Writer of fiction, poetry and essays.

This book begins with a clever hook: the protagonist, Cassie Black, is shocked when the corpses at the funeral home where she works start coming back to life. She quickly learns the reason for this sudden re-animation is that they have “unfinished business.” At first, she’s able to help put them to rest, but when the eponymous Mr. Tenpenny returns to life, putting him at peace proves to be a daunting task that sucks Cassie into a whole parallel world of magic and mystery.

The book is very much in the tradition of fantasy novels like Alice in WonderlandHarry Potter, etc. (There are a few references to the latter throughout.) It’s the classic setup of a seemingly ordinary person who finds themselves in another society where they are of immense importance. From there it’s Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Quest, through and through, but Cassie narrates her adventures with a smart-aleck, macabre sense of humor. The book is suffused with dark humor, of the sort at which Painter excels. 

Cassie can be a little difficult; I won’t lie. There are times when her anti-social personality and paranoia make her tough to relate to. Although, as is explained in her backstory, she’s had a hard life, shuffled among various foster families that treated her quite badly, so it makes sense she would be this way. And eventually, her instincts do point her in the right direction. (Sort of.)

I actually enjoyed the “real” world of everyday Portland most of all; it felt very vivid and interesting. I especially liked the officious government inspector who is investigating the funeral home where Cassie works, suspecting, (quite correctly) that something is amiss.

That reminds me: this is book one in a series, and it ends on a cliffhanger. So, there are a lot of threads that remain to be tied up in future volumes, and I look forward to seeing where it all goes. It’s a fun read for anyone who enjoys fast-paced, somewhat snarky, somewhat twisted fantasy adventures.

[This review is based on an ARC. The Undead Mr. Tenpenny releases today, February 23, 2021.]

Okay, I cheated a little on my plan to broaden my reading horizons this month. This is a science fiction book, which is very much my standard fare. But it’s also a romance; trust me! And it’s something of a milestone because it’s the first book I’ve ever bought because of an ad. For years I’ve seen a link to it on the Amazon page for one of my books. So when I needed to find another romance book, I decided to give this one a try. And I’m glad I did.

The setting is Union Station, a sort of hub space station where races from all across the universe meet. (I kept picturing the Citadel presidium from the Mass Effect series.) The station is run by super-intelligent artificial intelligence beings known as the Stryx, who monitor everything and generally keep order.

The Stryx also run a dating service, which purports to be able to find the perfect match for someone due to the telepathic abilities of the intelligence. Kelly Frank, the EarthCent ambassador, who receives a gift subscription to the Stryx’s matchmaking service.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well as she hopes–Kelly ends up having a series of bad dates, some of which lead to bizarre adventures, but none of which result in her finding a good partner.

Much the same story holds for Joe McAllister, a former mercenary spacer turned junk dealer who has also decided to take advantage of the dating service. He too has quite a range of experiences–but he just can’t seem to find that special someone.

You can probably guess where this is going, but it’s still an enjoyable ride, thanks largely to Foner’s first-rate world-building. Kelly and Joe’s bad dates show us glimpses of the wider universe–and what a rich universe it is, populated by all kinds of interesting characters. There’s a royal house in need of a champion, a criminal kidnapping ring, and robot trying to pass itself off as human. Then there are the subplots involving cheating at competitive gaming, a couple of flower girls profiting off of the dating scene, and a bazaar teeming with counterfeit goods.

All of it feels so organic and interesting–not to mention really funny. It’s a lighthearted book, and each vignette ends on an amusing note. There’s plenty of conflict, but of the purely PG-rated variety. There’s nothing too dark here; it’s a romp.

Sci-fi fans should absolutely check this book out. Even if you’re not into romance, don’t worry–there’s a lot more going on here. I have only one complaint about this book, which is that the last chapter felt a bit rushed. I would have liked to see it come to a more leisurely conclusion. But hey, if your biggest complaint is that the ride ended too soon, you know it’s good.

Admittedly, I’m late to the party on this one. This book has over a thousand reviews, so it’s fairly well known, as such an enjoyable book deserves to be. Perhaps it’s proving me wrong about ads after all.

What I like best about Geoffrey Cooper’s thrillers are how they provide a window into the politics of research institutions. I’ve noted this about his earlier Brad and Karen novels, Nondisclosure and Forever, and if you enjoyed those novels as much as I did, you’ll be glad to know that Bad Medicine is more of the same.

Brad is requested–more like ordered–by the university president to chair a tenure committee at a medical research Institute in Maine. There are two candidates up for tenure: one is Mark Heller, a superstar researcher who appears to have made huge strides in cancer research, the other is Carolyn Gelman, whose work, while strong, lags behind her colleague and is unpopular with the faculty to boot.

The politics of tenure committees are bad enough, but soon, Brad finds evidence that something far more serious is going on: someone is sabotaging Gelman’s research. Beginning with the destruction of test drugs and escalating to far more serious crimes, Brad and Karen once again are drawn into a criminal conspiracy.

As usual, the pace is fast and the twists are numerous, but there are still moments for the characters to stop and catch their breath, and to sample some delicious New England cuisine, the descriptions of which are highly enjoyable.

The core of the book is the relationship between Brad and Karen, which ends up being tested in a surprising way. I liked the way this was handled, too–it makes sense that what happens would put some stress on them, but it doesn’t create needless drama or tension. Sometimes authors go too far in creating fissures in a relationship, in a way that feels forced. But that didn’t happen here.

