Saturday, November 24, 2007

Review of Brian Aldiss's HARM and Nick Mamatas's UNDER MY ROOF

Fifty years ago this month, the seminal British science fiction magazine New Worlds published a story emphatically if enigmatically titled “O Ishrail!” On board “the mental health ship Cyberqueen,” psychiatrists examine a man named Ishrail, who claims to be from a different part of the galaxy, although he looks and speaks like a human being. Ishrail once commanded a fleet of “interpenetrators,” starcraft made “not of steel but of mentally powered force shields” that somehow ride the “maze of stresses” (what the benighted still call outer space). He is a de facto prophet of things to come, an exile from a more advanced civilization — or else he’s just plain nuts. “Quite candidly,” one doctor explains, “there’s hardly a disorder in the book that isn’t present to a greater or lesser degree.”

Brian W. Aldiss, the author of that 1957 story, is now in his eighties, with dozens of books to his name. He vigorously remixes the old Ishraili conflict in a short, sharp new novel, “HARM” (Del Rey: 224 pp., $21.95). The title is an acronym for Hostile Activities Research Ministry, which you could call Orwellian if its operations didn’t seem so close to our paranoid present, drawing dark inspiration from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

“This was the time for seriousness,” Aldiss baldly announces, “for a war against terror.” In a Syrian hellhole, or possibly some isolated house in London, “HARM” tries to extract information from “Prisoner B” — full name Paul Fadhil Abbas Ali. He’s a comic novelist of mixed Indian ancestry, a second-generation Londoner with an Irish wife. (“I was born in Ealing,” he helplessly tells his interrogators.) He has Brit-lit bona fides: His first story was published in Granta and his latest book is intended as a Wodehousean amusement. But it contains a passage in which two tipsy lovers joke about assassinating the prime minister — enough to land Paul before his implacable torturers.

“HARM” reverses the formula of “O Ishrail!” Instead of wondering whether the hero is mad, we see how the Ministry’s absurd and hair-raising treatment opens a psychic fissure in Paul, causing him to imagine that he is on an entirely different world as a release from his wretched state.

Shortly after the imprisoned character recalls some lines from “Paradise Lost” (“The Stygian council thus dissolved; and forth / In order came the grand infernal peers …”[10]), a planet called Stygia blooms full-blown in his mind. This is the far future, when refugees from a wartorn Earth are deconstructed into molecular form to facilitate space travel. Once on Stygia, however, reconstitution goes awry; those colonists who survive lose their original identities and social relationships. Life on the new planet (with its six fragmented moons) becomes a grim, primitive mess of religious fundamentalism, political intrigue and the decimation of the native race, like a perverse mirror of our own world.

Aside from a few bursts of Joycean wordplay, “HARM” isn’t a book to enjoy. Indeed, Paul’s escapist fantasy sours from the start, with his Stygian alter ego, the thuggish Fremant, jailed and maltreated throughout. Aldiss deliberately brutalizes his prose to shatter any possibility of redemption, let alone beauty. The novel seethes with ugly set pieces (not just the torture scenes, but the sex scenes — even the loving ones), toggling between its earthly and alien settings with a horrifying seamlessness that gives the whole enterprise the shape of a fable.

Our daily news reports already seem like dystopian dispatches; instead of trying to trump the outrages, Aldiss uses science fiction to dramatize a mental meltdown. It’s no coincidence that the name of the spaceship bringing humankind to Stygia is New Worlds — the same as the magazine where many early Aldiss tales found a home. Like those future travelers, the decades-old conceit of “O Ishrail!” gets boiled down and hurled through time, and lands like a fresh insanity.


In his third novel “Under My Roof” (Soft Skull: 152 pp., $12.95 paper). Nick Mamatas works off a slightly different set of War on Terror jitters than Aldiss, aiming for humor rather than horror.

Here, Sept. 11 has been renamed Patriot Day; footage of the World Trade Center attacks, suppressed for years, is finally being broadcast. The collective tension has taken Daniel Weinberg, an unemployed Long Island autodidact, to the breaking point. “With every war,” Mamatas explains, “Daniel got more frantic … stay[ing] up all night and just walking around the dark kitchen and smacking his fist against the table.” Perhaps less ambitious than the planet-hallucinating Paul, Daniel declares his house and yard “free and independent from all law or governmental incursions of the United States of America.”

