My first encounter with The Staves was in the most mundane of places: a lift. It was a couple of years ago and they were playing downstairs in the venue where I work, and I remember being pretty gutted that I was working that Saturday night and couldn’t go and see them. Anyway, I’d mostly forgotten that they were playing by the time I was actually on shift. I got in the lift with my stack of glass trays and as the lift stopped at the next floor, three young women stepped in. I recall being in awe of their beautiful hair, dresses and denim and I knew instantly that they must be The Staves – they seemed even cooler in real life. I had a burning urge to blurt out I love your music but instead I stared down at my crates of dirty glasses, listening to them chat casually about where they were going to go for dinner that night. Rock and roll, huh?
Well last night I got to see them live (properly). When they played a couple of years ago, I got to nip downstairs for a quick look once service had quietened down. Instantly I was hooked by their soaring harmonies, and it was pretty rubbish having to drag myself back upstairs to work. With a full set, the spell never breaks. A venue like The Old Fruitmarket seems perfect for them, with just the right amount of nostalgic quaintness mixed in with a kind of gritty city cool: colourful fairy lights but also decent spirits behind the bar, a balcony which you can watch the stage from. They had support from Gabriel Rios who played this sort of expressive, beat-heavy folk music. Each song seemed to tell a story, and Rios himself was very comfortable chatting away between sets about Scotland’s breathtaking scenery and the even more breathtaking brownie he had sampled nearby before the show. I should add that the beats were made on a gorgeous big double bass; you know, the kind of fist-tapping thwack that echoes beautifully, syncopating with sweet strings to have you hooked. Anyway, it was a really interesting dynamic, with neat guitar playing and the strings and the rocky/hiphoppy/folky vocals. Yeah, something like that.
The Staves themselves arrived onstage not long after. Up amongst the blue plumes of smoke, they seem so ethereal, their voices suddenly soaring through the silent air, shimmering drum rolls and percussion accompanying but only after a while, like a rain shower after the first burst of sunlight. You can’t help but think of all sorts of mythical sisters: those of the tv show Charmed, for one. Especially when they do that thing where they gather round the mic and sing all these amazing, breathtaking harmonies which even the adoring crowd refuses to interrupt (till all the whooping cheers afterwards). They played lots of familiar songs, with key tracks from the new album, If I Was, like ‘Black and White’ and ‘Blood I Bled’ mixed in with shorter songs, samples of harmonies and snatches of tracks the audience hasn’t heard before. In-between songs, they lit up the stage with bits of sibling banter, telling us about how as kids they bonded together as a “triad/tripod/tricycle” and shut out their parents by developing a dialect borrowed from The Simpsons, Clueless and various other random films and tv shows. While one of them wistfully dedicates the next song to their parents, “wherever you may be”, another retorts “I’m pretty sure they’ll be in Watford right now” – cue giggles and mock gazing out over the ocean of dry iced audience. There are a lot of giggles and chat and you can tell they’ve really grown relaxed with their stage presence, and it really draws the audience in too. Just the right balance between ethereal and down-to-earth politeness, with that very English way of complimenting everything – the crowd, venue, support act – whenever they can: “This venue is fucking amazing”.
It all flows together perfectly, and the enchanting quality of their music comes through most, perhaps, on the handful of sweeter, more pared-down tracks they played from their debut album, Dead & Born & Grown. You get that sense of their pure, raw talent on more stripped-back tracks like ‘Eagle Song’, which has haunting sort of folky lyrics and there’s a sense of nostalgia to it: Oh, to be lost, / Oh, to be wasting my time. There’s also a feeling of deep history and time – Of old battles lost, battles won – and then the hopeful kick: Call me in the morning I’ll be alright. It’s a comforting song; one of my favourites. The new tracks have a bolder edge, but they have kept earlier material fresh with a more upbeat version of the lovely ‘Mexico’ from Dead & Born & Grown. It all just sounds amazing: clear, vivid, strong and tight. You can tell they are really great musicians, experimenting with loops and percussion and again firing out those haunting harmonies. They even threw in a cover of Bombay Bicycle Club’s ‘Feel’, which was really cool and successfully reworked the poppy Bollywood mashup feel of the original using their signature strings, sparkling guitar and those crystal clear, melodic voices.
There’s something I recall Conor Oberst saying about First Aid Kit in an interview/some video online, commenting on how they have this mystical sisterly quality about them that carries through in their voices. You really feel that too with The Staves. They have this lovely innocence in their earlier songs, which have a deep folkiness, a softer kind of choral vibe (a bit like Fleet Foxes) which is steeped in landscape (‘Winter Trees’ will forever remind me of one of my first winters at university, wandering around Kelvingrove in the crunching snow). Their cover of ‘Silver Dagger’ (unfortunately it wasn’t played last night) is just as lovely as Fleet Foxes’ and perhaps a fitting tribute to older folk legends: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, for one example. The new album is certainly edgier and perhaps more fun (rock’n’roll?), but also has its dark, lonesome moments (fittingly, it was produced by Bon Iver), approaching more bitter subjects like relationships (Suffer me as I suffer you, ‘Blood I Bled’) and heartache (‘Don’t You Call Me Anymore’, which incidentally, they made a good joke saying that it was a song about cold callers). They play with silence and soft, lush melodies which build through rising harmonies, and not only is this a dream to listen to on CD (taking you back to the sleepy world of a Bon Iver album) but also a real kick live. All in all, The Staves at the Old Fruitmarket Glasgow was a gorgeous gig, the with an encore where they played new track (with lots of good hearty mmmmming) ‘Tired as Fuck’ and then a grittier version of ‘Teeth White’, where already you can feel their growing sense of rock’n’roll excess…And I wanna know / When I can start taking it slow / Cause I’ve had enough. Keep it coming!
Every time I close my eyes, It’s like a dark paradise
There’s something apocalyptic about a Blood Moon. The sense of waste and transient beauty, light and life shedding away. The moon takes its thirty-year delayed menstruation; red cloud wisps over its shining face like clots of blood being pulled across a pool of silver. Somewhere out there, lovers are lying in lush paradise, staring up at this white eye opened by god; far away, drowned in stars. A voice swirls like smoke over soft, shimmery guitar. It’s the eclipse, sometime about now, then, yesterday, and I am or I was listening to Lana Del Rey.
