Monthly Archives: July 2012

Review of Looking for Alaska

In John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Miles “Pudge” Halter decides to leave his boring, safe life in Florida to attend a preparatory boarding school in Alabama. Pudge is obsessed with famous last words, and he knows that he’ll never be the speaker of them unless he does something real with his life. At Culver Creek Boarding School, Pudge meets Alaska Young: smart, funny, sexy, moody, self-destructive, and amazing. Pudge is fascinated by her and is sure Alaska is the key to him discovering the “Great Perhaps” (Francois Rabelais, poet.) What she helps him discover instead is how unsafe life really is and the real meaning of loss.

I have had a love/hate relationship with this book since I read it almost four years ago. Looking for Alaska is Green’s first book, and just as a warning, if you don’t want it spoiled for you, don’t read this review. It’s impossible to talk about this book in its entirety without giving away the important parts.

The book is divided into “Before” and “After”, and the thing that has always bothered me about this book is the “Before” part, which is 113 pages to “After”’s 108. Pudge’s life before consists of struggling to fit in at his new school, pulling pranks, yearning for Alaska, who he knows is way out of his league, and experiencing some romantic firsts with his sort-of girlfriend Lara. I never liked “Before” because it’s shallow and goes on for too long. I tired of the pranks Pudge and his friends pulled, I didn’t care about the cafeteria food, I didn’t want instructions on how to give a blow job, and if Pudge complained one more time how much he spent on his friend’s cigarettes, I was going to reach into the book and throttle him. This is all so stupid, I thought, even as I read it this second time. I just don’t care.

And then After happens. When I read this book the first time, I just wanted After to exist without Before, but this time I realized that without the youthful, stupid shallowness of Before, After wouldn’t have nearly as much weight.
Throughout the book, Alaska Young is moody: flirty and teasing one minute, sobbing between expletives and hateful comments the next. Pudge says of her early in the book, “I’d certainly had enough of her unpredictability- cold one day, sweet the next; irresistibly flirty on moment, resistibly obnoxious the next.” But, just as is the case with most people, no one expects anyone to do anything about their moods until they do and it’s too late. One night, after Pudge and Alaska spend a (drunk, on her part) night making out together, Alaska gets a phone call and suddenly explodes, shrieking and sobbing about something she forgot. She runs from the room, gets in her car, still incredibly drunk, and six miles down the road, slam her car into a police cruiser and is killed instantly. While it is ruled officially as an accident, Pudge and his friends are positive that it was a suicide, given that Alaska didn’t even try to swerve.

It’s the part following this event that makes Green’s book a work of art. It’s the only thing that made me read it again, and it is, I’m sure, the thing that earned it the Printz Award. Pudge’s experience and expression of his grief is painfully truthful, almost graphically honest. When I read books, I dogear the pages that contain a quote that I like or relate to. You can clearly see, in this picture how much the After section speaks to me:

Pudge’s immense guilt; his belief that, in letting her leave, he killed Alaska; his struggle to accept that he wasn’t enough for her, and that just because she kissed him last didn’t mean she loved him last, are revealed poignantly and painfully. Pudge goes between wanting to know what Alaska’s last words and thoughts were to realizing that maybe that will be worse than not knowing.

It’s this disparity between the Before and After sections that makes me accept that one cannot exist without the other. When someone dies, we all wish that our time with them was more meaningful, fuller, but there’s no way to edit the past to help it fit into the future without them. The Before section that I hate so much makes this book what it is: a well-rounded, devastating book. I have so, so many quotes underlined in this book, and I won’t post them all here because that would be ridiculous. You should read the book and discover them for yourself. And just remember: the Before is worth muddling through the get to the After.

Choice quotes:

“You have to be careful here, with students and teachers. And I do hate being careful.” [The Colonel] smirked.
I hated being careful, too- or wanted to, at least.

Alaska gathered six precalc kids […] and piled us into her tiny blue two-door. By happy coincidence, a cute sophomore named Lara ended up sitting on my lap. Since we were only four layers from doing it, I took the opportunity to introduce myself.

I vaguely remember Lara smiling at me from the doorway, the glittering ambiguity of a girl’s smile, which seems to promise an answer to the question but never gives it. THE question, the one we’ve all been asking since girls stopped being gross, the question that is too simple to be uncomplicated: Does she like me or like me?

“If you’re staying here in hopes of making out with Alaska, I sure wish you wouldn’t.”
[…]
“It’s not because I want to make out with her.”
“Hold on.” [The Colonel] grabbed a pencil and scrawled excitedly at the paper as if he’d just made a mathematical breakthrough and then he looked back up at me. “I just did some calculations, and I’ve been able to determine that you’re full of shit.”

There comes a time when we realize our parents cannot save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow.

I knew so many last words. But I will never know hers.

What was I so afraid of, anyway? The thing had happened. She was dead […] And now she was colder by the hour, more dead with every breath I took. I thought: That is the fear: I have lost something important, and I cannot find it, and I need it.

What was an “instant” death anyway? How long is an instant? Is it one second? Ten? The pain of those seconds must have been awful as her heart burst and her lungs collapsed and there was no air and no blood to her brain and only raw panic. What the hell is instant? Nothing is instant. Instant rice takes five minutes, instant pudding an hour. I doubt that an instant of blinding pain feels particularly instantaneous.
Was there time for her life to flash before her eyes? Was I there?

No reason to be angry. Anger just distracts from the all-encompassing sadness, the frank knowledge that you killed her and robbed her of a future and a life […] we could never be anything but wholly, unforgivably guilty.

“It is a law that parents should not have to bury their children. And someone should enforce it.”

“Maybe we should just let her be dead,” I said, frustrated. It seemed to me that nothing we might find out would make anything any better. […] “We’re not any less guilty. All it does is make her into thid awful, selfish bitch.”
“Christ, Pudge. Do you remember the person she actually was? Do you remember how she could be a selfish bitch? That was part of her, and you used to know it. It’s like now you only care about the Alaska you made up.”

“I’m plenty angry, Pudge. And you haven’t been the picture of placidity of late, either, and you aren’t going to off yourself. Wait, are you?”
“No,” I said. And maybe it was only because Alaska couldn’t hit the brakes and I couldn’t hit the accelerator. Maybe she just had an odd kind of courage that I lacked, but no.

I wanted to be the last one she loved. And I knew I wasn’t. I hated her for leaving that night, and I hated myself, too, not only because I let her go, but because if I had been enough for her, she wouldn’t have even wanted to leave.

She fell apart because that’s what happens.

Review of If I Stay

Even though I’ve been wanting to read If I Stay for a long time, I’ll admit that I almost didn’t buy it after seeing a blurb on the front cover that read “Will appeal to fans of Stephenie Meyer’s TWILIGHT.” And though, according to the back of the book, If I Stay has been compared to Twilight a lot, I am happy to say that I see no resemblance.
If I Stay, by Gayle Forman, is a refreshingly real book. Everything about it- the story, the main character’s voice, her musings, and the emotions she goes through- are believable and so well-written that you feel them in your gut.

The main character, Mia, is a seventeen year-old who comes from a loving family. She’s an exceptionally talented cellist, waiting for an almost certain acceptance to Juilliard, and she has a great best friend and an amazing boyfriend whose own musical talents have helped his band achieve national fame. Then, one day, that’s all taken away when Mia and her family cheerfully head off to visit some friends on a snowy morning and are hit by a truck. Her parents are killed instantly, and Mia and her seven year-old brother Teddy are rushed to the hospital where both lives hang in the balance. The story is told by a Mia living outside her unconscious body, and she observes everything that is happening to and around her as a semi-specter. In this state, she is able to watch the world around her and consider what life will be like if she decides to hang on, to regain consciousness and heal as best she can in a world with no parents and possibly no little brother and a romantic relationship that’s already on the rocks. She is in charge of the choice, and wouldn’t it be easier just to let go?

This is one of those books that had me crying on the subway and not caring because there was no way the tears would stop even if I did. Forman has a great sense of pace and reveal; the scene where the accident happens is perfectly done. Many people, and therefore many storytellers, see it as intensely tragic when a person loses someone and regrets that the last words that they exchanged were in anger. Forman takes the opposite tact- Mia and her family are incredibly happy and loving, and that makes the heartbreak all that much worse when specter-Mia observes her dead parents on the side of the road. The morning of the accident, the family is excited that a snow day has been declared for both school and work even though there’s barely a dusting on the ground. Every member of the family has a part in the funny, light banter. As they get ready to leave, Mia takes in her father’s sports coat and wingtipped shoes. “Dressed for the snow, I see,” she teases. Her father answers, “I’m like the post office. Neither sleep nor rain nor half an inch of snow will compel me to dress like a lumberjack.”

