Short Notes About a Long Book: "Drood" By Dan Simmons

As a fan of the works by inimitable Charles Dickens and his friend and fellow writer Wilkie Collins, I welcomed the publication of this book about both.

Fittingly, it’s an extremely long novel—nearly 800 pages. And it’s best to read it in short gulps, in the manner of a serial (which is the way most of those authors’ books were originally put before the public.)

In Drood, author Dan Simmons combines historical truths about the authors’ lives with scattered elements from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the book left unfinished at Dickens’ death. And then Simmons invents his own mystery to weave the whole together. Unfortunately, Simmons—while a competent writer—can’t spin a yarn like either Dickens or Collins.

Collins was no second-string word-slinger, but more than once outsold Dickens. Collins, who is credited by some with inventing the mystery genre itself, wrote at least two masterpieces that still hold up today: The Moonstone and, especially, The Woman in White. Both, like Drood, are filled with supernatural elements.

Collins narrates Drood, and paints a not-so-flattering picture of his friend and collaborator Dickens. The Famous Author (whose every move seems to to demand Capital Letters) is a brilliant writer, yes, but also a selfish egotist who Collins refers to snidely as “The Inimitable.” Their unspoken rivalry—or at least Collins’ jealousy of Dickens’s greater fame--is an undercurrent throughout Drood.

Large sections of Drood follow Dickens’s growing family and fame and Collins’s growing dependence on laudanum (an opium derivative). His jealousy of Dickens’ fame, Dickens’ fascination with mesmerism, and Collins’ increasingly wild imaginings simmer into a melodramatic stew. Simmons’ handling of the historical elements of Dickens/Collins collaboration and rivalry is fascinating. If you’ve read the work of both authors, you’ll get an inside view of their creative process and uncover pieces of the artists’ lives that resonate in their fiction.

Simmons’ invented Drood plot, though, is a labyrinth that leads nowhere. That might be excused since the story is based on Dickens last, unfinished novel. But it’s deeply unsatisfying to find little resolution after all those pages.

It’s a great ride for a while, though. Is the alleged mass murderer Drood real, or a figment of Collins’s imagination? The attempts to find out occupy Dickens, Collins, and various members of the London police force for much of the book. The chase leads to rural churchyards, and—most memorably—into London’s “Undertown, home to” the destitute and drug-addled living dead. Those scenes are riveting, but the overall search for Drood, and Collins’ suspicion that Dickens too might be a murderer, veer wildly off-course. The book lost me when the fantasies—opium-induced?—expanded to long passages involving quasi-Egyptian cults, green-skinned phantoms, and insects under the skin.

Collins and Dickens (and, more recently, Neil Gaiman) have the skill to write wildly unbelievable tales of the supernatural that cajole readers into suspending their rational faculties and diving headlong into their invented worlds. But Simmons’ bizarre tale is presented in a way that doesn’t take readers with him as he scampers off down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.—Phoenix Brown



Abbie Cornish looking to see if Ben Winshaw may have misplaced his acting ability in the flower bed.
Bright Star (2009)
Directed by Jane Campion
119 Minutes

It’s 1820, the peak of the Age of Romanticism—a great time to indulge in sentimental dreams. Spunky Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is the elder daughter of down-on-its-heels gentry, and she’s busy supporting her patriarch-less family through her fancy needle and millinery work. She saves her most flamboyant outfits for visits to poet John Keats (Ben Wishaw), with whom she is hopelessly in love. Fanny is a metaphor for director Jane Campion’s film about the doomed Brawne/Keats relationship—all dressed up with nowhere to go. The film looks gorgeous, but it’s like the dishes you see on The Food Channel—heavily lacquered eye candy for the camera that’s devoid of nourishment.

If we judged films strictly on appearances, Jane Campion’s painterly Bright Star would be the most luminescent body in the heavens. There are individual shots that are as beautiful as anything we’ve seen on the screen in years: Keats lying atop a tree aburst in pink blossoms, verdant green hillsides, the Brawne siblings dressed in muted colors frolicking in beds of purple flowers …. In a similar vein, it’s hard to take your eyes off Cornish as she sashays across the screen in one quirky outfit after another. We’ll applaud all of the cinematography and costume awards this film wins, but ultimately this is a film that looks good but isn’t. When your leading man is out-acted by a cat, casting is problematic to say the least.