Daniel’s proclamation has some teeth: He’s managed to construct a nuclear warhead by harvesting the element Americium-241 from thousands of broken fire alarms heaped in the junkyard. Soon, the media, National Guard, and Homeland Security get interested in Weinbergia. The small Pacific island nation of Palau recognizes the new country’s sovereignty, and assorted dissatisfied Americans make the pilgrimage to 22 Hallock Road — hippies, nerds, “tax cheats, college kids who made up their own languages in their spare time, a woman who called herself Doctress Arcologia who wanted to build a treehouse outside my window.” Microstates spring up all across the country; “Brown University,” Mamatas writes, “was supposedly planning to secede next.”

“Under My Roof” is accurate, fast-moving satire that transcends mere target shooting by virtue of its narrator, Daniel’s 12-year-old son Herbie. The novel affectionately captures his age-appropriate cynicism and insecurity; at times, he’s a kindred spirit to the awkward protagonists of Daniel Pinkwater’s young adult novels. There is, however, one essential difference: Herbie can read minds. Mamatas lucidly and hilariously deploys his telepathy, allowing him to know all, see all and eventually transmit helpful information to allies in need.

It’s a parody of the surveillance and interrogation mania of the post–Sept. 11 era — the exact opposite of the excruciating and ultimately useless methods practiced in “HARM.” The scary thing about “Under My Roof” is that some readers might feel more secure being ruled over by a telepathic adolescent than by anyone currently in power.

[Originally appeared April 2007,]

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Interview with Gina Kim, director of NEVER FOREVER

Sophie's Choices
By Ed Park

Gina Kim’s NEVER FOREVER, a hothouse of italicized emotion and pregnant pauses, received its world premiere at Sundance this year. Star Vera Farmiga, best known for her role in THE DEPARTED, told the New York Times it was “one of the most visceral love stories I’d ever read;” intensely present in nearly every frame, she’s as compelling a wit’s-end heroine as you’ll see on screen this year. Ed Park interviewed Kim via e-mail.

Cinevue: NEVER FOREVER’s "plot keyword" on IMDB is "interracial relationship"—a label that's pretty reductive and yet right on the money. On the one hand, you have the story of a well-to-do woman (Sophie, played by Vera Farmiga) whose successful, infertile husband (Andrew, played by David McInnis) has become suicidal and withdrawn, complicating her desire to become a mother. This leads her to hire someone to inseminate her, a situation that could certainly work as drama, without the element of race. But the story is deepened by the fact that Sophie is white and both her husband and her lover (Jihah, played by Jung-woo Ha) are Korean. (When Jihah tells her that Andrew resembles him, there's a little VERTIGO frisson.) Was the issue of race integral to the film’s conception, or did you have the dramatic kernel of the story first?

The race element was definitely one of the jumping-off points for NEVER FOREVER. The story came along when I started to teach at Harvard University. I had never lived on the East Coast before and was struck by how Boston lacks ethnic diversity. I became more conscious of my own race than ever before (having been born and raised in Korea, I had very little awareness of race). I became intrigued by how Asian people are perceived in the mainstream culture. I was always aware of how Asian women are overtly sexualized in American pop culture, but had very little knowledge about how Asian men are perceived. Most of them are completely de-sexualized, and are very rarely portrayed as subjects of desire. But of course there are exceptions, who often “happen” to be good-looking, successful professionals (lawyers, doctors etc.) who went to ivy league schools. When I investigated the distinction, I realized that it is a class issue more than anything else. Asian working-class men, who are poor first-generation immigrants, are often completely desexualized—unlike, say, Latino laborers. On the other end of the spectrum, the upper-class Asian men are the ones who are supposed to be desirable enough to get Caucasian women. I wanted to subvert this stereotype. Jihah is the poor immigrant, but I wanted to portray him as a sexually-charged man. Andrew is the perfect sexy Asian man but his sperm is weak and therefore, he is de-sexualized on the most basic level.

Cinevue: Were there films that influenced you in terms of tone or subject matter? Given NEVER FOREVER’s thorough melodrama and engagement with race, were you thinking of films like IMITATION OF LIFE or FAR FROM HEAVEN? Given the "secret patrimony" angle, were you giving a nod to all to the Korean soap operas that are so popular around Asia and the diaspora these days?

