Lehane differs in many respects to James Ellroy, the current dean of modern American hardboiled literature, offering far tighter and more focused storylines and infinitely less Byzantine complications to his narratives and characterisations. And yet the two writers offer similar approaches to fleshing out the hoary bones of a genre rooted in an age of ingrained machismo and updating it by describing deep psychological distress, even hysteria and madness, lurking within their heroes, who fixate on the singular women in their lives with self-consuming intensity even whilst handling other situations with rugged force.
Saturday, January 30, 2010
Mucho spoilers ahead.
Dennis Lehane made his name with cleverly plotted, gritty yarns of sleuthing and suffering in
Boston’s harder precincts, providing the basis for two strong films in recent years, Clint Eastwood’s and Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone. Lehane’s gifts for convincing psychological portraiture and intriguing moral conundrums have seen his reputation expand beyond the limits of the paperback genre world. Now, Mystic River has been filmed by Martin Scorsese, and the appeal of the work for him is obvious, and not only because Lehane’s milieu is obviously inviting after the success of the Boston-set The Departed. Lehane’s plot builds with deliberation upon hoary templates: gothic melodramas, old prison flicks, Gaslight-esque they’re-trying-to-drive-me-mad yarns and locked-room mysteries of yore. But there’s also a darker, acutely probing spirit lurking within Lehane’s outré narrative. Shutter Island
The eponymous island is the location of
Ashecliffe Hospital, a federal institute for the criminally insane, situated far out in . The island’s institution incorporates a Civil War-era fort and mansion, and the landmass around it is infested with rats. In a brief prologue, Lester Sheehan, a psychiatrist formerly employed at the island and now, with his wife dying and he himself approaching the end of his days, meditates on a strange sight he once beheld on the island, which was virtually impossible to escape from due to the powerful currents washing around it, of a rat that he believed made the improbable swim from Shutter Island to a nearby outcrop. The memory of this sight leads him to think about one Teddy Daniels, who he believes would have applauded the rat’s achievement. The narrative proper begins in 1954. Daniels, a Boston Harbour US , makes the trip to the island with a new, hastily provided partner, Chuck Aule, as they are brought in to locate a patient, Rachel Solando, who has supposedly disappeared from her cell despite a plethora of safeguards. However, even the swiftest and simplest deductions by the two Marshals determine that it’s impossible Rachel’s disappearance can have been accidental: either someone helped her escape, or someone took her away, most likely Sheehan, one of the staff psychiatrists, who’s listed as being currently off the island. Marshall
Daniels and Aule quickly form a friendship in spite of being apposite breeds. Daniels, son to a drowned fisherman, is a quintessential figure of modern noir literature: faintly desperate in his blending of terse toughness and ruined romanticism, socially awkward in comparison to the slicker Aule. Aule explains that he’s a recent transfer from Seattle, having been harassed out of his post there after marrying a Japanese-American girl. Teddy is bitterly, physically afraid of the sea, his forefathers’ stomping ground, and this confirms an edge of anxiety about being unable to cope, to withstand the scale of terror in the world, that they once possessed. As the two men dig into the bizarre mystery, Shutter Island is besieged by a hurricane-force storm that cuts off all communication to the outside world. As an increasing paranoia overtakes the two Marshals, as they realise the story of Rachel’s escape is impossible and there is some underlying, insidious motive to bringing them to the island, Daniels admits to Aule his underlying motives: his wife, Dolores Chantal, died in an apartment building fire started by a pyromaniac named Andrew Laeddis, whom he now believes is imprisoned on the island. Daniels also believes the institution is being used for illicit psycho-surgical experimentation with funding from the HUAC, being supervised by the institution’s chief doctor, Cawley.
