Tess Hadley's The Past is What Patchett's Commonwealth Could Have Been!

THE PAST  (2015/16)
By Tessa Hadley
HarperCollins, 311 pages.
★★★ ½

Tessa Hadley's The Past invites comparisons to Ann Patchett's Commonwealth, as both novels deal with deeply dysfunctional families–the first set in England and the latter in the United States. Of the two, Ms. Hadley's book is far more interesting. That's ironic given that The Past deals with stereotypically English folks who think all manner of things but never dare to express them openly. It's doubly ironic in the sense that Patchett's book is sweeping in its coverage, but Hadley compresses her action into a single three-week timeframe. She succeeds where Patchett fails, however, because her dysfunctional family suggests themes that extend beyond personal narcissism. 

Not that there isn't plenty self-absorption on display within the Crane family at the center of Ms. Hadley's novel. It follows four siblings, partners, and hangers-on who gather for the family's yearly sojourn to their family homestead: Kington, a rambling cottage in the English countryside that they (fail to) maintain as a second home in the country several hours from London. It came to the family via their grandfather, the Rev. Grantham Fellowes, the imperious poet/intellectual who was once the village vicar of a now faded Victorian seaside resort.

Hadley's novel has been praised for its Chekov-like touches–especially its portrait of how small personal tremors elevate to what appear to protagonists to be earthquake proportions. The Past is a simple title, but it's also what they novel is about–in this case how the past is the uninvited and omnipresent guest at Kington. The Cranes are people who are so stuck in patterns they simultaneously replicate and dislike. In the very worst English style, they are people who think of changing their lives, opt to muddle through, and call it tradition. Harriet is a burnt-out activist working with asylum seekers and dressing like what she is: an ageing and lonely Tree Hugger. Alice is also fading–a failed actress but active drama queen whose forced optimism drives everyone crazy, as does her refusal to confront her age-inappropriate coquettishness. It is its own statement that she brings with her to Kington a Pakistani twenty-year old named Kasim. They're not lovers; he's the son of her ex-lover and no one can fathom why she brought him. (Kasim is also out of sorts, but he's not sure why he's there either!) Then there's Franny, with her two children: sweet, gullible Arthur, aged six; and eleven-year-old Ivy, a monstrous spoiled princess the likes of which you'd like to lose in the woods. Franny might be called the most "sensible" of the Cranes, except that she's married to rock n' roller Jeff, who is usually physically and emotionally absent. By default, well-heeled businessman Roland is seen as the most successful, though he comes with his third wife, Pilar–an exotic Argentine √©migr√©–and Molly, his sixteen-year-old daughter to his first marriage. 

Do these sound like people with whom you'd like to hole up for three weeks? The only things they have in common is angst, a propensity for making a hash of their lives, an inability to make hard decisions, and an endless capacity to fret over everything! What are the odds of spending three weeks in idyllic tranquility? In what functions as an intercalary section, we also learn that the siblings' parents weren't very good at taking control of their lives either. All of this has the potential to be as frustrating as one of those interminable novels from one of the Brontes where Fate and Desire are no match for Duty, were it not for Hadley's clever use of metaphor.

Pilar and Kasim are outsiders and is often the case, it takes such people to shed light on personal foibles and customs that are simply old, not time-tested. They can see what the Cranes cannot: that Kington is a moldy pile of rubble that's as past its prime as the adjacent resort. In like fashion, Molly and Kasim heighten the clash between past and present and highlight how old patterns are crumbling like dry English biscuits in the face of technology and postmodernity. 

The Past isn't always gripping reading, but Hadley does a fine job of making us feel the weight of boredom, the inner workings of conflicted minds, and the capacity for self-deception and denial. Not much happens in these three weeks and that's the point–with lives in stasis, a nudge can feel like a right cross to the jaw, and a spontaneous expression of emotion or desire can become a crisis of epic proportions. I won't promise that you'll like the Cranes–though you might pity them–but I can say that they represent types that invite self-assessment and cultural analysis. Are our patterns what sustain us, or are they like Kington's loose wallpaper: held up by hope and temporary patches?

Rob Weir


20th Century Women a Surprise Delight


Directed by Mike Mills
A24, 118 minutes, R (language, sexuality)
* * * *

I often rail against movie trailers because they tell us so much of the film that we’ve essentially already seen it by the time we plop ourselves down in the theater. The trailer for 20th Century Women suffers from a different shortcoming: it suggests a frothy lightweight comedy for a movie that is actually far weightier.

