I fought Hamilton and Hamilton won (but it’s still got some yucky tropes)

December 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

 

Hipster disdain is just no good. I hate it. Be sincere, damn it all! Don’t reject something out of hand just ’cause it made a lot of people happy! Blerrrghhhh!

But I was hella skeptical about Hamilton.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose star now shines at a zillion lux not just over Broadway but the entire Internet, was a guy I knew very little about. I remembered trying and failing to get into In the Heights, which felt soggy with exposition and uninteresting archetypes. I watched my various social media feeds explode about Hamilton soon after its soundtrack release and figured I’d give it a shot (sigh) but I wasn’t feeling it. The first few tracks left me with a couple impressions that added up to meh:

  1. “Dang, this sure does sound like rap for people who don’t like/don’t listen to rap much.” (I was reminded of Forbidden Broadway’s send-up of In the Heights, which ended on the lines “so bring up the house lights! / the public unites / to do shows about Latinos for whites! / no fight, no bite / it’s West Side Story Lite!” )
  2. “Why’ve people gotta star in stuff they write? Miranda’s nasal delivery is driving me up a waaaaaaall”
  3. “It’s odd that Tumblr’s fawning so much over this despite the only two female characters of note both being in love with the hero, & having that as their chief motivator/personality trait. Like, don’t we usually at least clear our throats pointedly about that?”
  4. “This is OK but I hope it doesn’t become the next Steven Universe, where everyone hails it as the progressive saving grace of All Media Ever for the next age of humankind”

A friend and Hamilton fan suggested that there was a dearth of serious critique of Hamilton out there, and I initially leaped at the chance to fill a gap. I did feel like “not caring much about/for Hamilton” was a tiny minority for which I’d be happy to speak. Golly gosh! I thought. An opportunity to complain about something and feel useful doing it! Hooray! I can’t wait!

Thankfully, something happened to deter me from this course, and that was “gradually coming to like about 3/4 of the soundtrack enough that I now own it and listen to songs from it most days in the week.”

OK, oops. Now I’m the trash of the thing. And here’s, as far as I can figure, what sold me in the end:

  1. It’s just good. Some songs are better than others (“My Shot” is overrated, shhhh) but it’s just stupendously clever, god damn it; its breadth is knockout-tremendous and its depth a pleasant surprise. When the rap’s on, it’s on (see: “Cabinet Battle #1,” “Washington On Your Side,” “We Know”), and Miranda shows off in several other genres before he’s through. The infectious pop of “Helpless,” the Broadway-classic I Want Song “The Room Where It Happens,” “Non-Stop” the gleeful motif pile-up in the vein of “One Day More!” with modern momentum and full proof that more Greek choruses need to punctuate protagonist’s speeches with “Awwwwww!” Not to mention “Wait for It,” which is, like…poignant as hell and a total earworm…aaah…
  2. There’s not a weak link in the original cast. A lot of times with musicals you have that experience where you want to wait for/look up some other revival recording because you like this one except for that One Guy who plays This Main Character and you can’t stand it and–but I like everybody! What great voices! What great acting! Yeah! “I’m so mad, I love these people,” I found myself grumbling as I could feel my rant-filled post disintegrating before it began.
  3. It doesn’t sound like anything else in its dusty medium for rich people, thank Christ, and hopefully it’ll spawn some more bold experimentation. Musical theater and theater in general need–I was going to say more stuff like this, but both have a lot of wonderfully daring work, it’s just not making anywhere near the amount of money Hamilton is raking in. Hoping there’ll be a “if you liked Hamilton, you’ll love buying a ticket to this other thing that’s not another goddamn revival of the same four shows that’ve been running since dinosaurs roamed the earth” effect.
  4. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a really endearingly enthusiastic person. That wouldn’t be enough, except the man seems like he’s got enough energy to keep ten people up for forty-eight hours! How! He feels like a walking talisman against hipster disdain. Listening to him talk about his work, listening to him perform it–he’s crazy-talented enough that he could have an ego the size of Jupiter but instead he channels all the positive reception back into his Huge Happy Sincerity Balloon, giving an unrepentant damn all over the place and leaving a trail of contagious excitement behind him like glitter confetti.

