Milkman Teaches about the Troubles but Doesn't Always Deliver

Milkman (2018)
By Anna Burns
Faber and Faber, 368 pages.

Back in 1996, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes was all the rage. It is a fine book, though a bleak one. It's so grim that when she finished it, my wife hurled it across the room and exclaimed, "Thank God I'm not Irish!"

I'm of Scottish extraction, so I'm in no position to judge anyone else's forlorn past. I relate this anecdote because when it comes to gloominess there are decided parallels between McCourt's memoir and Anna Burns' Man Booker Prize-wining novel Milkman, which is set in Northern Ireland during the "Troubles" of the 1970s. Officially some 3,500 soldiers and civilians died during a British occupation of Northern Ireland that badly mediated conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Untold numbers simply disappeared and were likely victims of terrorist groups such as the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defense League. This means that Milkman is not the sort of book likely to be delivered to everyone's reading stands.

As Burns makes clear, it was a time of tragedy, paranoia, and despair. She details a bifurcated world of "renouncers" and "informers," shorthand for Catholic nationalists who were members of or sympathetic to the IRA, and those who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of Great Britain rather than merge with the Republic of Ireland*. Burns introduces us to some of the code phrases from the conflict: "Over the water" is a pejorative term for England (or the United States), "over the Border" is a stand-in for the Irish Republic, and "over the road" means Protestant neighborhoods where a Catholic would not wish to venture.

Milkman is narrated–if that is the right term–by an unnamed 18-year-old Catholic woman who lives is an unnamed neighborhood in an unnamed city, though we can safely infer the locale is Belfast, as this from whence Ms Burns hails. None of the major characters have names and are mostly referenced by their roles, quirks, and status: nuclear boy, tablet girl, maybe boyfriend, beyond the pale, and so on. Early in the book our narrator recites a litany of first names that instantly label individuals as Irish, English, Catholic, or Protestant and that's all we need to know. Burns wishes to immerse us in the politics and psychology of the Troubles and presumably thought that proper names would divert attention to personalities. It also serves her purpose of showing how growing up in such an environment damaged psyches and (in a metaphorical sense) obliterated personalities; humans were pawns in a bloody game they had to play whether or not they desired to do so.

This is certainly the case of the narrator. She is fatherless, one of her brothers was murdered, her mother thinks she's headed for damnation, she is often called upon to take care of her "wee sisters," and she's routinely berated by her older sisters and (surviving) brothers-in-law. Like many 18-year-olds, her identity is a work in progress and she indentifies as neither religious nor political. Good luck with that. She has already called attention to herself for a dangerous habit: reading 19th century novels while walking! In the eyes of the community, she could be an informer passing secrets to British troops–perhaps through the book titles. After all, many of those books are English. What else would explain the fact that she's 18 and unmarried? She does have a "maybe boyfriend," but he too has called the wrong kind of attention to himself. He's a gear-head who collects auto parts, one of which the community learns is from a Bentley (British). Rumor has it that there's a Union Jack label on it. Could things get any worse? They do when a mysterious figure known as Milkman–reportedly a 41-year-old married IRA bigwig–begins to stalk her. The community begins to whisper that the two are lovers. (He's so shadowy that some confuse him with the actual milkman!)

We feel the weight of the world on our narrator, though I am at a loss to explain how this book won the Man Booker Prize. Here's another reason why many will shy away from Milkman: it is written in stream of consciousness style. This certainly helps get inside the mind of a confused 18-year-old, but it is a notoriously difficult form to master. At her best, Burns illumines how a young woman trapped in a world of suspicion, innuendo, and crippling social norms rockets from anger to resignation to misanthropy in the blink of an eye. There is, however, no disguising the fact that Milkman is also often a frustrating and tedious read. Stream of consciousness writing often impresses other novelists far more than it enthralls readers. Milkman also suffers from a jarring tonal shift in the last quarter or so–an attempt to interject humor and in the process humanize the narrator's tyrannical mother.

