We Reviewed November's Best Books, Music, and Movies
From the Criterion release of a Luis Buñuel masterpiece to Sarah Glidden's genre-blending graphic nonfiction, we reviewed the best new releases November has to offer.
Early in Valiant Gentlemen, Sabina Murray's latest novel, a man named Casement draws a picture of a man named Ward. Ward quibbles with the image. "That's the problem with you, Casement," he says. "You're a romantic, always making things up." "One of many, I'm sure," says Casement.
It's a nice scene, elegantly composed, and one that gestures—perhaps too cutely—at the novel's premise: to lean on history, but to shape it with a romantic hand.
We know very little about Ward and Casement. We know Casement is 22. We know Ward is good with languages, and that he is tall. We also know they're friends. On the whole it is just the two of them, Casement and Ward, in a place called Matadi, in September 1886.
In real life, Ward was Herbert Ward: sculptor, writer, and eventual British officer. Casement was Roger Casement: poet, diplomat, and eventual Irish revolutionary martyr. Though friends in their early years, the two men would end up on opposite sides in the Great War: Ward hauling casualties with the British Ambulance Committee, Casement finagling German support for an Irish revolution. For the full Casement treatment, readers can go elsewhere—his pioneering human rights work, his role in the Easter Uprising, and his legacy as a gay touchstone have been covered in countless biographies, and in Mario Vargas Llosa's unexpectedly exhaustive The Dream of the Celt (2012). What Murray's novel does very well is re-create the surprise and fascination of these men's lives without really needing all the information. Most particularly, it re-creates their friendship. And in doing so it provides the most successful account of famous men on fictionalized adventures since Measuring the World, Daniel Kehlmann's wry, brilliant account of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt's bisecting careers.
"Casement and Ward," Murray tells us, "are company men," once employed by the Belgian International Association of the Congo, now part of the English Sanford Expedition. Their work involves, primarily, contracting and orchestrating native porters to carry supplies. In this respect, the early chapters of Valiant Gentlemen probably constitute the world's most high-stakes novel of logistics. Take the example of the Florida paddle steamer, which Ward and Casement will need to break into pieces and convey up "the waterfalls and cataracts and currents" of the Congo.
Although Valiant Gentlemen is a novel of friendship, its principal characters are not, after the first chapter, often in the same place. The men carry on with their logistics, but for very different causes. H.M. Stanley, of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame, recruits Ward for a doomed expedition to rescue the governor of Equatoria. Meanwhile, Casement is hired out by Baptist missionaries. "The missionaries want to create God's kingdom on Earth and seem to have decided that God's kingdom is in Suffolk—or some such place—and so the Congo will be Suffolked, one skirt-wearing woman at a time."
The great tension of the novel is that Casement is part of an exploited people (Irish) helping his exploiters (British) to corral more exploitees (various African tribes). While Murray's work—including Tales of the New World and A Carnivore's Inquiry—is often described with the weak catchall "historical fiction," it is more nearly about the tensions of colonization. Casement knows what it means to be Suffolked because he has been Suffolked himself. Ward, the proper English son, will never really know, and it is the beginning of the distance between them.
What does it mean to be an English gentleman? Ward, we are told, "is not a gentleman, never wanted to be." He left England hoping to be a sailor, an artist; for some time, he was a wire walker in an Australian circus—toeing the line, in more ways than one, between gentility and freedom. Casement, for his part, feels divided into at least two selves, the valiant and the gentleman. "One Casement hunts elephants through the jungle. One Casement watches osprey circle," a civilized man back in County Antrim. The third Casement loves Ward deeply and will never say it.
After their separation, Casement and Ward grow increasingly apart. Casement, perpetual bachelor, carries on porting; Ward, delivering talks on cannibalism and illustrating adventure stories for Boy's Own Paper, becomes a parody of his African self. En route to an American lecture tour, Ward meets heiress Sarita Sanford. Marriage follows, and a string of little Wards. "Herbert and I," Sarita laments, a few years into the marriage, "have become so..." "Wealthy?" Casement suggests. "Boring." Casement becomes a diplomat, files reports on human rights atrocities in the Orange Free State, is knighted. Ward goes bald.
There are more than 30 years to cover, and the novel dashes through them, pausing only for quick reaction shots from our friends: "I don't think women voting is such a bad thing," Sarita says, as the issue arises, "but we're all so busy that we don't have time to read the papers." And there are hasty cameos by late Victorian notables: Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle, the Titanic.
By May 1914, Casement's engaged in another kind of porter's work, an old logistical challenge come back to bite him: acquiring weapons, German-made, for the Irish Volunteers. "How can Casement reconcile his life of seeking peaceful means with organizing the purchase of weapons?" It's true that Casement has had 30 years' experience, by now, in reconciling his various Casements. But in this particular case, it won't end well—not for Casement, and not for his and Ward's friendship.
A gentleman, it turns out, is the kind of man who can stand ringside during a boxing match, or cheer on (with similar hoots) the First World War. And in this respect, Casement's refusal to condone exploitation of any kind makes for an instructive difference. It's not because he's a gentleman. It's because he's valiant. —JAMIE FISHER
Drawn & Quarterly
This masterful new book of graphic nonfiction—equal parts reportage, personal narrative, and history lesson—follows Sarah Glidden's two months reporting on the ongoing refugee crisis in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. With her are journalist friends Alex Stonehill and Sarah Stuteville, as well as the latter's childhood friend Dan O'Brien, an ex-Marine whose presence, though rooted in an attempt to better understand the people and the countries they visit, creates a persistent tension with the journalists' subjects and even with the journalists themselves.