Douglas Sirk’s films influenced me greatly, as did some European films such as BELLE DE JOUR. But the most inspiring ones for me, in writing NEVER FOREVER, were Korean films from the 1960s. I was teaching Korean cinema at Harvard when I first conceptualized NEVER FOREVER. I was fortunate enough to get some 35mm prints of classic Korean cinema for the class screenings. I of course had seen all of them long ago, but when I watched them again to teach, I was impressed with how subversive they were, both aesthetically and thematically. Films such as MADAME FREEDOM (Han Hyong-mo, 1956), THE HOUSEMAID (Kim Ki-yong, 1960) and THE HOUSEGUEST AND MY MOTHER (Shin Sang-ok, 1961) moved me deeply with their vivid depiction of female characters. Each one is driven by her own desires and struggles for them. The endings of these films are often less than satisfying, but they inspired me nevertheless. I started to wonder what would happen if I put the same woman character in contemporary cinema without sacrificing her integrity at the very end. The result was a melodrama that strictly focuses on the psychology of a woman character, rather than the plot of a love affair itself.

Cinevue: This is a great role for Farmiga—she's in practically every scene, most of them intense if not downright traumatic, and we live for those few glimpses of her smiling. How did she come to be in your movie? What was it like working with her and with your other actors? (How did you find Jung-Woo Ha, who plays Jihah?) Often, she's plunged into scenes where every other actor is Asian/Korean—during the scenes with church members, was she aware of what was being said in the script?

NEVER FOREVER is not a dialogue-heavy film, so I was desperately looking for the right actor for the role of Sophie, someone who not only could ‘play’ the role but also ‘become’ the role. I first saw Vera in DOWN TO THE BONE and was blown away by her performance. She has the ability to disappear into the character she plays. So, I sent her my script and we met at a small café in Soho. I was convinced that Vera was the Sophie that I’d been looking for the minute she walked into the café. Vera is both transparent and mysterious. Her body always creates a cinematic tension within a frame. Her face is like a map with which we can explore a character’s heart. Thanks to her tremendous cinematic presence, I had a relatively easy time creating the Sophie character without having to explain much with dialogue. The chemistry between Jungwoo and Vera as two actors and fellow artists were beyond belief. They actually didn’t want to meet each other before the shoot so that they could retain the mystery until the first day of shoot. I wanted to shoot the sex scenes in a sequential order, so that we could exploit the awkwardness and tension in real life. Of course, it was extremely risky but it ended up beautifully working out. I could tell the intimacy growing between the two actors from one scene to another!

Cinevue Though Jihah is from Korea, he lives in Chinatown (rather than somewhere else in the metro area with a greater concentration of Koreans). Was this simply a practical matter, or a comment on Sophie's perception of "Asianness"?

It was to portay Jihah as a total outsider. He, of course, suffers from extreme isolation in the U.S. since he is an illegal immigrant. But he refuses to be part of the Korean (or Korean-American) community as well, and chooses to live in Chinatown. Things can be easier for him if he chooses to compromise. But he stubbornly goes his own way in terms of pursuing his American dream. I wanted Jihah to be a man of strong will, who is not afraid of loneliness and not willing to compromise his integrity by pretending to be someone other than himself.

Despite the full-bore melodrama, the film subtly shifts our sympathies, and even the plot is left with an erasure of sorts. The title is evocative and yet elusive; the delicate ending is fascinating in its ambiguity. In your mind, is there a clear narrative connecting what's happened in the movie to this final scene? (Semi-spoiler alert—maybe read this after you see the movie.)

I think it is quite clear that the baby in Sophie’s belly is Jihah’s, but I didn’t want to show Jihah, because it would diffuse the real question. For me, the real question was “Is she happy? Did she achieve what she wanted?,” not “Who is she with?”— which differentiates this film from the typical melodrama. (End spoiler alert)

In NEVER FOREVER, who Sophie ends up with really is not the point. In this context, NEVER FOREVER can be considered a coming of age story —a bildungsroman—more than a melodrama. For the ending, I wanted to make it clear that she fulfilled what she longed for, and therefore achieves happiness at the end. The best way to imply that is to make her pregnant again, since pregnancy has a different meaning for Sophie than it does for other typical female melodrama characters. For Sophie, the fetus is an agency that makes her realize what she really wants out of her life. It is her desire, dream, and ultimately, her life.

So, in the climactic confrontation scene with Andrew, when Sophie says, “This baby is mine,” she is not talking about motherhood but rather is explicitly expressing the desire to live her own life. The irony is that it all started as a sacrifice for her husband, but ended up becoming her self-fulfillment. In a way, Sophie became a whore by becoming a mother and ultimately, blurs (and hopefully negates) the boundary between the two stereotypes of women: the mother and the whore.

Ed Park is a founding editor of The Believer and a former film critic at The Village Voice. He blogs at The Dizzies. His debut novel, Personal Days, is forthcoming from Random House next year.

(Originally appeared on Cinevue, the blog for the Asian American International Film Festival, July 15, 2007)