Should you give Milkman a try? That depends upon what your purpose for reading might be. You can learn a lot about gender expectations in the 1970s, what it means to live in a warzone, and how causes are driven by inflamed passion rather than cool reason. If you read carefully, you can infer a lot about the Troubles. If, however, you like clarity, distinct characters, and at least a ray or two of hope, you might be tempted to hurl Milkman across the room. Or across the water.

Rob Weir

*Northern Ireland is riven by religion and economics. 48% of its residents are Protestant and 45% are Catholic. Britain, however, is far more prosperous than the Irish Republic, hence pragmatic materialism motivates many Northern Irish residents to prefer the status quo over nationalist dreams or religious sectarianism.


Readers Rediscover Mr. Finchley's England

Mr. Finchley Discovers His England (1936/1972/2013/2018)
By Victor Canning
Macmillan, 260 pages.

First things first: You will notice numerous publication dates for a work I read this spring as a “new” e-book. This makes more sense if you’re British. Mr. Finchley Discovers His England (1936) was the first of three comedic novels penned by Victor Canning (1911-86). It’s a whimsical tale of a bachelor clerk in a London solicitor’s office forced by a new boss to take his first holiday. It became an overnight sensation that allowed Canning to quit his own clerkship and become a fulltime writer*.

The second thing that will help you appreciate Canning’s novel is to locate it in its own time period and circumstances. Holidays were not a given in the early 1930s, and 45-year-old Edgar Finchley had never taken one under his old boss. Finchley knew little of England beyond London’s metropolitan limits. As Brits had been doing for several hundred years, Finchley’s abstract idea of a vacation was to book a hotel in the faded Kent seaside resort of Margate in Kent–some 80 miles distant. To put it in contemporary terms, it’s the equivalent of a middle-aged man from Trenton taking his first vacation in Atlantic City.

Finchley never made it to Margate. At the rail station he is asked to watch someone’s fancy “motor,” as automobiles were often called in the days in which they were still relatively new. Finchley crawls into the backseat, falls asleep, and awakes to find that he has been spirited away by a thief. It would be the first of several zany mishaps to befall Finchley, many of which involved the fact that a tweed-covered bald man carrying a rucksack and wearing city shoes is not exactly prepared to trudge across moors, fall into ditches, sleep in haystacks, scramble over stone walls, or plunge through nettles. Along a zigzag journey that will eventually take him across Devonshire, Finchley befriends or battles with farmers, gypsies, con men, an itinerant artist, orphans, a street band, a self-proclaimed philosopher, a lunatic, snooty elites, and a smuggler.

You also need to know that the times were somewhat gentler, the recent war (World War I) notwithstanding. Even gun-toting thieves were polite, police were respected, gender roles were prescribed, much of the population was peripatetic, and residents in the countryside routinely took in scruffy strangers in need of a meal and/or bed. It was also a time in which rural roads were such that if cyclists wanted to get away from someone chasing them in van, they could reverse direction and get a half mile lead before the van could turn around and gain on them.

All of this is to say that Canning’s breakthrough novel has a quaint throwback charm for modern readers. To experience that charm one must surrender to it rather than filtering it through today’s realities. It’s almost enough to make one lapse into romantic dreams of “simpler” times. Key word: almost. It’s doubtful that today’s readers will admire Canning’s (non) structure. What we read is a series of vignettes disguised as a novel. Some have compared the Mr. Finchley books to comedian Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean series. It’s a decent comparison, as both characters are basically nebbish innocents overcome by events. To this I would add that Michael Palin’s “Cycling Tour of Cornwall” sketch for Monty Python owes a debt to Canning. I don’t know this for certain, but Palin’s character name of Mr. Pither might be a wink to those who know that Canning originally called his character “Pitchley.” In any event, Pither’s encounter with rural England is similarly fraught with misfortune.

