Tuesday, 26 April 2016

What Belongs to You - Garth Greenwell

Over the course of that wonderful time in year when one season transitions into the next, I picked up John Williams' 'Stoner', a rediscovered masterpiece exploring the life and sadness of the central character across a mundanely painted image of Midwestern America. I longed for Stoner to reach some form of formidable happiness and found myself fully invested in the tale Williams wove. Fast forward two months and I find myself revisiting the same feelings in Garth Greenwell's truly astonishing debut, 'What Belongs to You'. 

Set in central Bulgaria, the novel opens, rather abruptly, with the narrator (of which his name is never revealed) visiting a bathroom stall and paying for a "transaction" with Mitko, a young high-spirited rent boy, and then begins a dangerous game of the unnamed narrator chasing his explicit desires repeatedly through more encounters with Mitko while struggling with a silent shame that is deep-rooted from his past. Interestingly, Mitko is the only character who is bestowed a name, every other character is reduced down to a single initial and full-stop, which creates a dichotomy of Mitko having something of worth but also representing the unattainable, the fantasy or illusion of desire. He is purposefully placed outside of the world Greenwell creates, therefore making him a more interesting and well crafted character. It is through the slipperiness of the narrator's desire that truly makes the language shine, even in the more explicit moments. Moments of eroticism are so rich with striking beauty it never feels out of place, evoking a subtle sensuality that is all but told with an underlying, aching repression.

'What Belongs to You' reads as quickly as a novella, over a course of 196 pages, but has the sheer gravitas of a novel, not too dissimilar to Hanya Yanagihara's 'A Little Life'. The sheer speed I read it at only accounts to the prose having a distinct lack of punctuation, but this helps form a free-flowing narrative that could be read as a confession, striking parallels to James Baldwin's 'Giovanni's Room'. Like Baldwin's narrator, Greenwell's struggles with his desires, dedicating the whole middle section of the novel to recollect moments from his childhood, particularly the taboo of his homosexuality and yearning for his best friend only known as 'K.', and the reflective mood acts as a relatively welcome change from the explosive eroticism between himself and Mitko; memory and desire become unanimously linked.  Thematically, the repression of homosexuality is brutally ingrained throughout. Passers by glance at the narrator with unease, and later on in the novel he speaks about being diseased, unclean, even Mitko doesn't address sexuality, he is merely the object for desire. It is this that really makes the novel all more moving, Greenwell presents the lonely American teacher in a world that fails to understand him, nor he it and is as such denied a voice (reinforcing the deliberate lack of punctuation).
Alongside the most vivid and striking images Greenwell conjures, there are moments that prolong the narrative, and disrupt the free-flow narrative, but luckily these moments are far and few between to make it a serious, disjointing problem.  

As compelling and moving as William Stoner's journey to self-discovery was, Greenwell follows in his footsteps by creating something so rich, so important, so brutally honest that acts as a new landmark in gay literature; accepting your desires, choosing to act on them or not and pushing past the point of repression. A remarkable and raw debut.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The People vs OJ Simpson | A Cultural Significance

Last night concluded what was, arguably, the finest drama series to hit television screens in a long time. American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson has span over ten, excruciatingly tense weeks telling the story of how celebrity footballer OJ Simpson was famously acquitted with the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. Given that the trial took place when I was less than a year old, I can only commend the writers, actors and everyone involved at FX for bringing this story into the twenty first century and to ground the cultural repercussions of the trial that are still strikingly relevant today.

      Issues of intense media scrutiny, racism, driving sexism toward women and the pressure of fame are just a handful of topics handled in the series, but what makes it more illuminating if a tad concerning, is how most of these issues are still present today. Riots in the street after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of the police can be contextualised further in hindsight of the OJ Simpson riots, women like Marcia Clark are STILL scrutinised under the magnifying lens of the media every day, subject to ridicule from the likes of Heat or Glamour magazine on their appearance, rather for their work, and the pressures of fame take their toll on a whole array of celebrities, from the simple attention-seeking to the more tragic, such as Heath Ledger or even Amy Winehouse. The fallout from this, leads to a repressed sentiment of anger, that the series taps into oh so well, making it remarkably powerful television; it becomes accessible to a whole new audience and it forms a new catalyst for the debate on OJ's 'innocence' all over again.

    Of course, none of this would be of importance if it wasn't for the talented ensemble of writers and actors to fully immerse us in this slice of history. Stand out performances from Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran and Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden navigate this drama through its many twists and turns, at points I would forget that this actually happened, making it more insightful yet unnerving at the same time. Cuba Gooding Jr's portrayal of OJ is carefully crafted around a man who is on the brink of a meltdown. Determined of his innocence, he carries himself with an arrogant swagger but with a hint of vulnerability. It is this unpredictability that makes his performance so compelling and so intriguing. Furthermore we are given more insight into the characters outside the courtroom, though in a heavily dramatised way. Marcia is locked in an on-going custody battle of her children, Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) becomes our moral centre of the story, struggling to cope with pressures of the trial and Johnnie's attempts at keeping his violent past secret are eventually thwarted. This balance of work and personal life allows the audience to empathise with these people, to show everyone's humanity still in tact despite everything. But this point is hard hitting at times, the show constantly reminds its viewers that beneath the televised circus that is the trial and OJ's wavering popularity, two people were brutally slaughtered and their killer is not brought to justice (the final, haunting shot of the series is Ron Goldman's family asking "What do we do now?), reinforcing how much faith can be had in the justice system. It becomes a game of race, prejudice and position, rather than finding reason, and perhaps the final shot re-establishes the ludicrous spectacle of the whole ordeal when it should have been about Nicole and Ron. 

    There were moments that seemingly paralleled the Steven Avery trial in the Netflix series Making A Murderer, both series seemed set on the corruption of the Police Department and the importance of truth and justice. Racial tensions boil beneath the surface episode to episode and every use of the n-word sent chills down my spine, deliberately done to make me nervous; to put me on the edge of my seat. In other words, put me in the shoes of every person watching the trial live day-by-day back in 1995. It was a brave move by FX to go as far in as they did with the racial slurs, especially in the horrendously uncomfortable scenes involving the Furman tapes, but it was a risk that was necessary in order to connect with the audience. Everyone will have their own personal opinion on whether OJ was the murderer or not, though the show shows no signs of favouring his innocence, but everything is done to make the viewer think, not just of the people involved but in the wider context of race, sexism and intense media scrutiny. Perhaps this series can get people talking more broadly about the problems that surrounded the case, as well as apply them to issues that face us today. A new generation will now be talking about this case, much like the world was back in 1995, but in a completely different light. Like I said, it still shocks me that these events actually took place. 

    Powerful, brave and completely compelling in its own right, The People vs OJ Simpson is incredibly important television that remains as poignant today as it was back in 1995, and is now a strong contender for my favourite television series of all time.