Honeymoon, then going back to Dark Paradise. Insomnia in the space between night and day; between one universe and another, always afloat in claustrophobia. Returning to this song again and again, its repetition, invoking the familiar sadness and masochism that Lana dreamt up only a few years ago, you’re surrounded by an eternal world of neon palms, boulevards dripped in milky dusk, the sickly excess of tequila sunrise against soaring choruses and stripped-back lyrics. In a way, you fall or sink into Lana Del Rey’s music. Like Kubla Kahn, the eponymous Chinese emperor of Coleridge’s opium-provoked fragment poem, you are sucked dreamily into the sultry visual world of dark objects, consumer heaven, the young and beautiful place of honeydew where you are invited to drink ‘the milk of paradise’. Lana’s swooning melodies charm over time, drawing you into an atmosphere of narcotised darkness which evokes a silent movie – even as the interplay between sound and image is as crucial a set of semiotics as anything Roland Barthes might analyse. You could fall back into the darkness, be seduced by the languid timeless sigh which slides over memories, nostalgia for lost evenings, red dresses and cigarettes, lost girls pressed up against bad boys in clubs, feeling like their whole existence is just a vision, propelling their electric bodies on and on as if in tune to Freud’s death drive.
Much of Lana’s music is about desire: the kind of desire that doesn’t leave you cut-up on the kitchen floor in crude emotion (a la Natalie Imbruglia, ‘Torn’), but passes through that place in the heart of culture that falls into absence and darkness. The secret hollow of modernity. It makes sense that she sung the sultry standout track for Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 The Great Gatsby adaptation, ‘Young and Beautiful’. Del Rey’s America is so Art Deco, from the typeface of her new album, to her obsession with cars and jazz and girls called Carmen, the fragile magic of Hollywood glamour which often bleeds at the seams. Lana returns to that dull wound and picks at it, indifferently, till it’s fresh again – a more ethereal thing that transcends the rotting body of America’s culture. Sex, violence, money, power, charisma; they all blur together in Lana’s fixated, addictive lyrics. In her performance, she already knows the irrelevance of authenticity; it makes her internet-immune, a kind of perfect. Nobody can critique her, because she’s always one step ahead. Despite the success of Lady Gaga, who wears her gender performativity on her sleeve, American culture remains obsessed with the cult of authenticity. Lana has been attacked for ‘making up’ the stories portrayed in her songs, the easy-love lifestyle she presents; for having plastic surgery and performing under an alias that nods more to Hollywood mythology than the girl-next-door vibes of her real name, Elizabeth Grant. Remember James Frey, the ‘man who rewrote his life’ and was subsequently attacked by Oprah when she discovered he’d fabricated and exaggerated a hefty chunk of his memoir of drug addiction? Lana, like James Frey, like Hemingway, is interested in the interplay between real life and fantasy, performance and authenticity; importantly, however, she shows how real life is itself played out and realised through the lens of mediated fantasy. Her songs betray a Baudrillardian ecstasy of communication, simulacra and simulations, updated for an age where the past is showered with the longed-for shroud of Hollywood glamour, where the present is fragmented, split across the Internet (where Lana first made her success, sensation).
Isn’t it lovely when somebody makes albums that really feel like art? From Born to Die’s glamorous sadness draped in an American flag, to the monochrome somnolence of Ultraviolence (produced, appropriately, by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys), each of Lana Del Rey’s records captures a persona, but one which shifts and gathers nuance in the filters of crooning choruses and soft guitars, the distinctive colour charts of an album cover. Born to Die: pastel blues and palm trees, red lips and smoky eyes; the glossy, time-travelling Americana of her short film Tropico (2013), whose flashy symbolism mixes purity with moral pollution, the Garden of Eden with unicorns and gangsters. Ultraviolence: black and white, the spare sex of sorrow. Her latest offering, Honeymoon, sinks deliciously a familiar aura of daydreams, heartache and a sense of mesmerising stasis captured in Lana’s recital of ‘Burnt Norton’ from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, which evokes an abstracted and absent conception of time, slipping away into endlessly echoing, impossible memory…
Footfalls echo in the memory. Sound effects; quiet sirens, the soft familiar crackle of static, reminding us of the temporal duration, the space of presence that opens up with each play of the song, then closes again in silence – but always there, always there waiting in possibility, for the next click, the next play. Down the passage which we did not take.
In the album sleeve, the white printed lyrics to ‘High By the Beach’ flicker and disappear in the yellow-gold light of a glossy photo depicting a tree-lined avenue. Lana Del Rey songs always paint little vignettes of stories, but her characters frequently disappear from view, their situations dreamlike, slanted towards death but never reaching conclusion. Like any avant-garde novel worth its salt, Lana Del Rey’s music often bears a slightly creepy, unsettling quality, a sense of never being quite finished, a sense of repetition, frustration and surrealist reality. While she can master a good pop tune, Lana never gives us that self-satisfied pomp and narrative closure of a Taylor Swift song; there is an almost uncanny quality to her musical arrangements: the drifting melodies, tinges of trip hop, strings, rippling snares and minimal beats. Literary references abound: from that iconic reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in Tropico, to the album title Ultraviolence (alluding to the random acts of ‘ultra-violence which the teenage protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange is addicted to) and all that sinister seduction of ‘Carmen’: ‘It’s alarming, honestly, how charming she can be’, in a nod to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. In ‘Ride’ she references the sexual plight of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, drifting through life by ‘relying on the kindness of strangers’; in a way, Blanche is a perfect Lana Del Rey heroine. Not only is she a ‘fallen woman’ but she is also an alcoholic, guzzling bourbon and symbolically-charged cherry soda (My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola, / My eyes are wide like cherry pies – ‘Cola’), and longs to die in a most extravagant way, conflicted by her desire for purity and her sexual appetite: first, she will eat an ‘unwashed grape’ (the poisoned fruit of Eden, the rotten core of carnal pleasure) then be ‘buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard—at noon—in the blaze of summer—and into an ocean as blue as my first lover’s eyes!’.