To move from the speculative to the literary, the Mr. Bean and Monty Python analogies work as they call attention to the fact that the Mr. Finchley “novels” are actually disconnected sketches basted together loosely. Many Brits actually know the Finchley books as an individual BBC Radio programs that aired in the 1980s and were revived in 2005. As we see, the Finchley novels also enjoy frequent revival. The moral, I suppose, is that charm, innocence, and frothy frolick transcend time. It would be too much to rank Mr. Finchley–or Mr. Bean for that matter–among the classic works of 20th century humor, but it won’t hurt anyone to take an unexpected detour now and then.

Rob Weir

*In the British legal system, a solicitor generally handles civil cases, whereas more prestigious barristers argue cases in court. A “holiday” is what North Americans call a vacation. Canning spent most of his life in Devonshire near the port city of Plymouth. He was born to working class parents and, though he qualified for Oxford University, there was no money for such an extravagance and he became a clerk at the age of 16. He is perhaps better known in North American for creating the Rex Carver detective series.


Hurry Hurry to Catch Rube Goldberg Exhibit

The Art and Wit of Rube Goldberg (through June 9, 2019)
Frank E. Schoonover: American Visions (through May 27, 2019)
Norman Rockwell Museum (Stockbridge, MA)

 {Click images for full-size views}

I have fond childhood dreams of chortling over syndicated cartoons featuring the improbable inventions of Reuben (“Rube”) Goldberg (1883-1970). In part that was because of my obsession with his board game “Mousetrap,” but it was also because of Goldberg's backdoor social commentary. As a college student I learned of the philosophical principle known as Occam’s razor*, which is often shorthanded as “the simplest solutions are the best.” That’s not quite what it means but any way we look at it, Rube Goldberg was the anti-Occam’s razor. There was no small task Goldberg couldn't transform into an antigodlin contraption. 

A small but delicious and (alas!) soon-to-close show at Norman Rockwell Museum in the Berkshires dusts off Goldberg’s wit for those who recall it and serves as an introduction for the non-initiated. Goldberg was one of the few people whose name became an adjective; a Rube Goldberg machine is one that uses whimsical and overly elaborate methods to accomplish the mundane. If you're a Wallace and Gromit fan, Wallace's madcap inventions are directly inspired by Goldberg. But even Wallace looks tame in comparison to Goldberg. His alter ego, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, complicated every task, be it shading one’s self from the sun, keeping a buttonhole flower fresh, or polishing shoes. I’m sure there many today that will still find humor in his machine for helping viewers better appreciate modern art.

Goldberg won many awards in his lifetime, but his 1948 Pulitzer was for political cartooning, an overlooked aspect of his career. He saw two world wars and viewed each as a terrible waste. Goldberg called attention to the bitter irony of living in a world that simultaneously promotes the global cooperation and celebrates robust bodies, and one plagued by the eviscerating effects of warfare. Although he held Western Cold War assumptions after World War II, he also saw the atomic arms race as madness rather than deterrence. One can only image his war dead cartoon today, with added crosses for every conflict from Korea and Vietnam through the idiotic Gulf wars. 

I wonder what Goldberg would make of today’s app society. He was one of the first to lampoon self-photography, so I’m sure he’d find lots of fodder in a world of selfies, useless apps, and latter-day Rube Goldberg inventions. I think of Goldberg whenever I read that some investor with more cash than commonsense sinks money into things such as “smart” water coolers, iBeer, and apps that sound like an electric shaver or a flushing toilet. My car’s user’s manual is over 400 pages, which means there’s a lot of senseless gadgetry involved when all one really needs to do is turn it on and put it in gear. (If you’re wondering about the navigation and music systems, those are separate tomes.)  We also have such mind-boggling inventions such as microwave scrambled eggs–which take twice as long as making them from actual eggs–underwear built for two, and a putting green you can use when you’re using the loo. (I suppose now we need a virtual putting green that synchs with the flushing toilet sound app.)

Where’s Rube when we need him? Lord knows we need someone to make us laugh at our foibles. For a few more weeks his work will be at the Norman Rockwell Museum. 