I wouldn’t say I get a lot of pathos out of Hamilton, but I have genuine affection for it and its cast and creators. I have fun listening to it, and I hope to see it on stage someday.

But I wouldn’t be here just to gush (enough people with more cred than me have done that already). I have to at least hash out my lingering “meh” feelings. Because there are a few, and they’re not about structure, or performance, or form, or even (mostly) content–some historical liberties were taken, but who cares? I don’t know? It’s the Founding Fathers? I kind of ran out of darns to give about the Revolutionary War after I passed AP US History? Is that bad? Uh, anyway. There’ve been a couple posts circulating Tumblr warning against the presumed dangers of romanticizing these historical figures too much–forgetting that no matter how hot Daveed Diggs is Thomas Jefferson was still a massive tool, that even though the musical’s Washington seems like you want to give him a World’s Best Dad mug he owned slaves, that All Your Faves are Problematic–

–except I don’t think the warning’s called for. Fandom gets stupid, but Hamilton fandom is fueling its fic with Wikipedia and obsessive perusal of the biography that inspired Miranda to write Hamilton; digging up the deets on just how Terrible many of these people were and figuring that makes their irreverent fanwork both educational and guilt-free. Go for it, Hamilton trash!

What makes me sigh about Hamilton‘s booming success is that it represents an army of devoted fans of a…a kind of story I wish we could move on from for a while. It is the story of the Reckless Brilliant Man Too Smart For His Own Good and his Devoted and Beleaguered Love Interest(s).

It is original to see it applied to a Founding Father, I think. We usually find these figures pretty sexy, and without these casting acrobatics and an updated score nobody was gazing on portraits of stuffy-looking dudes in wigs like “oh yeeeeeahhhh.” But the tale’s familiar. Miranda pushes the underdog angle pretty hard (we’re never allowed to forget that Hamilton is an immigrant bastard orphan son of a whore), but that serves as prologue to Hamilton’s ascension, a “started from the bottom now we here” kind of thing, at which point he’s earned the rap-star-swagger and struts about the stage as the ensemble exclaims about how smart and charismatic he is. When he makes mistakes, he makes Tragic Man Mistakes like overconfidence and workaholic hours and infidelity. He gets lambasted for his Sophoclean hubris sometimes, but in a pretty admiring tone. Man…the man is non-stop! 

It’s odd to criticize the plot of something based on the life of a real person. It’s odder still to call something out on being a piping hot tray of Gender Roles when it takes place in a time when women couldn’t own property or vote. Angelica and Eliza have some of the best songs in the show (“Helpless,” “Satisfied,” “Burn”) and have a healthy share of the spotlight–but they’re almost completely removed from the action and political drama that drives most of the show. Women fall in love happily or sadly, get married, have babies, feel thwarted by their lovers. Men write, fight, argue, win elections, lose elections, found America. They also are the only ones that rap most of the time–save Angelica’s standout verse in “Satisfied” which is all about how she fell in love with Hamilton in the span of three minutes. I love “Satisfied,” but it falls apart if you don’t believe that two women can fall irrevocably in love with the same man instantly. I love “Burn,” but “I’m erasing myself from the narrative” would pack a lot more of a punch if it’d felt like the narrative would have been drastically different without her. I love “The Schuyler Sisters,” but Peggy gets forgotten immediately, as does Angelica’s one mention of sexism: “…all men are created equal / and when I meet Thomas Jefferson / I’ma compel him to include women in the sequel!”