Where all this leads is devilishly clever, if not terribly believable, conjuring a gothic thrill-ride that also doubles as a perfect schizoid fantasy of persecution and imprisonment: Teddy’s own. For Teddy is Laeddis, as Cawley reveals in the concluding chapters, and he has been a patient at Ashecliffe for two years, having shot Dolores after she, a deeply disturbed lady herself, drowned their three children. Teddy, consumed by guilt not only for the killing but also for trying to ignore all the warning signs of her instability, including the firebug acts he had ascribed to his alter ego, has retreated deeply into this delusion. Cawley and Sheehan, who has posed as Chuck, have desperately arranged this distended exercise in role-playing to try and provoke a self-perceiving crisis in Laeddis before, as a delusional, violent and uncontrollable patient, he is otherwise to be pacified with a lobotomy.
As a prose stylist, Lehane doesn’t rock the boat of his appointed niche nor contradict much of modern genre fiction’s tendency to read like a film treatment. Efficient is the fittest word for it, narrowing to elegantly punchy passages when it suits him:
The razor slid so far through Teddy’s skin he suspected it hit jaw bone. It widened his eyes and lit up the entire left side of his face, and then some shaving cream dripped into the wound and eels exploded through his head and the blood poured into the white clouds and water in the sink.
Lehane inverts the archetype to a certain extent as he peels that layers of what is finally revealed to be Teddy’s complex schizoid denials – Daniels/Laeddis is what he thinks he is to a certain extent, as he was indeed a US Marshal before his crack-up, and his other memories are accurate, such as his grim experiences in the war including a mass execution of Nazi jailers at Dachau, of which he was part of the liberating force. But he’s also a portrait of a man so shell-shocked by the violent and suspicious spirit of his age that he’s been driven deep into complex fantasy that, no matter how horrific it seems, is still preferable to the truth. The singular masculine hero, so adept at physical feats of strength, is unable to bear the weight, and indeed it’s precisely his accomplishment in arts of violence that finally dooms him to any hope of rescue from his solipsistic state.
Lehane purposefully plugs into the ineffably paranoid mood of the early ‘50s, with its then utterly novel and unfamiliar landscape of atom bombs, hallucinogens, lingering ghosts of WW2, spies and Reds-under-the-bed anxiety, HUAC and the blacklist, and general post-war deflation, with the nascent Civil Rights movement and glimmers of feminism beginning to upset the apple cart. Daniels’ awkward relationship to the many black men who work as orderlies in the hospital is intriguingly portrayed, as is Chuck/Sheehan’s much easier way with them and people in general:
Teddy thought of trying it, decided he’d fail, a white man trying to sound hep. And yet Chuck? Chuck could pull it off somehow.
Finally, Lehane constructs effective parable about the decline and fall of traditional American masculinity in the face of these corrosive horrors and grinding contradictions. A charged exchange early in the book takes place between Teddy and one of Cawley’s colleagues, Dr Naehring, engaged in psychologising “warrior” types, explicitly interested in teasing apart the mental makeup of alpha males.
Lehane lays clues that offer evidence of the resolution without quite giving enough to blow the revelation’s force, noting for instance how Teddy was unnerved and repelled by Dolores’s unvarnished, slightly off-kilter expressions of sexuality in spite of his utter worship of her, and the way her identity seems to constantly threaten to merge with Rachel’s. Rachel proves finally to have been the name of one of their sole daughter, whilst Edward and Daniel were the two sons. Certain aspects of Teddy’s fantasy are intuitively correct: Sheehan really does have a relationship with the nurse, Emily, who stands in for Rachel Solando (it’s she, later his wife, who’s dying at the opening). And the Warden, who carries a stout black book with him at all times, possibly a Bible and spouts apocalyptic assertions, seems to be, whether or not he’s role-playing, as crazy as his patients. One key encounter with a woman Teddy thinks is the real Rachel Solando, a psychiatrist living in a cave pretending to be dead, remains a peculiar ambiguity, the narrative not spelling out entirely if she’s another of Cawley’s role-players or a pure schizoid hallucination, and either way the encounter has a light dusting of the truly bewildering long before the climactic revelations.