A show closing in just a few days at the NRM features painter Frank Schoonover (1877-1972), who was one of the many illustrators and painters trained and/or influenced by Howard Pyle (1853-1911). (That list includes Maxfield Parrish, N. C. Wyeth, and Norman Rockwell.) Schoonover isn’t as well known but you’ll certainly see Pyle’s handprints all over Schoonover’s canvases. Like most from the Brandywine River School, Schoonover loved dramatic stories of explorers, pirates, knights, and Joan of Arc. He was especially drawn to the American West, the struggle between man and nature, and writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London.

When he needed to, Schoonover wasn’t afraid to cross into commercial terrain. Note the subtle advertisement in the attached camping scene. Some might find that Schoonover’s work transgresses the porous border between historical and histrionic–his first typewriter painting, for instance–but I quite enjoyed my introduction to his oeuvre.

There is also an exhibit that explores the connections between Rockwell and his friend and one-time therapist Erik Erikson. Erikson has long been among those psychologists whom I most admire. His stages of life theories of psychological development has always made more sense to me than theorists such as Jean Piaget who claim that our basic personalities are already shaped about the time we enter primary school. Who knew that Erikson also sketched and painted? My assessment? As an artist, Erik Erikson was a great developmental psychologist.

Rob Weir 
*Razor means “principle” in philosophy and has nothing to do with removing body stubble!



Molly Tuttle: May 2019 Artist and Album of the Month

Molly Tuttle
When You're Ready
Compass Records

Looking for the next Alison Krauss? Molly Tuttle has been hiding in plain sight. She's not a fiddle player, but to say that Molly Tuttle plays the guitar well is a bit like saying Van Gogh painted a little. She's the only woman to have been named Guitarist of the Year by the International Blue Music Association and, for heaven's sake, she's just turned 26. It staggers to imagine what she will go on to accomplish.

I was floored to find that, though Tuttle released an EP in 2017, When You're Ready is Tuttle's debut full-length album. Recall can get hazy when you've been listening to an artist since she was in her teens. I've seen Tuttle three times, but now that this California native is making her mark in Nashville, it's probably going to cost more to see her. It will worth every damn penny! The title track alone sounds like a better single than you'll ever hear on commercial radio, but it's just one of 11 stunning tracks Tuttle wrote or cowrote. Tuttle has said that Townes Van Zandt was a huge influence on her songwriting, and you can't do much better in picking a musical role model. 

Let's start with the guitar. Tuttle's the mistress of flat-picking, but lately she's added more firepower to her fretted arsenal. Watch this clip of "Take the Journey." If you're wondering what she's doing, she has transposed claw hammer banjo to guitar. You probably shouldn't try this at home! "Light Came In (Power Went Out)" is another string burner, one whose love-in-the-dark sparks could illumine a village. On the slower-paced "Sit Back and Watch It Roll," Tuttle's guitar creates a meditative groove.

My Alison Krauss comparison is most evident in Tuttle's voice. I intend no disrespect toward Ms. Krauss, but Tuttle's a better vocalist. Call it all of the sweetness, but far more powerful and clarity. On "High Road" Tuttle lays down quiet licks appropriate for a tale of two people going in opposite directions. Listen as she soars and then drops back into heartache terrain. She repeats that feel in "Sleepwalking," which is like a small bird taking flight into a dream-gauzed sky. "Million Miles" is tender and vulnerable, as befits a song about needing to be in that special place with a certain someone who is far away.

This amazing album is supplemented by guest artists such as Nat Smith (Cello), Sierra Hull (cello), Jason Isbell (backing vocals), and Rachel Baiman and Mike Barnett (fiddles). If I had to nitpick a single concern, it lies in splashes of overproduction. Kris Donegan adds electric guitar on several tracks, but it's simply overkill, especially on "Make My Mind Up." I've heard Tuttle sing this song and she doesn't need any help. But let me assure you that this is indeed a trivial point on my part. This is easily the best record I've heard in 2019 and, as you'll see from some of the clips linked in the review, what you hear is genuine, not a bunch of studio tricks. Molly Tuttle is more than ready; she has arrived.

