Book review of The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, £11.99.
Published in The Times Literary Supplement, April 2013.
“Steaming, plush pork buns”, “bright green pickles bursting with vinegar and salt”, “cherry pastries covered with half-melted squiggles of frosting” are just a selection of the feasts that Edie Middlestein – Jami Attenberg’s central character – eats her way through during the course of The Middlesteins. It is a good idea not to read Attenberg’s third novel when you are hungry. Fifty-nine-year-old Edie is morbidly obese. Her eating habits are killing her, but she will not stop and, frustratingly for her family, nor will she be helped. Just before a second stent surgery in her leg and with Edie facing a heart bypass operation, her husband Richard leaves her after thirty years of marriage.
The novel looks at how the family reacts to the ensuing crisis. A series of portraits emerge as depicted by Edie and several other characters connected through blood, marriage or community to this suburban Jewish family in Chicago. Chapters neatly alternate between the characters’ perspectives to build an engaging picture of these individuals’ lives. Multi-perspective narrative is familiar territory for Attenberg, whose debut story collection, Instant Love (2006), adopted the viewpoints of three main characters, along with their friends and lovers.
Each character in The Middlesteins is vividly complex, their foibles both endearing and repulsive. Edie, an ex-lawyer, is admirably forthright (“we had all feared Edie at one time or another. The woman knew how to make a point”), and, despite being “six feet tall, and shaped like a massive egg”, she can seem attractive. But her compulsive over-eating is the basis of the “sickening mixture of heartbreak and mortality” in the family, and she is often arrogant and careless.
Attenberg’s nimble tragicomedy breathes new life into the well-worn subject of obesity in America. Her humour rescues the novel from sentimentality, such as in Richard’s comically calamitous internet dating that leads him to a despairing moment with a “half hooker”, or the description of “morbidly curious” Rachelle, who stalks her mother-in-law as she visits three different restaurants in the space of half an hour. Rachelle almost admiringly watches Edie toss takeaway wrappers out of her car window into bins (with “perfect aim”); but her “pure sadness” quickly takes over. Rachelle’s facial transition – “her lips downturned gently, her mouth given in to the grief” – is later echoed when her son inappropriately turns a plate of biscuits into the shape of a smiley face at a funeral.
Attenberg does give most of her characters a limited sense of resolution, despite the tragedy they must confront. She has created a familiar domestic drama about disappointment, pain, loneliness and mortality – even if the novel’s emotional impact is limited.
GIVING UP GROWING OLD
Vivienne Westwood 1, Photograph: Juergen Teller, 2012.
It’s not often that you are confronted with a fully naked 71-year-old punk. Walking into Juergen Teller’s recent exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, three bigger-than-life-size photographs of an unclothed Vivienne Westwood dominate the atrium space. Her brazen red hair and porcelain body, draped over a satin-quilted sofa, are strikingly beautiful and defiant. If you look closely, you can spot indented lines like river tributaries that wrap around her skin – there’s no sign of Photoshop touching up, smoothing out, slimming down. Westwood’s barefaced portraits embrace being and looking old. But the word “old” is out of place when applied to her. I don’t think of her as old; I don’t think of her designs or attitudes as outdated. Westwood has done the remarkable feat of bypassing old age; she lives like she’s still in her twenties. I wish I could have even just half the amount of energy and guts as her when I hit seventy.
On an adjacent wall in the ICA main gallery hangs Teller’s photograph of Kurt Cobain playing a guitar. Being in black and white, it’s as though Teller preserves Cobain in that moment – the photograph contrasts to the immediate, vibrant colours of Westwood’s portraits. Cobain’s premature death in 1994 means he forever remains the same; frozen at the age of 27. Following his death, the first idea of the “27 Club” (a list of popular musicians who died aged 27, often due to alcohol and drug abuse) was brought into public awareness. Reams of books and articles have investigated this bizarrely common occurrence. Is it a curse, coincidence or phenomenon that more rock stars have died at 27 than at any other age? Amy Winehouse is one of the latest musicians to join the list, which also includes Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Mia Zapata and Richey Edwards to name but a handful. Three years before her death, Winehouse told the press how scared she was of joining the 27 Club. Yet to be so aware of the Club almost defeats the coincidental nature of it. I’m not saying Winehouse deliberately induced death at 27 in order to heighten this rock and roll myth, but neither am I ruling out that the hype around the Club’s existence may create harmful superstition.
