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Some Weekend Reading

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LGM, I am traveling. I got on a plane. I checked into a hotel. I went to restaurants and museums and the theater. I’ve spent the last week at a vacation house with a bunch of friends (who are all vaccinated and took PCR or lateral flow tests; we’re not idiots). It’s obviously not the same as international travel used to be. I’m being fastidious about masks (and despite the UK rescinding indoor mask requirements the day before I flew in, most places still require them and people seem pretty good about abiding with those requirements), and have taken multiple PCR tests both before and after flying. And of course, I’ll have to self-isolate when I return home. But it’s still a fun little island of normalcy that feels all the more precious because things are clearly about to change—Israel has just forbidden all travel to the UK, which means if my trip had been scheduled for just two weeks later, I wouldn’t have been able to go.

I already have a couple of posts planned based on things I’ve seen or read during my trip, but since I’m still traveling, I thought I’d leave you with a few pieces of writing that have gone up, on my blog or elsewhere, in the last few weeks. See you again when I get back to reality.

First, some writing about the MCU. Movie theaters in Israel are currently open, so I was able to watch Black Widow on the big screen. Here are my thoughts about how a movie that is a decent enough action adventure and found family comedy completely fails its title character by relegating her to a supporting role in her own movie.

To a certain extent, this is an understandable choice. Black Widow wears its James Bond inspiration on its sleeve, as in an early scene in which Natasha watches Moonraker while quoting the dialogue word for word. The film is full of Bondian touches, from the anachronistic Cold War vibe, to the outsized McGuffin of the mind control serum, to the new Red Room being a giant floating compound, to Dreykov’s Bond-villain-esque demeanor, and even smaller touches such as equipping Natasha with her own Q (O-T Fagbenle) and casting former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko as one of the film’s antagonists. (The Bond inspiration might also go some way towards explaining why Black Widow, a film whose title character’s most famous line is about wanting to blot out the “red in [her] ledger”, is so bizarrely cavalier about collateral damage—when Natasha and Yelena rescue Alexei from a remote Siberian prison, for example, they trigger an avalanche that probably causes the deaths of everyone else in the compound.) And the Bond films are, famously, about a character with no interiority, a smugly detached observer whose body might be battered, but whose heart is never touched.

But the thing is, Natasha Romanoff is not James Bond. Her emotional reserve isn’t counteracted by the outsized place she takes in the world, and by the attention and obsequiousness of everyone she encounters. On the contrary, the character has always been defined by her ability to disappear into the crowd, to be whatever people need her to be without them ever stopping to wonder why that is. Her signature move—which is repeated in Black Widow, in the climactic showdown between Natasha and Dreykov—is to get overconfident men to spill the beans about their secret plans by pretending to be weaker and more vulnerable than she actually is. Scarlett Johansson’s genius in interpreting the role was in nevertheless finding hints of personality and humor in this reserved, centerless person. But Black Widow was an opportunity to peer beneath that façade, to let the person Natasha is when she isn’t performing for anyone take center stage (or, conversely, to grapple with what it means that that person doesn’t exist). Instead, it chooses to double down on its heroine’s chameleon quality, even in the presence of the people she considers family. The result is that Natasha might be her own film’s chief mover, but not its protagonist.

(In the last 24 hours, of course, the Black Widow story has gained an addendum in the form of Johansson suing Disney for undercutting the film’s box office proceeds—from which she derives much of her salary—by releasing it simultaneously on its streaming platform. This report includes Disney’s response, in which we learn that you can be one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, and the only MCU star to have parlayed her role into a real A-lister career, and you’ll still get told “but aren’t you being paid enough?”)

Also on the MCU front, I have a review of the increasingly frustrating Loki, a show that, like previous Disney+ MCU series, shares the movies’ inability to stick the landing, and be anything more than a launchpad for the next part of the mega-story. In Loki‘s case, these problems are exacerbated by a certain hollowness at the show’s center, which is rooted, I argue, in an unwillingness to actually do anything interesting with its main character.

It’s not that it’s impossible to draw a line between these disparate versions, or even that you couldn’t, as Loki initially seems to be doing, tell a new story that picks up from the most evil version of the character. But instead of trying to do either of these things, Loki gives up before it even starts. The closest it comes to exploring who Loki is at this juncture in his life, and where he can go from it, is a lot of unconvincing pop psychology. The season’s first episode attempts character development by proxy by having Loki watch a recording of his canonical form’s adventures after their deviation, implying that the shock of learning that he is doomed to lose will shake him out of his megalomania. Later in the episode, Mobius hammers at the question of whether Loki enjoys hurting people, which is not only irrelevant to his investigation, but also has a very obvious answer—once again, this is a Loki who only hours earlier needlessly shishkebabed Phil Coulson, and a few minutes before he tearfully claims to Mobius that no, he doesn’t enjoy hurting people, he gleefully tortures one of the TVA’s agents (Wunmi Mosaku) with one of her control devices. 

