The Place For The Things

Holly Goddard Jones’ Girl Trouble

Holly Goddard Jones is the best short fiction writer you’ve never read.

I admit that this is an assertion I am completely unqualified to make. I am not well-read in the world of modern literary fiction, and I have little insight into how familiar Jones is to those who are. However, there are some things one simply senses to be true, and, after reading Jones’ 2009 collection Girl Trouble, I sense to be true this: Holly Goddard Jones is the best short fiction writer you’ve never read.

I thought of all of that, but I kissed her anyway–only because I could.

Girl Trouble opens with the Faulkner quote “Women are never virgins.” The inclusion of this quote proves increasingly apt throughout the book via one of its major themes: the pervading presence of male sexuality and the suffering it wreaks. The book is dripping with this decidedly heterosexual male version of sexuality. The men are either slaves to it or terrified of it; the women resigned to it or furious at it. Male characters, particularly, in Girl Trouble are portrayed with striking insight. (I’ve never been a believer in the alleged inability of fiction writers to convincingly cross gender lines, and there is probably no better disproof of this maxim than Girl Trouble.) Sex is just THERE, constantly, in the minds of these men, rarely remarkable but never absent. It is the source and the solution to most, but by no means all, of their suffering and at least a partial driver of virtually all male action taken. Conversely, women in Girl Trouble are equally aware of male sexuality, primarily as a destructive force. Though a few seek it out, most experience it, directly or indirectly, as a vehicle for suffering. In some sense this is not so different from the men: the collection convincingly portrays sex as an enormous distributor and creator of tragedy, one which men foolishly run towards and which women hopelessly run from.

…sometime between the knock and now, an idea had kindled, and he was too young and stupid to realize that actions like the one he was contemplating had consequences, that the excitement of this moment–the desire he was feeling, large and powerful and teenaged–could die out if he just gave it a few minutes. A few damned minutes, was all.

Rape, if it isn’t yet obvious, plays a lead here, and just-barely-not-rape has a supporting role, too. These are stories about the raped, the raped’s family, the rapists, the rapists’ families, and the people who just should have known better. (A less imaginative title might have been “Sex and its Terrible Consequences.”) Such a singular focus would be an indictment in a lesser collection, but what Jones has done is an achievement. The collection coheres surprisingly well without even seeming to be trying. The stories give, at first, no indication of being anything other than unrelated vignettes about the suffering of various members of the same small (fictitious) town of Roma, Kentucky. It is only when the reader squints that the thematic lines become visible. “Rape,” the word itself, is barely used, and sometimes the act is only barely present in the stories themselves. As in the real word, rape springs up out of nowhere, in ways that are both completely surprising but also utterly not. (In two of the rape-centric stories, the act itself was in the distant past. Another story is centered on a rape that is only ever barely described by an incidental character.)

Ellen looked at Ray’s living room: the big-screen TV with the image that warped on one side; the coffee table littered with ashtrays and an old HBO guide and a half-dozen glasses, different sizes, all crusted with the remains of milk or juice or beer. This wasn’t a home; it was a hotel room.

The inclusion of the Faulkner quote is telling in another way, too. Sexuality may be the major source of suffering in Roma, but poverty and a peculiarly Southern sense of isolation both make their presence felt throughout. The smallness of the town creates not a close community but instead a claustrophobic one. Everyone knows everyone else and everyone mostly hates everyone else, too. Everyone is in on everything and everyone is resigned to do almost nothing about it.

Had he thought there was nothing left to lose? Because there was, Ben knew now. There was self-respect. There was hope.

Girl Trouble‘s central focus on sexual suffering in a limited environment frees it from many of the frustrations of contemporary short fiction collections. The women-centered stories have a frustration with all-permeating male sexuality which recalls similar pieces by Lorrie Moore and Miranda July, but with neither author’s penchant for wordplay and humor. The pieces do not drag with existential angst or vagueness. Although many types of suffering are present, they are alike in their precision. Characters are haunted by a definite thing, a definite moment (or collection of moments) that went horribly wrong. Regret is for many of these characters almost tangible, a person or place or time that should have been destroyed.

Simultaneously, however, the collection manifestly avoids sentimentalizing or moralizing treatments. Girl Trouble focuses on the suffering and reality of the experiences of its characters. These stories play out as direct excerpts from people’s lives, with the characters, their thoughts and immediate experiences presented as it is experienced, and no more. Such a presentation relies almost entirely on empathetic characters to carry the weight of immersing the reader, and indeed Jones excels at this. Characters are at once completely ordinary and distinctly memorable. They are people you almost know, might even be friends with, but with their lives and thoughts laid bare in a way that no one could ever see from outside. You are precisely *in* these characters, but not at all *with* them.

That was the image I couldn’t shake: Lavinia, led onstage by her torturers, robbed of her tongue and her hands. The outrageousness of it. The cruelty.

Holly Goddard Jones is the best short fiction writer you’ve never read.