My baby lives in shades of blue
Blue eyes and jazz and attitude
Well New Orleans – the setting of A Streetcar Named Desire – is a city rich enough in jazz and attitude, especially in the 1940s. In a way, all of Del Rey’s characters are caught up on the deathward drive of streetcars named desire, only her streetcars have morphed into getaway vehicles and limousines, or else the rides of suburban rockstars: I spend my whole life driving in cars with boys / Riding around town, drinking in the white noise. The white noise? The ever-present static reality of radio and television, life flickering on amidst its background hum and rush. It’s an edgier version of Lorde’s ‘400 Luxe’, a delicate, pulsing tribute to the romance of small-town time wasting on roads where the houses don’t change:
We’re never done with killing time Can I kill it with you? Till our veins run red and…blue We come around here all the time Got a lot to not do, let me kill it with you
You pick me up and take me home again Head out the window again We’re hollow like the bottles that we drain You drape your wrist over the steering wheel Moses can drive from here We might be hollow, but we’re brave
On the subject of heroines, Lana is constantly critiqued for her portrayal of women; namely, her ensemble of doomed and lovelorn characters who lavish over their hopeless agony and fail to resist the anonymous bad boys which recur in her songs. Yet there is an irony to this critique, because critics seem to forget that it is a woman who is pulling the strings over all these puppets. Lana slips in and out of her roles as easily as she slips between haunting, orchestral notes. She is always in control, her voice brilliant as smoky quartz crystal, even as she sings about being out of control. There is a litheness to her performance that indicates the strength of her fiction: Lana is like a novelist, fabricating a shadow world which shows up the underbelly of American culture, from its Golden Age of 1950s glamour to the fractured present, where alcohol and club culture meet the melting pixel pot of the Internet. I wish I was dead already, she can say in a Guardian interview, incanting it like a spell, letting Twitter fall on its knees with spits and stirs of protest and loathing. Prostitutes, gangsters, trailer trash alcoholics. These people, these liminal figures on the margins of society – stereotypes, yes, but vivid ones nonetheless – are the lifeblood of Lana’s music and as she renders them, they have emotional depth, a soulless soul, unlike hiphop’s deadpan delivery of gangster vocabulary. As her voice swells to a pitch we realise that Lana has already dismissed something as ‘crude’ as identity politics, embracing instead the freedom land of the seventies, free because America, land of opportunity (for white women, at least) had then opened up a new lifestyle, a new kind of being. There is power in being a sad girl, nasal and depressed but somehow free, as in the paean to glamorous dishevelment, ‘Cruel World’ (from Ultraviolence): I like my candy and your heroin, / And I’m so happy, so happy now you’re gone. / Put my little red party dress on, / Everybody knows that I’m a mess, I’m crazy … ‘Cause you’re young, you’re wild, you’re free, / You’re dancing circles around me. There’s that cliché of Americana: being young and wild and free – think of Bruce Springsteen’s celebration of wild youth – and again, Lana places her voice in the hullabaloo of this tornado of deathly ecstasy, making herself the static one in the centre, languishing over her candy and heroine while everyone else dances circles around her.
‘I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo’ — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.
Hiphop melancholia, narco-swing, vintage pop; whatever you wanna call it, Lana always kinda slips the net. Its her characters, her musical and metaphorical landscapes that draw you in. In a way, her songs are just as literary as any old poem.
Crying tears of gold, like lemonade. Here we are on ‘Ultraviolence’, drowning in violins and vats of sadness, relishing the salt taste and thinking of the ocean. The ocean haunts Honeymoon too. It’s there in the California blues, the ‘blue nail polish’ that’s her ‘favourite colour’ and ‘favourite tone of song’ in ‘The Blackest Day’, the sultry ice cream gleam of ‘Salvatore’ which glides in and out of languid Italian and consumable nouns (cacciatore, limousines), perhaps like a narcotised, Sinatra-style swing version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘By the Way’ (the bit where they seem to throw a demented grocery list at you). Shady blue, summer rain, sparkling lights; it’s a beautiful snowflake of a song, catching its glitter in the strings and the la-da-da-da-daaaas which fall around you, soft and sad yet somehow delectable. The ocean is the darling of the suicidal American woman: it is the world’s womb, the waves that embrace desire, the space of endless multitude, escape from restrictive culture. In ‘Dark Paradise’, the singer is lying in the ocean singing your song – is this a meta statement, one persona talking back to the distant maker? All of Lana’s heroines are looking for that dark paradise; that refrain, But I wish I was dead.Think of Edna in Kate Chopin’s 1899 (later banned) novel of sexual awakening, The Awakening: Chopin’s impressionistic purple prose isn’t so far from the poetic melodrama of Lana’s lovelorn world: ‘The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude’. Chopin’s onomatopoeic prose chimes with Lana’s frequent use of sound effects, from the Fourth of July fireworks which open ‘National Anthem’ to the glitchy blips of ‘Video Games’ and twinkling bird sounds of the Hollywood hills in ‘Is This Happiness’…Expressions of desire flicker with the imagined bliss of paradise.
In the conclusion to The Awakening, Edna steps out into the ocean, never to return, remembering as the horizon catches her eyes the sounds and scents of her childhood: the simple ‘hum of bees’ and ‘musky odour of pinks’ which fill the air narcotically. Walking into the ocean as Lana’s heroine writhes on her bed and balcony, longing to just get high by the beach, longing for that preserved moment of perfect stasis, the endless waves, the endless boulevard leading to a distant horizon of fathomless dark glass, tall buildings rising up amidst pink flamingoes like surrealist paintings. Haze of smoke, daytime closing.
There is a passage from Don DeLillo’s debut novel, Americana (1971) which David Foster Wallace happened to underline in his copy of the book:
“David, I truly love you and hate you. I love you because you’re a beautiful thing and a good boy. You’re more innocent than a field mouse and I don’t believe you have any evil in you, if that’s possible. And I hate you because you’re sick. Illness at a certain point inspires pity. Beyond that point it becomes hateful. It becomes very much like a personal insult. One wishes to destroy the sickness by destroying the patient. You’re such a lovable cliché, my love, and I do hope you’re found the centre of your sin”.