Rob Weir


May 2019 Music: Nels Andrews, April Verch, Taina Asili, Finnish Independents, Sass Jordan

Nels Andrews, Scrimshaw

You will notice several things about folksinger Nels Andrews from the start: he's a contemplative poet, a born storyteller, and reminds you of Richard Shindell in voice and temperament. In fact, he too has a song titled "Wisteria," though Andrews' song is a sweet love song and Shindell's is rumination on the past. Andrews has made his 2012 recording Scrimshaw widely available as a kickoff to a new project that releases in June. The songs on Scrimshaw aren't all maritime in theme, but do draw inspiration from songs and stories that sailors fashioned during long voyages. "Flotsam" is a wanderers' tale whose waltz melody will stick in your head, as will the imploring line leave the romantics alone. "Barroom Bards" is another take on travelers, this one with a cautionary line: Barroom bards and river stones done shine so bright/When you get them home. In a similar vein, "Starboard" draws you in deeper with each line, this one of dreams gone wrong: You come home ragged and you come home curt/We can smell the city on your shirt/By the length of your hem and your torn lapel/We see you've been sinking in the wishing well. It, like "Trident," is a sink-or-swim song and Andrews often doesn't resolve matters for us. In the latter he sings: Then you rise, you're back on the pavement/Your hands in your pocket digging for warmth. I adored this album. It even comes with eye-popping medieval manuscript artwork. One can only imagine what Andrews has up his sleeve in the future, but if you've not heard Scrimshaw you're missing a literate, finely polished gem. ★★★★★

April Verch, Once a Day

The Ottawa Valley has long been a hotbed for country music. April Verch has steadily been moving in that direction and gone full-bore cowgirl on Once a Day, her tribute to country music from the 1950s and 1960s. You will find songs penned by country giants such as Webb Pierce, Connie Smith, and Loretta Lynn. Speaking of Lynn, Verch covers her classic "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man." Yep, that one dates from before feminism took hold, though in its own corny way it's flippant and defiant. Another old chestnut is "A Fool Such asI," which Hank Snow recorded back in 1953. Songs such as these are fun, but it's hard not to contrast them with tunes such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8h281Cjszw" a rollicking fiddle reel drawn from the traditional well. I like Verch's voice, though it may not be for everyone–it's nasal, high, and quirky­–but she's nonpareil when she picks up the fiddle. I'm glad she's having some fun, but I hope future releases won't hide her best gift under a basket. ★★★

Taína Asili, Resiliencia

Taína Asili could be the poster child for strong women who forge their own path. She's a poet and a podcaster, a singer and a feminist, a storyteller and an activist. Resilient women inspired her new album, and she celebrates them on the title track. The instrumentation pays homage to Ms. Asili's Puerto Rican heritage as well as hard rock. Aisili is a veteran of New York State's punk rock scene, but her musical boundaries go way beyond. "Even If" takes on the sexual violation of women, transgressions of boundaries, and misogyny to a decided reggae beat. "Plant the Seed" sings the glories of farming and the land, "Gave It All My Love" has pop hooks, and "Beyond the Stars" spices with Southeast Asian rhythms, courtesy of collaborator Veena Chandra. Elsewhere there are plenty of Afro-Carib melodies inspired by salsa and guaracha. No matter the format, you'll be impressed by Asili's gale-force vocals. Once you hear her sing, it won't surprise you to learn she's also done opera as well as punk, and how many people can say that? Make no mistake, though, Aisili is on a mission of resistance against injustices of all sort. ★★★★  

