Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Book Note: A Thousand Acres

Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres: A Novel. New York: Anchor Books, 1991.

I imagine that many of Bardfilm's readers will be familiar with Jane Smiley's recasting of King Lear on a farm in Iowa. And imagine most of those that are familiar with it are also aware of its portrayal of the Lear figure and his relationships with his daughters.

In Agatha Christie's Moving Finger (for which, q.v.), one of the character says, about Goneril and Regan, "something must have made them like that" (23). It's not crucial to the plot of Christie's novel, but it's the key point in Smiley's novel.

Larry Cook, our Lear analogue, sexually abused Ginny and Rose, the two oldest of his three daughters, but he never touched Caroline, his youngest. This characterization provides motivation for the Goneril and Regan analogues' rejection of their father and the Cordelia analogue's acceptance of them.

I don't think we're intended to return to Shakespeare's play with any specific accusations against Lear, but the plot of Smiley's novel helps us see that a reading of Goneril and Regan as monstrous might increase Lear's nobility but a more sympathetic reading of the two helps us see Lear's faults and folly more clearly.

I'd just like to call your attention to two scenes. The first is the "division of the kingdom" scene. Notice how understated Caroline's response and Lear's reaction to it are in this vision.

The second scene to notice is near the end of the novel. Instead of a gigantic battle between the forces of England and the forces of France, we have the modern American equivalent: a courtroom.

The book is very difficult—not difficult to read, but difficult to take in and to deal with. But it is also a masterful example of modern Shakespearean fiction.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Book Note: Hamlet's Father

Card, Orson Scott. Hamlet's Father. Burton, Michigan: Subterranean Press, 2009.

While we're talking about Orson Scott Card, I suppose I'd better mention his rare, limited-edition novella that retells the story of Hamlet. I read it many years ago and really didn't feel like writing it up right after finishing it. I still don't feel much like writing it up, but I do feel a bit obligated to do so.



Spoilers will inevitably follow—and, in this case, they're rotten spoilers.

Additional Note: This post will not be as family-friendly as most posts at Bardfilm are.

Hamlet's Father keeps to the basic premise of Hamlet, but it spends the majority of its time setting up the ending. Hamlet returns to Denmark for his father's funeral around page seventy—of this ninety-two page novella. He returns and puts on a kind of half-hearted antic disposition. Here are a few pages to give you a feel of that:

After Hamlet returns, he starts poking around to discover how his father died and who killed him and goes so far as to kill Claudius and Laertes before the real murderer steps forward to confess and to explain his reasons for killing King Hamlet.

Horatio did it.

In Clue parlance, it was Horatio in the garden with the sword in the ear (Horatio suggests that the sword must have felt like poison to the dying man, which is why his ghost mistakenly thought it actually was poison).

King Hamlet was a pedophile who was in danger of molesting Hamlet but instead turned his attention to Horatio, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and others. When Horatio found himself about to repeat King Hamlet's misdeeds, he turned from them and decided to kill the king instead. Here's part of the denouement:

I certainly don't like thinking of Hamlet, Sr. as a child molester, but it does fit my general criteria for modern Shakespearean fiction: it invites a return to the text based on an imagined version of events or on different characterizations. Still, it's a very bleak, dark portrait that we're asked to look on.

The novel is quite controversial. The best statement of the controversy is in this review from Rain Taxi. Their argument is that the novel presents Horatio, Rosencrantz, and the others as gay—and that the molestation is presented as the cause of their homosexuality. Card responded here, saying that the characters weren't gay—so molestation didn't cause a homosexual orientation in them.

My own reading of the novella didn't give me the idea that homosexuality was being attacked—though molestation and abuse certainly were. And I didn't see the molestation as causing anything more than the cultural naturalization of molestation and the desire for revenge on Horatio's part.

What bothered me most was the way the novella takes us into a chilling afterlife. Here's the end of the book:

In punishment for his misdeeds (killing Claudius and Laertes, who were innocent) or for not having been molested by his father (which led to the molestation of numerous others), Hamlet is sent to Hell with his father.

It's a dark and exacerbating ending to a dark and exacerbating novella.

Next up: A Thousand Acres! A light retelling of King Lear set on a farm in Iowa will be a welcome change.

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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Book Note: Magic Street

Card, Orson Scott. Magic Street. New York: Del Ray, 2006.

I enjoy a great many of Orson Scott Card's novels. He usually spins a good yarn, and I generally keep turning pages.

Despite the blurb on the cover—"A great read"—it took forever for me to get into Magic Street. I tried it a couple of years ago and gave up after fifty pages.

I had been told that the novel was a retelling of Midsummer Night's Dream, and it begins with a woman suddenly getting pregnant and giving birth to a baby who is not breathing. A homeless man her husband brought home takes the baby away—and the woman immediately forgets everything that happened. Later, a neighborhood kid finds the baby, which is alive and breathing at that point.

Throughout that section of the novel, I found myself wondering "Is this the Indian boy? Is the homeless man Oberon trying to take it away from Titania? Where are Hermia and Helena and Hippolyta?"

Years pass in the novel—and it feels like years are passing to the reader as well.

Finally, about a hundred pages in, things start to make sense in terms of Shakespeare's play. But we don't have a retelling of the play. We have a story with the fairy characters in the play. Titania (who is also Queen Mab) has trapped Oberon under the earth, and Oberon has trapped her soul in a lantern in Fairyland, and our hero—the grown-up baby from the beginning—has to save the earth.

The rest of the plot is pretty plodding and tedious, and the novel is very dark and often disturbing. Mack keeps venturing into Fairyland, finding a dead man with the head of a donkey. And he dreams the deepest wishes of the people in his neighborhood and makes them come true—always in destructive ways.

The last thing I need to tell you before I give you a sample is that the book is set in an African-American community in Los Angeles. Card was challenged by an African-American friend to write an African-American hero into one of his book. I can't comment on the authenticity of the African-American voices, but I do detect a certain awkwardness and uncertainty that is not characteristic of Card's other works.

Here's part of the scene where Mac gets some information out of the homeless man—Puck—from the beginning of the novel. Note: I've censored some of the vulgarities (another thing that is not usually such a prominent part of Card's books).

The novel doesn't provide much insight into Midsummer Night's Dream, choosing to tell its own story with those characters. We also don't get much insight into Shakespeare, though Puck will occasionally tell us that Titania used her magic to make Shakespeare fall in love with Anne Hathaway. But Puck also lies much of the time.

As a final note, here's what Card had to say about how the idea of bringing Midsummer into the novel—along with a bit about its being set in the African-American community:

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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest