Outer and inner cover design for Oxford Poetry. The 100 year special issue of the magazine.
On sale here: www.oxfordpoetry.co.uk/shop.php
My 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.