Here’s Eliza begging first her husband and then her son to stay alive, singing background descant to male leads; here’s Angelica blazing with star power only to get one solo song and (as far as the show is concerned) spend her life pining for Hamilton from a distance. Here’s Maria Reynolds, ominous music announcing her entrance, seducing Hamilton away from his virtuous wife. Here’s Eliza again, ending the show with one of its dullest numbers, reciting her accomplishments in a repetitive melody like a list-form afterthought while male characters thank her for telling their story and Angelica, while mentioned, never sings a word. It’s nice that they include her here, but it feels like a sentimental expository footnote.

Is there a way to tell this story without falling into women-waiting-at-the-window-or-the-widow’s-walk tropes? Maybe not. Even probably not. It’s well-told and compelling as it is, not to mention a whole lot of fun, and it does have some terrific songs for women–musically–and it matters that Miranda did that on purpose, and has said as much. Just maybe, let’s have the next big Broadway hit have a diverse cast and women with lives/roles that don’t revolve around men? That would be enough (for now).

 

 

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a (mostly) patchwork bookstack, briefly

October 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

seeing as NaNoWriMo’s coming up, I may come back to curse/praise the effort of creating a book in about a week. I have missed blogging. Ditching it for a while’s helped me to realize what the value of it actually was, which was stretching my Communicating in a Written Format muscles rather than just narcissistically venting my spleen in (pseudo-)public before vanishing back into sloth or the real creative & practical pursuits I ought to have been doing in the first place. Doop! Also it is true that the more reliably I blog about my reading material, the less likely I am to do this:

Stuff I Read Since My CS Lewis Binge

Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch. I read The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in this series, earlier this year. The greatest strengths of Red Seas were the same as its predecessor’s–fast, engaging action sequences and hilarious dialogue. A lot of fantasy authors try to be funny and fall flat on their faces. Lynch is a breath of fresh air. He gets Whedon-esque quippy at times, but he spreads it thinly enough across the book as a whole that it never comes off as too cloying or over-the-top, especially since it is ultimately a lighthearted romp of a series despite its grisly detail and high body count. It’s kind of nice to read fantasy that’s clearly meant to be an Adventure rather than a trudge through the grit and grime factory. “Have fun,” says Lynch, “I sure did.” Locke and Jean are an endearing iteration of Those Two Guys–you know, the pair of heterosexual men who console each other with booze and punches to the arm through the inevitable deaths of their comrades and love interests and offer to sacrifice their lives for each other two or three times a week.

He does have that all-too-common issue of overloading the reader with worldbuilding detail, however, and this gets exacerbated by how much traveling the main characters do–this is worse in Red Seas than Lies. Lynch gets overexcited about how many different factions are plotting against each other and using/being used by Our Heroes, and I’m sure it’s all orchestrated very cleverly except I missed out on a bunch of it because I couldn’t have cared less about the two dozen names being thrown at me in the first hundred pages. The series as a whole also does an…okay job populating its ancillary cast with women of various castes and professions, but rarely foregrounds a woman unless she’s going to be fridged in the third act. I predicted one character’s death two hundred pages in advance because she started flirting with one of the protagonists. Seriously? We gotta get past this. I’m now conditioned thoroughly against giving a damn about a character whose name isn’t Locke or Jean until the next book proves to me I should bother.

A Terrible Love of War, by James Hillman. This book got a lot less obnoxious once I realized it was meant as essentially the World’s Longest, Emotional Blog Post rather than a work of scholarship per se. This is my first experience reading Hillman, but I wonder if he always writes like his prose is meant to be read aloud in a movie-trailer voice. He’s. So. Dramatic. The drama works magnificently where it’s appropriate–namely, when he’s reaching the apex of a chapter or his overall thesis, when he’s going for momentum with a climactic revelation–but he uses it so often everywhere else it’s a little hard to tell when you’re supposed to be most moved? Sort of like reading Mervyn Peake, where someone pushing around peas on a plate gets the same intense diction as someone preparing to commit murder.

