Love and Money: Eugenides’s Fresh Complaints

Jeffrey Eugenides’s Fresh Complaint serves to fill that large, aching gap between his novels. Most of the stories in the collection were lifted from The New Yorker or plucked from literary journals, with publishing dates spanning anywhere from 1989 to 2017. It’s like a retrospective. Readers have the benefit of watching Eugenides develop as a writer while getting a sense of major themes that run throughout his work.

Eugenides fans will enjoy revisiting characters from his other works. Mitchell, from “The Marriage Plot” (2011), shows up in “Air Mail” to fight a bout of dysentery in the Gulf of Siam, and Dr. Luce, from “Middlesex” (2002), appears in the aptly named “The Oracular Vulva,” on a research mission in the jungle.

Both of these narratives focus on travel, a topic that has fascinated Eugenides throughout his career. After graduating his BA, Eugenides spent a year travelling across Europe and volunteering with mother Teresa in Calcutta. “I began trying to write about these events at the time I was experiencing them, way back in 1982,” Eugenides tells The New Yorker. “I tried again many times over the years”. No doubt, Fresh Complaint is part of Eugenides’s effort to explore the meaning of travel and what happens to an individual, spiritually and intellectually, when placed in alternate contexts and challenged by the unfamiliar and unforeseen

Mitchell and Dr. Luce aside, characters in this collection tend to face common dissatisfactions, i.e. money, love, friendship, aging, though their idiosyncratic behaviours and atypical life decisions transform familiar grievances over life’s greatest drags into fresh complaints.

The collection is filled with fathers who wish to do better by their families financially, but lack talent, luck, or the right combination of the two, to do so. In “Great Experiment,” Kendall, once praised as a gifted poet, enters middle age as an underpaid editor at a publishing house. In order to raise the funds to renovate his family home, he hatches a risky plan to evade taxes.

In “Early Music,” Rodney, father of two, also faces the disappointment of broken ambitions and tight finances. Rodney comes to terms with his lack of musical talent, while trying to stay true to his passion for music. He defends himself against debt collectors who threaten to claim his clavichord.

“Sometimes you thought you heard the music,” thinks Rodney, “especially when you were young, and then you spent the rest of your life trying to reproduce the sound”.

Rodney’s sense of longing prevails throughout the collection. Ideal beginnings are complicated and tarnished by time. Relationships break apart. Wives reject adulterous husbands. Friends turn away from friends. In the particularly memorable “Baster,” poor Wally, deeply in love with the glamorous Tomasina, must watch as she becomes pregnant with a donor’s sperm.

Reducing these stories to single sentence summaries makes them seem all doom and gloom, but if there is anything that unites these characters, it is their optimism in the face of life’s travails. In “Find the Bad Guy,” Charlie reflects on his broken marriage: “we found each other so long before we lost each other”.  The glass is always half full. Eudgenides’s characters maintain steadfast beliefs in their capacity to fix things.

Like all Eugenides books, Fresh Complaint is compulsively readable. Characters are equal parts misguided and insightful, determined by circumstance and self-determining. Collectively, they express the comedy that hums through life’s tragedies.

Drawing the Line: A Review of Ruben Östlund’s Palme D’Or Winner, The Square

Ruben Östlund’s The Square, winner of this year’s Palme D’Or, satirizes the world of modern art and its empty commitment to progressive social ideals. It is a series of comical, often surreal, sketches, with all narrative threads leading back to Christian (Claes Bang), the handsome curator of Stockholm’s X-Royal museum of contemporary art.

At the start of the film, Christian is pickpocketed in the centre of a public square. Together with a co-worker, he tracks his stolen phone online. Genesis by Justice blares in the background as he drives his Tesla to the apartment block where the phone is located and, in this moment, enmity is born under the guise of right. Once Christian reaches the apartment, he slips accusatory messages into each unit’s mail slot in hopes of reaching the criminal.