A ‘lovable cliché’: the sort of thing Lana embraces, makes raw and coats in her voice of smoke and silk. The antithesis of beauty and disgust, love and hate; how our attempts to disinfect the one from the other are doomed to fail. Culture is a contradiction. In Americana, the protagonist David Bell is a TV executive who finds himself deeply apathetic, despite being attractive, sharp and popular with the ladies. He frequently articulates his experiences, his life at large, as if they were a film. He becomes obsessed with finding meaning, embarking on a Kerouac-esque quest at getting to the nitty-gritty of America’s heart of darkness, but this documentary gets messed up in his attempts to re-stage and re-enact events from his past. I guess it’s true that the novel is all about unattainable desire, whether this is desire for meaning, personal fulfilment or something more carnal – the search for the centre of your sin which could easily be a Lana lyric. What’s more, this pathological fixation of DeLillo’s David Bell to some extent parallels Del Rey’s obsession with the silver screen version of America; the photography of Honeymoon’scover even resembles a sexier version of the Penguin cover for Americana:
While Del Rey’s female characters languish in their statically trapped daydreams of love and violence and Hollywood glamour, DeLillo’s version of Americana is largely embodied in the road myth and its cult of masculinity:
There is a motel in the heart of every man. Where the highway begins to dominate the landscape, beyond limits of a large and reduplicating city, near a major point of arrival and departure: this is most likely where it stands….Men hold this motel firmly in their hearts; here flows the dream of the confluence of travel and sex.
This kind of commentary permeates the book, often arriving at a kind of religious, anthropological rapture which lacks the self-consciousness of DeLillo’s later novel White Noise, but provides a rambling cultural landmark that paves the way towards the sort of position Del Rey occupies in the mainstream. The Beats, protesting consumerism even as they gorged on apple pie; Bret Easton Ellis, with his deeply despairing coterie of psychopathic, serial-killer yuppies and sexually-violent, chronically-bored L.A teenagers; Lana Del Rey, voicing the glorious wastage of our postmodern wasteland, our beaten bodies and minds, voicing her vision through scenes of sun-drenched nostalgia which evoke a beautiful and terrible America, made glossy and pure through stars and stripes, a delicate riff; drifts of strings, jazz, Instagram filters. That golden period where love suffuses with the candy-flavoured stuff of daydreams, movies: Honeymoon. The whole album renders a narrow reality of the past and present: it’s pastel-shaded afternoons lost to the call of the ocean, sad ballads of frustrated love (I lost myself when I lost you), electro blues; it’s The Blackest Day, with Billie Holliday, palm trees and prescription pills, throwing up the lilac and cinnamon-scented ash of society’s ills – emotional debris, disconnection, slowing tempos, the hullabaloo of static thrills.
The wedding was held on the first of October, that first fresh fling of a spring day with cherry blossoms lining the avenue and the smell of sunlight in the air. Marianne had chosen this day because on the calendar it had glowed up like a promise, the hope of something clean and new that wasn’t tarred with the silliness of April Fools or the bloat of British summertime. It was luck, really, that brought the good weather to New Zealand on that uncertain spring morning. It was also luck that bagged them the venue. She and Ethan had spent weeks debating where to get married, pouring over glossy brochures featuring medieval castles, luxurious hotels with honeymoon suites, country houses and converted churches which allowed you to toss your bouquet extravagantly from the bell tower. Arguing about the cost of fancy desserts and appropriate champagne. It was all very expensive and a little vulgar for Marianne’s liking. She was raised to believe that the most enchanting things in life were free. She had insisted for years and years that if she ever got married she would do it smack bang in the middle of Oxford Street for all it mattered. The best part of a wedding, Marianne had thought as a child, was the cake. I will find the best cake in the world, she would boast to her mother, because everyone likes cake, and not everyone likes a wedding. You can always, as Marie Antoinette put it, let them eat cake.
Growing up, Marianne found it to be true that not everyone likes a wedding. Or, at least, a wedding doesn’t do well for everyone. At the age of twenty-six, Marianne had dragged herself through enough of her friends’ weddings to know that the occasion prompted flourishing happiness for some, and hours of breakdown for others. Only last year, she had been drinking with her old roommate Bill at a colleague’s wedding and over the slurry candlelight he confessed to her his deep desire to kill himself.
“I just can’t stop thinking about it,” he had said quietly, refilling his wine glass, wiping the sweat from his eyes.
“William, William I had no idea.” And as the confetti swirled about the crowd, queer as a summer snowdrift, Marianne felt like she’d been chained to something dark and profound. Some sense of the underworld that she needed to get rid of. Bill had left soon after, taking a cab back to the hotel, and Marianne had gorged herself on the cheeseboard to cheer herself up, because it seemed there was nothing else she could do but stuff away her dreams with sticky lumps of brie. In the midst of all the magic, there was still all this sadness that seemed to coat the world in fear. When the bride passed her, Marianne smiled brightly, but later on she called Ethan in tears.
“Don’t worry,” he’d said, “he’ll be alright. Weddings bring out the best and the worst in people—”And yes, Bill was still alive, but he and Marianne had not spoken since. In all the chaos of organising her own wedding, she had forgotten.
Eventually, she and Ethan found their perfect venue in New Zealand, of all places. It was a rare corner of the world, special in its simple charm of rolling hills and friendly faces. Yet Marianne had a great deal of trouble convincing Ethan’s family to fly out there, even for just one weekend. Ethan’s mother suffered from bouts of depression and an event like a wedding, he said, could prove difficult – if not debilitating – to her state of mind, which had been fragile since his childhood. What’s more, Ethan’s father (they were divorced) seemed to drag himself through life with the sole intention of avoiding tricky situations such as these. He was a plumber who worked hard and spent most of his spare money down the pub, with people he’d known since high school. A cosy existence, free of the kind of complications that Marianne’s parents liked to pick over for a living. Marianne’s parents were academics, the kind of academics who relished a wedding, if only for the excuse to drink nice wine. She and Ethan were very worried about the whole occasion, about their parents coming together for only the second time, about the cost and the question of religion and whether it was weird to give people Love Heart sweets as favours.
“Shouldn’t we try for something more…intellectual?” It was him that said it first, not her.
On the last day of September, they landed crisp and safe on New Zealand ground, ready for rehearsal. To their surprise, they found the priest getting baked under a cabbage tree.
“My god, look at you two!” he exclaimed in his thick Kiwi accent, scrambling to his feet to greet them with a dazed look on his face. “Why I’ve never married such a beautiful couple!” He kissed them both on the cheek with enthusiasm.
“When do the family arrive?” he asked, walking them towards the church.