Annette Bening’s name has been bandied about for an Oscar nomination for her role as Dorothea Fields and it would be well deserved if she gets one. It's 1979 and Dorothea is  55-years-old and dwelling in a slightly-more-than-a-fixer-upper Victorian in Santa Barbara, California. She’s also the single mother of 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and their semi-bohemian existence is kept afloat by Dorothea’s design job and the rent/sweat equity of two boarders: William (Billy Crudup), a forty-something former mechanic/commune dweller, and 23-year-old Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer compensating for depression induced by hard knocks through immersion in the punk rock scene. Our final principal cast member is 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning) who, though a few years older, has known Jamie since grade school and considers him her best friend and Platonic lover and sneaks into his bed—to talk and sleep. This is a terrific ensemble and sets the stage for all manner of generational misunderstanding, especially of the tweener kind. Dorothea was born in the Jazz Age, came of age during the Depression, became a woman in the shadow of Rosie the Riveter, and experienced the Beat generation firsthand. She's a not-always-comfortable in her own skin mix of swing, sultry jazz, Birkenstocks, chain-smoking nonchalance, and parental worry. How does a single woman on the cusp of old age teach her teenage son how to become a man when his youth was that of the Vietnam War, the end of Flower Power idealism, and the emergence of stagflation angst? Her plan—as ill-conceived blueprints often are—seems logical: enlist the aid of an ex-hippie (William), a Gen Xer (Abbie), and a slightly older tweener (Julie) to help Jamie's transition. What could go wrong—other than the fact that Jamie hasn’t requested any intervention, or that maybe Jamie’s erstwhile role models have their own baggage to haul? Or the possibility that maybe Dorothea isn’t as well adjusted as her son?

There are a few very silly and trite sections of the film, but when Director Mike Mills, who also wrote the script, is on the top of his game, 20th Century Women offers superb slices of history and zeitgeist. The film makes very smart use of period music and newsreel footage to flesh out characters and their worldviews. Kudos also for the most effective use of voice-over montage since Amelie and for stylish Instagram-like camera work that uses light streaks and kaleidoscope effects to turn road trips into psychic journeys. Mills succinctly grounds his characters and is very adroit at capturing the chaos and confusion of the late 70s, right down to splits within the punk community between hardcore DIY devotees of Black Flag and cerebral “art fags” who idolized the Talking Heads. Check out a tone-perfect capture of 70s schizophrenia in a scene in which a group f people gather to watch Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech. “That was beautiful,” proclaims Dorothea. “He is so screwed,” replies everyone else. Cut to a clip of Reagan.

Bening is terrific in this film: unflappable, opinionated, stubborn, and witty on the surface, yet vulnerable, clueless, and uncertain inside. Gerwig is superb as a lost young adult who isn’t sure if she wants to be cuddled like a child, or kick out the jams in sullen rage. Young Zumann bears watching, if for no other reason that he wasn’t completely overshadowed by the amazing Elle Fanning, a force of nature who maintains her cool exterior and sparingly doles out hints of her deeper self. She too deserves Oscar consideration. Ignore the trailer and enjoy this one, folks. Lots to think about!

Rob Weir



A Survivors' Guide for the Trump Years: Sanity and Strategy

Saturday saw ebullient push-back against the roll-back-the-clock Trumpeteers. Now comes the challenge of keeping up the pressure, lest last weekend turn into flame-less smolder. Some thoughts on what to do next:

Chill a Bit

Righteous anger inspires but without time outs, burnout will occur before the first daffodil blooms in Boston. Four ways to do this:

            1. Find your peeps and embrace the bubble. I marched with more 10% of my town on Saturday and it was only that low because another 10% was watching and at least that many were elsewhere. We felt lucky to live in a place of so many like-minded people. Critics would say I live in a "bubble," as if that's a bad thing. Nope! In these times you need a bubble where you feel validated and supported. The goal is to expand the overall number of bubbles across America. Ignore those who call you "out of touch." That shouldn't be hard. Do you want to live in their alternative?

            2. Turn off your TV and unplug your radio:  Swearing at your TV and shouting at your radio? Turn them off. Read more. I did this during G. W. Bush's Reign of Stupidity. It improved my attitude and made me better informed. If you can't stand the very sight or voice of the latest POTUS by Chicanery, reading is an emotional distancing tool. Plus, do you really need me to tell you that TV news is as shallow as an Arizona creek in August? Sadly, as sacred as NPR is for some, the fact remains that this is not the liberal NPR of your youth. Since the 1994-96 Newt Gingrich reign of terror, NPR has run scared, ever fearful that a conservative Congress will yank its funding. Don't watch. Don't listen. Read—but stay away from the Internet discussion boards, which will also make you nuts.

            3. Don't Give Trump the Attention He Craves:

Think it through. We know that King Donald of Orange doesn't give two toots of a broken horn for anyone other than himself. He is the living proof of Oscar Wilde's witticism, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about." So don't talk about him publicly. Oppose policies, but make Trump a walking dead man. Say "I oppose the plan to dismantle the Affordable Care Act" but not, "I oppose Trump's plan." Never say, "President Trump." Don't put his name on your protest signs. Don't patronize anything that has He Who Shall Not Be Named's face on it. If asked about him, shrug your shoulders and say, "Who?" You can also hurt the Trump brand via disinvesting and/or boycotting companies and celebrities that support him. Grab Your Wallet updates such a list regularly. 