If you enjoyed the other Brad and Karen books, you’re going to like this one. Besides being a good thriller, it’s another fascinating glimpse behind the curtain at the highest levels of medical research.  As soon as I finished it, I found myself hoping to read another one soon.

[Note: this review is based on an ARC. Bad Medicine releases today, February 17, 2021.]

I love poetry–especially rhyming, metrical poetry. I’ve learned over time to appreciate blank verse and the like, but in my heart, I’m always going to be a sucker for a good old rhyming couplet. To illustrate: while most people would probably say T.S. Eliot’s greatest work is The Waste Land, give me Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats any day.

That’s why it was such a delight to read this amusing collection of poems, about the mis-adventures of the author’s dog, Ani. All the poems are light, bubbly and amusing, and sure to make any dog lover smile as they read Ani’s antics with tennis balls, vacuum cleaners and–the pup’s ultimate nemesis–baths.

Ani’s human, Sue Vincent, has a great knack for sparkling, crisp verse and a delightful wit. In a few poems based off of Shakespeare’s works, she does a fine job in the style of the Bard. And most of all, she has a wonderfully endearing love for her dog, and one that Ani clearly reciprocates as only canines can.

Doggerel is a charming book that anyone who loves poetry and/or dogs is sure to enjoy. It’s also illustrated with pictures of the four-legged protagonist, who looks like every bit the lovable scamp portrayed in the poems.

(P.S. I am very grateful to my friend A.C. Flory for bringing this author’s work to my attention.)

This is a Regency romance. Regency romance is a super-popular genre, which is why I made it my business to find a lesser-known indie Regency romance with only a few reviews. Because that’s how we do things here at Ruined Chapel.

To be clear, this book is more in the Regency Historical sub-category, in that the characters use many modern expressions and tend to behave more in accordance with present-day attitudes, without much care for the mores of the actual Regency period.

In other words, this book has sex scenes. Don’t go in expecting Jane Austen. It’s raunchy and fast-paced. Maybe it’s more accurate to call it a Regency sex comedy. 

And that’s not all. Penelope, the impulsive, stubborn heroine, moonlights as a highwayman when she’s not flirting with Lord Westfield, Duke of Burwick. There’s a subplot with smugglers and kidnappers that culminates in a violent showdown.

The book is fast-paced. Sometimes, it was so fast-paced I found It difficult to keep track of all the characters were and their motivations. It’s probably a good idea to keep notes on characters as they are introduced. Also, it has a trope that’s common in romance novels: two characters who are obviously going to end up together refusing to just admit they’re in love for no particular reason. This drives me nuts; but it’s so frequently used I guess romance readers don’t mind it. I wouldn’t want to marry somebody whose attitude towards me seemed to vary by the hour, but hey; that’s just me. 

Despite this criticism, the book is enjoyable. I think I’m right in saying the author doesn’t mean for it to be taken too seriously; hence the “funny” in the subtitle. There are some over-the-top scenes of bawdy, farcical humor that are quite enjoyable. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s still an entertaining tale with a bit of naughtiness to it.

On a technical note: there are a few typos throughout the book. It didn’t really bother me that much, but some readers are more sensitive to this sort of thing than others.

And it has to be said: I’m not normally one to read Regency romances. I’m nowhere near the target market for this book. And even I enjoyed it, despite its flaws.  Regency romance fans who like their tales to err on the silly side are sure to find it a treat.

To understand the future, we must understand the past. I’ve used this strange, unwieldy phrase “techno-decadentism” in reference to an artistic movement; one that is, I will argue, an heir to the tradition of “just plain old” decadentism. But what was the original decadentism? Where did it come from? And can we learn anything from it?

Come with me, once again, to the 1890s. I talked in the previous post about fin de siècle. But now we have to experience it.

It’s 1897 and there’s a revival of The Yeomen of the Guard on at the Savoy. Check out that poster!

A black figure against a yellow background–how striking. Then again, we’ve seen this before–in 1896, The Grand Duke was playing at the Savoy, with a very similar poster–indeed, by the same artist:

Of course, Grand Duke depicts a broken-down critter, not an imposing figure. And yet, both, in their own way, symbolize the same thing. Do I even have to tell you what they symbolize? Decadence means decay, and the final stage of decay is of course death. A lone figure, symbolizing death… it evokes Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.

Ah, now, that’s a bit of a cheat. I have no business dragging a poem from 1842 into a conversation about the 1890s. Or do I? After all, Poe’s influence on the decadent movement was great, and if he was born a little too early, and a lot too west, we can’t blame him for it. Artistic movements usually take a while to bloom; like a plant. “A flower, planted on Poe’s grave,” as I once heard someone describe it.

You might think these posters are similar simply because they are by the same artist, Dudley Hardy. But this is more than just a single artist’s distinctive touch. It’s part of something bigger–hence, we call it an aesthetic. See again the example of Théophile Steinlen’s 1896 poster for Le Chat Noir:

Or, maybe the single most famous piece of artwork to come out of this epoch: The Scream, by Edvard Munch (1893). Again, an ominous background surrounding a surreal and nightmarish figure: 

Everything about Fin de siècle is conveying a mood of pessimism, of decline and decay. In England, a venerable old monarch was growing grey. Victoria’s days were numbered, as her subjects must have known, but would not say. Maybe that’s why Sir James Frazer’s anthropological study of death and rebirth myths The Golden Bough (1890) made such a hit.