Anyway, James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War could (in its first two thirds) just be titled “James Hillman’s Terrible Love of War.” He rhapsodizes about the terrible majesty and power of war, manifested as the archetype-god Ares and his companion Aphrodite/beauty/desire. As a onetime student of classics I probably found his constant use of Greek mythology as structural and thematic aid easier to swallow than other readers might–it’s not hard to understand, but it feels bizarrely archaic if you’re not used to coming across this stuff in life. His great talent seems to be for synthesis. He’s collected a lot of quotes and stats that he sprinkles across each of the book’s three sections (War is Inhuman, War is Sublime, Religion is War) with…well, it felt more like aesthetic grace than rhetorical…? I was unsure how to feel about that. Are you trying to prove a point, or are you trying to make me feel your feelings? Can you do both? Well yeah, but because of the aforementioned Super Dramatic Tone!!! it was difficult to reach the point through all the heaps of feelings, even if he did succeed in making me have a few myself.

The last section, “Religion is War,” was the best. I happened to agree with a lot of it, so, er, that might have helped with its success for me as a reader, but I’d argue that even with that aside it has the strength of being more specific than its two previous sections. The first posited that war is awful (no really?), the second that it’s like nothing else and has captured our attention for millennia (wow, duh). “Religion is War” is built around the idea that the relationship we have with war as a force unto itself is strikingly similar to the relationship we have with divinity. Western monotheism, especially in its American forms, revolves around the worship of something all-powerful and conquering and never wrong, in whose name we will inevitably make war again and again convinced of our own superiority. It’s not a new idea, but his presentation of it is compelling, perhaps more so because he’s clearly struggled with this idea as a former soldier and former Christian. I especially liked this passage. Overall, though, the last section might have worked best for me because by that time I maybe finally understood the source of all the dramatic language–Hillman rhapsodizes like this as a symptom of his own fascination with the inhuman/sublime? he pushes past it with great effort to condemn himself for it, and outline it as part of a great affliction of humanity which by the last page he confesses to having no idea how to fix? The bleak conclusion is that the relationship between humanity and war and religion may be borne out as symbiotic, with all three surviving until the first destroys itself or time proves the last one right.

Yikes.

Everybody Calls Me Father, by “Father X.” ‘Father X’ is actually a childhood acquaintance of the co-pilot’s, and I’ve been meaning to get around to reading this book since she blogged about it here. (Incidentally, if you’re sick of hearing my heathen ass complain about Christian apologists or want a point of comparison you might enjoy her posts; she is a weird Catholic with a lot of interesting things to say). It’s a fictionalized memoir of some of his life as a priest. It is both charmingly and infuriatingly informed by being from the 1950s. Father X’s prose style is very straightforward and earnest, which I love, especially when it touches upon practices that I often find too esoteric or invested with solemnity to understand. He seems to embody the phrase “Aw, shucks” from start to finish. It’s impossible to read any part of it and doubt his sincerity. He’s the kind of humble that one wishes more authorities (religious and otherwise) would reveal themselves to be.

Unfortunately, after several chapters it breaks from personal narrative to become a series of extremely off-putting and saccharine anecdotes about People Behaving Perfectly For Christ or Learning Their Lesson and Monologuing Accordingly. The first one involves the death of a young woman in a car accident who cheerfully tells her friends and family as she bleeds out that she’s headed to a better place. I thought of Lewis. Yuck. Another young woman properly converts to Catholicism after lapsing during high school; dumps her boyfriend because he’s not Catholic and meets and marries a much more perfect Catholic man within a year; later on her ex-boyfriend converts too. A local upstanding newspaperman and friend of Father X’s teams up with Father X to condemn a local drugstore owner for selling comic books containing violent or sexual imagery; the drugstore owner sends someone to beat up the newspaperman (???) but then remembers his deceased mother wishing he’d been more Catholic, repents emotionally and immediately, and resolves to life a better Christian life. There’s a whole chapter denouncing the silly arguments of Planned Parenthood that not everyone has the resources to parent responsibly. It goes from quaintly behind-the-times to skin-crawlingly toxic with such speed that the whole book was soured for me.

I was disappointed, because, darn it, I just got done being uncomfortable with Lewis! I wanted to be friendly this time! Man…

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. Murakami was hot stuff back when I was in college, and continues to be one of those authors that someone recommends me two or three times a year, so I eagerly took the opportunity to borrow Kafka on the Shore from a coworker. Now I’ve read it and, uh…I’m not sure what to say, because I’m pretty sure I Did Not Get It. Not in the sense that “ugh, this is clearly not for me” but that I must have missed something. I got to the end and had no idea why anything had happened.

…it also might not be for me, though, because I ran into some of the same problems I had the last time I had a go at one of these sprawling magical realist projects. Namely, sexism (two female characters, both awful, more on that in a moment), things happening for no reason as an otherworldly-but-lazy way to progress the plot, and yet more incest. Why is there always incest???? Fifteen-year-old Kafka sleeps with his mom and sister-figure, who are the only two women in the book; his mom’s life basically ended when her lover died when she was young and she’s been waiting to die since then though she is briefly revived by the opportunity to bang her son; his sister (who may or may not be his real sister? I’m not sure? but she clearly told him they were like brother and sister and he’s wondered if she’s his sister a lot) exists to help him out and to at one point be raped by him yeah OK no we’re. We’re done here.

It’s OK because it’s literary fiction! No, it’s not. It’s still gross. It’s a shame, too, because the other half of the book (it alternates between the two protagonists from chapter to chapter) stars a character I absolutely loved and whose story, while equally baffling, was both less offensive and way more interesting. Nakata rules, Kafka drools. I don’t know what else to say about this one. If you want something mysterious and atmospheric and pretentious that’ll take you many repetitions to puzzle out, just go listen to the new Joanna Newsom album instead.

Murakami fans: which one do you like? Is there one without incest as a major plot point?

Next up on the reading list: the next Locke Lamora book, a romance novel about lesbian werewolves (!!) and this very science-y book about trees I’ve been working on for a couple months but that’s taking me forever to finish because I don’t understand a lot of the words. And NaNo! Good luck to NaNo folks this year!

 


E (the delinquent)

 

Till We Have Faces, aka, the CS Lewis Book I Should Have Been Reading

September 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

(Almost.)

I feel it’s only fair that I put in a brief note here about Till We Have Faces, since I devoted so many thousands of words to whining about The Chronicles of Narnia. Faces is much more up my street. It’s

–> for adults!
–> far more developed in terms of geographic/cultural/character consistency!
–> better-suited to its own allegory! (mostly)

–and the prose is wonderful, I can’t say this enough, it’s some of the best first-person narration I’ve read in ages and ages and I like the narrator-protagonist so much and Gosh, What a Good Book. Though I get why it wasn’t received well at the time. Lewis thought it was some of his best work, and he’s right, but there wasn’t really a clear audience for it? Nowadays we have more of a stomach for the intersection of fantastical/fairy-tale/mythological settings and Bleak Bleak Themes but back then it was more “damn, this king and princess nonsense looks like it’s for my children but wait, it’s all about death and sex and God and confusing classicism? uhhhhhh…” Though it wouldn’t  have found much favor with us either, even if published last year, because generally we don’t like our Bleak Bleak Themes to resolve in “and then everybody converted and everything was perfect after all!”

Spoilers: it is a CS Lewis book, the person who wasn’t down with Jesus is down with Jesus by the end. It is interesting that heroine Orual is presented as a misotheist rather than an atheist–it’s her hatred of gods that must be reconciled, rather than her doubt of their existence, despite the title and the invocation of Psyche’s faceless lover as a God in whom Orual can’t believe or trust. The book is divided into two parts (pre- and post-conversion, more or less) but has three functional sections: Orual and Psyche and Psyche’s ‘death’ and reappearance as the god’s bride; Orual’s queenship after leaving Psyche’s story and causing Psyche’s exile; Orual’s repudiation of her previous complaint against the gods before she is ushered into Christian-coded paradise and reunited with a now fully divine Psyche.

The second section is my favorite, predictably: it concerns Orual’s earthly rule and character development, acts of tremendous bravery and complex human motivation, relationships of long standing and respect and shared sorrow. Pathos about which I can Give a Darn. Orual’s love for Psyche is intense and the story’s primary motivator, but Psyche is such a…well, she’s one of Lewis’ targets for admiration and emulation who doesn’t act like a human, so any scene involving her tends to fall flatter than scenes over which she presides as a faraway influence/symbol. We meet Psyche as a young woman defined by her indescribable, transcendent beauty; one whose touch is thought to heal the sick; who confesses to having dreamed of death since childhood and who walks toward holy sacrifice with all the self-possession of a saint. After her marriage to the god, her Perfect Femininity is at its apex. She submits herself to her faceless husband every night without question and when her older sister wants to advise her her reply is always “I have a husband to guide me now,” “I will be ruled by my husband,” etc.

If you’re thinking “yuck!” then you and I are of the same mind. Like, the audience knows he’s allegorical-Jesus, and she knows, but can Orual really be blamed for finding it disturbing? Orual’s not only the best-realized female character in Lewis canon but maybe the best-realized character, period, so it’s so strange that such lousy Woman Problems rear their heads in Till We Have Faces–but there are so, so many. Orual’s ugliness is one of her primary character traits, and it allows her to assume political authority and discuss matters of state with other men without difficulty. The third section (“Part II”) has her discovering that Ungit, the earth goddess of her country, may also be a reflection of herself. Ungit imagery tends to use maiden-mother-crone archetypes a lot, and portrays the kind of pagan chthnonic female guardian that I’m accustomed to thinking of as…if not positive, then at least neutral and necessary. But I was wrong to expect the Ungit-Orual association to be empowering. She desperately seeks to shake it off, and in doing so enters into a series of Helpful Vivid Explanatory Visions that comprise the book’s climactic scenes.

This was probably my least favorite part of the book, even more so than the gross sexist dichotomies. It felt so lazy. You just undermine your protagonist’s 200 pages of character development if you have her realize she was wrong about everything by virtue of having it explained to her by Magic! Also what she came to realize was that her hatred of the gods had nothing to do with their actions and everything to do with her jealous possessiveness of her sister, which is….a strange kind of convert-realization, as it has no real-world analogue. (Neither do visions, but eh.) “Jesus is boning my sister” isn’t a common reason why people don’t have come-to-Jesus moments. She meets Psyche again and Psyche reveals that she went on a difficult journey in order to bring Orual the kind of beauty Psyche has always had, and then Orual has a rush of revelatory emotion in which her love for Psyche blossoms into something that could never be cruel and then in turn isn’t love for Psyche at all, but for Cupid Jesus:

And yet it was not, not now, she that really counted. Or if she counted (and she did, oh, gloriously she did) it was for another’s sake. The earth and stars and sun, all that was or will be, existed for his sake. And he was coming. 

And this is borne out in the final paragraph: I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You yourself are the answer. Before your face questions die away. Orual demanding answers from the gods was her reason for narrating the entire first two-thirds of the book, mind, and provided the story with a lot of momentum–and this is what we get. I think it might just be that the Ineffable and Omniscent and Flawless just makes for a completely lackluster plot point? Let alone a plot resolution? It’s like reading a mystery novel and then the last scene is the detective sighing contentedly, saying “It doesn’t matter who did it,” and being suffused in soft light while contemplating a photograph of the murder victim in crucifixion-pose.

Even so, now I feel like I’m on a Quest. I want to find some Christian-themed fiction that can navigate successfully around the narrative problems of its mythos (and no, I don’t mean one of the hundred thousand Our Hero Was Jesus The Whole Time stories). Anyone have a recommendation? Bonus points for no sexism!

Here’s my favorite song about God (in English):