“Tonight,” Ethan glanced at his fiancé, expecting the nervous expression to show on her lips. She was, however, remarkably composed.
They were being married in a church made of trees. A brand new church, constructed in imitation of a similar design which went viral on the Internet a few years ago. The venue had appeared quite randomly in Marianne’s inbox, with all the sparkle of a super-charged Groupon offer, and she was quite enchanted by its strange beauty, its sense of the ephemeral. She did not want her marriage to be stone-cold and static, confined to a church, but to evolve and shift with the seasons, like this lovely temple.
Ethan and Marianne were just the seventh couple to get married under its bowers.
Silently, they stepped inside the iron framework and stood under the greenery, marvelling at the dappled light playing along the carpet of grass.
“Amazing,” Ethan whispered.
“It’s better than I ever dreamed of.” Marianne turned to him and gave him a long, satisfied kiss. They felt like they could stay here forever, dreamy and alone in this virescent version of heaven. The priest ushered them through their vows before leaving to meet his next clients. They delayed going to the airport to meet their parents, preferring to sit on one of the pew benches, scuffing their bare feet in the soft soil and laughing as they shared their secrets.
“All I want,” Marianne said to her fiancé as they sat later in the back of a cab, “is a few days of harmony. D’you think we can manage it?”
“All I want,” Ethan replied, “is our parents to get on okay. God knows I’m dreading the next few hours.”
“Don’t,” Marianne kissed him quiet. “It will be fine. They love us.”
To their surprise, it was fine. Fine as dinner and mumbled wisps of conversation could ever be. At the end of the meal, Ethan’s father stood up to deliver a drunken speech, exposing an embarrassing array of Ethan’s ex-girlfriends and childhood habits, enough for Marianne’s parents to speculate on for months to come. Ethan’s mother complained about the food and how warm it was for this time of year, her jet lag and sore head, then retired early to her room. Marianne worried, but Ethan knew better.
After dinner, they drank coffee in the restaurant lounge and all talked quite civilly about married life. Brian, Ethan’s father, had consumed a little too much wine and was already slurring off with jokes about how marriage was always a ‘two-way street’ with ‘no exits except death’. He wouldn’t stop, no matter how much Ethan tried to hush him. He teased the young couple about their choice of venue, speculating on all sorts of disaster scenarios which could disrupt the ceremony: lightning storms, forest fires, a rain shower. Marianne’s parents remained very quiet through all of dinner; so quiet, in fact, that Marianne worried there was something on their mind that they were choosing not to share.
Under the cool spring moon, they walked Marianne back to the hotel, leaving Ethan and Brian to have a last-minute tête-à-tête, which Ethan clearly didn’t appreciate. In the hotel garden, Marianne nuzzled herself into her father’s arms like she used to do as a child, feeling small and safe. It was different from how she felt with Ethan.
“Are you going to be okay?” Her father asked her. She thought about the day she first met Ethan, walking up the campus steps to her morning lecture, the sun breaking through a rain shower and the look on his face, concentrated and expectant. He wore his hair very short then – even shorter than it now was – clipped and cool in his blazer, a third-year law student.
“I think so,” she whispered back. The crickets purred around them.
“Just remember, everything is your own decision,” he said cryptically, ruffling her hair gently as he turned to enter the building.
“Goodnight love,” her mother echoed.
She and Ethan spent the night achingly in separate rooms, sleepless and fearful and eager. Marianne took out a pad of paper from the desk drawer and under the header with the hotel logo she wrote a list of all the reasons she was getting married: Love, dreams, sex, money, future, Sunday mornings, love. She laughed at how easily the cliches buoyed up in her mind. Brian’s words had awakened some tiny, irritable worm inside of her, a worm that wriggled with uneasiness. Yet she waited for it to rest and eventually fell asleep, letting the magic of the words she had written take shape in her dreams.
In the morning the sun bathed the grass in golden light and it was just as the first day of spring should look like, so different from October back home, where the streets were bronzed with glossy rain and fallen leaves. Ethan waited among the bright green bowers until Marianne appeared half an hour later, shrouded by the vines and only gradually entering his vision as she stepped through the knitted trees.
“How long?” he mouthed at her. She gave him a funny look as she slowly glided down the aisle, trailing her lacy dress. The church could only seat fifty guests, but there were very few people there. None of Ethan’s friends could afford the New Zealand flight, and Marianne hadn’t wanted to invite so many of her own that the bride’s side would outweigh the groom’s.
“What?” she asked him as they got closer.
“Why have we waited so long for this?”
She stood opposite him over the simple altar and as the priest approached Ethan added:
“I would’ve married you at uni, I would have married you so long ago.” He couldn’t help but grin then, and it was the kind of grin that unravelled the tight poise of his face and showed the fine lines around his eyes, the sparkling hazel eyes that she knew as mirrors of her own soul. She loved him, then, for that fragile smile alone.
“Don’t kid with me,” she murmured. She then looked up to face who they would be soon; who they would be after the magic words and the kiss that sealed them. She stood tall in her crystal heels and white gown, her light hair tumbling long down her shoulders, secured by the flower garland that her little niece had assembled for her that morning from the field of daisies. It was funny, she didn’t feel quite grownup; it was like being a child again, playing dress-up, playing at something that all of a sudden she knew nothing of. The priest stood over them in his robe, casting a shadow into the space around the altar. Marianne imagined that in winter the ground beneath their feet would be scattered with old seedpods and stray leaves fallen from the trees. Were they evergreen? She could not tell; she was no scholar of nature. How different the place would look, all wiry and skeletal. It was a chance vision, the fleeting kind gifted to the mind from a wisp of wind, cold and coming northwards. A fantasy of life at another time, caught in the secret culverts of the land around them.
She smiled as he slipped the ring on her finger, looking into the clouded space of his eyes and enjoying the blind joy that enveloped her.
After the ceremony, they led the guests down the aisle and out of the sparkling world of green onto the garden plains with the ornate shrubbery and the guesthouse lodge in the distance. Marianne’s mother, in her yellow hat, approached her and dutifully kissed her daughter on each cheek.
“It’s been a pleasure,” she said warmly, simply. Her father came and clasped each of her hands in his.