Doctor Who: “The Eleventh Hour”

Posted in The Place by Greg on April 4, 2010
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“If you make a show like this, you have to make it like you own it,” said Moffat. “Otherwise, you’re just performing upkeep on a gravestone. It has to be a new, living, vital thing.”

Stephen Moffat gave the above quote to The Daily Beast a few days ago in preparation for the launch of “The Eleventh Hour,” the first episode of the new Doctor Who series. He was absolutely right.  This is why the experience of actually watching “The Eleventh Hour” is so disappointing. If this episode is an accurate harbinger what is to come, then it is clear that Moffat has no real intentions of changing anything.

There’s no better example of this than the first two minutes or so.  The episode opens with the Russell T. Davies’ patented opener of showing the Earth from afar and then zooming in to London.  Ah, but wait – this time the TARDIS is flying over London and the Doctor, played by a slightly younger handsome fellow, is hanging off the edge. Also, the music is getting very loud! It seems I’m supposed to be excited during this bit.  Then, just as things start to get going, we cut to the new opening credit sequence.  The music is rearranged to be yet more schizophrenic (A choral back-up? Really?) and the font seems to be more sci-fi as well.  There’s a different TARDIS spinning through a different tunnel, but it’s still fundamentally a TARDIS spinning through a tunnel.  Considering all the individual elements that have been changed, it’s amazing that it still seems to be the Same Old Shit.

Perhaps this is unfair.  After all, it’s not the opening credits that made the later Russell T. Davies episodes nigh unwatchable. So let’s get to the meat of the issue: is the episode itself new? Furthermore, is it any good?

For the first ten minutes or so, the answer to both of these questions is unequivocally “yes.”  A mysterious crack in the wall! The new companion introduced as a young girl! Regeneration as picky-eating! And, oh look, the TARDIS library and swimming pool have made a return! It’s hard to overstate how much promise these first few post-credit sequences hold.  Moffat has piled on both wit and horror, his two strengths, and it works well to create a marvelous sense of mystery.  What’s behind the crack? Who is prisoner zero? Who is Amelia Pond? Why is she living in a creaky old house with her aunt?

Unfortunately, none of these questions get answered beyond a some basic throwaway lines. The crack in the wall turns out to be…a crack in spacetime! Behind it is some sort of prison, which we never see or learn anything about. Prisoner zero turns out to be.. a prisoner, and so on.  They mystery and character of Amy (née Amelia) Pond are more or less put off for what we hope will be more exciting episodes later in the series.

This episode, it seems, is not interested in solving any mysteries or exploring new ideas.  This episode is all about making sure the viewer knows that All the Same Old Shit You Love is still going to be present in the Moffat era.  The Doctor runs around on 21st Century Earth and says things that seem crazy to the muggles but make sense to the viewer, therefore inspiring some chuckles.  There’s a huge ship making demands on the whole of Earth for one minor request.  Some obligatory jokes about modern technology and the ubiquity of smartphones.  Montage of previous actors who played The Doctor. Etc.

What’s most surprising, though, is that Moffat isn’t content to simply re-hash the usual RTD motifs, but also his own.  You’d think this would be difficult given that Moffat has only written four previous stories, but no, somehow he manages to steal from himself multiple times. The TARDIS cloister bell rings, the Doctor pops off, and suddenly we’re re-watching the end of “The Girl in the Fireplace.” (Hasn’t the Doctor learned by now that when he means to return in five minutes, he will inevitably arrive years late? This gag was old when RTD drudged it up for “Aliens of London.”)  Amy’s mopey boyfriend looks and acts pretty much the same as Sally Sparrow’s mopey boyfriend in “Blink.”  (Not the mention the “Duck!” line in the hospital.)  Coma patients in a hospital start speaking mysteriously, and The Doctor deals with the villain, as in “The Forest of The Dead,” by telling the villain who he is. (Dealing with monsters would be a lot easier, it would seem, if the Doctor simply carried his résumé around with him.)

“The Eleventh Hour” isn’t terrible, per se, it’s just hugely unambitious.  This was an opportunity to be bold, fresh, and daring – to show us what kind of new ideas Moffat and Co. were going to bring to the table.  Instead, it’s a fairly standard run-around-and-save-Earth plot with a bunch of direct references to previous episodes and some clever dialogue. (At least the Doctor never looked forlornly into the distance and mumbled “If only Rose were here…”)

Perhaps this is Moffat’s olive branch to diehard fans of Russell T. Davies. Perhaps this is the segue from old to new.  Or, perhaps Moffat really doesn’t have any new ideas to bring to the table. Perhaps Moffat is recycling his old handful of ideas because those were the only good story ideas he ever had.  Only the rest of the series will tell.

UPDATE: Previous versions of this post read “Emilia Pond.”  This has been corrected to “Amelia Pond.”  In retrospect, this seems a pretty obvious error.