John Keats died of consumption when he was just twenty-five. You’ll need to remind yourself that Keats was a Romantic poet, because Wishaw plays him with all the passion of a Fed-Ex delivery man. He telegraphs the coming tragedy by spending the entire movie walking about doe-eyed, stubble-faced, and dazed, as if he’s wondering what to do next. Acting lessons might be a good idea. Wishaw lacks the gravitas to be convincing as a tortured writer, the animation to be a lover, and the articulation to bring Keats’ poetry to life. We are supposed to believe that Keats is tortured by his attraction to Brawne, but there’s more latent homosexual frisson between Wishaw and his poet friend Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider) than there is spark between leading man and leading lady. When Keats pours out fiery verse allegedly inspired by Brawne we wonder if he has an off-screen body double doing his wooing.

None of this is the fault of newcomer Abbie Cornish. She is superb as the strong-willed Brawne. She nearly carries Campion’s weak screenplay all on her own, using her solid body and round face to express far more than was written. She is especially stellar when paired with an actor worthy of her ability. The film’s best scenes are between her and Schneider as they convey their icy, controlled contempt for one another. The film’s other revelation is Edie Martin, a red-haired sprite who plays younger sister “Toots.” She’s adorable and affecting as she flits about holding Topper, her cat, who is way more charming than Winshaw.

Campion’s screenplay is essentially a variant of her 1993 masterpiece The Piano. That film worked because it had top-drawer acting throughout, because all of the external trappings were intrinsically interesting in their own right, and because Campion made all the small details cohere. That’s not the case in Bright Star. Take, for example, the film’s confusing portrayal of social class. The family is supposedly as poor as a church mouse, but there seems to be money for Fanny to attend fancy dress balls, several servants are in attendance, and the family table is a veritable groaning board of roasts, steaming tureens of vegetables, and sticky sweets. The Brawne family matriarch (Kerry Fox) is snootily forbidding Fanny’s courtship of the penniless Keats at one moment, and condoning an engagement of convenience the next. Similarly, we find her looking down her nose at the hired help in one scene and dropping her affected aristocratic open vowels and conversing with domestics as an equal in the next. These shifts occur mostly to serve the script, not logic. In like fashion, scenes set in London’s working-class squalor are so overdone that they look like histrionic made-for-TV versions of A Christmas Carol.

Critics have been nearly universal in praise of this film. Apparently they are in rare company—box office receipts fell by 74% in its second week, the opposite of how “art house films” generally track. We understand why—word of mouth on the film’s shortcomings has caused Bright Star to go supernova.



Harvard Square--liberal fortress or bastion of Yuppie arrogance?
In an earlier blog (“Welcome to a[Me]r[I]ca”-see “Cranky Notions”) I told of a western Massachusetts tragedy in which a bicyclist was killed by a hit-and-run driver. As of today, police have yet to make an arrest. What kind of person, I wondered, could callously drive away from such a scene? The answer is: a person like Massachusetts Senator Anthony Galluccio (D-Cambridge).

Over the weekend, Senator Galluccio plowed his Infiniti SUV into the back of a family van filled with man, wife, two children, and a dog. Galluccio sped from the scene. We’re not talking about a small tap—Galluccio was caught because he slammed the van with such force as to leave the imprint of his license in the metal. Those who know Massachusetts politics can predict what happened next. Once apprehended, Senator Galluccio apologized for his “very poor judgment,” promised to “accept responsibility” for his action, then blithely showed up for work on Monday with the remark, “I’m here today to do my job and that’s what I plan on continuing to do.”

Galluccio could face jail time for his flight and—get this—stands to lose his license for up to sixty days! Senate President Therese Murray expressed that she was “disappointed” with Galluccio’s actions, though she did boldly add that no one should leave the scene of an accident, and opined that public officials probably ought to be held to higher standards. wOW!

Not good enough on any level. Here’s what ought to happen. Galluccio should face an immediate censure vote in the Senate, should be charged with reckless endangerment, high bail should be imposed, and the citizens of Cambridge should initiate a recall vote. Galluccio already has two drunk driving raps on his record and refuses to say if he was drinking before the latest incident. (Duh! What does that tell us?) When this case comes to court, the judge should refuse the inevitable plea bargain where the contrite Galluccio will show up and tearfully promise to go into rehab. The charges carry a six months to two years jail potential; Galluccio should get the max.

The Massachusetts legislature needs to get off its duff and begin holding its members to the high standards Murray speaks of. Thank goodness for Rhode Island and South Carolina, or the Bay State would have the most-indicted leg in America! While it’s at it, the legislature needs to change the ridiculous leaving the scene law. How about this? Leave the scene and lose your license for five years? Pay a fine of up to $10,000.