Finnish Independents, Finnish Home Party

Don't expect kantele or keyed fiddles on Finnish Home Party. Don't expect any Finnish either; all of the songs are in English though all five acts are from the Land of a Thousand Lakes. This album is a spotlight for emerging talent. Anni's songs are moody and dramatic. Try "Lost Ones," in which her piano is drenched in drone guitar and electronic keys. GEA also features keys, though they are more lush and the vocals evoke Enya. "Snow" is intriguing with its rain-like piano notes and mix with strings and bass. Lone Deer Laredo might suggest Texas, but vocalist Paola Suhonen and guitarist Olli Happonen echo the ambient feel of GEA, but with arrangements that are simultaneously more jangly and harder. Sample "Golden Harvest." New Silver Girl opens "Phantom Ride" quietly, but soon amp up for a song that's a cross between punk and New Wave. Sort of what you'd expect from a band that counts among its influences both Dick Dale and Lou Reed. Finally there's Sam Shaky, whose "Too Proud" features cascades of notes and Bowie-like vocals. Shakey calls his music "bittersweet rock." He hails from Kouvala, which he claims is the "most hated city in the country." Will we be hearing more from any of these artists? It's hard to say, but each act is positioning itself for an international market that increasingly communicates in English. Is that a good thing? You be the judge. ★★★

Sass Jordan, #Make Big Noise

Sass Jordan lives up to her handle–Sarah is her given name–and to the title of her recent four-track EP. Jordan currently lives in Montreal, though she's done lots of acting on both sides of the border. How big is her voice? She played Janis Joplin in an off-Broadway play and did a duet with Joe Cocker for The Bodyguard soundtrack. You'll hear some pop-rock on Cinnamon" and "Small Thing."  She ratchets up to arena rock levels on "So Hard" with its power chords and swirling guitar flourishes, and there are echoes of New Wave on "Tell Somebody."  Yeah, Jordan can sing a bit! ★★★★

Rob Weir 


Gender Bending and Lautrec at MFA Boston

Gender Bending Fashion (through August 25, 2019)
Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris (through August 4, 2019)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Have you seen Sally Potter's 1993 film Orlando? If not, you should. It's a mind-blowing work that casts the androgynous Tilda Swinton in the title role of a tale that will make you think that Ms. Potter was way ahead of the curve in calling into question gender assertions. If you follow up by attending Gender Bending Fashion, a show at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), you'll quickly learn that Sally Potter wasn't a pioneer; she merely did her homework.

The MFA show has the glitz, impact lighting, and glamour of a designer's runway, which is appropriate given that many past and present designers have work on display. It might, at first, shock you to witness video footage of a man in high heels rocking form-fitting tights, or another man sporting zombie-like makeup to go with his golden boots and flowing flowered dress. Perhaps you might wonder if current discussions of gender fluidity and its dizzying array of terms–agender, bigender, cisgender, intersexual, Third gender, etc.–have gone too far, perhaps even transgressed the borders of absurdity and obscenity. Reserve your judgment.

As curators Michelle Tolini Finamore and Penny Vinick remind us, gender barriers have long been porous and it's not just fashion designers who have noticed, though they have certainly exploited it more than most. Marlene Dietrich shocked audiences when she donned a tuxedo in the 1930 film Morocco, and Katherine Hepburn scandalized traditionalists when she started wearing tailored pants in 1931. Okay, so Dietrich and Hepburn would look fabulous wearing shredded newspaper and bottle caps, but they weren't pioneers either–merely two women powerful enough to do as they wished. Vaudeville performers, double-voiced singers, emcees, and black vaudevillians obliterated gender dress lines decades earlier, and even they were upstarts. What, for example, does one do with Scotsmen in kilts? Or Greeks in chitons. Is it worthwhile even to open discussions of the foppish costumes and nosebleed shoes worn during the Baroque era? Lest you think Americans have more commonsense (whatever that might mean), gaze upon a 19th century painting of two young boys in dresses. The custom of the day was that a male child wore gowns until "breeched," that is placed in trousers, around age 9.