Though Rolling Blackouts takes place in 2010, the events documented are depressingly current. The book, which takes its name from the power shortages that Glidden notices while in Iraq, effortlessly and poignantly tells the under-heard stories of the displaced and traumatized—many of whom have been betrayed by the American government in one way or another—while also depicting the logistical maneuvering and ethical gray areas underlying any journalistic endeavor.
One memorable story is that of Sam Malkandi, a middle-aged Iraqi Kurd, who deserts during the Iran-Iraq War, spending the next 20 years as a refugee in Iran, Pakistan, and Texas. He finally makes a home with his wife and two children in Seattle, only to find himself named in the 9/11 Commission Report for giving his mailing address to a man he meets at the local mall. Eventually, he's questioned by the authorities, detained for five years, and deported to a Kurdish city in Iraq without ever being convicted of a crime. Malkandi's story flummoxes the crew, who, through patient interviews and court documents, try to piece together the real story of how this affable suburban dad came to be an unwitting accomplice, two degrees removed from a high-level al Qaeda operative and bin Laden associate.
"I've reported a lot of stories on deportation," the journalist Sarah says to the group as they discuss Malkandi's plight. "Every one of them would break your heart. And the hardest part is how there's nothing you can do except tell the story and hope that one day the tides turn."—JAMES YEH
THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL
In Luis Buñuel's absurdist masterpiece The Exterminating Angel, upper-class dinner guests find themselves mysteriously stuck in a sitting room in their host's mansion. Days, and possibly weeks, go by, and still the guests can't leave the room. Abandoned by the servants, desperate for food, they become increasingly selfish and combative. Viewers are bound to ask: "What's the reason for the guests' imprisonment?" The only plausible answer is, "Everything." As the film, originally released in 1962 and now available on Blu-ray, goes on, we realize that the characters' previously cushy lives were built on cruelty, vanity, and greed. Their rigid class distinctions, false religious piety, sexual aggression, oppression of children, spouses, and siblings—all reveal themselves to derive from the most primitive and idiotic impulses. The actress Silvia Pinal, who plays one of the guests, suggested that Buñuel invented reality television when he made The Exterminating Angel, and it's hard not to see the film, with its savage and gleeful presentation of human pettiness, as a precursor to early reality shows like Real World and Big Brother. Watching the movie, one wonders, Why do I enjoy this so much? And then, I'm as bad as them, aren't I? —ANDREW KATZENSTEIN
CRASHING THE PARTY
Soft Skull Press
Crashing the Party, a new memoir by Scott Savitt, the in-house Chinese translator of the New York Times, describes the time he spent as one of the first American exchange students in China during the turbulent 1980s. After graduating, Savitt lived there for nearly two decades, first working as a reporter, and later founding an underground newspaper that ultimately led to his imprisonment and brutalization by the Chinese government. A rock 'n' roll subplot lightens the mood a bit, showing what can happen when a rebellious Western subculture meets a repressive post-Mao society—the birth of a colorful underground music scene complete with Beatles cover bands stalked by government censors. Savitt provides a frontline view of student protests, government crackdowns, and the Tiananmen Square massacre, which he navigates on motorbike, documenting the wall of tanks and splintered bodies in stark, bloody terms. And though he variously frets about the state of his love life and enjoys career successes, his own emotions generally take a backseat to the turmoil around him, even as we see him wracked with guilt over the disappearance and alleged suicide of a colleague turned lover or struggling with the loss of a high school girlfriend. —KIM KELLY
The first time I saw the Australian avant-garde composer Oren Ambarchi perform live, I thought my chest might cave in. Sitting in a dark theater in North Carolina, he wrung wrenching noise out a guitar and a smattering of electronics, the louder moments of which caused both the chair I was on and the flesh and bones surrounding my sternum to vibrate uncontrollably—an experience as unsettling as it was moving. On Hubris, his latest album for the hallowed Austrian experimental label Editions Mego, he seems to have mellowed out a bit, aiming for a less precarious sort of body-shaking—the constant lurch of the dance floor. The album's three pieces—one of which stretches over 20 minutes, another over 16—are composed of locomotive guitars, mechanistically programmed electronics (in part provided by techno mad scientist Ricardo Villalobos), and jittery live percussion work, so at least in its component parts, it can seem something like club music. But like most of Ambarchi's work, the longer you listen, the more you get caught up in the constant momentum of the whole thing—the fragmented precariousness that can feel like being in the backseat of a car that's moving just a little too fast for you to get comfortable. Some dance music aims to evoke the ecstasy of a sweaty nightclub, but Hubris aims for the paranoid underbelly: the anxiety that comes from spending so much time in dark, cramped spaces. —COLIN JOYCE
In her first five movies, all but one of which took place in Oregon, the American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt focused on small groups of characters: a band of environmental activists (Night Moves), a 19th-century wagon party (Meek's Cutoff), or a drifter and her dog (Wendy and Lucy). Her new film, which she adapted from several short stories by Maile Meloy, is a departure: three tangentially linked stories, set in small-town Montana, about four beleaguered women. Laura (Laura Dern) is a Livingston-based lawyer drawn into the orbit of a disgruntled male client. Gina (Michelle Williams) drifts away from her husband—who is also Laura's occasional lover—as they contrive to build a house. And Beth (Kristen Stewart), who works at a second law firm in Livingston, becomes the object of an unspoken but profoundly intense crush on the part of a lonely female ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) when she starts teaching night classes in a tiny town hours away. The first two stories are sensitive and subtle, but it's the quiet, spacious moments that fill the third episode—a series of late-night diner rendezvous, a nocturnal horseback ride by the side of a highway—that show off one of Reichardt's great powers as a director: her unerring feeling for the climate and mood of American places the movies tend to neglect. —MAX NELSON