Throughout the season, Mobius keeps coming up with reasons why Loki is the way he is. Loki is “a scared little boy shivering in the cold,” Mobius concludes in one episode. He thinks that he deserves to be alone, he decides in another. It all seems like a way of avoiding the obvious truth: that Loki grew up with parents who loved and nurtured him, a brother who admired him, and people who would have been happy to be his friends, and somehow none of that was enough. He always felt superior and resentful, always enjoyed causing mischief more than caring for others. The presence of Sylvie also undermines the show’s attempts to justify Loki’s behavior, because her suffering and damaged upbringing dwarf his. And yet Sylvie isn’t power-hungry or obsessed with her own sense of superiority. She isn’t even that much of a villain. She kills people, but they’re people who would have killed her (and since it eventually turns out that all the TVA agents are variants, by the logic that they’ve applied to her they aren’t real and don’t deserve to live). She enchants people, but only to get information from them, nothing like the way Loki violates Hawkeye and forces him to kill his friends in Avengers. The more we see of her, the more obvious it becomes that all the excuses being made for Loki are just that, excuses, and not very convincing ones at that.

And in the end, all of these excuses end up feeling beside the point, because the Loki who stars in Loki isn’t the Loki from Avengers, or even any of the others. He’s a new, cuddlier version of the character, who is extremely reactive and almost childlike. He lies to Mobius, but his lies are pathetically obvious, his manipulations blatantly doomed to failure. For all his pretensions at superiority, he’s clearly looking for someone to follow, someone whose approval he can earn—first Mobius, and later Sylvie. There’s none of the sense of menace that always seemed to lurk between the surface of even the character’s least villainous turns, the impression that this was a person who would always have his own agenda that mattered more to him than anything else. Even before he starts to change in response to his growing friendship with Mobius, or his affection (which is perhaps fraternal and perhaps romantic) towards Sylvie, this version of Loki never seems dangerous. Which is, obviously, a really strange starting point from which to interrogate the character and try to discover his foundational traits.

Over at Strange Horizons, I review Quan Barry’s novel We Ride Upon Sticks, about a 1989 high school girls’ field hockey team who try to achieve athletic greatness by signing their name in the devil’s book (here represented by a school composition notebook with Emilio Estevez’s face on the cover). It’s as funny as that description implies, and a wonderful addition to the genre of teen witch stories.

But of course, in telling a story about young girls and witchcraft, Barry is also plugging into a rich and multifaceted storytelling tradition. The real historical events of the 1692 Salem witch trials have been depicted in fiction many times. The most famous of the bunch, Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, even makes an appearance in Ride as the slightly on-the-nose choice of the Danvers High School theater department, which sweeper Sue Yoon, urged on by Emilio, joins in order to prove to her Korean immigrant parents that theater is a viable career path for a first-generation American. Stories about high school girls working out their teen drama through dark magic have been all the vogue since at least The Craft (1996); school as a setting for overheated, secretive friend circles that spill over into occult rituals is a trope that has shown up repeatedly in literature, from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992) to Mona Awad’s Bunny (2019). Even using witchcraft to excel at physical pursuits isn’t a new idea, as seen in the magically-charged ballet company that features in both versions of Suspiria (1977, 2018).

Barry, however, might be the first whose teenage witches call on the darkness to aid them in sports, and that is a distinction that inflects both her novel and characters. There’s a certain pragmatism, a down-to-earth quality that shines through both, even as Emilio’s influence makes itself increasingly known. Witch stories—and, indeed, stories about teen girl friend groups—tend towards intensity and simmering sexual awakening, but Ride is run through with a more prosaic awareness of the teenage condition—a state of being at once clueless child and someone far too determined to be worldly to ever admit to the former. The real magic, it insists, is speaking honestly about the bewildering complexity of the world the Falcons are about to enter.

Finally, I have a batch of shorter book reviews up at my blog. In particular, I want to highlight Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, a gutting, gripping addition to the campus novel canon that, if I had read it just a few months earlier, would absolutely have made it onto my best novels of the decade list.

As with many real examples of racism, no single incident in Real Life is bad enough that you can easily point to it as definitive proof. A fellow student makes an off-color joke. A guest at a dinner party goes off on a racist tangent, while everyone else looks down at their plates and waits for it to be over. Wallace’s lab samples are contaminated, sending several months’ work down the drain. Each time, you can see Wallace calculating whether it’s worth it to make a fuss. If he angers his friends by making a scene at their dinner, or asking why they didn’t stand up for him, would they use it as an excuse to cut him off? If he insists to his advisor that his samples were deliberately destroyed, by a student who is clearly a favorite, would she side with him? Taylor repeatedly makes the point that there is nowhere, and no one, with whom Wallace can feel truly at ease. He goes through life in a state of hyper-awareness, preternaturally tuned into everyone else’s emotions and reactions to him, trying to stay ahead of them and thread an impossible needle—friendly but not presumptuous; hardworking but not a brown-noser; good enough for his lab but not a show-off—and never allowed to feel as if he truly belongs. And yet his keen understanding of his abusers, combined with his obvious depression, also make Wallace less likely to stand up for himself, more likely to fatalistically (but perhaps correctly) assume that there is no point in fighting back. 

But I also write about an interesting SF novel, and a couple of historical novels—in particular, the first volume of Nobel-winner Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, which every fan of the Neapolitan Quartet should immediately seek out.

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