Just as all of this strange personal business is going on, Christian acquires an artwork for the museum called “The Square”.  It is a small space cordoned off by four light-up lines with a plaque that reads: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.” In an interview, Östlund compares “The Square” to the crosswalk; it is a “humanistic traffic sign,” meant to remind people of their role as fellow human beings. Passionate about the piece, Christian argues for the strength in its brute simplicity. But once ‘The Square’ is introduced, its meaning hangs heavy over Christian; it clings to the character as a leech, slowly deprecating his moral pretensions until they are laid bare.

Östlund’s art world in is dominated by ego, wealth, and the claim to be cutting edge. ‘The Square’ captures something of its hollow charm. Four lines delineate a space of social obligation but its emptiness stands in stark contrast to Stockholm’s sidewalks, filled with the homeless and the hungry. The art world is vacant; it aims at nothing; its obligation is solely to itself. In the other exhibit, piles of gravel sit before a sign that reads: “YOU HAVE NOTHING”. It seems as though the art world takes pleasure in being reminded of its impotency, and humble servility to its own nothingness. When a janitor accidentally sweeps up some of the artist’s gravel, we recognize the absurdity of it all.

Still, Christian is not a bad guy, although his intentions are steeped in ego and ignorance. Östlund doesn’t condemn the artistic enterprise altogether, but aims to illustrate just how complicated intentions and artistic expressions can be in a world where we do not all share equal rights and obligations. He brings a series of moral questions to the fore. What is one’s role as an actor? Who is one responsible to?

He forays with confidence into these age-old queries, but his answers seem to change based on the time and place of their asking. In one scene, a man with Turrets yells obscenities at an artist being interviewed at the gallery. Speakers and audience members strain to remain tolerant; this is, after all, a “neurological disorder” and certainly this man deserves respect. But on the street, this same demographic feels no need to go out of their way to accommodate those less fortunate. Each day on his way to work Christian ignores the woman that stands in a public square, asking over and over again: “Do you want to save a human life?”

Östlund also examines the way power can alter feelings of obligation. Christian is a dominant figure. He sleeps around without much concern for his bed partners and acts unselfconsciously, assuming that others respect his every decision. But power is not a static force. It shifts between individuals. When Christian condescends to buy a sandwich for a homeless woman, he assumes the role of a kind, socially conscious citizen. But when the woman responds with a demand, she will have a chicken ciabatta, no onions, the balance of power shifts. Christian is taken aback by her assertive attitude. Is she not embarrassed? Grateful? Christian quickly attempts to restore his position of power by refusing to grant her request for no onions. The comedy of the scene almost camouflages its thematic significance, the way these two figures negotiate power and how that negotiation determines their lines of commitment.

Östlund concocts a variety of scenarios to test his characters, to reveal their obligations and the factors that pollute them. The Square is lengthy, the sort of film one thinks is about to end at least four times. Eventually it does, but it offers no real conclusion, no closure. Still, one cannot accuse Östlund of despair.

“The Square” looms heavy but not only to illuminate Christian’s moral weakness. Östlund takes the Levinasian view of social obligation. His characters understand that they enter the world always already responsible to those around them, and they search for meaning in that responsibility and the impossibility of escaping it. They realize that there is no autonomy, no pure, unsullied interiority, when they live, breath, and perform before the eyes of the Other. “The Square” dares to meet that gaze; it dares to think it possible.

Painting the Screen: A Review of Loving Vincent

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s Loving Vincent is the world’s first oil painted film. Over one hundred artists contributed to its animation, creating a series of 65,000 oil-painted frames in Van Gogh’s neo-impressionist style. Well worth the effort. The result is both striking and bizarre. We enter the world as Van Gogh saw it, crooked, swirling, and filled with feeling.

Loving Vincent is not so much a biopic as a murder mystery. The majority of the plot is set after Van Gogh’s death. Postmaster Roulin (Chris O’ Dowd) sends his son Armand (Douglas Booth) to deliver a letter to Van Gogh’s brother Theo. Though Armand fails to find Theo, he becomes obsessed by the ambiguities surrounding Van Gogh’s death. Armand questions Dr. Gachet, Adeline Ravoux, and Dr. Mazery in search of answers, and these familiar faces from Van Gogh’s portraits come to life. Ultimately we are given the impression that Van Gogh might well have been shot. “Blame no one,” says Vincent on his deathbed.