And prissy little Cambridge needs to take a hard look at itself. It likes to think of itself as a bastion of liberalism and tolerance. The Galluccio incident comes hard on the heels to the Louis Gates Jr. incident and suggests that Cambridge might more accurately be viewed as a place in which arrogance and Yuppie smugness thrive.



This Cannes prize winner will open in North America soon, but our London correspondent doesn't suggest you go out of your way to see it. He does think you should keep your eyes peeled for Kate Jarvis.
Fish Tank
Directed by Andrea Arnold
123 minutes
** (of five)

This film comes laden with praise from a variety of people worldwide including critics and audiences at the Cannes Festival, where it won the Jury Prize. Fifteen-year-old Mia (newcomer Kate Jarvis) lives with her single mother and younger daughter in an Essex council flat a few miles from the ragged East End of London. She’s been expelled from school and is a wannabee street dancer in trouble with social services over a bloody fight with a girl in a playground. So far, so Ken Loach in content and style. Mia’s mother gets involved with a new partner Connor (the excellent Michael Fassbender) and invites him to stay. Then the father/lover neon sign flashes on and off in Mia’s head. Mia digs up some dirt in Connor’s private life and a series of contrived scenes follow that dislodge the film from its already fragile poise. Like most of her life, Mia’s street dancing desire has no energy behind it and she’s certainly no Billy Elliot. She longs for recognitions, but the path is too hard for her to persist. She goes for an audition, but walks out when it’s her turn. She wants to free a chained horse, but fails. Oddly that clumsy symbol is shown twice, just in case you didn’t get it the first time. Also the amount of swearing in this film makes Reservoir Dogs seem like an episode of The Waltons. It’s funny for a time, but grows tedious after ten minutes as there’s little humor to back it up.

There are other cracks in Arnold’s methods. Her treatment of class is curious, and vaguely patronizing. The attempt to draw laughs from trash culture values is awkward and she utters banalities such as: “Thinking is the enemy of creativity” (Tell that to Joni Mitchell or Miles Davis); and “It's only the middle classes who are likely to find the drama grim.” This comes from a woman who is unashamedly middle class herself. This patronizing nonsense further rips the rug out from a reasonable social-realist drama, though it compares badly to similar dramas from the past such as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning; Kes; and Poor Cow. Arnold clearly seeks Ken Loach comparisons, but he threaded through his dramas with political subtlety whereas Arnold eschews these. She has been quoted as saying the film has no “message.” If we are neither condemning Mia nor lionizing her, I was left thinking “So what?” It will be interesting to see what happens now to Kate Jarvis - she promises a great deal, and all she needs is a good script. I suspect that most of the praise Fish Tank has received is due to her performance.

It might be worth checking out Arnold’s 2006 film Red Road. This film owed nothing to anyone else and it put her on the map. It is a far superior film to Fish Tank in every way.—Lloyd Sellus



Poet John Keats reveals his amazing scientific secret!
I tell history undergraduate students to look for the usable past, those long-ago events, ideas, and practices that remain relevant in the present and, perhaps, have future utility. I recently encountered an example of the usable past in the new Jane Campion film, Bright Star, and it’s just the sort of money-saving thing we need in these hard economic times.

The film follows the love affair between Romantic poet John Keats and his neighbor, Fanny Brawne. They met on December 1, 1818 and Keats died on February 21, 1821. Here’s the cool thing—in that 26-month period John Keats never shaved once! I’m sure that actor Ben Wishaw meticulously researched the role of Keats before spending the entire film sporting a five o’clock stubble that never changed. We see Keats get tuberculosis and lose body color, and we know the film is accurate because we also observe Keats emerge from a downpour with tussled hair. All of this can mean only one thing—John Keats discovered the secret of how to will his beard to stop growing!

The film doesn’t explain how Keats did this, but I’m a historian, so I can tell you. One of Keats’ contemporaries was the German physician Franz Mesmer (1734-1815). By the time of the Romantics, mesmerism was all the rage and the science of hypnosis was in its infancy. Keats, a pretty bright fellow, must surely have learned how to put himself in a trance and alter his physiological responses. In such a state he simply stood by a mirror, waited until his oh-so-cute stubble came to the perfect contrast with his naturally curly hair, and then ordered his beard to stop growing.

Subsequent scholars have paid way too much attention to couplets, iambic pentameter, and Classical poetic allusions. Bah! to all of that. Nobody does rhymed couplets anymore, but the world sure could benefit from Keats’ scientific breakthrough. I recently went to CVS and bought a package of disposable razors that set me back nearly five bucks. Project such quarterly expenditures over a lifetime and think of the savings! Consider also the green implications of never again casting used (and slow to biodegrade) razors to the landfill.