You ask: am I just cherry-picking here? Finding all the seemingly-related works from a certain period and leaving out ones that don’t fit? I’m sure there must have been good old-fashioned romantic art being produced in the 1890s. (Actually, fin de siecle art was centered in Europe–other parts of the world were in an altogether different phases of civilization at this point.)

Anyway, yes: I might indeed be cherry-picking facts. It’s easy to find themes that fit a narrative and discard those that don’t, since we know what happened next, and therefore are easily predisposed to see patterns that might not even exist.

To know if anything is really going on here in the 1890s, we have to try to look at the world through the eyes of its inhabitants. This is where my amateurish Gilbert and Sullivan studies come in handy: in their heyday of the 1870s and 1880s, Gilbert and Sullivan made their names with comic operas known for their light humor, bubbly dialogue, and romance. They are optimistic and fun–even when they talk about darker subjects like execution.

And then we come to the 1890s, and things change. Their next-to-last work, Utopia, Limited doesn’t just mock the foibles of particular public figures, but is a broad satire on the British Empire itself. And their last, the aforementioned Grand Duke is cynical mockery of almost everything–love, death and the medium of theatrical entertainment itself. It’s funny (actually, in my opinion one of their funniest) but it doesn’t have heart like their most famous operas do.

As Max Keith Sutton put it in his article, The Significance of The Grand Duke:

The opera is a decadent work, as Professor Jones has suggested–perhaps a deliberate parody of literary trends near the time of Wilde’s Salome, when perverse attitudes (necrophilia, for one) and violence were being seriously depicted on the European stage. Certainly The Grand Duke is decadent in the literal sense of representing physical and mental, moral and political decay.

He explicitly makes the comparison with fertility myths:

The decrepit Rudolph has the role of the Old King whose death signifies the end of the year, the defeat of Winter in the ceremonial contest with Spring. “Broken-down critter” that he is, he makes a perfect monarch for a comic wasteland… Rudolph undergoes legal death in the mock duel–”the moment of ritual sacrifice”–and the plump, sausage-devouring comedian takes over as duke for a day and Lord of Misrule.

I can’t prove an entire shift in the zeitgeist based on the work of a curmudgeonly old librettist and his alienated and sickly composer. But, something is going on here, wouldn’t you say? Things that would have never been tolerated at the height of Victorian prudishness are now becoming mainstream. 

There is a sense of a cycle, a cycle that is coming to an end. The cynicism, boredom, and restless neuroticism that characterize a declining empire who knows its best days are behind it. 

I’ve always liked The Grand Duke. It was the least popular Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but its atmosphere is strangely compelling to me. But I never bothered to see it in its proper context until I began to study the 1890s for another reason: Robert W. Chambers’ collection of stories, The King in Yellow, and in particular the first story, The Repairer of Reputations.”

I’ve talked about it before. A lot. Hell, I’ve actually posted the story with my annotations on this blog. So a lot of this will be old hat to longtime readers. But we just can’t understand this strange world of fin de siècle without understanding The King in Yellow. Sorry if this is repetitious for some of you.

Despite my enthusiasm for it, I’ve never actually reviewed The King in Yellow, however, because something in it defies reviewing. The key part of the book is the fictional play described within it, also called The King in Yellow, which connects the first four stories. Chambers only quotes bits and pieces of the play, and, notably, only from Act I. Act II–the really juicy bit that drives people mad–is left a mystery to the reader. Personally, I’ve always imagined it as something to do with an all-consuming plague, like the aforementioned Masque of the Red Death. And I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say there is an echo of Poe’s story in these mysterious lines quoted from the play:

CAMILLA: You, sir, should unmask.
STRANGER: Indeed?
CASSILDA: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
STRANGER: I wear no mask.
CAMILLA: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

But that’s just me. The beauty of Chambers’ technique is that he knows that what the reader imagines will be scarier than anything he himself could create.

If The King in Yellow has a flaw, it’s that its tales are arranged in the wrong order, proceeding from most bizarre to most mundane. M.R. James would have known that the way to truly mess with the reader is to lull them at first, before springing the trap. But, probably some editor told Chambers that one of the ten rules of writing was to lead with the exciting bit, or some such conventional wisdom. Times change; but people who don’t appreciate art remain the same, and also remain in charge of deciding what shall be published.

Recall that, as I said above, it is hard to evaluate an era honestly, because we know what happened. It’s interesting to get a view of the people of the era, who don’t know where it’s all going. It’s even more interesting to read their predictions for where they think it will go.  Chambers provides us with just such a prediction, albeit wrapped in a curious package.

The Repairer of Reputations begins:

Toward the end of the year 1920 the Government of the United States had practically completed the programme, adopted during the last months of President W———‘s administration. The country was apparently tranquil. Everybody knows how the Tariff and Labour questions were settled. The war with Germany, incident on that country’s ————-, had left no visible scars upon the republic…

Okay, so I’m playing censor here and cutting stuff out. Did your mind automatically fill in those blanks? The natural thing is to assume the first is filled with “Wilson” and the second with “invasion of France.” 

If you do that, you have a totally nondescript history of someone talking about actual 1920. Admittedly, it’s a decidedly vague description, but still, it works.

But of course, this story was written in 1895. And it’s President Winthrop and Germany seized the Samoan islands. Which actually happened a few years after Chambers wrote the book, although it was not the cause of the major war.

I am not a believer in prophecies or seers or other such superstitious hokum. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side…” etc. But seriously, this gives me pause. 