It’s moments like these that the reader remembers as they watch Mia find her parents after the accident: I see Dad first. Even from several feet away, I can make out the protrusion of the pipe in his jacket pocket. “Dad,”I call, but as I walk toward him, the pavement grows slick and there are gray chunks of what looks like cauliflower. I know what I’m seeing but it somehow does not immediately connect back to my father… Pieces of my father’s brain are on the asphalt. But his pipe is in his left breast pocket. I find Mom next. There’s almost no blood on her, but her lips are already blue and the whites of her eyes are completely red, like a ghoul from a low-budget monster movie. She seems totally unreal.

Occasionally, reading this book made me so sad that I actually felt sick. It’s one thing to read a book about a girl who wakes up after an accident to discover that she’s the only one in her family left, but to watch Mia’s family come to visit her, to observe her boyfriend too scared to look at her lying in her hospital bed, her best friend’s incredible support and bravery, and how Mia vacillates between wanting to stay and feel things, and knowing that she can’t stay because it means she will feel things… these are all things that hopefully none of us will ever have to go through ourselves.

Forman makes these moments even more poignant by lacing them with flashbacks. While the bad memories of fights with her boyfriend, confusion about moving three thousand miles away for college, and Mia’s questions of her own talents are far outweighed by the good memories of her charmed life, it’s easy to see why it might be the simpler choice for Mia to let herself die. If she had such a great life before the accident, the life afterward is going to be hell.
The flashbacks are very telling of what Mia is thinking and comparing at any given point in the book, and my favorite flashback was one that features Mia and her boyfriend Adam. At the point of the flashback, Mia and Adam’s relationship has been very reserved, and Mia shocks both Adam and herself a few pages before by requesting that they take their intimacy further. This is where most teen books would cut to some frenzied removing of clothing and awkward sex, but Forman writes a far more sensual scene. Both characters remain clothed as Adam lays his head in Mia’s lap and says, “I want you to play me like a cello.” What begins with joking tweaks of his ears as if they were string pegs soon transforms into contact as intimate as sex, which continues when they switch places with Adam “playing” Mia as his beloved guitar. Forman chooses her words carefully, and the scene is much more meaningful and powerful than an awkward sex scene would have been.

The most standout aspect of the book is Mia’s voice. While YA authors have certainly gotten better at writing teenagers when the authors themselves are much older, there’s still the occasionally author that annoys me by watching teen sitcoms from decades past and thinking that weaving the kids’ syntax into their work will make them “hip.” Instead, it usually alienates actual teen readers and has caused me to close a book or two for good. Forman doesn’t fall into this trap. Mia’s voice is believable and completely her own. She speaks well, but still swears casually and throws in the occasional “like.” There are other characters whose voices are not quite as clear, but Forman has Mia down pat.

Mia’s reasonings of why she should live or die are very moving. Many times, her considerations are not for herself but for her family and friends. She thinks of how miserable her grandparents will be if she dies too, having just lost their son and daughter-in-law, but when she thinks of her best friend Kim, Mia thinks that maybe Kim will be strong enough to move on: Losing me will hurt; it will be the kind of pain that won’t feel real at first, and when it does, it will take her breath away. And the rest of her senior year will probably suck, what with her getting all that cloying your-best-friend’s-dead sympathy that will drive her so crazy […] But she’ll deal. She’ll move on. She’ll leave Oregon. She’ll go to college. She’ll make new friends. She’ll fall in love. She’ll become a photographer […] And I bet she’ll be a stronger person because of what she’s lost today. I have a feeling that once you live through something like this, you become a little bit invincible.

The one and only thing that bothered me about the book was that the present-day situation of Mia’s life hanging in the balance as she made her decision was supposed to be a twenty-four hour period. However, the book is long and with all of the flashbacks, it felt like Mia’s decision lasted a week at the least. Her experience being only a day didn’t ruin the story in any way, but each time I returned to a present day chapter and was given the time, I had to make a note that it was still the same day, even if it felt like two had gone by.

