#003 — Isn’t That Just Chess?

Hi, hello, how are you? It’s another (not guaranteed to be weekly, but currently — apparently — weekly) update from me, Adam Wood, writing to you from a corner of Oxford where the Low Traffic Network has been instantiated! If you judged solely by the tone of conversations between some of our neighbours, you’d think it was a HUGE DEAL, but as far as I can tell, it just means we can only turn one way at the end of the street.

This week I read Mieko Kawakami’s novel Heaven (2021). At its simplest, this is a novel about the experiences of isolation and pervasive fear suffered by young victims of bullying. The book’s two central characters are subjected to horrendous abuse at the hands of their fellow students, their situations increasingly desperate as the narrative moves along.

I was impressed by the way Kawakami sets up her characters’ dire circumstances, and then employs first-person narration to explore the complex web of emotions they engender. At first the narrator (named in the text only as “Eyes” – the nickname forced upon him by his bullies, in reference to his strabismus) finds solace when he forms a relationship with classmate Kojima, herself bullied for her perceived uncleanliness. Throughout the text, however, Kawakami uses this relationship to explore the diverse reactions to their predicament that bullied children may have. This includes Kojima’s desire to nurture in them both what she thinks of as ‘a beautiful weakness’ (p128). The author has said that her primary motivation for writing the novel was that she “really wanted to show the fourteen-year-old narrator how the story ends”. Of the novel’s many strengths, this central relationship is exceptionally well written, and had me yearning for a positive resolution throughout.

I also found Kawakami’s writing — as translated by Sam Bett & David Boyd — to be frequently beautiful despite the often dark subject matter: houses are built of ‘stately bricks the color of roasted tea’ (p48) and cicadas sing ‘in chorus out of sight, pinning the heat down around us’ (p53). It helps enrich the narrator’s view of the world, letting the reader know where he continues to find light amongst his tribulations.

Admirably, Kawakami also takes the novel a step further. From roots in the conversations about why bullies act the way they do, and why those bullied respond as they do, the discourse grows to include a wider discussion around agency, values, and self-possessed meaning. It’s this philosophical strain, which grows in prominence towards the novel’s conclusion, that elevated the book for me.

The novel is one of six shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, which will be awarded this coming Thursday (26 May); the ceremony will be streamed live on YouTube from 21:45 BST.

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Speaking of novels shortlisted for soon-to-be-announced literary prizes… let me slide a mention in here of this summer’s Sipped Ink read-along. Starting with an introduction on 5 Jun, we’re reading Maggie Shipstead’s wonderful, epic novel Great Circle (2021) — you can find all the information, and sign up to read with us, at this page right here.

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This week the leaked draft opinion from the US Supreme Court was on my mind, and that shaped a lot of what I was reading and watching. As such, if abortion isn’t a topic you’re comfortable reading about right now, you might want to skip ahead to the next section.

Still here? I’ve actually chosen to split this material into a couple of parts. Over on my personal notebook site, I’ve posted a set of links to the best pieces of journalism I read in the last week, about the prospect of a reversal of Roe v Wade. You can find that material — along with excerpts from pieces in New York magazine, Vox, The Highlight, The New Yorker, & Jezebel — by following this link. Below, you’ll find a few notes on the fictional, fiction-adjacent, and documentary films I watched this week that take abortion as their subject.

Just before we get to that, however, let me sneak in one more recommendation: episode 48 of the Strict Scrutiny podcast — ‘What’s Next in a Post-Roe World’ — is a superb overview of the current situation, by Supreme Court watchers, legal scholars, and a professor of Obstetrics, Gynaecology & Reproductive Sciences. If you only engage with one item on these lists, that 80 minute conversation is where I’d spend my time. OK, onto the films:

Saint Frances dir. Alex Thompson (2019)

This was a rewatch for me, and it was an absolute pleasure to return to this story of a woman feeling stalled in her life, who gains fresh perspective from her relationship with the precocious six-year-old she’s hired to care for. As a prominent b-blot, the film treats Bridget’s abortion as a choice over which she has full control and few misgivings, but is smart about showing the myriad ways in which it impacts her life, her relationships, and her health.

Side note: the performance here by six-year-old Ramona Edith Williams is legitimately one of the funniest, most charming child performances I’ve seen.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always dir. Eliza Hittman (2019)

This had been on my list since it picked up multiple accolades on the festival circuit in 2020; now felt like the right time to watch it. Subtly made, this is the story of 17-year-old Autumn’s journey to obtain an abortion. The film is an unflinching, thorough look at the complex systems of control faced by women in modern America: social, financial, medical, religious etc. I found the decision to depict every character with a Y chromosome as at best a nuisance, and at worst a threat, to be an effective realisation of Autumn’s state of mind. You can feel your heart grow heavier and heavier as Autumn’s journey continues — it’s a brilliantly effective piece of cinema.