Keats was male and I’m unaware of him having taught Fanny how to control her own body hair, but I’m no essentialist. I’m sure that with proper training women also can learn the secret. Think of the millions that will be saved in expensive body wax and electrolysis treatments! Mediterranean women prone to growing small moustaches will be spared the agony of having adhesive tape ripped from their upper lips. If the Nobel Prize for Medicine can be awarded posthumously, Keats must be considered a contender.

I plan to make Keats’ scientific breakthrough the subject of my next book. I encourage everyone to buy it from the proceeds of the enormous savings you will reap from having never again to shell out shillings for shaving.



Matt Damon four-putts his role as Mark Whitacre.

The Informant, 2009
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
* (of five)

It stars Matt Damon, it’s directed by Steven Soderbergh, and it’s a comedy/mystery. It must be good, right? Nope. Lest you be tempted to waste your money, let me reveal the mystery: they all did it. Everyone you see is a bandit—except for the FBI, which is merely inept.

The Informant is based loosely—very loosely—on the sordid actions of two crooks that deserved each other, the corporation Archer Daniels Midland and whistleblower Mark Whitacre. ADM was (and probably still is) a band of attaché-carrying pirates that manipulated worldwide food prices and divvied up market shares with competitors. In promoting former biochemist Whitacre to management, ADM officials finally met their match. Company leaders were merely immoral, whereas Whitacre was totally amoral, a pathological liar and passive-aggressive schemer with a bad hairpiece and a Napoleon complex. Whitacre conjured an elaborate ruse in which he was, simultaneously, the saboteur ruining ADM’s Lycene supply, the key witness in an invented international industrial espionage ring, the putative fall guy for ADM’s declining profits, and the FBI’s point man in securing proof against the company’s illegal cartel activites. In the end Whitacre’s house of cards collapsed and the informant became the defendant; he and several ADM executives go to jail. It’s the classic crook trying to steal from crooks being robbed by other crooks scenario that we’ve seen played with wit and incisiveness in movies such as Duplicity and Michael Clayton.

In the hands of edgier direction, the Coen brothers for instance, this film could have been a devastating critique of Midwestern family values á la Fargo. If it had the hard-boiled flair for deadly deception of Mike Nichols it might have been another Silkwood. An ear for heartless business-speak might have led to another In the Company of Men sans the misogyny. Instead Soderberg opts for a goofy and bite-less nerdiness that makes The Informant seem like a weak Get Smart episode circa 1970. It even looks a bit like Get Smart; although the Mark Whitacre case took place in the 1990s, the costuming and the font used for interstitial scene changes suggest the 1970s, as do Damon’s loud, wide ties. The FBI parallels Maxwell Smart’s Control in that the agency is staffed by clueless bumblers who couldn’t follow a one-lane highway with a GPS system. As all of this suggests, the film has no real characters, merely caricatures—too broadly drawn to be convincing, and too wooden to be funny. Also lacking is scintillating dialogue, witty repartee, sight gags, or poignant irony—pretty much everything necessary to make a funny film. The closest The Informant gets to comedy is a pervasive unsettling awkwardness, as if it we were watching a clumsy teen’s first slow dance.

Matt Damon reportedly put on thirty pounds for the role so he’d look more like the pudgy Whitacre. Damon has bulk, but little comedic weight. He's not horrible in The Informant, merely ineffective and unaffecting. Looking the part hardly matters when one delivers a performance that any second-rate TV actor could have turned in for a considerably smaller paycheck. Damon’s filmography isn’t littered with comedic roles, perhaps because he has little flair for it. Damon only snaps to life when he moves from comedy to the furtive dangerousness that he exhibits in films such as The Bourne Identity and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

But director Steven Soderbergh is the one on the hot seat here. Once one of the industry’s most-promising young directors, Soderbergh seems to be stuck in a Hollywood rut. Since his pathbreaking sex, lies, and videotape (1989) he has directed twenty-six films. A few were decent—Traffic (2000), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), and The Good German (2006)—but only his 2002 remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris scores high on the chance-taking scale (unless you count the unwatchable and unwatched Che). The Informant shows very little directorial panache; the camera work is static, the actors have little brio, and the cinematography is non-descript. In fact, only the only spark in the entire 108 minutes is provided by the jazzy little soundtrack scored by Marvin Hamlisch. This film is the best the Archer Daniels Midland PR department could have hoped for—not good enough to attract a lot of attention and not serious enough to call attention to crimes that made world food needs secondary to corporate greed. ADM bills itself “the supermarket to the world;” Soderbergh’s exposé is strictly from the sugary cereal aisle.