Whenever an artist/filmmaker makes a bold decision with method or technique, we are left to wonder whether it was a brilliant innovation or if we had been duped, lured in by the weird and wonderful at the expense of meaningful content.

Is this film a gimmick or a masterpiece? The storyline, which offers little character development, seems like an excuse for an ambitious artistic experiment. We never get inside Van Gogh’s head, but we see the world through his eyes.

Still, there is something refreshing in using Van Gogh’s vision to create distance from his inner life. Van Gogh has been pegged as the quintessential tortured artist; we have turned him into an archetype, a cultural meme. For the most part, we are content with this two-dimensional rendering, as it is romantic, and familiar, and it allows us to identify our own darkness with possible brilliance. But Kobiela and Welchman resist.

In an online review of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ MoMa writes: “To know van Gogh is to get past the caricature of the tortured, misunderstood artist and to become acquainted instead with the hardworking, deeply religious, and difficult man.”

This, Loving Vincent achieves. We are spared the director’s rendering of Van Gogh’s inner life, which no one but Van Gogh himself could ever hope to express. Instead, the camera turns outward. He is brought to life through the eyes of other characters; Van Gogh assumes a social identity and we see in him what other’s see; he paints in the rain, he’s shy around women. By allowing others to imagine Van Gogh through his own aesthetic, Kobiela and Welchman seem to suggest that all individual perceptions are as slanted and emotionally charged as Van Gogh’s. In fact, this is what makes the mystery of his death so difficult to solve. Everyone has their own story.

But perhaps Loving Vincent’s greatest achievement is that it provides its audience with an entirely new experience of familiar images. We move through Van Gogh’s artworks. There are moments on screen that approximate specific paintings, I can recall an almost replica of Van Gogh’s ‘Marguerite Gachet at the Piano’. But then we are given more. We are given a perspective of Marguerite as Van Gogh approaches her window, we watch as she moves towards it, and we stand by her side as she smokes a cigarette. We occupy new spaces in the rooms Van Gogh had previously painted and we discover his subjects in different contexts.

As I thought about the effect of Van Gogh’s work on screen, I recalled Walter Benjamin’s essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In it Benjamin looks at film’s potential to radically change our relationship to all arts. We stand alone as individuals before a painting. But we view films in a theater, surrounded by others. Nobody walks out of a film and feels unqualified to judge what they have seen. Film, as a medium, invites us to form collective conceptions, to feel collectively.

A collective viewing of Van Gogh’s work (or its likenesses) feels particularly meaningful in 2017. Van Gogh is now a canonical artist. Seeing a work by Van Gogh is not simply about enjoying a painting, but about taking part in a larger movement, participating in cultural memory and conversation. Surrounded by others in the theatre we can feel ourselves doing just that, on more than one level.

While we have grown to appreciate impressionist painters as masters of fine art, we do not often look to animators with the same kind admiration. The crew of artists involved in this film approximate Van Gogh’s style, sometimes very closely, but their work remains unique, a variation on a theme. In the end Loving Vincent is not only a nod to the work of Van Gogh, but a loving ode to the art of animation; animation as masterpiece.

We Become Visible: A Review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s ‘Go, Went, Gone’

A group of asylum seekers stand in protest in Alexanderplatz. They refuse to eat. They refuse to speak. They hold a sign that reads:We become visible. So begins Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone.

In her latest novel, Erpenbeck sheds light on Europe’s refugee crisis and the harsh realities faced by asylum seekers. The narrative follows Richard, a retired professor of Classics. In the beginning, Richard fails to notice the protesters, despite the fact that he had passed through Alexanderplatz many times during their demonstration. Instead, he finds out about the protest on the evening news. Disturbed by his lack of awareness, Richard sets out to become involved in the lives of the refugees. He seeks them out, asks them questions and listens to their stories; out of their exchange grows immense compassion and will to action.