What’s even weirder is that, as the story develops, we learn that Hildred Castaigne, the narrator telling us all this, is, um, not exactly reliable. In fact, he’s so unreliable that it might not even be set in 1920 at all, and yet his doubly-imaginary 1920 seems plausible to us, as readers who, unlike Chambers, know what happened in real 1920.

Does this creep you out just a little? There’s more: the future that our narrator reports (envisions?) includes such things as government lethal chambers, where people who find existence unendurable may find relief. Was that prescient? I dunno, let’s check with the American Eugenics Society, founded in 1922. 

So what the heck? Was Robert W. Chambers was some sort of prophet or time-traveler gifted with uncanny insight into the future? And if he was, we must ask: why did he use his powers only to write one cool story, and not for something more epic?

A more plausible explanation, and much more agreeable to my skeptical, materialist mind, is that there is such a thing a zeitgeist where all trends are pointing towards something happening.  For example, could you find some literary work from the early 2000s that involved a highly-contagious pandemic? Why yes, you could! But really, in retrospect, isn’t that one of those things that any intelligent person who was paying attention could have foreseen? 

And this is why fin de siècle literature is so interesting. If it was all just a coincidence that around 1890 everybody started to feel cynical, bored, and generally like the old order is about to go up in some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe, and it did, then it’s a mere historical curiosity. 

But if, on the other hand, there is some sort of predictive value in this–if perhaps people feeling this pervasive sense of decay had something to do with the ultimate fate of Europe, either because it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or simply because anyone attuned to the spirit of the age could see where it was going, then this is very interesting indeed.

And it would be especially interesting if we had some reason to believe that it was happening again… but that’s for another time. 😉

I have to start this review with some context: I started reading this book shortly after doing some beta reading for a friend of mine. The book I was beta reading was an extremely dark, harrowing story about terrorism.  While it’s a great story, it was nice to be able to turn from that world (not to mention real life news) into this book, which is a sweet, uplifting romance.

Not that there aren’t serious moments in Second Chance Romance. The female lead, Melanie Harper, has a major tragedy in her past. Trying to forget it, she’s immersed herself in her work as a divorce attorney in Washington D.C., but has come to the small town of Sweet Gum, Virginia to convince her Aunt Phoebe to abandon her little diner and move to D.C.

While there, Melanie has a car accident and is rescued by Jackson Daughtry, a single father raising his young daughter, Rebecca, after his wife left him.

After Melanie recovers from her accident, Phoebe suffers a stroke, rendering her unable to run her business, and forcing Melanie and Jackson to work together to keep the diner running. At first, the big-city lawyer and the small-town paramedic clash, but soon–it’s a romance, after all–they begin to develop feelings for each other.

Not that it’s smooth sailing even then. Jackson and Melanie still disagree over her plan to close the diner and move her aunt to D.C. And to make matters even more difficult, Jackson’s ex-wife shows up again.

I should mention that this is a Love Inspired book, which is an imprint that publishes Christian fiction. So there are a few references to characters praying and facing struggles with their faith throughout the book. It never comes across as strident or preachy, however; and largely seemed right for the characters.

All in all, it’s a very sweet story. There are no big surprises or shocking twists, and there shouldn’t be in a book like this. It’s a feel-good book. And while it’s not the sort of thing I often read, it’s quite enjoyable. There is a place in every art form for both the Rockwell-esque and the Goya-esque. Though my own tastes skew towards the latter, I can still respect the former. 

This is a perfect book for anyone who wants to enjoy a light and uplifting romance in a pleasant small-town atmosphere.

Jane Got a Gun premiered on January 29, 2016. I had been looking forward to it since I learned of its existence, and with the film finally, finally hitting the big screen, of course I had to see it on opening day. It was a bright, unseasonably warm day for winter in Ohio, and I went to the nearby AMC for an afternoon show in a nearly-deserted theater.

I enjoyed the film from the start. It was not just good, it was surprisingly good. Then, at a certain point, about halfway through the film, the drama reached a critical point, and I can distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, no–I certainly hope they’re not going to…”

But hold up a minute. I’m getting ahead of myself, diving right in to the memories and not putting things in the right order. Like the film’s heroine Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) says at one point, “It’s hard to remember how things seemed… when you know how they actually turned out.”

Jane silhouette

***

The behind-the-scenes story of Jane Got a Gun begins in 2012, with a script by Brian Duffield, to be distributed by Relativity Media, directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Natalie Portman. Michael Fassbender was cast in the role of Dan Frost, Jane’s former fiancé. However, Fassbender soon left the part, and was replaced by Joel Edgerton, who had originally been cast as the villain, John Bishop. Jude Law and Bradley Cooper were both briefly on board, before finally Ewan McGregor was cast as Bishop. In the middle of all this, Ramsay left the production less than amicably, causing more turmoil that was resolved in part thanks to the timely intercession of lawyer David Boies.

Ramsay was replaced by Gavin O’Connor. O’Connor, Edgerton and screenwriter Anthony Tambakis then re-wrote Duffield’s script, and filming finally took place in 2013. The filming itself seems to have gone smoothly–in the words of Edgerton, “We’re winning out there.”

Relativity Media had initially scheduled the film for a February 2015 release. But it was delayed, and Relativity filed for bankruptcy in mid-2015. Fortunately, there was another studio that had agreed to distribute the film, and the rights to Jane Got a Gun were released from Relativity and secured by the Weinstein Company, which scheduled the film for distribution.

