Weekend Miscellany: Reading and Watching

SweetDisorderIt’s a busy time at work, with papers and midterms piling up a bit, so it’s still a bit quiet over here at Novel Readings.

I have been doing some extra-curricular reading, but the serious stuff has been for reviews, which I don’t usually anticipate with commentary here. I’ve been filling in the interstices with some light reading, mostly romances. I’ve been trying out some more recent “historicals” to see if I can find more writers among the many, many there are to chose from that I can reliably enjoy. I have had pretty mixed success with historicals up to now: a lot of them seem really thin and formulaic, and only a few authors so far (notably Cecilia Grant and, sometimes, Loretta Chase) have become personal favorites. I read Rose Lerner’s Sweet Disorder and quite liked it (I’d read her In For  a Penny before, and liked it too). Then, encouraged by having mostly liked My American Duchess, I also read another of Eloisa James’s, Any Duchess Will Do, and I enjoyed it as well, enough that I’ll probably keep poking around in her vast back catalog. Both of these books, however, did add to my sense that, for me, the pacing, or maybe the balance, is off in a lot of modern romance novels: when the hero and heroine have sex fairly early on, instead of as the culmination of their developing relationship, the book becomes (again, for me) too much about their lusty goings-on and the romantic tension is lost. Other forms of angst are typically introduced, something to tear them apart before they can finally have it all, but I usually find that angsty part tedious and the final resolution belated. This is one reason I often skim the last third of these books: the fun part seems to be over before then. In contrast, I just reread Heyer’s Venetia and it seemed to me perfectly balanced: just sexy enough, just tense and surprising enough, and just charming enough to be thoroughly satisfying.

longviewThe “literary” book I’ve been reading “for fun” is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View, which I bought after my book club read and enjoyed The Beautiful Visit and, in the same week, Hilary Mantel coincidentally published a persuasive essay about Howard in which she singled out The Long View as exceptional. It is very good of its kind, I think, and yet I am bogged down about half way through it because right now that “kind” feels claustrophobic. It’s an emotionally intense, scrupulously nuanced examination of an unhappy marriage — well, it’s unhappy when the novel begins, but because of the novel’s ingenious backwards-chronological structure, the relationship is building towards happier beginnings. Howard’s prose is wonderful and the psychological, social, and sexual complications of the couple’s life together are exquisitely, if painfully, drawn, but the novel feels airless to me: it doesn’t seem to be offering me any sense of the broader view of their life — of its impersonal contexts. The novel feels too personal, too minute, and it makes me restless for a narrative, or a narrator, that looks around and draws connections between these small complicated lives and the bigger world they’re set in. I may be missing ways in which Howard’s subtleties do exactly that, and of course since I’m not finished the novel yet, I can’t say whether things change in it, either. But my boredom (shocking! but true) with the novel got me thinking about the books that have really excited me lately and they have tended to be books with wider scope, often (though not always) historical: Dunnett’s King Hereafter, Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. Is it because I already live a narrowly personal existence (and spend enough time scrutinizing the complex nuances of marriage on my own behalf) that right now I want fiction that does something, goes somewhere, else? Or maybe it’s just that when I’m busy and distracted, I lack the patience for novels that are all about the finely-wrought sentence and the emotional minutiae of daily life.

happy-valleyAlso, when I’m busy and distracted, the lure of television is very strong! And, conveniently, Netflix recently dropped two tempting series — the fourth season of House of Cards and the second season of Happy Valley — both of which we’ve now seen. In retrospect, I’m actually kind of sorry I watched House of Cards. After the third season, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see any more of it, and this season will almost certainly be my last. The show is just so unpleasant: the people are loathsome; the acting is … well, it has its moments, but mostly it’s uninspiring; the plot is absurd; and the show overall is so cynical, not just about the world it depicts but also, I think, about what its viewers want or will tolerate. I did admire the color palette and cinematography, but otherwise, it’s a show that made me feel bad about myself for wanting to see what would happen next. Happy Valley, in context, though very grim in its own way, is brilliantly acted and tells stories about richly human individuals trying to bring some sense and order into their lives, with a protagonist whose anger and toughness are offset by compassion and a strong, if often thwarted, desire for justice. Even the crimes, horrific as they are, come out of contexts that are believable and morally complicated. It’s also almost absurdly refreshing to see women play prominent roles without having to look like stick insects and wear ridiculous stiletto heels.

OK, that gets me about caught up! Now, back to the next book I’ll be reviewing, if I can just get it all read, and then to Hard Times, which I start with my 19th-century fiction class tomorrow. Now there’s a classic that still has something to say “for these times.”

House of Cards Update: The UK Version

ukhouseAfter my previous post about the American House of Cards, a large number of people online and off told me how much better they had liked the British version, so we went ahead and watched it, and now I’m trying to decide if I too preferred it to its US counterpart.

I certainly didn’t think the UK version was itself better in every way: the production values are not as good, for instance, though that follows partly from its being so much older. The plots are brisker and not as complex and thus not quite as interesting or suspenseful: in the US version there’s a lot more to figure out, or at least to wait and see about. On the other hand, Ian Richardson is superb as Francis Urquhart: he brings a sly malicious glee to the role that makes Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood seem pretty dreary by comparison. I’d give Claire Underwood the edge as a character over Elizabeth Urquhart, though, partly on the basis of Robin Wright’s strong performance but also because she simply has more to do for herself, while all we ever see of Elizabeth is the Lady-Macbeth-like politician’s wife. I thought the balance of power in the US couple’s relationship added a very interesting dimension to the series. While being cautious about spoilers, however, I will say that in the very final episode Elizabeth emerges as a more powerful and controlling character than I had suspected — I wonder whether (if a 3rd season is in the works) the US series will follow her devastatingly cold logic to its same ruthless conclusion. Once you’ve made it to the top, after all, what other option is there, besides losing?