“You look wonderful love,” he told her. “I’m sure you’ll be very happy.” But she felt the clamminess of his fingers in hers, and slipped away. It was as she had felt at her friend’s wedding, that sudden moment talking to William, his face cloaked in cigarette smoke. There was something strange about the way her parents were so keen to share in her joy; it didn’t seem real.
What she would remember most about that day was not the party afterwards, with the sunlight dancing in her hair and the lilting joy of the violins and the woman that sung for them from a makeshift podium. It was not the fairy lights strung across the trees at night, or the sad sighs of the children told they had to go to bed. Not the crumbling wedding cake and the sugared strawberries eaten secretly in the grove by the river, or the sweet laughter of Ethan’s parents as they sat together sharing a bottle of wine and loudly reminiscing. Not the restless, whisky kisses pressed between the sheets in the cool summer evening, with the starriness of midnight pouring through the window. What she remembered most, now, was the feeling of her father’s fingers: cold and foreboding as she pulled away from him and out of her old world altogether.
Yet in the haze of those joyful days, it seemed obscene that in a few more hours they would be returning to a bleak, British winter, leaving behind the Kiwis and their colourful summer.
And love was all, love was all. That was what they said, what everyone kept saying, not knowing what it meant. The daydream of that day, its harmony draining slowly away in the time that was passing, the prickling chaos of day after day in each other’s company. Years flaking from them; precious layers of what they had always wanted to be, sloughing off and collecting in piles on the bedroom floor. There was then the new house, the miscarriage, the man in the white coat who talked to them as if they were children. The strangeness that grew between them. When they had argued, falling back into bed with tired passion, her father’s words flashed back to Marianne: everything is your own decision. And yet.
Here she was at her desk with the wads of paper blocking her view of the window, with the mirror glass behind her and that silver strand in her hair exposed for all to see. They had waited too long; too long they had waited to let happiness wash over them like a morning shroud of marijuana dreams. Marianne sat at her desk because it was the only place she knew where she was. Her head was full of the smell of hospital chemicals and the sound of dogs barking down the lane, old women nattering at bus stops. Blood being sucked through a plastic tube, the soft groan and the closing of his eyes, the shadow self that came over him in those moments. Pale and loitering. Loosely, the memories unravelled from her grasp, so that sleeplessly she would lie awake seeing her mother-in-law’s tormented face, the frown she pulled when she heard the news, the devastation in her eyes. There were too many pieces, too many pieces to pick up, replace.
Marianne lit a cigarette and stared at the ceiling.
In June she boarded the flight to New Zealand – the one she had booked only a week ago – the one her mother had paid for because Marianne was bogged down with the debts he’d kept secret.
Up in the air, suddenly the world no longer appeared in cut glass fragments of what she had lost. The blue sky was open and wide, the land below long and solid. When she landed, this time there was no priest to greet her, no summer insects singing in the grass.
She stepped off the road and made her way into the gardens without stopping, because there was no longer an attendant at the gate asking for an entry fee, a charity donation.
The land was starved. Ten years had passed, and here was the place where his parents had sat looking healthy for once, here the river where the children played, there the place with the daisy ring and the standing stones, the spot where they took their first dance under the virgin moon. The grass was now dry and yellowed underfoot, the breath of winter bitter on her cheeks, like ice kisses left by a dead lover. The irony was not lost on her. As she paced around, traces of litter – plastic rings, bottle tops and molten cardboard – lingered on from summer picnics. There were charred places where bonfires had burned, and Marianne imagined the fatty air filled with ash instead of confetti snow.
From the sky, the rain fell cold and slow. It seemed there was no money to be made from love, not here, not anymore.
The trees which had once flourished together protectively were now gnarled and thin and lonesome-looking, like trees from a fairy story.
How long had they waited for this? The last gasp of a feeling: not everyone likes a wedding. A ghost doesn’t like a wedding; a ghost resents its solidity, she thought, its promise of new absolution. Or was it the dreamy quality? Marianne had forgotten. They had waited too long, and it had cost them.
She sat under the skeleton trees, on the same bench where ten years ago she had dug her toes into the soft earth, sighing. And with the violins sounding sweetly in her ear, she took her shoes off; but the earth was too hard at her touch, encrusted in hoar frost and the dust of other memories, other dreams floating free.
‘Power floats like money, like language, like theory.’
(Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation)
Something happened to me recently and I found myself drifting into the glossy paradise of the Upper East Side; more specifically, that alluring tab on Netflix entitled ‘Gossip Girl’. It’s been a while. I used to watch the show when I was about fifteen, in its heyday. I guess it just slipped away from me and I kind of passed by the whole finale hype back in 2012, but something brought me back to it a few weeks ago. Maybe it was the absence of real-life summer and the promise of a sun-drenched pavement in Manhattan, or maybe it was just Dan Humphrey with his dark mop of curls and deceptively earnest eyes. Maybe it was the cracking soundtrack. Either way, I was struck again by how entrancing the show is, even while it’s kind of terrible.
Gossip Girl is a show about power. It follows the privileged, glitzy lives of a group of Upper East Siders, from high school into the land of careers and more sophisticated scheming. There is a point round about the end of Season 2 which most critics concede to be the end of ‘good’ Gossip Girl; all subsequent seasons were just a bit daft. We’ve gone from credible high school bitching and scheming to absurdities on a Skins series 5 & 6 scale. How did we get from petty teen drama and pregnancy tests to Bart Bass falling from a roof and Chuck and Blair rushing themselves through a (gorgeously shot) emergency wedding? From Dan Humphrey as amateur school poet to successful penman of a Roman a clef exposing the ‘scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite’, as Kristen Bell so enticingly describes it at the start of each episode. The link in all this chaos is power. Power and simulacra.
‘You’re nobody until you’re talked about’. That’s the mantra that seems to crop up again and again, haunting the minds of Gossip Girl’s characters like they’re stuck in some bizarre virtual reality where rumour precedes being, scandal precedes survival (see Sartre, ‘existence precedes essence’) – Mean Girls meets Black Mirror, if you will. What distinguishes Gossip Girl from other teen dramas (The O.C, 90210 and so on) is its centring around the concept of ‘Gossip Girl’. Like Foucault’s ‘panopticon’, Gossip Girl is a technology of power. The panopticon was a kind of prison design, created by Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century. It was intended to institute the force of surveillance not just on the individual but on society as a whole, so that in a prison each inmate is invisible to others, but visible to the guard station placed in the centre of the prison building. The point is that at any moment, the individual knows he or she is being watched, and will thus adjust their behaviour accordingly. A panoptic way of disciplining is one in which people are controlled through constant surveillance.