To live fast and die young has always had a glamorous appeal. In a way, the American President Abraham Lincoln spoke of a similar concept: “in the end it is not the years in your life that count, it is the life in your years”. But with some great artists dying before they are 30, it often leaves us wondering about what unfulfilled potential has been wasted and which masterpieces may have been lost. Especially when compared to the decades of productive careers given to us by musicians who continue to be old age rockers, like Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and the remaining Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith and members of The Who.
One of The Who’s most recognisable songs, “My Generation”, contains the lyric “hope I die before I get old” and yet they are still performing in their late sixties. Their “generation” hasn’t passed and they remain a backbone of British rock music. In a TV interview for Good Morning America in 1989, guitarist Pete Townshend, in a dapper grey suit and tie, spoke about the famous line from “My Generation”. For him, when he wrote the lyrics, the word “old” meant “someone who had achieved everything and looked at anybody that was climbing up the ladder with an eye to kicking them off. So I guess we’re old now”. The interview was to celebrate their 25th anniversary tour, so if at that point they considered themselves old, then perhaps being old isn’t such a negative.
Published in FKR magazine, March 2013. FKR is a zine that I have co-created and co-edited.
THE ABUSE OF GREATNESS
Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse (30 November 2012 - 9 February 2013).
When I heard that Phyllida Lloyd had set her production of Julius Caesar in a women’s prison with an all-female cast I anticipated a refreshing and surprisingly fitting interpretation of Shakespeare’s timeless political drama. I imagined a subtle hierarchy among power-hungry female inmates, or even rebellious female prisoners set against the law of the guards. I imagined something that would revitalise the contemporary pertinence of the play.
Unfortunately Lloyd’s jail merely provided a visual backdrop and costumes, not a relevant backstory. The fascinating set design was stark, grey, cold, monotonous, and one of the better aspects of this production. Bright white strip-lights circled both the seating and the stage to immerse the audience in the prison scene. The Donmar’s usual plush red benches were replaced with grey plastic chairs, the sort found in schools or, as shown on the stage, in prisons. Lloyd’s choice to create a play-within-a-play adopts one of Shakespeare’s beloved illusory techniques, however here it was a clumsy addition. The inmates file in to present their edited drama-workshop production of Julius Caesar, interspersed with eruptions of rock guitar. A couple of smart moments signalled the layers that linked the prison with ancient Rome, such as the bullied poet Cinna reading out her part from an Oxford World Classics edition of Julius Caesar, and more effectively, a mentally disturbed inmate (acted by Carrie Rock) playing the part of the branded ‘mad’ soothsayer. The latter character demonstrated a seamless parallel between modern-day prison and ancient Rome (although the mentally disturbed inmate was a caricature of madness). Mostly appearing in quick succession towards the end of the production, these connections between prison and Rome provided humour but more importantly depth, which highlighted exactly what had been missing from most of Lloyd’s production.
The play-text, cut to fit a two hour running time, was almost unrecognisable because the characters and plot were unbalanced from Shakespeare’s originals. Suddenly Cassius (acted by a passionate Jenny Jules) had a larger part than a timidly played Brutus, Mark Anthony barely existed, and Julius Caesar (played as a megalomania psychopath by Frances Barber) was an unlikeable bully from the outset rather than commencing as a popular leader. Shakespeare’s play-text creates instances of sympathy for both sides in order to complicate the audience’s understanding of the narrative: Julius Caesar is a usurped, unvoiced victim as well as a cold, ambitious leader (though Shakespeare cleverly provides this latter opinion of Caesar through the speeches of the conspirators); and Brutus’ behaviour inevitably corrupts his altruistic intention. However, Lloyd’s production failed to evoke any empathy for Shakespeare’s tragedy or for her created inmates. So much so that at the very end when the inmate who played Brutus was distressed at returning to her cell, I felt little sympathy for her character.
Generalised emotional outpourings and rushed, confused battle scenes over-rode the words of the play - a detrimental approach when Julius Caesar, and politics, rely on the power of language. Many of the actors demonstrated dynamic performances (notably Clare Dunne as a pregnant inmate who plays both Portia and Octavius Caesar) and an all-female cast is an interesting comment on female power struggles, but the production’s showy dramatics took precedence over substance.
PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST: CHRISTINA MACKIE
Christina Mackie elegantly cycles ahead of me into the drive of her complimentary flat on Fyfield Road, north Oxford. She dismounts from her vintage bike with a warm smile at having just had it fixed, whilst informing me that it was purchased with the profit from the sale of her very first piece of work.
What to do in an 8 week Oxford term is her primary preoccupation. A demand that is so familiar to us is not so routine to Christina Mackie. She trained at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London and has exhibited in the UK and throughout Europe, making her name in the 1990’s. Mackie was artist in residence last spring term at Lady Margaret Hall College and the Ruskin in order to complete one half of her Oxford-Melbourne Fellowship.
Reluctant to display work in progress Mackie was nonetheless thrust into the limelight during her first week in Oxford – she was asked to produce an exhibition to fill the Jerwood Room in Lady Margaret Hall. Yet Mackie is at the very beginning stages of her next major project which she predicts will take a couple of years; the usual length of time in her artistic process.
The work she displayed demonstrates the interplay between mankind and the natural landscape. Initial inspiration came from the ubiquitous human desire to see the shapes of human heads in rock formations. Mackie shows me a few photographs of these landscape formations, and then relates how her thought process ran to Hogarth’s iconic drawings of judges - the heads she sees in the rock formations are solemn and hard-edged as though passing judgement like those in Hogarth’s illustrations.
In the Jerwood Room, she arranged multiple raw-clay sculptures over watercolour drawings on clear plastic. The sculptures evolve into a conflation of human heads and natural landscape. A select few of these ‘judges’ are placed on top of monitors which depict a film of the sculpture in mirror image being spun round by an anonymous hand that comes in and out of shot. The hands do not symbolise authorship but the idea of craftsmanship. Mackie is very involved with the literal, physical and material, ‘But I realised early on that the head earns more money than the hand’ she says sardonically.
The consistent use of watercolour throughout her career is out of a love for minerals. ‘It is all about the world, and making new objects in the world.’ She shows me countless books in use on her desk about Land Art from the 1970’s, site-specific art and Primitivism. Mackie’s encounter of different environments (first Oxford to be followed by Melbourne, as well as her recent year residency in Pakistan) has a significant affect on her work, especially altering her practical approach. Mackie unsurprisingly considers Oxford as a place for research. Yet she ponders what research is for an artist. ‘We search for an idea, which usually consists of waiting patiently with your arm over your eyes for an idea to crystallize. And when we have an idea, how do we approach it? Research is what allows the approach. It allows the transformation into something new – and this “new” is the work. I use materials I know how to use so that I can bring about and bend the shape in my mind’s eye. It is more valuable to get two sketches from my time in this intricate and complex environment than leaves of references.’
This environment, Oxford, propels the ensuing discussion, namely what plagues modern art today – is there space for artists in academia? And where are the artists in Oxford? It is not a location one would immediately associate with visual art culture. However, Mackie’s experience of the canteen-lunch at Lady Margaret Hall has introduced her to a different perspective on what art is; ‘High academics in every discipline are artists. It is hard to “study” art.’
The time spent in Pakistan produced a poignant two-part installation inherently responding to her surroundings. Colours of Balochistan is an unassuming bandstand situated on the coast of Pakistan. The pigment of the pillars are coloured from the different types of earth Mackie found around the local area, which are all enclosed in a vibrant green fencing. It was originally a place for beachside picnics, but has now been harnessed by soldiers – an ominous sign of the imposing war zone. The roof terrace of a nearby building that overlooks the bandstand displays a maquette version.
Her work is both personal and complex. It permeates with a feeling of her own experience of the world and her inner meditations. It is as though the expanse of her thoughts stands still for a moment – and this is the work displayed. There is a sense of pairing down; a deceptive focus and simplicity that alludes to something out of our grasp. It poses us with the problem of interpretative certainty.
Mackie feels her ‘judges’ project will have no specific conclusion, unlike some of her previous works that display a coherent beginning, middle and end. I cannot wait to see what path it takes – though the linearity of the word ‘path’ does not seem an appropriate description for her process.
Published in Endymion, Arts Magazine Oxford, 2010.