I thought the most interesting difference between the UK and US versions is that while both are about politics, the UK version is much more overtly political. For some time I wasn’t even sure which party Francis Underwood belonged to, and given how polarized American politics are these days, that’s both unexpected and (it seems to me, anyway) unlikely. His work on specific pieces of legislation is entirely self-serving, rather than ideologically motivated. In contrast, Francis Urquhart is clearly aligned with the right wing of British politics: he may resent Margaret Thatcher’s longevity (his petulance about her memorial is one of the show’s funnier bits) but if anything he aims to go further than she did in dismantling the welfare state and promoting a competitive rather than compassionate spirit. Similarly, the opposition to Francis Underwood is partisan only in that his congressional opponents would like to be the ones in power, not because they stand for principles other than his, but Francis Urquhart’s opponents abhor not just the man but his vision of Britain. This aspect is brought out most strongly in the episodes featuring Michael Kitchen as the idealistic new king (every time I saw him I thought “Foyle is King! Hooray!”), but the association of Urquhart’s villainy with a particular kind of party politics runs throughout the series. There’s still plenty of cynicism about how the whole system works, but identifying FU so strongly with the right suggests pretty strongly that any hope for virtue or heroism lies with the left.

Why do you suppose the creators of the American version chose to keep real political ideas so far from view? Was it a marketing issue — in such an oppositional political climate, would it have cost them too many viewers to be perceived as taking sides? I also find it interesting that they did make Underwood a Democrat: insofar as he does stand for anything besides Francis Underwood, it’s ruthless individualism and competition of the kind that these days seems more readily associated with Republicans. The choice could, I suppose, be seen as deliberately countering that stereotype, and perhaps also as a bit of push-back against the obvious “liberal bias” of The West Wing (which is impossible to imagine, at least for this non-expert non-American, as a show primarily about Republicans — though they did do a great job with Alan Alda as the very smart and sympathetic Republican candidate in the final season). By and large, though, I thought that the characters’ specific party affiliations were irrelevant in the US version: it was about power and greed more generically, and then about government as a domain in which these qualities rule unchecked — hence its overarching cynicism. In the UK version, in contrast, it’s bad government specifically that’s terrifying, though at the same time it is certainly entertaining.

So did I like the British version better? You might very well think so — but I couldn’t possibly comment. 🙂

Recent Watching: House of Cynicism Cards

house-of-cardsI’m not in any position to evaluate how accurately American politics is depicted in Netflix’s remake of House of Cards, but if people even think that Congress and the White House are run solely on greed, ambition, and ruthless back-stabbing, as the show suggests, no wonder voter turnout is so low. The series is one of the most dispiriting things I’ve ever watched — not just because of its relentless cynicism about both human nature and democracy but because it seems to have embraced that nihilistic cynicism so wholeheartedly. Imagine how different the show would be if it wrapped the story of its sociopathic central characters in some irony, or developed their story as tragedy, so that we could be caught up in their rise — as we are with Shakespeare’s Richard III or Macbeth, or with Thackeray’s Becky Sharp — but also see them suffer and fall. Instead, their vicious dishonesty wins them triumph after triumph, while the few around them who so much as raise questions, never mind try to stand for something else, are weak and ineffectual — or just dull. “She did what she had to do,” one character says in Season 2 about another who betrayed him for her own political gain: the show does not provide any alternative narrative, so even if we are repelled watching we have to look outside the box (literally!) to find a critique that goes beyond wishful thinking.

Richard III is definitely an apt point of reference (even the wink-y addresses to the audience, which I know are a carry-over from the original British series, are reminiscent of Richard’s gleefully oversharing monologues). But Shakespeare’s play is about ambition and greed and politics in a way that I don’t think House of Cards is. The show seems to me to reduce villainy purely to spectacle. It was just interesting enough that I kept watching (how far can they go? will they perhaps meet their match, or get their comeuppance?) but it didn’t provoke any serious thought about the issues its plot-lines touch on: unlike, say, The Wire or Deadwood (both of which are much more graphically and disturbingly violent but which reach for insight and explanations — and improvement), House of Cards operates purely at the level of individual malice (or, much more occasionally, good intentions). Francis is also much less charismatic than Richard, which is at least partly the fault of the writers (who often mangle idioms or resort to cliches) but I think can also be blamed on Kevin Spacey’s performance, which (like everyone else’s in the show) seemed extraordinarily limited in range. Most of the characters require at most two facial expressions over the whole series, and since the show is premised on deceit, the dominant one for almost everybody is a kind of grim deadpan stare.

The other inevitable comparison is to The West Wing. I joked on Twitter during Season 1 that I’d need to watch it all the way through (again!) as an antidote to House of Cards, and now that I’ve finished both seasons of House of Cards I don’t see any reason to take that back. Whatever its faults, The West Wing at its best shows recognizably human people struggling to make the messy process of democracy — with its competing interests and different ideologies and, yes, its components of greed and ambition along with its idealism — serve the common good. It works with the clash between what Francis characterizes (self-servingly, of course) as “ruthless pragmatism” and a high-minded commitment to public service. It has a quality of sincerity as a show, and allows for the same possibility in its characters. Where are the people in House of Cards who give a damn about ideas, or about other people, including — crucially, in a show that could be about governance in some deep way — those they are supposed to serve? Where is even the possibility of gravitas? Where is the capacity for real and difficult moral struggle? You might with justice say that these are simply not House of Cards’s concerns: that it’s not that kind of show. And you’d be right — and that would be exactly why, though I did watch it all, I won’t watch it again, whereas the show that gave me the episodes “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” or this extraordinary confrontation between an earthly and a higher power is one I’ll go back to over and over.