            4. Ignore the White Trashlash: This is my term, but feel free to appropriate it.. Identify the Deplorables and isolate them. Among those unworthy of breath expenditure are: racist hate-mongers, Confederate wannabes, the keep-away-from-my-Uzi crowd, the dig-and-drill set, anti-science lunatics, bomb-the-Third World imperialists, and those who'd feed the poor to the dogs if it meant their taxes went down.

You won't sway them; don't waste energy trying. Take solace that the trashlash is on the wrong side of history. The Census Bureau estimates that by 2044, just 27 years hence, the US will be a minority-majority nation. Future historians are likely to interpret the 2017 election as the political Battle of the Bulge for White America monoculturalists. One popular weekend slogan held, "Make America Think Again." Let's call out willful stupidity and not worry about hurt feelings. This is America, not an episode of Mr. Rogers. These people are not your friends

Win Some New Allies

It is, though, a very bad idea to assume that every white person is part of the trashlash! A yuge hole can be poked in the Orange Crush if more attention is paid to the working class. You know Trump doesn't give a rat's elbow about these folks, but neither do most Democrats. Both parties are controlled by the pampered: the GOP by an economic elite and the Democrats by professionals and intellectuals. To recapture wage earners Democrats need to stop looking at how globalism swells their stock portfolios and pay attention to how job loss and sinking wages affect people in the parts of town where they never hang out. Building allies with labor, community advocacy groups, and working people is the first step in isolating the trashlash.

Less Clinton and more Sanders is the ticket. Start talking to blue-collar folks—dialogues, not lectures! Validate their anger, but challenge how they've directed it. How hard is it to make workers distrust their bosses? Put some faces on the bosses behind the bosses and the people who ship their jobs overseas.

Rethink and Link, or Sink

Reframe the game. It is (way) past time to put identity politics to rest. Practice this phrase until you can say it without stammering: "The rights of all Americans." Good! Now STFU about your pet cause because what many people hear is: "I want special privileges for me and mine; to hell with you and yours."  People on the Left can't get out the way of their own rhetoric. As a result, for millions have come to think that Affirmative Action means "anti-white;" feminism is "anti-male," LGBTQ is "anti-straight," etc. None of that is true, but particularism is the path to stereotyping and backlash. If you cherish your cause but don't link it, it will perish. Think I exaggerate? How the hell did anti-abortion activists became "pro-life" rather than "anti-choice?"

Start talking in broader categories. Link reproductive rights, marriage, and sexual identity to the broader issue of privacy. Lots of people uncomfortable with transsexuals are even more uncomfortable with the government regulating Internet access or regulating  "private family matters." How about bundling women's equality, a workers' bill of rights, health care, a living wage, and minority civil rights under the broader umbrella of fairness for all Americans?  See the difference? (You'd better, or you're talking only to yourself.)

Only Fight Battles you Can Win

Another vocab word to learn: compromise. Sanity begins with accepting that some things are going to change. For example, there will be changes in immigration policy, so get over it. The good news is that there is plenty of wiggle room between draconian Deport/Build the Wall and the fantasy Lalala Welcome Them All camps. Aside from Argentina, almost no one has an accept everyone policy (and even Argentina has some restrictions). The World Court recognizes that nations have the right to set and enforce immigration policy, which is exactly what is done.

I admire the big hearts of the Sanctuary movement but though it might be sad commentary, the United States already has one of the world's most liberal immigration policies. Don't believe me? Pick three of four places, research what you'd have to do to immigrate there, and explore what would happen if you were detained as an illegal. U.S. policy is a mess in many ways, but not many nations ignore illegal immigration to the degree we do. We need something like the Dream Act to address past inadequacies of the law, but it's not unreasonable to assert that a reformed law should be enforced. It is, however, unreasonable to think the public will accept blind acceptance of anyone–be they immigrant, refugee, or tourist. So compromise a little instead of expending anguish over fantasy. 

Think Globally Act Locally

Your local and state leaders can be pressured, even if they are Republicans. Many are just as nervous as you about D.C. firebrands on issues like health care. If Congress dismantles the ACA, millions will lose coverage immediately and tens of millions more will follow when price caps disappear and insurance premiums skyrocket. Guess who will bear the brunt of figuring out what to do with patients without insurance? Hint: It won't be the US Congress. Think locally and make sure those concerns reach Washington faster than the Acela.

Also make certain local reps hear your concerns. Start now—the entire House of Representatives is up for reelection in 2018. Let reps know they won't have your vote for a regressive agenda. Put pressure on the Senate as well. Republicans will need 60 votes to avoid filibusters and the only way they can get them is to flip at least eight Democrats. If you have a Democratic senator, hold that person accountable. If not, badger Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to crack the whip and maintain party discipline.