As a recent retiree, Richard is confined to the home; he takes boxes from the office and “incorporate[s] their contents into his private realm”. Not only is Richard restricted in space, but he is captive to habit. Erpenbeck lists the minutiae of Richard’s routine. Richard is reading the newspaper, drinking tea, buying groceries, or folding sheets. He goes through the motions.

But it doesn’t take much for Richard, a well-to-do European, to break free from daily patterns and constraints. Unlike the refugees who truly have nowhere to go, no work, no country to return to, Richard’s confinement is not prohibitive. As he engages with the protesters, he finds new work supporting their cause. When he invites migrants to stay in his home, his solitude unravels, private life is made public and ritual meals are transformed into social gatherings. For Richard, isolation is more of a habit than a necessary state of being.

If only Germany could do the same. Germany is certainly in the habit of isolation, but it need not remain that way. Germany, more than any other nation, should understand that habits may be broken, social constructs rearranged. For Richard and his East German friends Sylvia and Detlef, “the sense that all existing order is reversible has always seemed perfectly natural,” for they have known the collapse of German Socialism and the marriage of East and West. They realize that enemies can become neighbours overnight.

But Germany is loath to open its boarders to refugees. Erpenbeck condemns the German public for their ignorance and indifference. As Richard frets over African refugees who drowned on treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean, he finds others to be cruel and callous. On the internet, DontCare writes: “The only ones I really feel sorry for are the coastguard workers!” In an effort to highlight the absurdity of the policies that make life impossible for refugees, Erpenbeck is explicit. She cites the Dublin II regulation, and the 70,000 vacant assistant positions that Germany is unwilling to give to refugees; she even takes time to outline the official punishment for foreigners who have committed theft.

These political details don’t grow organically out of plot, but are deliberately arranged throughout the text. At times the narrative feels bogged down by facts. Still, this book would not be nearly as effective without them. Erpenbeck includes the specifics because they count. It is only in taking time to learn the details that we can understand, with acuity, the migrant’s dilemma and the impact of our apathy.

Erpenbeck also explores prospects for communication. She understands that you cannot will away a lifetime of cultural embeddedness by the snap of your fingers. Even Richard finds it difficult to keep all the Africans’ names straight, and applies nicknames like Tristan and Apollo, drawing on his European, academic background; Rashid, a refugee from Niger who Richard befriends, is quite like the thunderbolt-hurler. On the flip side, she understands that nobody enters into a new culture instantly or seamlessly. The African migrants are taking language classes and their German is fairly rudimentary. Their conversations with Richard aren’t particularly nuanced. Of course there remain shades of meaning that Richard will never grasp, himself lacking an African background.

When we struggle to communicate, it can be difficult to cultivate a sense of compassion. The African refugees seem so foreign to the Berliners. But Erpenbeck believes in a common ground. Her prose is simple, steady, and unaffected. As she does away with stylistic flourish, she achieves total clarity and opens a space for connection. Hers is a language that everyone may share.

The attempt to communicate is more critical now than ever. Germany’s September 2017 election marked increasing polarization within the country over issues regarding refugees. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party, opposed to Angela Merkel’s open door policy towards migrants, took over 13% of the national vote. The AfD hopes to alter the German constitution to abolish asylum seekers’ right to individual hearings. They want to immediately deport all those with rejected applications regardless of the safety of their home nations. Not to mention, many members of the party have been accused of espousing neo-Nazi beliefs.

Erpenbeck speaks against the attitudes of the alt-right. She argues for a world in which borders do not have the final say on who is able to live and prosper. Richard wonders about the divide between human beings. Is there “one true critical border”? Is it “between languages?” “Those who call dinner fufu and those who call it stew?” “Is it between one day and the next?” We find that there are no real borders but only multiple habits and imaginary lines.

Erpenbeck uses fiction to approach the refugee crisis in a way that other mediums never could. Images of people-packed boats and crowded refugee camps flicker past us on television screens, but we have grown indifferent towards these endless reels. Erpenbeck offers another kind of witness; she offers a focused, meditative, and entirely human encounter with the crisis and its victims. As Richard watches the news he wonders, “what stories lay behind all the random images”.  Go, Went, Gone, provides us with these stories. They become visible.