The Paris premiere was scheduled for November 15, 2015, but was canceled due to the November 13 terrorist attacks. The film finally premiered in Germany in late December 2015, and in France and the United States in January 2016.

Of course, I can’t talk about a Weinstein Company film without also talking about the infamous film producer, who was then about a year away from being publicly disgraced. One of the many unsavory aspects of Harvey Weinstein’s personality that came to light after his downfall was that he would occasionally sabotage his own company’s films. I have no idea if anything like that happened with Jane Got a Gun, but the decision not to screen the film for critics can’t have helped its chances, and undoubtedly contributed to its poor showing at the box office.

It was a film dogged at every step by negativity, with only cursory promotional efforts, in a relatively unpopular genre, and hamstrung by a misleading title that makes it sound more like a fast-paced action picture than what it really is.

And after all that, it was gone as soon as it had come. It was only in theaters for about three weeks and grossed about $3 million against a $25 million budget.

As anyone who followed my blog at the time knows, I loved the movie. I wrote a glowing review. Two glowing reviews, actually, because I wrote about it again in more detail when it came out on home media. And owing, I suspect, to the scarcity of other reviews, these were some of my most-viewed posts ever.

Which speaks to the fact that a major reason it wasn’t more successful is that not many movie-goers ever knew it existed. And I’d argue that the reasons not many movie-goers knew it existed can tell us a lot about the movie business, the entertainment industry as a whole, and American culture generally.

That sounds like quite a leap, I know. (Or, as Dan Frost would say, a “very big jump, my friend.”) To begin with, let’s talk about why Jane Got a Gun is significant to me.

***

Jane
Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman)

Natalie Portman is probably my favorite actress, and part of the reason for that, as I’ve discussed before, is her willingness to experiment. She doesn’t let herself be typecast, but is willing to play all sorts of different roles in different kinds of movies. I respect this risk-taking. Portman films aren’t always good, but they are almost always interesting.

I also like movies that take place in remote, bleak desert settings, and the New Mexico landscapes of Jane Got a Gun are just gorgeous to my eye. While I could do without the washed-out lens filter, the sweeping vistas and extraordinary rock formations make the setting instantly compelling.

I went into Jane Got a Gun hoping to see Natalie Portman in a good old-fashioned western adventure, and as a bonus, see the always-entertaining Ewan McGregor as a villain I loved to hate. And I got all that–but the movie surprised me at the same time, even while delivering on all fronts. How is that possible?

Time for one of my Socratic movie quizzes: what’s Jane Got a Gun about?

Okay, since many of you haven’t seen it, I’ll give you the cliffs-notes summary answer. It’s not the real answer, of course, but you know what I’m like. And anyway, a little plot synopsis will be handy to have as you read this.

Jane Got a Gun is about Jane Ballard, a woman who was kidnapped by a gang of criminals, escaped with the help of a man whom she married and built a new life with, only to find herself once again pursued by the gang, and forced to seek help from her ex-fiancé, Dan Frost, whom she had until recently believed died in the Civil War.

Dan on Ridge
Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) gazes forlornly down from a ridge.

Ah, Dan Frost. He’s as good a place as any to start with where this movie surprised me. Previously, I knew Joel Edgerton as young Uncle Owen in the Star Wars prequels, where he has about two minutes of screen time and does nothing but stand around and hold a dirty rag.

After you watch Jane Got a Gun, it’s impossible to watch the scenes with Owen in Attack of the Clones the same way. In the scene from Star Wars, Portman and Edgerton are both unremarkable, standing vacantly with no lines or “stage business” to do. In Jane Got a Gun, every scene between the two is filled with tension–Edgerton can convey so much emotion with simply an expression, or a grunt, or a small gesture. And as Edgerton said of his co-star’s talents, “We’ve actually coined the phrase ‘The Portman’ to describe how she can say a line without saying a word, just with a look.”

This illustrates one way in which Jane Got a Gun runs contrary to modern sensibilities. Characters–especially the good characters–do not wear their hearts on their sleeves, but for the most part behave with reserve and restraint. We only see Jane and Dan kiss in flashbacks–circumstances dictate they must keep their feelings controlled, and the few glimpses we see of their emotions bubbling close to the surface are moments of intense drama. Even as they prepare to fight for their lives, the couple is reminded constantly of their past.

One good example of this is the transition from Jane’s memory of a carefree afternoon with her fiancé back in Missouri to the grim present, as the sweaty, tired figure of her former lover takes a break from digging a defensive trench to check the vast desolation for any sign of the Bishop gang. Without a word being spoken, Portman’s face and the soundtrack convey the bittersweetness of remembering happier times.

Jane and Dan
Jane and Dan, in a flashback

***

I’ve lent my copy of Jane Got a Gun to a great many friends, at first just out of a sense of wanting to share something I enjoyed, and over time out of an interest in the different reactions they would have to it. Some of them have loved it as much as I do. Others thought it was just middling, still others have called it boring and bad.  One friend told me he thought it was dull, but that perhaps that was an intentional choice, to capture the slower pace of life in the 1870s. Another friend of mine, who generally hates any movie made after 1965, complained about the lens filter but said his wife called the character of Jane Ballard “just about perfect.”

I’ve seen the movie enough times that it gallops by, but at the same time I guess I can understand how some would find it slow… sort of. Well, maybe. No, not really.

