Tag Archives: Film in fiction

I’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb: Men can be feminists, too

Cover imageI can’t say I embraced the prospect of Wally Lamb’s new novel entirely enthusiastically: I’d read his first, She’s Come Undone, which was praised to the skies by all and sundry but left me cold, and the blurb mentions ghosts which I found distinctly off-putting. You might wonder, then, why I decided to read it. The answer is that it appeared to be a feminist novel by a man, a phenomenon well worth investigating.

Felix Funicello is a sixty-year-old professor of film studies. Divorced, he adores his daughter Aliza, encouraging her in her journalistic career, and is on good enough terms with his ex-wife. He’s the brother of two sisters, both of whom he loves dearly. One Monday night, setting up in the gloriously old-fashioned cinema in which he runs his film club, an apparition appears introducing herself as Lois Weber, a silent movie director much overlooked by her male colleagues and wanting the record put straight. She tells Felix that he’s been chosen as ‘educable’, playing him footage of significant scenes from his life and occasionally directing him to ‘re-enter’ those scenes. As he watches his family, Felix is hit by a wave of nostalgia accompanied by the benefit of hindsight. He overhears his beautiful sister Simone confide her boss’s sexual harassment to their mother and his mother’s inadequate response; he watches his sister Francis throwing herself into the Rheingold Girls beauty pageant election and her terrible struggles with anorexia. As Lois shows Felix more of his life, the pieces of his own personal jigsaw begin to fall into place until he understands the women in his life far better.

Narrated in the first person, Lamb’s novel is written in a very direct, conversational style. It bowls along nicely, interweaving Felix’s family story with historical context and movie trivia. Those worrying  ‘ghost’ scenes are carried off with humour, smartly avoiding any painful creakiness. Felix’s hindsight allows Lamb to smoothly make points about the tyranny of beauty, the exploitation of women’s insecurities and the casual dismissal of women’s potential and achievements. Aliza’s blog post towards the end of the novel is a neat riposte to her mother’s angry dismissal of ‘post-feminism’ in which she argues that a new generation of feminists is attacking sexist attitudes using a different set of tools. I’ll Take You There is a very rare thing: an enjoyable, commercial novel with a broad, deep streak of feminism running through it, and it’s written by a man. I won’t be catching up with Lamb’s backlist anytime soon but this one proved to be well worth my time.

This may well be my last review for 2016. The rest of December’s posts are likely to be taken up with looking forwards and back in that time-honoured fashion for the last month of the year.

Moonstone by Sjón (transl. Victoria Cribb): The Boy Who Never Was

Cover imageWhen I included Moonstone in one of my June previews I was surprised when several people picked up on it, already acquainted with Sjón’s writing either through a previous novel or from songs he’d written with Björk. He’s a talented guy: an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and librettist. I wish I could say that I knew all about him already but it was Moonstone’s synopsis that drew me to it rather than Sjón’s reputation. Set in 1918 in Reykjavík, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn – the eponymous Moonstone – over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Iceland’s capital.

Máni is so obsessed with the movies that he visits both of Reykjavík’s cinemas, sometimes twice a day. It’s an expensive business but Máni turns tricks to fund his habit, visiting various “gentlemen” throughout the city, all very furtive about their predilections. He’s transfixed by Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie – Feuillde’s epic, Les Vampires. When she tosses  her scarlet scarf to him, it becomes his most prized possession. Máni’s routine is shattered when a Danish passenger ship docks in the city bringing influenza with it. Soon both movie houses fall silent as the musicians succumb to the disease. As the fatalities mount, the only doctor left standing recruits Máni and Sólborg to make house visits, carting the bodies to the mortuary and tending the sick. The beginning of the new year, almost three months after the epidemic began, marks the beginning of Icelandic sovereignty celebrated with great ceremony on January 1st, 1919, a day which ends in disgrace for Máni. Eleven years later, he returns to the city.

There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this slim novella. As you might expect from a writer who seems to excel in whichever form he chooses, the writing is striking. For the illiterate Máni: ‘the letters of the alphabet disguise themselves before his eyes, glide between lines, switch roles in the middle of a word’. When the outside world impinges on Iceland in the form of influenza: ‘The silver screen has torn and a draught is blowing between the worlds’. You could call it an adult fairy tale but Sjón blends fact with fiction including a multitude of filmic references and historic events. Its ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. In the final paragraph we learn that the book is dedicated to the memory of Sjón‘s uncle, Bósi – ‘sailor, alcoholic, booklover, socialist and gay’ – who died from AIDS in 1993, making it all the more poignant. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing.