The Sky is Falling:
A Review of Ryan Call’s The Weather Stations
In Season Six of Doctor Who, one of the most highly anticipated episodes was written by Neil Gaiman, the author known for his Sandman series along with his novels like American Gods and Coraline. In this episode, the Doctor and his companions Amy and Rory crash land on an asteroid in an alternate universe. During this episode, we learn that the asteroid is a sentient planet that has trapped the soul of the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space, or the blue police box that is a time machine) in a woman.
This is a perfect example of what Gaiman does so well: personify an abstract concept, such as Death, Desire, and Dream in Sandman and media and celebrity in American Gods. Of course, this only works if an author can figure out what makes an abstract concept human. In the case of the TARDIS, we see her child-like acquisition of language and her relationship with the doctor, one that quickly resembles an old married couple who bicker about which way the TARDIS’s door opens and who stole whom. We can also see how a time machine has trouble inhabiting a body that experiences time in a linear fashion, as she constantly references things that will happen in the future. (Her first words are goodbye and her last are hello.)
All of this is a long way of introducing Ryan Call’s superb collection of stories, Weather Stations, in which the weather is not just a convenient backdrop but often a living organism that acts as metaphor and antagonist. In many of the stories, the weather is a hostile, unpredictable force that characters must constantly struggle against. Some characters attempt to wield the destructive force as a weapon (“Anvil”), while others patch the crumbling holes in the sky (“The Architect’s Apprentice”), and still others build low-lying structures to avoid infringing on the weather’s space (“Windswept”).
Impressively, Ryan Call uses meteorological terminology without becoming repetitive or requiring the reader to get a degree in meteorology. In “The Walker Circulation,” people take on the characteristics of weather patterns— a cool, rainy logic or a hot, sandstorm passion. When the little boy Walker is born, his parents “anxiously shook him into the atmosphere of the living room, let him develop, watched him convect amid the cushions of the couch.” Call also provides enough specific detail to render these worlds believable, especially with regard to distinct weather patterns. Later on, Walker’s parents discover “the violent origins of lightning and thunder,” which are the consequences of “his parents’ colliding fronts.”
But like the Doctor Who episode, what makes these stories so successful is how achingly human they are. The hyperbolic weather patterns allow Ryan Call to investigate essential human relationships in new ways. In “I Pilot My Bed Deep Into the Night,” the young narrator watches his brother fly off to war and must deal with the fear and uncertainty that comes from watching a family member leave to fight a conflict they may not return from. In “The Walker Circulation” two parents must come to terms with the imminent and unavoidable death of their child, while in “Age Hung Us Out to Dry,” two children must deal with the disappearance of their father. In all of these stories, the weather becomes metaphor for all of those unpredictable forces in our lives that render our relationships asunder: time, war, emotional distance, death. And it is this fact that gives these stories such emotional resonance. Just like Sarah Rose Etter, another young author recently published by Caketrain, Ryan Call is someone to watch out for, a writer whose staggering emotional maturity and depth can only deepen with time.
Plumb the Depths:
The Beautiful Precision of Ethel Rohan’s Cut Through the Bone
In Act I of Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is growing increasingly upset at his lack of accomplishment. At sixty years old, he is working on commission, he can’t manage to pay his bills without borrowing money from his neighbor, and his son Biff is working odd jobs on ranches out West, directionless. Willy bemoans the current state of life to his wife, Linda. He has been working his entire life and it has all added up to nothing. Even when they finally pay off their house, there will be nobody to live in it, to which Linda replies, “Well, dear, life is a casting off. It’s always that way.”
Few writers understand this truth better than Ethel Rohan in her collection of stories, Cut Through the Bone. In each story, Rohan explores characters that have spent their lives gathering husbands and lovers and children and limbs and then losing them one by one. Rohan explores each loss deftly, with a depth that hardly seems possible considering each story’s concision. In the story “All There, Waiting,” a husband and wife have lost a child, and the husband cannot understand the wife’s desire to get on with their lives. As she does so well throughout the collection, Rohan transforms an innocuous detail into an emotional revelation for both the character and the reader. “He is craving cheese. String cheese. Something he can peel and peel. He does not want to eat the cheese. He wants to smear the cheese on the mural, over the boy, park, fish, and truck.” Some characters seek solace from the emptiness—a grandmother draws a face on a balloon, a woman orders lifelike baby dolls to care for, another woman wears bright red lipstick and a wig to appease the woman in her chest—while others face the void head-on, like the narrator of “On the Loose,” a pitch-perfect story that evokes a scene of random cruelty and terror.