Here’s the thing: if you’re used to loud, fast, big, action-packed spectacles of movies, then I guess this would seem slow. And yeah, the title does imply that’s what this film is going to be. A pulse-pounding Wild West shoot-’em-up with a female gunslinger, kind of like the 2006 film Bandidas. Maybe that’s the kind of movie Duffield’s script originally called for. And there’s nothing wrong with that kind of movie. I like Bandidas.

But Jane Got a Gun isn’t that kind of movie. It’s mostly quiet, punctuated by a few moments of intense action. There are no over-the-top special effects or stunt-work. Because it’s not about the action scenes; not really. That’s why the title is so misleading. To say nothing of some of the posters…

(If you’ve ever wondered if people who make movie posters have to watch the movie beforehand, the answer is pretty clearly “no.”)

Jane Got a Gun is not about guns, even though there are guns in it. It’s not about Jane avenging the wrong that was done to her, although that does happen. It’s not about a frontierswoman proving herself just as adept a sharpshooter as the men, although that also happens.

Jane Got a Gun is actually about listening to other people.

***

I think 2016 will be remembered as a very significant year in history. I mean, every year is significant to a historian, since they are all part of a linked causal chain of events, but 2016 is going to be one of those dates that everyone will know, like 1776, 1865, 1939, and 1968.

2016 was the year when the American political system and the unending noise machine of modern communication combined to produce systemic shocks right to the heart of our centuries-old system of government. In 2016, all the fissures and divides across the nation were laid bare, and the repercussions are still being felt, and will be for decades; perhaps centuries to come.

2016 was the year that people shouting at each other through mass media finally, irrevocably, unforgettably, changed the landscape of American politics.

What does this have to do with Jane Got a Gun?

You know how sometimes you’ll hear about how a movie perfectly evokes the “mood” of a certain time? What pretentious critics, like me, call the “zeitgeist?” For example, how Taxi Driver supposedly captured the rebellious alienation of the 1970s.

Jane Got a Gun does the opposite of that. Jane Got a Gun is like if you captured the essential spirit of 2016, and then made something that was in every way the antithesis of it.

Jane and Dan’s relationship changes when they stop arguing and start listening. Dan’s relationship with Jane’s husband, Bill Hammond, changes when he stops making assumptions and listens to what Jane says about him. Even at the climax of the film, when Jane finally confronts John Bishop, she waits to hear what he says before bringing him to justice–and is rewarded for doing so.

It’s a quiet, old-fashioned movie, about the importance of understanding and reconciling with other people. There are villains, yes; but the real drama of Jane Got a Gun is in the relationship between Jane and Dan. It’s more of a romance than an action film, but a romance set against the backdrop of bleak and desolate frontier; a society being built in the shadow of a nation ravaged by war.

Bishop
John Bishop (Ewan McGregor)

It’s not a Civil War movie, but the recent war has clearly left its mark on the characters, in all sorts of ways, as when the aristocratic John Bishop (who clearly avoided serving on either side) jovially shows off his war souvenirs to Frost. He casually tells the former soldier, while regarding an officer’s pistol used at the battle of Shiloh: “Shiloh means ‘place of peace’ in Hebrew.” Frost, having become all too familiar with the horrors of war, grimly replies, “Ain’t nothin’ peaceful about Shiloh.”

Much of the film is about coming to terms with the after-effects of something horrible, whether it’s Jane overcoming what Bishop and his gang did to her, or Dan overcoming his suffering in a prison camp. And that’s why it’s set in the post-war West, when the country was struggling to build anew, after enduring trauma.

Jane Got a Gun is a film about healing. It’s hard to imagine a film more out of sync with the atmosphere of 2016.

***

In an interview promoting the film, Portman described it as “very American.” Indeed, I’d argue that Jane Got a Gun is possibly one of the most quintessentially American movies made since the turn of the century. It’s a Western, which is the stereotypically American genre. It’s about a pivotal period in the nation’s history–essentially, a re-founding period when the modern United States was being created.

And to quote from the production notes:

Jane Got a Gun was created by an international grouping of cast and filmmakers including Australians Joel Edgerton and director of photography Mandy Walker, Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, and Irish dialect coach Gerry Grinnell-all bringing to new perspectives to the classic American Western.

Portman offers, “It’s always wonderful when people make art in unfamiliar surroundings. Tolstoy’s theory is about how art is about making things strange, and with an Australian and a Brazilian on board it’s already strange and so it’s immediately art. That’s why Sergio Leone made such great Westerns – to have that completely different, non-American vision of the West.”

Put all this together with the production difficulties, and you have a behind-the-scenes narrative that’s nearly as much of a romanticized vision of America as the classic Western genre itself. In my second blog post about the film, I wrote:

Jane Got a Gun evokes the best of the American frontier mythology: hope and triumph in the face of harsh and unforgiving circumstances. That it has such a diverse international cast and crew only adds to this feeling, as people of different nations coming together is very much the story of America itself.

There have been times when I think about these kinds of assertions and wonder, “Am I overstating this? Reading too much into it; seeing things that aren’t there?” I’ve been known to do that sometimes, so it’s certainly possible.

But then there’s this behind-the-scenes photo:

Jane Flag
Left to right: Edgerton, Portman and Tambakis. Source

***

Does Jane Got a Gun still matter? Maybe that’s the wrong question. With the exceptions of the people who made it and me, it’s not clear that Jane Got a Gun mattered much to anybody in January 2016.

Does it matter to anyone else now, five years later?

This is the part where I’m supposed to say something like, ‘I’d argue that it does, because…’ or something of the sort. Certainly, it would be pretty rotten of me to lead you all the way down this particularly winding memory lane only to tell you no, it doesn’t matter.