Whilst Shutter Island doesn’t really transcend its generic trappings, it certainly plies those trappings with gusto, as the hurricane barrels in, the Island becomes a gothic abode assailed by the elements, and the sense of tingling paranoia mounts, with Teddy’s assailed wits perceiving danger and persecution in every corner, his haunted psyche vividly described, so that it’s easy to get on his side and be afraid for him. By the same token the novel doesn’t alienate in the conclusion as stories like this often do – perhaps, as a device, such twists work better on the page - but successfully concludes on a note tragic failure. The concluding passages are genuinely, darkly, intelligently wrenching as Teddy, awakened, if only temporarily, to his own nature, treads back along the true, dread path that brought him to
, and confronts the kind of moment no man should have to comprehend, and the very end elucidates the haunted note of Sheehan’s opening. The inability to save an innocent, the story finally says, haunts a man like no other. Shutter Island
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
June Jago as Olive in the first production on the cover of the current Currency Press edition.
in Act Three: “Take a grown-up look at the lay-off”. Pearl points out the now self-evident tendency towards disintegration in a situation without codified relationships. She stands for the necessity of living up to prescribed roles, within the norm. Pearl
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is widely regarded as a crucial work of Australian theatre, in a similar vein to Death of a Salesman’s impact on American drama and Look Back in Anger on the British, and like those works it summarises a fundamental crisis in a nation’s mid-century psyche. In immediate terms it’s the story of the disintegration of a heretofore convenient domestic arrangement. Roo and Barney, two labourers who specialise in cutting sugar cane in the far north, spend many months of a given year in Queensland, but always decamp for Melbourne when their off-season, the “lay-off”, comes around. During the lay-off, they live in the house of Roo’s long-time girlfriend Olive, and her mother Emma, and spend their accumulated wages in a happy extended booze-up. Each year, Roo returns with a gift both totemic and yet somehow childish, a kewpie doll, for Olive. But in their seventeenth homecoming, Roo and Barney return riven with tension and bewilderment. Roo, long the leader, divinely anointed by his physical strength and stamina, of a work gang, has been displaced by a younger rival, Johnny Dowd, and he covered up his humiliation by faking a bad back, before then leaving the gang and hiding out in Brisbane for many weeks: he is, then, broke. Barney failed to join his mate Roo in this action, a source of niggling tension between them. Barney himself has lost his own girlfriend, Nancy, who has recently married an intellectual, and Olive is hoping to convince her fellow barmaid, the bourgeois, propriety-concerned
Lawlor’s drama revolves around a crisis in the lives of its characters, where they are forced to give up the lives they have been living up until its conclusion, which sees a series of ructions and disillusioning revelations result in an irreparable break between its core romantic pairing, Roo and Olive. The meaning of this transition can appear immediately conservative, as if it is confirmed that to choose such alternative lifestyles is inherently false in at least social terms, but also raises the more vital and interesting ideal that efforts to ignore the natural rhythms of life are a root cause. The precise delineation of the two paradigms is never exactly clarified. The play is built around several crucial statements of private morality and expectation whose articulation punctuates the structure of the tale. These articulations represent both a dramatic dialogue between society and individual, prescription and freedom, duty and ardour:
Olive’s crucial “five months of heaven” speech in Act One, Scene One lays out her private sense of joy in the seasonal nature of her affair with Roo. She lays out the creed by which she lives. It is defined by natural cycles, masculine potency, outside the norm.
Barney in Act One, Scene Two defending himself as a man who always made sure he fulfilled the fiscal responsibility of a father without fulfilling the social or familial aspects of the role. He stands for the capacity of the individual to transcend a prescribed role. He defines himself as a special case, outside the norm.
Emma, in Act Three: “I might be a damned fool around the place, but I can still nut that one out.” She insists that self-determination demands neither conformity nor arch individualism, but self-awareness and the capacity to grow.
Context is everything in how we read this. As it is Olive’s final catastrophic reaction to Roo’s offer of marriage and settling down looks like the crumbing of a febrile personality before the accepted standard of male-female relations and a confirmation of the wrongness of her world-view, thus confirming the conservative social structure. If the play was written today, and involved characters from another socio-economic milieu, we might perhaps hear no end of commentaries on Gen X/Gen Y fecklessness and refusal to commit and mature. Is this then reactionary, or is it a reflection on a more perpetual problem, couched in specific social terms of the mid ’50s?