It seems pretty obvious that the outcome of Gossip Girl is constant surveillance. Every remotely meaningful action taken by the big-shot Upper East Siders (Serena, Blair, Chuck, Nate, their friends and family) is sent to the Gossip Girl server via anonymous reporters (anyone within or outside of the elite circle) and is then posted as a ‘blast’ which is then communicated straight to everyone’s phones. You know, if it wasn’t so familiar it would sound like something straight out a sci-fi novel. Throughout the show, Gossip Girl doesn’t just record and publish the intimate details of the characters’ lives (think dark secrets, slander and sex tapes) but indeed anticipates things that might happen. Sometimes, characters act a certain way because they are aware of the presence of Gossip Girl, of the probability that their actions will end up exposed through her blasts.
It doesn’t take much to link Gossip Girl to the Twitter generation. The Age of Snapchat, or WhatsApp, or whatever you want to call it. Created in 2007, the show suddenly tapped into a massive cultural shift among young people, whereby our entire lives become archived online, with or without our permission. Yet back in the mid-noughties, we were using Bebo and MySpace to spread gossip and create profiles of ourselves and others. These platforms were still relatively slow, especially as many of us still accessed them via a dialup connection, or by slyly hacking through content blockers at school while the teacher wasn’t looking. Gossip Girl anticipated the sort of instantaneous, life-shattering exchange of information that creates a panopticon effect on our lives. It’s a great plot device (the unravelling of a secret to everyone instigates some serious character crises) but now, in real life, it’s an uncomfortable truth that a nude selfie or a sneaky picture of say your neighbour doing cocaine can indeed be spread around with the ‘blast’ of a single Snapchat message, unravelling reputations in its wake. If, as Baudrillard argues, ‘power floats like money’ it does so because, like money, it is transferable, easily shifted, lost and dissolved. Instant, mass communication arguably makes power more diffused: in one minute it’s in Blair’s hands, then Serena’s and then HEY – Georgina Sparks steps in outta nowhere and suddenly it’s all gone wrong again. These days, you might say similar things about power and global politics.
But is it really diffused? Couldn’t you argue that although different people post in to Gossip Girl, ultimately it’s the Wizard of Oz, the soul behind the screen, that controls the gates – isn’t it that one person that has all the power? Just as Mark Zuckerberg ultimately frames all our communications via Facebook? In the end, we discover that (surprise surprise) Dan Humphrey, the main ‘author’ figure, is Gossip Girl. Dan Humphrey, the ‘impoverished’ outsider, exiled in his trendy Brooklyn loft, banished from full membership and relegated to the limbo world where messenger bags meet the glamour of Blair’s Marc Jacobs and Serena’s Prada. Dan started the Gossip Girl site as a way of literally writing himself into the closed world of the Upper East Siders, fashioning the role of ‘Lonely Boy’ within a fairy-tale, Fitzgerald-esque world of vicious scheming, stinking money and glittering mythology. In the end, Dan gets the girl: as the ‘5 Years Later’ epilogue of the final episode so indulgently shows, Dan marries Serena in a beautiful wedding (interestingly enough, his Brooklynite ex-rockstar father gets with – the actual – Lisa Loeb).
You could argue that there is something ‘queer’ about Gossip Girl. An almost Beckettian obsession with repetition and the endless possible combinations of relationships you can achieve within a group (OK, so maybe that’s more Made in Chelsea – or perhaps Sade?). In a way, Gossip Girl is obsessed with binaries: good girl vs. bad girl; Golden Boy vs. Bad Boy; virgin vs. whore and, perhaps most importantly, truth vs. falsity/appearance vs. reality. Yet these binaries are never sustained, and in fact the show repeatedly reveals the inherent insecurity of these binaries. The innocent Little J is really just the protective adolescent cocoon from which raccoon-eyed rebel Jenny emerges (more dramatically in real life, with Taylor Momsen becoming a risqué rock princess). There is a whole convoluted storyline about Ivy Dickens, who impersonates Charlie Rhodes (Lily Bass’s niece?) who herself is acting as someone else – ‘Lola’. Ivy, now her ‘authentic’ self, enters a relationship with Lily’s husband Rufus, but little does he know that Ivy is actually sleeping with William Bass (Lily’s ex and Serena’s father) who, it turns out, is only in a relationship with Ivy to get (in a roundabout way) back to his ‘true love’ Lily and the kids. The storylines get so elaborate and implausible (Blair meeting and marrying the Prince of Monoco; Bart returning from the dead) that you lose track of what’s real and what’s really happening; you become dissociated from the notion that any of this is really part of ‘our’ world. Even Penn Badgley, the actor who plays Dan Humphrey, admitted that the revelation that Dan was Gossip Girl ‘doesn’t make sense at all’, but that’s kind of okay because (in his words) ‘Gossip Girl doesn’t make sense!’ Sure, New York is always there, in those beautiful, sweeping shots of the city: embracing the characters in its warm glow, looking fantastic in summer, spring, autumn and winter; but the lives of the characters are as twisted, repetitive and as confusing as Samuel Beckett’s television play Quad.
[Imagine this as a symbolic representation of Gossip Girl’s plot. It’s the mesmerising that’s key, not the accurate rendering of reality.]
The queerness, then, (I’m using the term ‘queer’ tenuously, in a more generalised sense – the show can hardly be a banner for LGBT) is in Gossip Girl’s shameless disregard for certain old-school, heteronormative notions of ‘morality’, its distortion of conventional character arcs and its indulgence in various strange sexual affairs which often border on the incestuous (and then there’s that old problem of Serena and Dan and their parents being married for most of the show…). It’s in the fact that characters’ lives seem to follow more of a cyclical than linear path, as they repeat the mistakes of their parents, fall strangely in and out of love while maintaining they were in love the whole time they were also in hate. The whole Blair/Dan/Serena triangle.
