian actors who bear a resemblance to Cushing with the aid of the makeup department. Seriously, the image of CG Cushing is more ghoulish than anything found in those Hammer Horror films he starred in.

**SPOILERS CONTINUED** It’s nearly impossible to discuss your reaction to Rogue One without spending some time discussing the ending, so there are some even more ruinous spoilers in this paragraph. You were warned. Above, I likened this film to Star Wars’s Dirty Dozen, but this film attempts to one up that trash classic because no one survives. Every major character meets their end in the final assault, and Jyn and Cassian die while standing ankle deep in the ocean as a mushroom cloud balloons in the background, an image beautifully cribbed from the film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly. I’ve gone back and forth between admiring this ending for its ability to smuggle such a bleak conclusion into a major blockbuster and thinking that the film never really earns this downer of a conclusion. Part of the problems is that following our heroes’ demise, there’s a coda that sees the Death Star plans make their way to a CGI Leia, unnecessarily connecting the dots between Rogue One and A New Hope and undermining the journey of the characters we’ve been following for two hours. The film never quite captures the acidic cynicism as The Dirty Dozen. It wants to be a gritty war film, but one that’s still fun for the family.

*SPOILERS CONTINUING* Additionally, I’m not sure the film ever really earns these deaths. There’s plenty of posturing in Rogue One about the kinds of sacrifices rebels must make in order to bring about change, but this is never really shown or discussed. I believe blockbuster movies can engage with complex topics, but there’s a difference between motioning towards complexity and actually engaging with complexity. (As an example, this difference can be seen in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises in which the former actually has something to say about terrorism where the latter’s attempt at broaching the topic of economic inequality is simply laughable). Earlier I mentioned The Dirty Dozen, but where that film gleefully deconstructs “the good war,” Rogue One never has the gumption to really show us these supposed ethical quandaries.


The big argument over Rogue One will likely be about whether or not the film is better than The Force Awakens. You could go back and forth on this question, outlining diagrams on the wall until they take you to a padded cell. I found them to be on the same level. When both films are working properly, they’re the kind of blockbuster entertainment spectacle that we go to the movies for. But they keep making unforced errors. The Force Awakens kills all momentum when Death Star 3.0 enters center stage. Rogue One likewise suffers when it bends over backwards to acknowledge the original trilogy or smuggle in a hero’s journey when the war film genre really should revolve around an ensemble cast. And while I like to avoid nitpicking, I think the inclusion of Peter CGIushing is simply unconscionable. Both films are good if ultimately unambitious. But I think Rogue One at least proves there’s some stock in the idea of creating anthology films. I just hope Disney figures out that not every film needs to tie directly into dialogue or characters from the original trilogy. It’s a big galaxy, after all. Let’s do something new.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Dark Disciple

Dark Disciple by Christie Golden and Katie Lucas (4/5)

Without appearing in any of the feature films, Asajj Ventress has become one of the more fascinating and nuanced characters in the prequel era. Originally developed by the Lucas brain trust for Attack of the Clones, Ventress would go on to appear in the original 2D Clone Wars series and a number of comics during Star Wars’s days at Dark Horse. Throughout The Clone Wars she became a more rounded character, especially after a story arc finding her abandoning her apprenticeship with Count Dooku to strike out on her own. Star Wars is a world of light and dark, but it has always managed to find the complexity these two poles. And it’s that in-between space that Ventress best represents.

For fans of Ventress, it was a pleasant surprise to see the novel, Dark Disciple, take the focus off of Obi-Wan and Anakin to explore the character of Ventress. Taken from unfinished Clone Wars storylines, Dark Disciple showcases what that series did best: explore the moral Catch 22 of war. Believing the toll of the Clone War has become too great, the Jedi Council decides, with some desperation, that it would be better to assassinate Count Dooku rather than let the war linger. Mace Windu is the chief proponent of this plan, but he manages to get the rest of the counsel to go along. Obi-Wan recommends that Quinlan Vos, a rebellious and unorthodox Jedi, carry out the assassination plot.

Vos knows he won’t be able to take out a Sith Lord by himself, so he’s told to recruit Asajj Ventress as an aid. The fact that she had previously attempted to kill her former master makes her an ideal ally. Knowing that Ventress would never trust the Jedi, Vos goes undercover as a fellow bounty hunter. He arranges a “chance” encounter with Ventress by going after the same bounty as her, and in the tradition of Marvel comics, after they squabble with one another, they soon become partners, Vos’s exuberant personality complementing Ventress’s guarded, no nonsense approach to everything.

For a time, Dark Disciple follows the time-honored narrative of the undercover cop ingratiating himself with criminals, but [spoilers] that thankfully doesn’t last too long. There are plenty of twists and turns throughout the novel, and you can tell it had been expertly plotted before being transformed from a series of 22 minute episodes into a book. I also won’t spoil anything else for you. The person who developed the original story was none other than Katie Lucas, daughter of the Maker himself, George. Here she’s helped by author Christie Golden. In a postscript, Katie Lucas writes about how she was drawn to Ventress because she’s a strong female character. I also feel as if the inclusion of Ventress and Ahsoka in the series speaks to the necessity of including female creators and artists in the world of Star Wars. Would these character be as rounded and complex if someone like Katie Lucas wasn’t there to influence the creative process?

What drew me to The Clone Wars cartoon was how it handled some of the moral entanglements hinted at in the prequel films. For all their flaws, the prequels had some legitimately interesting ideas that were, unfortunately, poorly executed. The idea that you could win a war and still lose seems particularly relevant today considering America has been waging a seemingly endless war on terror for fifteen years, and yet somehow global acts of terrorism have actually increased. But there are other ways to lose a war. Dark Disciple, and much of The Clone Wars, suggests that we lose by blurring the line between the “good” and “bad” guys. By engaging in assassination, the Jedi Council have lost their purity. But this isn’t an easy decision. You could see how the Jedi might come to the conclusion that engaging in what’s considered an immoral act, even during wartime, would be their best option, even if it is ultimately an abandonment of their principles. And in the process they have sacrificed the welfare of Quinlan Vos, who must struggle with the Dark Side during his mission.

Not everything about Dark Disciple is completely successful. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit older and more cynical, but at times it seems as if the romance between Vos and Ventress seems driven more by the plot than by the characters. But because the novel focuses on secondary and tertiary characters, there can be real consequences. Dark Disciples feels like more than just another adventure in the life of these characters. And the novel reminds us that even in a world with a light side and a dark side, it’s not always easy to know which side you’re on. Like Star Wars itself, this is a lesson that is both of our time and timeless.