But I can’t answer the question. It’s your call to make, dear reader; not mine. Pretentious critics–again, like me–think we can persuade people, that we can shape tastes, that we can, in some sense, tell people what to think of a film, or a book, or a painting. But we can’t. All we can really do is describe the complex, personal reactions that we have to art.

***

The really key scene in Jane Got a Gun; the one that I think is the emotional heart of it, is the one I mentioned at the start of this post, where for a moment, I was concerned the plot would go in a really stupid direction. It’s the scene where Jane walks out to Dan as he’s digging a defensive trench. Seeing him again has brought back a lot of memories for Jane, and she wants to try to smooth things over with him, on what could be their last day alive. So she says, “Why’d you change your mind to help me?”

Jane knows the answer, of course; and so does Dan: he loves her, even though he thinks she left him for another man, even though he’s probably going to die because of her–he loves her. But Dan is still furious at her, and besides which, she’s married. So he can’t say it, instead grumbling, “I dunno.”

This escalates to a tense discussion in which the two former lovers rehash their past, and all the choices that led them here, each one increasingly blaming the other, until finally Jane says, “You know what, Dan…”

I thought she was going to tell him to leave. I foresaw the most hackneyed Hollywood story imaginable: Jane tells him to get lost, Dan rides off in a huff, only to ride back in at the 11th hour and save the day.

But that didn’t happen. What happened instead is what sets Jane Got a Gun apart.

***

In an interview with Elle magazine in 2013–shortly after filming wrapped on Jane Got a GunPortman said:

The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a “feminist” story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.

One of the contemporary criticisms of Jane Got a Gun was exactly this–that Jane doesn’t single-handedly go in guns-blazing and wipe out Bishop and his gang. Jane Ballard isn’t a one-woman army, and if she were, the film would be worse for it. She fights back, but she does so in a way that makes her relatable.

She is, in other words, “a real person that we can empathize with.”

The film works, or doesn’t, to the extent that the audience is prepared to empathize with the characters. That might be true of most films, although I’d hesitate to say “all films”–there are some that pretty clearly rely solely on spectacle or nostalgia or fan service to sell themselves. That’s one reason Hollywood loves their sequels and franchises so much: it’s easier to expect audiences to continue following characters they already know.

Jane Got a Gun is a throwback to another era of filmmaking. That much is obvious just by virtue of it being a Western. Westerns used to be a staple of Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s, but have since become increasingly rare. It’s also a throwback in its self-contained nature. Even if it had been a financial success, it’s hard to imagine it spawning a “Jane Ballard” franchise.

It’s a good match for me, because I am a throwback to a different era of filmgoer. I follow movie stars more than franchises, much as audiences did at the height of classic cinema. I saw Jane Got a Gun because it had Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor in it. (And after seeing it, I watched a bunch of Joel Edgerton films.)

I love the film for the cast’s expressive performances, that communicate so much in so few words. I love the haunting, melancholy soundtrack.  I love the vast, sprawling desert setting that is both harsh and beautiful. I love the tight, spare script, that takes us on a journey that is at times very dark, but ultimately uplifting. I’m not ashamed to say I think I could recite the entire film from memory, but I’ll end this retrospective by quoting just two more lines.

The first is the one that I’ve been teasing you with throughout this review. The one that encapsulates the film’s theme–the empathetic optimism that enables Jane to triumph over all the darkness in her life. The line she says after, “You know what, Dan…” The script might have gone any number of directions just then, and maybe in previous iterations, it did.

But what Jane says next is the insight that makes me come back to it again and again, that makes it a film so blatantly out of step with the cultural mood of its epoch, and so wonderfully timeless. After everything she’s suffered, all the misery she’s had to endure, Jane takes a deep breath to collect herself and says to her former lover:

You might want to see a day where the sun don’t just shine on your story. Because there is a whole world out there of other people’s tales, if you just care and listen.

To which, dear reader, I will append only these words, that Dan says to Bill Hammond at a particularly tense moment:

…and I want you to think about that with the shank of time that you’ve got left.

***

Who doesn’t love a good dystopia? To read about, I mean.

The country (maybe more of a city-state) of Deres-Thorm is a bizarre, surreal nightmare, evocative of North Korea, East Berlin, and every other totalitarian dystopia. The unsuspecting narrator, Horus Blassingame, is thrown from one bizarre obstacle to another, whether it’s from the constantly changing street and building names, the two distinct dialects, or the constant paranoia of the security forces.

The book is darkly comic, with an emphasis on the dark. There are some scenes that are not too far off of Room 101 from Nineteen Eighty-Four. Still, the narrator remains relatively upbeat, despite the torturous conditions he often finds himself in.

It’s a very funny satire on the kinds of horrors that can occur in a Stalinist bureaucracy. I’d call it Kafkaesque, although I’ve never read Kafka, so I may be wrong. But it certainly sounds like the sort of thing I’ve heard people call “Kafkaesque.” (And, well, it says so on the cover.) It also called to mind G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, with its surreal and simultaneously funny and disturbing takes on political theory.

I like the book a lot, so I don’t want the following complaints to be misconstrued as reasons not to read it. But I have to put them out there all the same.

First, the only named female character (not counting the genderless Th’pugga) is a prostitute. This is a pet peeve of mine, but I swear, so much modern fiction gives you the idea that prostitution is always and everywhere running rampant. Yes, yes, I know; “world’s oldest profession” and all that; but really.