In other words, fashion has long been both a mirror of custom and a cultural provocateur. Think of bloomers, Edwardian dandies, the "masculine" shirtwaists of the Gibson girls, 1950s Teddy Boys and Girls, unisex clothing, and wear-whatever-the-hell-you-wish hippies. Each time the old guard reacted with horror and predicted the impending collapse of Western values. Each time, of course, we got over it.

In the category of what goes around comes around, the first thing that confronts us at the MFA are clips from a 2004 Viktor&Rolf show titled "One Woman Show." In this case, "woman" is used ironically and ambiguously. The star model is none other than Tilda Swinton, though you might not recognize her in what looks to be a form-fitting black onesie blended with a ruffled fan on steroids. The latter is open at the collar and plunges toward the waist, but none of the exposed flesh suggests femininity. If anything, Swinton looks as if she might be a castrati. It reminded me of a line from Orlando in which the formerly male Orlando awakes as a woman, gazes upon her female body, and remarks, "Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex."

Indeed. What we learn most from the MFA show is that we fret too much over perceived differences. Take it from another gender bender: David Bowie. The cover of his 1971 album The Man Who Sold the World featured Bowie sprawled across a daybed attired in a tasteful frock and staring demurely at the camera. That is, if you happened to live in Britain. North American releases used various alternative covers: Bowie's face, Bowie kicking his leg into the air, or a truly absurd cartoon of a man carrying a gun.

Oh, for heaven's sake! Have we finally gotten over this sort of thing? Yes and no. We celebrate Janelle Monáe's transgressions of gender boundaries, but how comfortable are we when we see a man wearing a dress consisting of yards of shingled grey material and carrying a white parasol as if he were on his way to sip mint juleps at a cotillion? I confess that it made me wonder what the point is, but then again I've seen pictures of myself from the 1970s wearing stack heels and butt-ugly polyester trousers. (No, you may not see these shots!) Perhaps today's fashion rebels are no more dangerous than Hepburn in her pants. Kudos the MFA for a provocative show. Go ahead and enjoy it. It only looks dangerous. 

Also on the bohemian side of the ledger, the MFA is also showing Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris. It's always wonderful to view a Lautrec show. His career was a short as his stature (4'8" due to a genetic disorder) and his life. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) died from a combination of absinthe addiction and syphilis at age of just 36, yet left behind an astonishing output of more than 6,500 works (paintings, posters, drawings, ceramics, stained glass). The MFA assembled 200 pieces–some from contemporaries ranging from Cassat and Degas to Sargent and Tissot–mostly on the subject of Parisian celebrities known to Lautrec. That pack included performers such as Jane Avril, Sarah Bernhardt, Aristide Bruant, and Loïe Fuller, but since Lautrec spent much of his time in brothels, can-can houses, and salacious cabarets as well as legitimate clubs, theaters, and the ballet, we also see the Parisian underbelly: prostitutes, lesbians, johns, gamblers, and hard drinkers. 

Objectively speaking, we don't learn much about Lautrec that we don't already know. If I had to pick the two takeaway points, the first would be that Lautrec's infatuation with celebrities sometimes approximated what we'd today call fanboy culture. The second is a reminder that the Paris he knew in both its glamour and its unseemliness was largely a new city. The Paris most of us think of today is the reinvention of Baron Haussmann, who was commissioned by Napoleon III to open up the city and bring air and sunlight into it. Much of old Paris disappeared between the years 1853 and 1870, less than two decades before Lautrec arrived to the Montmartre section of the city in 1889. He lived in the shadow of the Moulin Rouge until 1894.

I always enjoy Lautrec, but he's been done a lot lately, including a 2009 show at the Clark in Williamstown and one at the National Gallery in 2018, both of which focused on Paris. There was also a show at the Currier in Manchester, New Hampshire in 2018 that was organized by the Museum of Modern Art. The MFA was late to the party on this one.

Rob Weir


The Great Believers is Moving But Falls Short of Its Hype

The Great Believers (2018)
Rebecca Makkai
Viking, 432 pages.