If I Stay is an incredibly moving and smart book. It’s tough to read, but that speaks for its merit and accuracy. I was pleased to discover that there is a sequel called Where She Went, and you bet I’m going to be buying that as soon as I am not so poor.

Choice quotes:

[The social worker] tells my grandparents that I am in “grave” condition. I’m not entirely sure what that means- grave. On TV, patients are always critical, or stable. Grave sounds bad. Grave is where you go when things don’t work out.

I don’t want to be in this suspended state where I can see what’s happening, where I’m aware of what I’m feeling without being able to actually feel it. I cannot scream until my throat hurts or break a window with my fist until my hand bleeds, or pull my hair out in clumps until the pain in my scalp overcomes the one in my heart.

I remember watching it all and getting that tickling in my chest and thinking to myself: This is what happiness feels like.

Review of From Up Here

Kenny Barrett is the most feared/hated/anxious/not sorry person in his school. Sure, he did something bad, but can’t he just finish out his senior year of high school without all of these people staring at him? And worse, they’ve assigned him a mentor, like he’s the new kid or something, to get him “reacquainted” with student life, just because he threatened to take a few of those lives. He didn’t actually do it, so what’s the big deal? But despite his efforts to convince everyone that he’s fine, his mom fusses over him, his stepfather is desperate to win his affection, his sister just wants him to be normal, and the school is making him give a public apology. As if being a teenager isn’t hard enough.

Liz Flahive’s From Up Here is a wonderful contemporary family drama. Her writing is a study in naturalism, written with lines that overlap constantly and full of references to Facebook and homages to the teenage guys that write bad songs on their guitars. The play also examines sibling relationships, the struggles of a second marriage, and the arrival of a not-so-welcome aunt.

From the synopsis on the back cover, the reader understands that Kenny has done something bad, but Flahive never actually comes out and states what that is. Through hints in lines and action- such as Lauren mentioning a list and that Kenny “barely pointed it at anyone” and Kenny having his bad checked by adults- one can deduce what has happened, but it’s a wonderful choice of Flahive’s not to have anyone say it straight out.

I have to admit that, though Kenny is the focus of the story, I was more interested in two of the subplots: Mom Grace’s battle with new husband Daniel and Lauren’s relationship with Charlie. The parents’ struggles are ones that I imagine many adults in a second marriage go through: Daniel is trying to win over Grace’s teenage children, but he also wants to have a baby with Grace. Grace, however, wants none of it. Sadly, Daniel is sure that she’ll change her mind eventually, and it’s this that pushes Grace to spend the night in prison. To watch the pressure cooker of their relationship is fascinating.

The other budding bond is that of Lauren and Charlie. Charlie is in Kenny’s class and therefore two years older than Lauren, and she fascinates him. Besides being the younger sister of a would-be-murderer, there are (seemingly true) rumors going around that Lauren had sex with two guys at a recent party, rumors that Lauren makes no effort to deny (in fact, she says nothing at all.) It’s obvious that Lauren finds Charlie irritating, sometimes ignoring him and making fun of him at other times, including when they’re on a date, but this just seemed to make her more appealing to Charlie. He writes her bad songs and insists on dancing awkwardly and wonders out loud to her when they’re going to kiss. There’s something adorably puppy-like about Charlie, and eventually even the aloof Lauren finds something to like.

One of the most poignant exchanges in From Up Here happens between Kenny and Lauren at lunch. When no one else will sit near Kenny, his sister does it without a second thought. When they discuss his upcoming appointment with the school counselor, Lauren says, “What are you going to say when he asks why you didn’t do it?” “Uh,” Kenny stammers. “I guess I’d tell him I didn’t know if I’d be able to shoot myself afterwards… Because that’s what you have to do… You go in there and then, you know, you have to-“ “Shut up, you do not,” Lauren interrupts, upset. The scene flawlessy displays both of their characters as well as their love for one another.

Flahive’s script is filled with lines written in a style that dictate exactly when one actor is supposed to begin their next line. For example, one line reads Sort of, but / it’s… Aunt Caroline. I hated this; besides finding it incredibly distracting as a reader, I thought it was slightly offensive to actors and directors. The scenes are well-written enough that any performer or director worth their salt would realize how it’s meant to be presented, and the slashes that appear in sometimes every line are irritating. Sadly, this ruined some of the reading experience. It is a great play, though, and it has some wonderful monologues for both men and women, so check it out.