Millennials Must Lead

This will be hard for seasoned activists, but recruit and cede control to youth. Message to Millennials: Put on your Big Boy/Girl/Whatever Pants and lead; this is your hunt more than anyone's. If you want reproductive rights, get organized. If you hope to see a Social Security check, make noise now or there won't be any cymbals to crash when you start turning gray. Maybe you're in great health right now, but if you think you'll ever get sick, you'd better care about the health care system. Infrastructure? Ponder the fact that many cities use sewer and water treatment facilities built in the 1930s! Scores of Flints are on the verge.

See "Rethink and Link" above, or your concerns will be buried one by one. Sorry, but you need to stop worrying about micro-aggression because you're facing  macro now. There's a bigger storm raging than campus debates over who gets to use which bathroom, what gender adjectives are acceptable, and dining hall offerings. If it seems like I'm being mean, toughen up because you ain't seen nothing yet. Start a Millennial new New Left. Opposing the Orange Snollygoster needs Millennial energy and commitment.  

Don't Forget to Laugh

In the difficult days to come, joy and laughter will keep us in touch with our better angels. Enough said. 


Ann Patchett Commonwealth: Less Than the Hype

By Ann Patchett
HarperCollins, 322 pages.

A few weeks ago, I noted in a Richard Russo review that he was one of the few writers whose work has never disappointed me. Ann Patchett was on that list as well–until I read her highly touted but overrated Commonwealth.

One of the most quoted passages in literature comes from Anna Karenina. Tolstoy wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Patchett's contribution to this adage is to modernize Tolstoy by showing us an unhappy blended family, largely through the eyes of six stepsiblings. It's a sprawling novel that covers 50 years, but opens in 1971, when a lawyer named Bert Cousins crashes a christening party at the home of Fix Keating, a cop he barely knows. Soon, though, it's not baby Franny that transfixes Bert–it's Fix's gorgeous wife, Beverly. Patchett recounts this very unorthodox christening in a 32-page opening sequence that sets the table for the dissolution of both the Keating and Cousins marriages and the knitting of the two Keating and four Cousins offspring into two dysfunctional units–the one headed by Fix in California, the other by Bert in Virginia. Tragedy and unhappiness eventually pass to a third generation–along with reflection, guilt, and hints of minor redemption.

Commonwealth has been praised to the skies–perhaps because we're supposed to think that anything that deals with relationships is automatically weighty. Sorry, but I was bored out of my skull. The opening sequence put me in mind of the kind of literature Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) used to write and I tried (and failed) to appreciate: the mundane as high drama. Patchett's novel is semi-autobiographical. I don't wish to belittle her personal pain, but there is often a tendency for individuals to think that their families are more fascinating than they really are. Tolstoy is so often quoted because his remark rings true, but you'll note that he did not say that every unhappy tale needed to be told.

If anyone could make us care about the Keating and Cousins clans, it would be Patchett. She is an enormously talented writer and there are passages of Commonwealth that are so finely crafted that one can't help but admire them. The problem isn't the prose; it's the material. I get her riff on commonwealth: Virginia the old ideal of gentility and manners, California the golden land of opportunity and reinvention. I also get that Virginia is a metaphor for when appearances are more performance than substance, and that California reminds us that the things that glisten are frequently gilded, not gold. I'll even concede that it was clever to situate the Keating-Cousins drama within that framework. Perhaps we could even see Commonwealth as a sort of unmasking: families as they are rather than the postcards they're supposed to be.

Okay, but I simply didn't care. Put plainly, there wasn't enough virtue in the characters to make me feel that they deserved much happiness; nearly all of them were consistently unlikable. Where I was supposed to see family dynamics, I saw narcissism; where I was supposed to empathize with the characters, I felt deep impatience of the "Oh-for-heaven's-sake-get-over-yourself" variety. It returns, in my view, to that Mansfield-like opening. Tolstoy drew us into the not-so-nice Oblonsky/Karenina families the same way that Edith Wharton did with the Archer/Olenska romance in The Age of Innocence–by sketching characters with enough external glamour and uniqueness to make them memorable. Ms. Patchett has done this in the past–the inmates in the home for unwed mothers in The Patron Saint of Liars; the thrown-together hostages of Bel Canto; the gay necromancer in The Magician's Assistant; the tropical locales of State of Wonder….

I suppose one could read Commonwealth as a thoroughly contemporary novel and praise its verisimilitude. Yet its central banality remains. Count me among those who read to be transported somewhere far more interesting than suburbia or that den of mediocrity and self-pity called the American middle class. If I wanted to contemplate ordinary misery, I'd muse upon scenes from own biography.

Rob Weir