“Greenberg” vs “Kicking and Screaming”

Posted in The Place by Greg on March 30, 2010
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Fifteen years ago, Roger Greenberg refused to sign a recording contract and thus forced the break-up of a band he was in. Now, he has returned to Los Angeles after living for an undefined amount of time in New York as a carpenter. Roger’s former friends have all moved on as they’ve grown into their new lives: at least one former band-mate never forgave him, his one-time lover Beth can barely recollect their time together, and his brother regards him as a near-worthless ne’er-do-well. Ivan, the one friend still willing to spend any time with Roger at all, seems to do so out of pity more than actual fondness. Roger, however, is stuck in his own past, doggedly trying to get the band back together, convince Beth to go out with him again, or throw a party for people who no longer like him.

Fifteen years ago, Noah Baumbach’s debut film “Kicking and Screaming” was released. The film centered around four recent college grads who decided to stay on campus for an additional year after graduation. What the former students manage to achieve in their artificial gap-year would be laughable were it not so pathetic: one attempts to audit additional classes while living in his girlfriend’s dorm room; one defers admission to graduate school to work in a video rental store; one dates a townie. Protagonist Grover sleeps with freshman girls while obsessing over his former lover Jane, who left him to study in Prague. Like Roger Greenberg’s aspiration to “focus on doing nothing for awhile,” the characters of Kicking and Screaming are stuck in the past and, out of some mixture of fear and stubbornness, refuse to grow up.

However, what was awkward to watch in young alumni is downright painful to watch in a forty-year-old with anger management issues. The guys in “Kicking and Screaming” were arrogant, pretentious and completely out-of-touch with reality, but this was mitigated by their wit and obvious fear. They may have been jerks, but they were occasionally aware of it and tried to use humor to cover it up. By contrast, Roger Greenberg is borderline psychotic. He spies on the neighbors who use his brother’s pool; he becomes furious when only Ivan attends a pool party he thought of the night before. Roger is constantly writing angry letters to various corporations for any minor infraction he can think of. When Ivan surprises Roger with a birthday cake at a restaurant, Roger erupts into a tantrum and storms out of the room. At one point, Roger asks Ivan to tell him what other people honestly think of him. When Ivan replies that people think Roger “doesn’t make any effort,” Roger predictably launches into a tirade about how wrong they are. Most damningly of all, though, is Roger’s cruel love-hate relationship with the film’s female lead, Florence Marr.

Much has been made of Greta Gerwig’s performance as Florence, and it’s easy to see why. The character of Florence is ripped straight from any male hipster fantasy. She is young, quiet, mostly passive and receptive to Roger’s clumsy advances for no apparent reason. She is smart enough to comment on the absurdity of dating someone at least a decade her senior, but never assertive enough to break it off or even defend herself when Roger repeatedly yells at her for every minor act, including telling him a “stupid” anecdote, and, perversely, agreeing to see him again. To top it all off, Florence is employed as a personal assistant to Roger’s brother, so she is literally paid to take care of Roger for the duration of his stay in Los Angeles. (When they first meet, Florence offers to pick up some groceries for Roger. Roger hands her a list consisting of “Whiskey” and “Ice Cream Sandwiches.”) Florence isn’t a character so much as she is a pillow: shapeless and utilitarian.

Florence appears even more regressive in comparison to the women of “Kicking and Screaming,” who were noticably more confident and grounded than their male counterparts, and are willing to exert control over their own lives: Jane sacrifices Grover for Prague in a way that is perfunctory but not inhuman; Kate the townie is willing to pick a fight over a parking space when Max would just as soon hide. Florence shares none of these traits. The extent of her expressed attraction to Roger seems to be that he is “vulnerable” and “doesn’t feel pressure to be successful.” Essentially, she likes him because the film needs her to – if a character this custom-ordered can’t enjoy Roger’s company, why should the audience?

What is there to like about “Greenberg”? Baumbach may be clumsily stealing from himself, but at least he chose a decent film to rob. The entertainment to be had in this film comes, as in Kicking and Screaming, from Baumbach’s talent for literate, self-conscious one-liners, delivered in this film chiefly by Roger. Though not among Baumbach’s best, there is some truly funny dialogue on display. (“Youth is wasted on the young.” “I’d go father than that, I’d say life is wasted on…people.”) Furthermore, the experience of watching Roger flail through his relationships is not consistently painful. Anyone with a misanthropic streak in them will be able to occasionally see themselves in Roger, at least for a moment or two, before he plunges from mere snark back into verbal aggression.

However, none of these aspects are redeeming for either Roger or the film. As a result, the ending feels forced and completely undeserved. Surely the viewer is entitled to some kind of catharsis at this point? Instead all one gets is yet another advance on Florence from Roger – this time with a few more smiles and apologies.

This kind of ending might have worked for the charming but immature alumni of “Kicking and Screaming,” but Roger is just too darn broken for it to work. One still feels pity for children being dragged out of the playground; dragging adults out of that same playground, however, merely evokes contempt.