Choice quotes:

LAUREN: I love being small. Most people can pick me up.
DANIEL: You don’t want to get big and strong?
LAUREN: Yeah, I totally want to be a big strong girl. That’d be so exciting.

“Why can’t you draw a harp seal? I bet if you drew everyone their very own harp seal they’d chill out. Because harp seals are fuckin cute.”

LAUREN: Are you gonna name [your goldfish]?
KENNY: I’ll name it when it actually does something.

Review of Hysteria

As I believe I mentioned when talking about my play (which gets its second reading this coming Thursday!), I’ve spent the better part of two years researching the Victorian phenomenon that is hysteria. I was pretty excited when I saw that there was a movie being made about it with some actors that I very much enjoy watching. And so it was the on the fifth of July, I sat myself down in a cinema and watched the movie.

The script for the first half of the movie left me alternately exhilarated and disappointed. There is no doubt that Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer are good writers; the script was witty and fast-paced with great characterization. However, I was less enamored with the way they chose to use that skill. For a good hour of the film (and then some here and there), the exchanges consisted almost entirely of penis and sex jokes, whether purposely delivered by a character or slipped into a line for our amusement.

Or most people’s amusement. I’ll admit it right now that while I wouldn’t label myself a prude anymore, I am definitely not one to revel in sex jokes, at least not for that long. One now and then can be very funny, as happened in the last part of the film. Actually, in a movie set in the 1880s, based around the upper classes, it can be refreshing; contemporary writers, myself included, tend to write upper class Victorian people as individuals who only discussed the weather in plummy accents, but the fact is that they were indeed people, most of whom had sex. But as I say, a steady stream of sex jokes was a little too much. I also think that, due to the amount of research I’ve done and the seriousness with which I look on hysteria, I might not have been the right audience for comedy about the fictional disorder. To the other moviegoers, hysteria was a silly little thing treated by being pleasured by a doctor and exchanging sex jokes with a wink. To me, hysteria is a silly little thing that was treated with institutionalization and hysterectomies. Both, save for perhaps the jokes, are true, but I found it almost insulting that the matter was treated so lightly. Then again, I’m probably being too cerebral about the whole thing.

As disappointed as I may have been with some of the beginning, the end of the movie was great. (Spoiler warning!) About 45 minutes to an hour in was, I feel, when the movie really became what it wanted to be: a funny, heartfelt historical comedy. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character Charlotte is a, outspoken, progressive woman, but believably and differently so. While she does do the famous handing out of suffragette leaflets, Charlotte also reads science journals and, despite coming from an uptight household, devotes her time to running an organization to aid poor families. While I am always in support of a progressive woman, Charlotte is a new breed for movies: many early feminist characters are out for themselves in some way. Charlotte gets very little- in fact, probably no- benefit from helping the poor, but she sees that it is needed and does it anyway.

Mortimer Granville, Hugh Dancy’s character and a real person, is in part the typical young bumbling Englishman. A lot of times I find this annoying, but this is where the sex jokes redeem themselves: Granville himself may be inexperienced and awkward when it comes to affairs of the heart, but he understands the jokes and can banter, which saves him from falling into a stereotype.

Even the secondary characters are saved from being strictly stereotypical by the Dyers. Charlotte’s beautiful younger sister, Emily, is first made out to be the usual pretty-but-shallow Victorian girl, perfect for Granville to scoop up once he becomes famous because Emily’s too shallow to say much at all. Everything about her is silly up until the very end of the film. Granville, realizing that he is in love with the fiery Charlotte, goes to Emily to break off their engagement- and she does it first. The events of the film make her see that life is much more complex than she’s ever had to contemplate, but now she finds that she wants to contemplate it. It’s a well-done move on the Dyers’ part, and one that came just in time to save Emily’s character.

My favorite moment of the film is again an example of breaking the mold just in time. Charlotte is arrested for assaulting a police officer at Granville and Emily’s engagement party and brought to trial. It is revealed that she has been imprisoned before (for the aforementioned leaflet distribution) and is declared “incurably hysterical.” It is advised that she be institutionalized immediately and undergo and emergency hysterectomy. I’ll admit that one of the reasons that this was a favorite moment was to feel all the people around me that had been laughing throughout the movie suddenly get quiet and shocked. But I also loved it because after the predictable thing happens- Granville is asked to testify verifying that Charlotte is hysterical- the unpredictable follows. Granville agrees that Charlotte is overly passionate, violent, and intolerably irritating, and most movies would follow this pronouncement with a tearful “How could you betray me?!” from Charlotte as she’s hauled off to prison, with a following scene where Granville goes to the jail to apologize and win her heart. Hysteria, however, has Granville standing up to the superiors of whom he’s spent the whole movie in fear and declaring that London would be a sadder place without Charlotte’s philanthropy. It’s a wonderful moment of solidarity between the two, especially because Granville and Charlotte aren’t exactly best friends at this point.

Hysteria is a well-written, well-performed script, and while I wasn’t completely satisfied with it, I’m glad that a movie was made about the subject. Historical comedies are rare, so this is definitely one to check out! And if that doesn’t pull you in, well- there are lots of sex jokes, okay? So go.

Telling the Truth or Pleasing the Crowd?

My favorite things in this world are those that make me think.  I love to watch or read something that causes genuine emotion inside me, even if it’s negative, because that means the writing or the portrayal of the story was strong enough to make me feel something. I respect writers, performers, and artists that can go to those places and I strive to be one of them.

Since reading The Pillowman, I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions asked in the play. Two of them especially stand out to me.

The first asks about the suitable content of a writer’s pieces. In The Pillowman, Katurian writes short stories that are quite disturbing: the four featured in the play all involve the gruesome deaths of children. The detectives interrogating Katurian are disgusted that a person could put such a thing down on paper, and so frequently. “The first fucking twenty we picked up was ‘a little girl gets fucked over in this way, or a little boy is fucked over in this way…’! [This] was a theme of your own choosing?” Katurian fires back, “Are you trying to say I shouldn’t write stories with child-killings in them because in the real world, there are child-killings?”

Content, and the censorship of it, is something that I think about often. While I support the rights of parents to have a say in what their child reads or sees for their formative years, I also think that there is a time to step back and allow the world to come to them. In a Writing for Children class I took in the fall semester, my class had a debate on what was too dark to put into children’s literature. I argued that there isn’t such a thing. One can’t be sheltered from real-world happenings forever, and the fact is that the real world happens to children, too.

Katurian’s demand sticks with me because those feelings- that the terrible things that happen in the real world should not be written about because they’re terrible things that happen in the real world- frustrate me to no end. I do not look down upon fluff. Sometimes a little bit of fluff, whether it’s on the page or performed, is exactly what is needed. But having performed, as well as simply loving stories that tell the truth of real-life pain and having the response be “I don’t think that’s appropriate” fill me with anger. I want to ask, “What exactly isn’t appropriate? The boy struggling with his grief? The girl coping with the after-effects of rape? The kid standing up for themselves and saying they refuse to be the victim again? A child in the real world has gone through that. Is that inappropriate?” Sadly, many of my actor friends have family members who refuse to see some of their shows because they “don’t understand why that has to be put onstage.”

I was ranting about this to Stuart over the phone yesterday and brought up the point that sometimes people mistake “bad” for “uncomfortable.” The example I used was Keira Knightley’s performance in A Dangerous Method. She portrays a real-life mental patient diagnosed with hysteria. Through the first quarter or so of the movie, when asked to speak of her home life, Knightley, as her character, suddenly halts in her speech, her breath locked in her chest and her face contorting into painful grimaces. I was stunned by this performance. It was brave, and it was true, based on accounts from the woman herself. It was also a risky move: the reviews of the performance on IMDB.com label Knightley’s performance as “terrible” and “painful to watch.” While everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, I would argue that the people who found Knightley’s performance painful were actually just extremely uncomfortable. I understand; so was I. Her portrayal of mental illness was not easy to watch, but that’s how it is in real life, too. Those who wanted to see Knightley play the patient as a beautiful shrinking violet whose only outward sign of illness is a swoon or two didn’t get what they were expecting, and instead of recognizing the bravery in Knightley’s performance, they let their discomfort ruin her performance for them.