Side note: the actress who plays Autumn’s mother is Sharon Van Etten, who has a new album out this month — We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong — which I really enjoyed on first listen.

Happening dir. Audrey Diwan (2021)

Based on the memoir by Annie Ernaux — L’Événement (2000) — this is the story of her unwanted pregnancy in early-1960s France. Beautifully shot, and with a powerful central performance, the film employs to great effect some of the techniques of thriller — or even horror — cinema. Alongside Anne, the audience is made to feel her increasingly dire situation, her struggle against helplessness, and her mounting desperation. As emotionally heavy as NVSA, but also more viscerally physical, Happening is a masterful piece of cinema, but also a shocking and draining experience.

Side note 1: I saw Happening at Oxford’s only remaining independent cinema, the Ultimate Picture Palace, which is currently in the middle of a campaign to transfer to a community ownership model.

Side note 2: On the back of the seat in front of me was a small plaque, featuring a quote from Nora Ephron: ‘Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.’

Side note 3: Happening would make an interesting double-bill with another French gem from last year: Julie Ducournau’s Titanemy notes on that film are here.

Reversing Roe dir. Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg (2018)

I also watched this documentary, which provides a useful overview of the American political landscape around abortion, both before and after the decision in Roe v Wade (1973). The film (made in 2018) obviously only has insight into the first half of the Trump presidency: it was released prior to Brett Kavanaugh assuming office on the Supreme Court, and cannot predict the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and her succession by Amy Coney Barrett. Nevertheless, its contextualising work, and the insight it provides into the lives of some of the people involved on either side of the issue, remains valuable.

This week saw resolution to a long-running and confusing saga for The Believer, the arts & culture magazine founded in 2003, and originally published by the folks at McSweeney’s. Back in 2017 the magazine was purchased — for reasons I never really understood — by the Black Mountain Institute, a literature centre at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Last year, the UNLV stopped funding the magazine, and announced that it would be closed. McSweeney’s apparently made a bid to purchase it back, which was rejected by UNLV in favour of selling it to some kind of digital media holding company: Paradise Media, allegedly for the sum of $225,000.

Paradise seemingly put the magazine under the auspices of another of their outlets: Sex Toy Collective, whose Twitter bio reads:

Reviews, tools, and guides for a more open and sex-positive future. We only review 100% body-safe non-toxic sex toys!

Their ‘business model’ for The Believer seemingly involved (and perhaps extended to) using it to host adverts for adult products and services. Sort of like your local library moving to the back room of a vape shop. This week, following a fair bit of outcry, Paradise have agreed to sell the magazine back to McSweeney’s. Paradise CEO Ian Moe, quoted in the NY Times, says “They can do a much better job than us.” Yup.

Now comes the harder part: McSweeney’s have started fundraising to restore The Believer to its former glory.

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Finally — because I am nothing if not a creature of habit — here are some bullets to round us out:

• My beloved Chicago Cubs are — at best — not great this year, but moments like this are still worth celebrating

• Only 20% of literary fiction readers are men:

But men who spend too much time indoors, reading novels and living their lives vicariously through the trials and tribulations of others, were widely considered cucks. A man’s literary interest had to be justified by ambition, linked to his masculine capacity for action, or contextualised in real-world exploration.

• Just give them their big stones back already

• I have questions about this board game I spotted…

• A pair of musical highlights this week: ’Summer 1’ from Max Richter’s reworking of Vivaldi; and Kieran Hebden put out a new track under his KH alias: ‘Look at Your Pager’ (I also love the cover for the latter, by Trevor Jackson)

That’s it — I’m done for the week. I’m sorry this issue was a little on the emotionally heavy side. This newsletter has no function other than sharing what’s been on my mind, whatever that may be. Next week, for example, I’m hoping to finish up a video game I really want to to talk to you about!

I don’t know a lot of detail about how email junk filters work, but I’m pretty sure a whole bunch of links and a couple of mentions of the Sex Toy Collective have hurt my chances of reaching your inbox. That’s OK — getting my newsletter blacklisted on its third issue is exactly my flavour of self-sabotage. If you did get this, you can always forward it to a friend, or hit reply and let me know. I wish you the best of all possible weeks.


— Adam

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Adam Wood @adam