To my surprise, I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy not so much in the subject matter but in the economy of language and intensity of emotion that never veers into melodrama or preciousness. The thirty stories in this collection take up merely 112 pages, and though many could be considered flash fiction, averaging between one and a half to two pages, each story contains a clear character arc and an emotional revelation. The joy of peeling away each emotional layer approaches the divine origin of James Joyce’s epiphany. In fact, the title of the collection, Cut Through the Bone, is an eloquent exhortation to all writers to slice into the very core of their characters in order to reach that empty space that we try to fill with the meaningless chatter of late-night television and summer blockbusters and endless Twitter updates. Do not shy away from the emptiness that thrums in all of us. Plumb the depths and see what soft-bodied animals emerge.
With Emprise Review shutting its electronic doors, I decided to post the reviews I wrote for that publication. There really isn’t much point to it– all the books have been out for a while and are doing quite well– but some part of me wanted these to exist, madly clutching their 1s and 0s.
So here we go!
Down the Rabbit Hole:
A Review of Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party
When I first received Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party in the mail, I knew nothing about it other than it had won the 2010 Caketrain chapbook competition. In hindsight, I’m extremely glad I knew nothing about this collection, because watching each beautiful, terrifying, utterly bizarre story unfold is part of what makes reading this cohesive collection so enjoyable.
Reading each story is a delightful trip down the rabbit hole. Many of the female protagonists live in worlds ruled by the dizzying logic of nightmares, struggling against situations beyond their control. In the title story, the protagonist must attend the tongue party, because, well, she must. While later we learn more about the relationship between the narrator and her father (one of several characters who abuses a position of authority and trust), the narrator never stands up and says, “No, I will not attend the tongue party.” The tongue party is as central to her reality as going to the DMV is in ours, and through it, we are able to experience the rawness of her fear and her desire for love. In fact, at no point does any character question the reality they find themselves in; like dreams, we don’t realize something is amiss while the dream is happening. And because Etter builds each world with such detailed, logical precision, we as readers don’t question what is happening either.
But each story is more than just a central conceit taken to its logical conclusion. All of the stories examine those base, fundamental desires that drive us—lust, hunger, despair, addiction. In “Koala Tide,” the first story that sets the tone of the entire collection, a young girl is waiting for the koala tide: “I knew once the koalas came, things would be different.” Etter skillfully evokes the certainty inherent in childhood that things will be better tomorrow only to crush the young narrator (and the reader) with the knowledge that grown-ups are often disappointing assholes and adulthood can be a terrifying reality. In “Husband Feeder,” a husband’s appetite rages out of control, and he eats everything in the house, until the wife performs the ultimate sacrifice to satiate his hunger. While some of the endings are not terribly surprising (the previously mentioned story’s ending was apparent by the second page), the joy of reading these stories comes from the total and complete immersion into each world coupled with Etter’s controlled, restrained style. Most of the sentences are deceptively simple, well-constructed gems that allow the central emotional core of the story to emerge, raw and wet.
By the time I finished the slim, 79 page volume, I wanted more. My only consolation is the knowledge that this will not be the last collection from the extremely talented Etter.
Snow White and the Huntsman is an appropriate name for this movie, since that is all we know about either character. She is Snow White. He is the Huntsman. The only person with even a little bit of character development is the evil Queen Ravenna, who is obsessed with Hollywood-standard beauty and youth. Ravenna hates all men except her brother; in her eyes, men use women until they are old and ugly and then replace them with someone younger. In true “You Become What You Most Despise” fashion, the queen must literally consume the life of young girls to stay young and beautiful. There is an obvious parallel to our contemporary culture, and Charlize Theron spends much of each scene chewing the furniture, but with depth in short supply, I was eager to gobble up even the slightest hint of motivation.
The beginning takes us through the familiar story with a few twists. The King and Queen live in harmony, and they have a daughter who is super pretty. Once the Queen dies, the King finds a totally hot babe “captured” by some mystical shard-guards (Ravenna), and then he marries her. Ravenna kills the King, locks up Snow White, creates a blight on the land, and then discovers that consuming Snow White’s heart is the key to remaining young forever. Luckily, Snow White escapes into the Dark Forest, where everyone else is afraid to go. (Sort of… mostly their horses get stuck in some quicksand-mud on the outskirts, so it is unclear whether or not they would have followed.) The Queen finds the only person in existence who has travelled through the forest, and since the only thing we ever learn about this Huntsman is that he misses his dead wife, she offers to bring his wife back in exchange for Snow White.