Either way, Lawler’s structure sees perpetual reassessment of the characters, whose essential nature of the characters is only slowly revealed, and no single feature dominates. Whilst it may be too schematic that Roo comes to stand for acceptance and Olive for denial, the characters articulate individual perspectives and moral and social positions, all of which are tested, and found both potent and wanting. The characters individually are largely failures.
, though insulated by decorum, is anxious and lonely; Emma, for all her vinegary wisdom, is insufferably misanthropic, her talents untapped; Barney is shallow and inconstant; Roo waning in his alpha male authority; Olive unable to accept an altered idyll. The empty spaces between them are defined by collapsing boundaries, and collapsing alibis. The dolls, totems for an unfulfilled family life, are smashed. Barney’s self-justification in abandoning his children is shown up by his failure to follow Roo and his intention to, in essence, procure Pearl ’s daughter. Pearl
Johnnie Dowd and ‘Bubba’, Olive and Emma’s teenaged neighbour who has been for many years something of a surrogate child for them, counterpoint Roo and Olive not because they seem to stand for something more regular but because they seem to stand for something more assured. Whilst Roo, Barney, and
keep Bubba infantilised in their dealings with her, Bubba has become self-determining. When Dowd enters the house, his immediate diagnosis of the lack in Roo’s and Olive’s union (“Is that the best he can manage?”) is met with Bubba’s equally direct acceptance of a date with him. Both are characterised by decisiveness, where the older trio’s lives are defined by careful elisions, a pointed lack of decision, of perpetual avoidance covered by alibis; but their decisiveness also threatens a similar blindness to fate that has defined their elders. Roo covers his disappointment in himself with anger at Barney, and ran away rather than face the consequences of his waning prowess. Barney left behind children. Olive turns from Roo rather than give in. Pearl becomes near distraught at the idea of her daughter Vera spending an afternoon with the gangers, suggesting that her stable world is no more secure, and is in effect defined by vague and shadowy terrors of soiled innocence. In each character, their rhetoric defines their fears and failures rather than their triumphs. Pearl
Roo’s solution to his crisis, a kind of crash-dive surrender, is as profound a shock to Olive as Roo’s discovery of his waning strength before Dowd back in the cane-fields, and the crisis it precipitates is very similar; Olive retreats from the battleground, refusing to deal with the moment, nursing her grievance, much as Roo did in his specifically masculine way. Barney, much as he did when Roo left the gang, advocates going on with work and maintaining an air of businesslike removal form emotional consequence. The dramatic force that Pearl and Emma wield in the last act would have been denied them earlier, with Pearl looking like a right wowser compared to earthy vivacity that Olive promises, and Emma a comedic biddy, whose bawling out the younger folk for not taking things seriously when singing reflects her deeper, more urgent contempt for their way of doing things.
That each woman gains a kind of moral authority towards the end does not however necessarily invalidate the positions of Olive, Barney, and Roo in deference to theirs, but they do point out the two great weaknesses in them: their lack of thought for the problems of the world outside their circle (and what such ignorance can cost an individual), and their inability to look at themselves honestly. Pearl, whose life has been defined by trying to keep her daughter sheltered and making her way as a single mother, reflects the authority of a bourgeois, suburban world that considers a kind of safe bubble of experience desirable; an attitude Olive explicitly detests. Her own idealisation of the lay-off is tied to her own relative level of independence. She holds “the household power”, as the Setting notes put it. Threatened with the big stick of adult compromise, Olive crumbles; but this, rather than affirming anything, identifies a terror that faces all of the characters – the inevitable challenge to their favourite assumptions and private universes.
In such a context then it’s easy to explain George Molnar’s comment on “strangers who were us”, for, despite their unusual individual characteristics, the crisis that faces the characters is indeed one that faces everyone, all the more in a conservative era, of finding a compromise between private ideal and public reality.