Rebecca Makkai is a fine wordsmith. At her best, she’s also a superb storyteller. Structure and consistency are other matters altogether. I’ll return to these, but first let’s look at the tales she tells.

The Great Believers toggles between 1985 and 2015. The first date was the height of the AIDS crisis, two years before AZT was widely available and longer still until it and other drugs were affordable and safe. An estimated 325,000 gay men died during the worst days of the crisis, prompting activists to compare AIDS to the Black Death of the Middle Ages. New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco were hardest hit by AIDS. Makkai instead takes us to Chicago, which had its own “Boystown” subculture of bars, clubs, bathhouses, and casual sex. Soon it too was hollowed out by AIDS as surely as if it were a warzone.  

Makkai tells this part of her story through a large cast of gay men—too many in my estimation—before the focus narrows. We meet the ironically named Yale, as he and several other characters are Northwestern grads. He works in a gallery seeking to be taken seriously and is the long-term partner of Charlie, the editor of Out Loud, a leading gay newspaper that advocates safe sex. Caution wasn’t what some Boystown residents wanted to hear; several worried that the bathhouse culture they built would crumble to nothingness. In many ways, though, the main character isn’t present. Nico Marcus is among the first to die of AIDS and Makkai uses him as the pivot around which others rotate: his black partner Terrence; his friends Teddy, Bill, and Richard Campo, a famed photographer; and Nico’s grieving sister, Fiona, who takes on the role of caregiver to the dying. There is also Julian, who is the Typhoid Mary of AIDS.

That’s quite a few characters and to it we add gallery staff, especially Cicely Pearce. Makkai interjects another story atop her AIDS drama: that of Fiona’s dying Aunt Nora who wishes to donate art work to the gallery. Her stash was collected when she lived in Paris in the 1920s and was the lover of little known painter Ranko Novak. The biggest obstacle is Nora’s family, who thinks she should sell it. In a moment of candor, though, Nora tells Yale she chose him because Paris in the 1920s was also a warzone of grief and death.  

What we learn from the 2015 part of the book is that Fiona is really the main character of the novel. Thirty years on, she is divorced and estranged from her daughter Claire, who disappeared into a cult in the 1990s­ and severed all ties with her family. Fiona thinks she might be in Paris and goes there to see if she can find her. This works for Makkai’s circular structure. That is, if you buy into the idea that Nora’s Paris of the 1920s and Fiona’s of 2015 is a clean connect-the-dots dual mystery. Another point of view might call this contrivance. That particular judgment is bolstered by the all-too-neat reappearance of key 1980s figures. I’m less bothered by this—most novelists resolve plots through coincidences that seldom occur in real life—than I am that the 2015 story feels thin compared to the moving 1985 sections.  

There is also the question of equivalency. I don’t wish to diminish the trauma of a mother’s attempt to track down a wayward offspring, but Claire’s voluntary absence hardly compares with the involuntary carnage of Boystown. Some might say it cheapens the latter. Makkai’s idea of taking us from crisis to post-crisis to new crisis was a good one, but there is a palpable sense that these themes were clearer in Makkai’s mind than upon the page. I often felt as if I was reading a novella within a novel that could have easily been a postscript. In like fashion, the book’s resolution—a sort of resignation—can be read as either honest or forced. We are to infer that war (broadly defined) victimizes randomly and leaves guilt-ridden survivors in its wake.

The Great Believers is about trauma and tragedy, loss and gain, surrender and perseverance. Muse upon this as you contemplate the book’s purposefully ambiguous title. I admired the book more than I liked it. It is overly long and could have lost 100 pages or so by cutting extraneous characters and threads. The first third is especially confusing until you sort out who is central and who is just passing through. I nearly gave up several times. I was glad I forged ahead, as parts of the book are deeply affecting, but I won’t join those who have praised it to the skies. It’s a good book, but it falls short of its hype.

Rob Weir