The second point isn’t even really a criticism, but more of an observation. The most significant exchange in the book, which sums up the entire philosophy governing Deres-Thorm, is when the main antagonist, Pokska, explains that citizens are bound by the laws of their own countries while in Deres-Thorm, just as all citizens of Deres-Thorm are bound by their laws no matter where they are in the world. The logic behind this, he elaborates, is that “the citizen is the property of the State.”

This is pretty horrifying, right? It’s close to a re-formulation of Mussolini’s “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state.” It’s basically the central concept of totalitarianism, and the reader is not slow in seeing how it can lead to exactly the kinds of horrors depicted in this book–not to mention in real life.

But, wait. What is the state? The state is legalized violence, because the state has a monopoly on the legal use of force. (Don’t take my word for it, take Max Weber’s, one of the founders of modern sociology.) In governments structured as liberal democracies and constitutional republics, the people consent to authorize the state to use violence. We issue them a badge, as it were. In other, more brutal forms of government, the state doesn’t need to show the people any stinkin’ badges.

This is an important difference, and I don’t want to minimize it. But… even in liberal democracies… the state still has the authority to deprive us of our freedoms, if it has some reason to do so. Theoretically, at least, the people can hold the state accountable so that it will use its terrible powers only for good. Theoretically. But it has terrible powers, all the same…

My point is, the state kind of does own the citizen, by definition.  It can pretend it doesn’t; it can put all sorts of accountability measures and checks and balances in place–and it should, and it does. But still.

And yet, not every state is a hellish Orwellian nightmare. So the state owns the people. So what? Just because you own something doesn’t mean you’ll destroy or mistreat it. Generally the opposite, actually. The problem is when the machinery of the state is controlled by psychopaths. Which, admittedly, happens alarmingly often. And even once is too often. Obviously, the power of the state is alluring to psychopaths, with results like those seen in A True Map of the City.

What I’m driving at here, in my usual roundabout way, is that the book seems to be trying to determine what it is that makes a government go insane and stop serving its people, and instead become a simple exercise in power for power’s sake; to preserve by any means necessary the status of the ruling class.

What we’re really trying to figure out is, “what is the root of tyrannical government?” To determine exactly how creeps like Pokska and Th’pugga came to be running the show in Deres-Thorm.

In an early draft of this review, I had a much longer section on this question, referencing Lord Acton and Plato’s Republic and lots of other stuff like that on the origins of tyranny. But I cut that, because it was wandering too far from the topic at hand. I didn’t want to do that to you. (Again.) But I hope I’ve at least convinced you that there are lots of big ideas in this little book. Maybe some powerful mind will do a truly cogent interpretation of it, like Christopher Hitchens on Nineteen Eighty-Four.  But as of right now it only has one review on Amazon, (5 stars, of course) so I think I can safely say it needs more readers.

I’m not sure where to begin with this book. Perhaps a good way to start would be to define what kind of book it is, but you see, there are layers to it. You could approach it in a number of different ways.

One avenue would be to say it’s a romance. The protagonist, Dr. Alasandr Say, is in love with a fellow physicist named Penny. Only that’s not the romance. That’s backstory. Dr. Say goes to a remote village in Scotland as his first post-doctoral research assignment. He has been hired by the foul-tempered Lord Learmonte to transcribe notes taken by an ancestor of the latter, a mysterious scientist whose own research produced a number of bizarre results.

You see though, already I’m getting off-track, because I haven’t gotten to the romance part. Dr. Say strikes up a friendship with Nesta, Lord Learmonte’s daughter, who is being pressured by her father into an arranged marriage with an old family friend.

It’s a classic Victorian romance, or comedy of manners–a drama about engagements made for reasons of family business competing with the desires of the heart. It’s full of well-mannered upper-class society folks holding gatherings, with ladies in dresses and men in suits, all set against the backdrop of a dreamy glen in Scotland. Dr. Say even gallantly assists Nesta after she falls into a river, in a scene straight out of Victorian literature that is charming in its modesty.

Except… it’s not set in the 1800s.  Rather, it takes place in a future where much of modern technology has been rendered useless by sun-storms–bursts of energy from the sun that wrought catastrophic damage on the modern world, which is still recovering. The reason for the revival of the old-time fashions is to cover people’s skin against the powerful solar rays. This is retro-futuristic world-building at its finest.

And what is Dr. Say researching, exactly, while on his romantic summer retreat into a dreamy wilderness? It has something to do with the powerful electrical storms that well up nightly, originating from the site of Lord Learmonte’s ancestor’s laboratory. Storms which may be somehow connected to the solar anomalies of decades past, and which local superstition maintains are connected with supernatural forces–such as the glowing will-o’-the-wisps that appear late at night, known as the “Riders” from the “Otherworld.”

You see? I told you this book had layers. Sometimes I felt like I was reading Austen or even Wodehouse; other times it felt closer to something by Jeff Vandermeer.  The closest analogue I can think of is Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes, a book that combined interpersonal drama with scientific research and a dash of pure magical fantasy. Not many books give you romance, magic, mystery, and glimpses into the politics of scientific research funding, but Ocean Echoes does, and A Summer in Amber does too.

I could go on more about how much I enjoyed this book, but it seems better to let you discover the mysteries and bewitching atmosphere of Glen Lonon and Maig Glen for yourself. It’s a marvelous place. Be sure to check out some of the supplemental material, such as maps etc., on the author’s blog.