A similar story was told in a Ted Talk I watched over winter break. You can find the video here, but to paraphrase: the woman giving the talk is a theatre artist, and during one of her lectures, she could see one of the men in the audience looking impatient and disgusted by what she said. After the talk, he came up to her and told her that he had only ever been to one play in his life and he hated it so much that he never attended another. When asked why, he said that a character onstage got the news of her child’s death and made an inhuman noise of grief. “It was embarrassing,” he told the lecturer. “We didn’t like it.” He then went on to tell the lecturer that a few years after he saw that play, he recieved news that his own daughter had been raped and murdered, “And I made that noise. That actress told the truth, and I wasn’t brave enough to see it.” The lecturer says to her audience, “That actress must have known that as she made that noise, people in the audience were hating her. Bless her. She told the truth.”

So do we abandon truth at the expense of pleasing our audience? Is stashing away what could be our best ideas because they might make people uncomfortable worth it? Or do we bravely write what’s in our hearts- and the hearts of those who have gone through those things in their lives- and hope that it finds its intended audience?

To follow that a little further, the other question that The Pillowman asks is whether a writer is responsible for the repercussions of their work. In the play, Katurian’s disturbing stories are being reenacted in every detail, and the detectives are certain that Katurian himself is the doer. There can possibly be another mind as sicker than his, another person who would find these stories intoxicating enough to actually create them… can there? It’s obvious throughout the play that Katurian is not the murderer, but it does make one think: if he is the creator of these ideas, albeit not the one who carries them out, is he an accomplice in the murder? One might argue that a murderer will find some way to commit a murder, but had Katurian not written these stories, those children would not have died in the ways that they did. What is Katurian’s responsibility? What is any writer’s responsibility of the consequences of their creation?

I’d love to hear what you readers have to say on these subjects, so please comment below!

Review of Proof

CATHERINE: It was just connecting the dots. Some nights, I could connect three or four. Some nights they’d be really far apart, I’d have no idea how to get to the next one, if there was a next one.

At face value, David Auburn’s Proof explores the authorship of a supposedly historic mathematic proof about the pattern of prime numbers. The nature of mathematics permeates the piece as three of the four characters are mathematicians. We hear about Germain primes and the number i, game theory and the significance of 1729. What makes Auburn’s play far more compelling are the depth and subtlety with which he explores relationships and the unnerving visage of madness and genius intertwined.

After the main character, Catherine, gives a key to her amour, Hal, she explains, “It’s a key.” Plain and simple, except that Auburn is getting at something more significant. We see that later when Catherine tells Hal, “I trusted you,” indicating that the key was a symbol of their relationship. At this point, however, Hal has failed to reciprocate her trust by refusing to believe that she has written the proof, which the key has unlocked. This proof serves throughout the rest of the play as a cathect for their relationship, a fact Auburn asserts when Catherine says of the proof, “It’s me.” While Catherine claims to have authored this proof, Hal is convinced her recently deceased father, a once brilliant mathematician gone mad, is its composer. Catherine is left to the whims of Hal’s scrutiny of the piece, his conclusions about its source the sole decider of the fate of their relationship.

Struggling in her helplessness, Catherine is left at home with her visiting sister, Claire, who is convinced that Catherine is insane. Before the introduction of the proof, Claire is convinced that Catherine is hallucinating Hal and presses her to produce evidence of his existence. Catherine cannot, which is one of the more glaring moments in which Auburn stresses that we cannot empirically validate the majority of our experiences.

The two sisters fight relentlessly about the proof, the legitimacy of either’s affection for their father, selling their father’s house, and even Catherine’s stability and sanity. Catherine’s despair, brought on by her father’s downward spiral and subsequent death and by Hal and Claire’s rejection of her authorship of the proof, causes her to succumb to Claire’s overbearing will and forceful personality. Because Catherine can offer no evidence to support her own argument, she is left subject to the demands of her older sister.

The true genius of the piece, however, comes with Auburn’s ability to craft the piece. He tells a gripping story rife with emotional turmoil and the difficulties of faith. Better yet, he leaves the truth unresolved, simply presenting us with evidence and allowing us to connect the dots.

Review of The Pillowman

If you asked Stuart or me to name a few things I like in a story/play/movie, etc., you might be surprised that one of the first things we both list is “creepy.” I seriously like creepy stuff. When something I read makes me skin crawl in a good way, I read it over and over and over.