Inside the forest, Snow White encounters some beautiful and slightly ominous foliage and some shadowy Dementors or Ringwraiths that we never see again. She then inhales some spores and passes out. When she wakes up, the Huntsman is leading the Queen’s brother and a group of no-name soldiers to capture her. The movie burns through all of the conflicts it sets up pretty quickly. Snow White hides from the Huntsman, and he finds her within seconds. The Queen’s brother immediately reveals that the Queen was totally lying about that whole bringing people back from the dead thing. The Huntsman reacts exactly as we expect him to: he protects Snow White, fights all of the faceless henchmen, attempts to abandon her in the forest, and then, for no discernible reason, agrees to lead her through the forest. There is one brief moment of danger when Snow White walks into a cluster of snakes, and another when they encounter a troll on the bridge leading out of the forest, but Snow White Caesar Milans the troll into submission through her mystical connection with nature or something, and they leave.
Even worse than the pacing is the lack of development or cohesion among the disparate elements. Yes, everything is very pretty, but the prettiness doesn’t mean anything. For starters, I’m not sure what the Dark Forest is. I get that it is a forest, and it is dark and perhaps dangerous, but why? What is the mythology of this forest and how does it fit into the rest of the world? Is Snow White truly in danger here, or could she pass through unharmed? She needs to be saved from the snakes, but she is able to control the troll since she is the embodiment of innocence and life and all that. It makes no sense.
Sadly, the movie just ignores these questions altogether. It seems more concerned with moving us quickly (and then obnoxiously slowly) through re-imagined scenes of the fairy tale. It also doesn’t mind borrowing copiously from other movies, including Tolkien dwarves, the Princess Mononoke grove with forest spirit, and a Never-Ending Story-esque loss of a horse in a quagmire. Much of the movie I spent waiting for each recognizable element—ah, there’s the mirror, there’s the poisoned apple, and of course, the kiss from the prince is (surprise!) the Huntsman. Bet you didn’t see that coming! Actually, I didn’t, since there was no time spent on any blossoming romance between them.
There were also some opportunities for true darkness, but what this movie fails to realize is that darkness needs context to mean anything. True darkness is not just absence of light, but it is watching characters confront powerful external forces that often represent our own fears or tendencies. Obviously the Dark Forest was a missed opportunity. But take the fishing village, for example. The women there have scarred themselves to avoid the Queen’s gaze. That’s pretty cool, but really, the scars are old, well-healed and perfectly straight lines on otherwise gorgeous faces. How about true disfigurement? Something that makes the audience (and possibly also Snow White, the most beautiful of all) uncomfortable to look at?
Finally, blissfully, we reach the end of the movie, where the roused Snow White delivers a stirring speech to a group of ragtag outlaws in her nightie. At this point, the movie seems to forget that she is supposed to be the embodiment of innocence and virtue. She dons some armor, leads everyone into a bloody battle, and as her protectors are fighting some animated shards of glass, she stabs the Queen with her dagger. What would have been an interesting twist is to see her not heal the land, as she is no longer the embodiment of innocence. (She totally just killed a bitch, after all.) Once the Queen is dead, Snow White looks into The Mirror, and since it is a burnished shield, I got the sense that there weren’t many mirrors in this world. How cool would it have been if this was the first time she had seen herself, if the sight of her own beauty changed her? Does innocence always become experience, and is experience always corrupting?
I guess we’ll never know. In the end, some flowers start growing, which means the kingdom is healed, blah blah blah. What this movie really needed was a purpose beyond re-imagining every single element from the original story. (Instead of being green, the poisoned apple is now… furry.) One movie that seems to have accomplished this, oddly enough, is Amanda Seyfried’s Little Red Riding Hood. Since I’m not a fourteen-year-old girl, I didn’t see the movie, but the trailer seems to have captured the whole coming of age, societal expectation of purity and virtue vs. sexual experience angle. Of course, it does so with obvious color symbolism, Amanda Seyfried’s doll-like sexuality, and werewolves. Still, that sort of thing better approximates the point of fairy tales, especially our modern interpretation of them.
If only Snow White and the Huntsman could have pushed the whole beauty/youth/innocence/experience angle a bit further (and maybe developed more than one character), this could have been an interesting movie. As it stands, it is pretty but empty, just like Snow White.