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, at least in terms of how it evokes echoes of an agrarian, cyclical sense of human life, as experienced in terms of nature, contextualised in the conflicting, unnatural setting of suburban ’50s Melbourne. The dolls, whether one sees them as tokens in place of real children or not, certainly have a totemic value that sets the seal on the year past and makes pledges for the year to come. Such is a motif that reeks of a pre-modern world, in which cycles of nature, and nature itself, are of great importance. This easily accords with the image of Roo and Barney as the epitome of “real men”, as Olive describes them – physically confident, powerful men, far above the petty workaday males of the city. That is, men leftover from an age when physical strength and potency were prized. Such is not merely an Australian archetype; it’s a general version with accord in other portraits of a pre-industrial world in which men go off to do their work and the women tend to the hearth. For instance, the whalers and their wives in Moby-Dick, where the sailors are absent on their labours for years at a time, or, the Spartan warriors and their women in any version you care to name of 300 Spartans. Olive exalts in her status as Gorgo to Roo’s Leonidas. It’s redolent of a balance of lives, seasons, duties, from a more pure, classical world.
Of course, this idealised image receives a tremendous scrutiny, with its flawed representatives, and it disintegrates in the face of the contemporary suburban world’s increasing hegemony, with entirely different ideas of duty. Roo’s strict sense of homosocial etiquette, which insists on firm loyalty, pulling weight, maintaining discipline, and purity of action that can if need be divorced from practical responsibilities, implicitly contradicts
’s sense of the duty of a man as being domesticated and subject to compromise. Roo is a king by his own, pre-modern standards, and a total nonentity by Pearl ’s bourgeois ideals. Barney is merely lacking in such terms; he at least has children. If the new world’s hegemony is communicated strictly in domestic terms, then both Roo and Olive have failed, and the shock of surrender has a terrible impact. But part of their failure is indeed not merely social but also natural. They have held on to an early phase too long, and thus neglected the inevitable effects of aging; that is, of moving from the regular alternation of work and lay-off, but into the greater lay-off, which demands time for creating a new generation. Thus Dowd, the new bull male, follows up his defeat of Roo in the primal duel of masculinity on the canefield, by claiming his surrogate daughter and mocking his failures as a breeder. Pearl , the voice of the domestic world, desires a man, but gets along perfectly well without one. Pearl
In terms of pre-modern cultures, the dolls Roo brings home could be said to possess a kind of magic, a sort of religious symbol. They represent homage to, but also an attempt to forestall, the natural cycle, the pantheistic demand. The doll at the crux of the play is specifically identified as the seventeenth – in essence, only a year shy of the modern, accepted age of consent, and thus of maturity, of the child Roo and Olive may have had in their first year. A promise, obviously, unfulfilled. Roo cannot any longer maintain the pretence of being a classical hunter-gatherer or warrior; but the time is swiftly approaching when neither he nor Olive will be physically capable of reproduction. Thus Roo and Olive become avatars for a spiritual crisis – two people trapped irrevocably between a primal culture and a modern one, a culture that celebrates potency and youth which is, ironically, ageless, and a specifically more “adult”, but less fecund, specifically contemporary world. Roo and Barney return to the city, as if moving out of past to present, but it’s a movement that cannot be sustained. Finally, the men must either accept one place or the other.
If the fantasy of Australia, much like that of America, is of an Eden rediscovered, its seminal early works concerned of fierce struggles of solitary, brave men contending with nature, and then the rebirth of Arthurian heroes – in American literature, figures like Natty Bumppo and the cowboy hero, and, in Australian, the Man from Snowy River, in the next phase of mythos, domesticity consumes the reborn natural male, but, interestingly, here it also crushes the female. Olive literally cannot countenance abandoning her concept of life, like a shaman choosing immolation rather than conversion. Roo, much like a cowboy hero, rides off into the sunset, with his “mate” Barney but fundamentally alone, and Olive breaks, mourning the loss of an ideal, eroded by the inability to halt time.John Mills, Ernest Borgnine, and Anne Baxter as Barney, Roo and Olive in Leslie Norman's 1959 film version, also called Season of Passion.