The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh, is that kind of play. Dark, skin-crawley goodness that keeps making you go, “What? Wait, WHAT?!” and reading back over passages to make sure you read it correctly. Oh, you did. It’s that creepy. The back cover of my copy compares McDonagh’s writing to that of Kafka, the Brothers Grimm, and Stoppard (who, if you’ll remember, we reviewed on this very blog.)

The play is about a writer, Katurian, who has been brought into a police station for interrogation. Katurian is a composer of short stories, and very disturbing ones at that, and someone has been bringing those stories to life in vivid, gruesome detail. The police believe it is Katurian himself- after all, someone who writes such sick stories must have that sickness living inside him. They’re determined to get a confession out of him before they execute him in a few hours (because no matter what he says, they know he’s guilty), and they’ve got his mentally-challenged brother going through the same treatment in the room next door.

The Pillowman is one of those plays where you think, “Something’s got to give. Things can’t possibly, actually keep going the horrible way that they’re going.” But they can, and McDonagh makes sure they keep going there. He’s a brave writer, one that is focused on telling the story that matters instead of pleasing an audience. Of course, that makes it sound like the play is unsatisfactory. It’s not. What it is, is real. For Katurian, his fate is sealed no matter what he says to the policemen. He will not be saved, and with every page, things get steadily worse for him.

Three of Katurian’s stories were chosen by the murderer for recreation: a young boy whose toes are sliced off, a little girl who chokes on her own blood after swallowing pieces of apple filled with razor blades, and a second young girl who is determined to be like Jesus to the point where her sadistic foster parents nail her to a cross. Even with the creations coming from his mind, Katurian seems a fairly balanced person, despite his shocking childhood. It is revealed a little ways into the play that he and his brother were part of an experiment at the hands of their parents: Katurian was pampered, loved, and given every opportunity while his brother was locked into a single room and tortured daily, to the point where he suffered severe brain damage.

The fascinating thing about The Pillowman is the main question it asks: is Katurian guilty? While the reader/audience knows that he did not kill those children, the murderer took inspiration from Katurian’s stories. Had the stories not existed, perhaps the murderer would not have had the need to reenact them and the entire play would not have happened. However, this same question is asked in the story of the title name. The Pillowman is another story of Katurians, in which a man made entirely of pillows takes it upon himself to go to young children and inform them of the terrible things they’re going to experience later in life. He then assists in their suicide, should they choose to end their lives. He doesn’t enjoy the job, but his reasoning is that he would rather spare a child a lifetime of unhappiness for a single moment of discomfort or fear. It’s a haunting question, but The Pillowman forces you to look it straight in the face as the play goes on.

After reading The Pillowman, I’m desperate to see it onstage. It’s quite wordy, with huge, multi-page monologues of storytelling, and I want to see if that works onstage. In the right hands, it could be captivating. In the wrong ones, or perhaps as a fault of the playwright, it could be terribly boring. There are also parts of the stories and Katurian’s life that are acted out and I would love to see them, too. Variety called it “McDonagh’s least forgiving, bravest play,” and add to that the dash of creepy that pervades the play, and I’m there.

Choice quotes:

TUPOLSKI: Your surname is Katurian, yes?
KATURIAN: Yes.
TUPOLSKI: See, we’ve got your first name as Katurian.
KATURIAN: My first name is Katurian.
TUPOLSKI: Your name is Katurian Katurian?
KATURIAN: My parents were funny people.
TUPOLSKI: Hm. Middle initial?
KATURIAN: K.

KATURIAN: Are you trying to say I shouldn’t write stories with child-killings in them because in the real world, there are child-killings?

TUPOLSKI: We like executing writers. Dimwits we can execute any day. And we do. But, you execute a writer, it sends out a signal, y’know? (Pause) I don’t know what signal it sends out, that’s not really my area, but it sends out a signal.

KATURIAN: They moved house soon after that and though the nightmare sounds had ended, his stories stayed strange and twisted but good, and he was able to thank his parents for the weirdness they’d put him through.

KATURIAN: Did you sign anything?
MICHAL: Huh? You know I can’t sign nothing.
KATURIAN: Then maybe we can still get out of this.
MICHAL: Get out of what?
KATURIAN: Get out of being executed for killing three children, Michal.
MICHAL: Oh, get out of being executed for killing three children. That’d be good.