Unlike some other shows which run for the length of Gossip Girl, Gossip Girl keeps more or less the same core cast throughout the six seasons, and in doing so transforms its characters into weirdly intangible signifiers rather than ‘real people’. So much of them is based on the need to manipulate the reportage of their lives that we can’t be sure how much we know of their ‘real’ selves. I would like to think that Baudrillard would approve of Gossip Girl much more than The Matrix, because in my opinion, the way Serena, Blair et al plan their lives around the panopticon of Gossip Girl fits pretty well with Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacra as the ‘map that precedes the territory’, the ‘reality’ dependent upon representation. Most of the characters’ actions are driven by and shaped around Gossip Girl: the virtual voice who ‘maps’ the lives of Manhattan’s elite.
There is a point in most TV shows where you are able to gage the protagonists’ motivations, but with several key players, Gossip Girl leaves us endlessly guessing, as some very weird choices leave you baffled about who or what is this person who you thought you knew from Season 1. Chuck, for example, is sometimes romantic softie, sometimes nonchalant alcoholic, sometimes downright psychopath. But that’s the fun of it, the not-knowing, the rollercoaster effect of plot after spiralling plot. A show about scheming; that could be another tagline.
A love letter to New York; that could be another tagline. The city is so lovingly rendered throughout the show that even the actual New Yorkmayor got involved with the set of its 100th episode, and declared January 26th ‘Gossip Girl Day’. I wonder how I can start incorporating that into my life…perhaps I’ll start with one of those glorious pastry and fruit-filled brunches and then spend all day sipping scotch a la Chuck, kissing boys in classy bars a la Serena and ending up at some expensive party where everything around me is basically the flashbulb remnant of a photograph…or maybe I’ll just live tweet my actual everyday Glasgow observations – Spotted: Man with a Farmfoods Bag Disappears into the Bookies. It’s hardly Manhattan amidst golden, burnished fall, but it might just have to do.
In the final episode, Serena tries to defend Dan’s (pretty immoral) behaviour in acting as Gossip Girl by claiming that his salacious discourse amounts ultimately to a ‘love letter to all of us’. It’s true: all that reporting of all that scandal, all those razor-sharp character assassinations were a form of mythologising which we can recognise not just in celebrity culture, but now in our everyday online lives. Being mean doesn’t just keep ‘em keen, it creates drama, which is what makes any good slice of fiction. And what is life without fiction?
For all its raciness, Gossip Girl falls into a pretty comfortable conclusion. Two weddings, a (very cute) baby, a potential political career for Nate; it’s all very white, upper-class and generally heterosexually perfect. But that’s what Gossip Girl’s always been shamelessly about: sure, there’s Blair’s ever-present maid, Derota, but she functions more as a Shakespearean comedy sidekick than as a serious addition to the plot. Gossip Girl has never claimed, unlike say Lena Dunham’s Girls, to be ‘the voice of a generation’; it has always zoomed in on the narrow world of a handful of privileged characters. This is its flaw as well as its strength: there is, sadly, little racial/sexual/religious diversity, but when it does touch on such matters, it does so with its own quirky ease, meaning that it doesn’t trip over itself trying to take everything too seriously. There are nuggets of genuine, ‘emotionally truthful’ storylines in there, and real teen issues like losing your virginity, finding yourself stuck in family feuds and trying to make friends are handled sometimes with poignancy, sometimes with juicily gratuitous melodrama. Blair Waldorf’s bulimia is, in a way, a symbolic symptom of the culture she finds herself in: endlessly consuming, lusting for more information, gossip, power, but simultaneously being unable to contain it, needing to purify, purge, rewind the cycle. Dan longs to be part of the world, but at the same time it repels him; he is part of that societal wastage, the baggage once used then left behind – but he uses his limbo position to his advantage. In a way, the American Dream in all its distorted glory is right there, at the heart of Gossip Girl her(him)self.
What’s great about Gossip Girl, then, is its ability to take us on a whirlwind of artifice, of phony drama for phony characters, but through the falsity it reveals some hideous truths about contemporary society. The network of New York, as a series of public spaces, of upper and lower ‘sides’, is an inverse parallel to the non-hierarchical communications enabled by the Web, where power ‘floats’ more easily as hackers and smart kids from Brooklyn find themselves running the system. There is, in real life, an economy of gossip, whereby what’s been said about you determines your whole place in the world, perhaps even more so than money (sometimes). It runs in the workplace, the playground, the spidery webs of social networks. There’s a line in the final song which plays at the end of the last episode (‘Kill Me’ by The Pretty Reckless, the band headed by Taylor Momsen, aka Jenny Humphrey): ‘someone get me outta the sun’. I read this not just as a statement of Momsen’s goth/vampire credentials, but as an appropriate nudge to The Sun newspaper and by extension the world of gossip, the sunlit limelight which holds the (un?)lucky few up to fame and fortune and ruin.
There will always be an outsider wanting to get inside, Bell narrates provocatively as the last scene drifts over a street of smartly-dressed school kids, the next generation of Gossip Girl victims. It’s classic Gossip Girl: reminding us that even within the cherry sweet containment of its happy ending, there’s a bitter worm still at work. We’re now in an age where you can never live free of the media, of surveillance and all it entails. An unequal age where even the rich in their isles of bliss are never quite free of the rest of us, the outsiders, the mass exiles of our bulimic society – drawn to the alluring world of the beautiful and damned and then expelled because we can’t afford to be there, we don’t belong. And if that’s the end of Gossip Girl’s rollercoaster, then it’s not just a fairground of pure escapism, but also a biting satire on our actual IRL society.
—A satire which, I might add, trickles right down to the shameless flaunting of product placement:
Exams and I have a fair degree of history together. From that fateful first day in third year when I waited anxiously outside a gym hall to sit my Standard Grade English, to desperately scouring the labyrinth that is Glasgow Uni, trying to find my Honours English Literature exams, or waiting in the rain outside the OTC building, trying not to get run over by passing cars as rain splashed onto my notepad, exams and I have gone through hell and back together.
And they’re a funny thing, exams. Subject to much controversy too, especially in recent years with the dominance of technology over almost all other forms of learning and examination (who hands in a handwritten essay these days? is it even allowed?). Exams suddenly seem awfully old-fashioned. Individual (wobbly) desks, ink spilling everywhere, people writing with fury in an echoey hall. It seems a strange idea, to sit you in a room at the end of the year, thrust a piece of paper in front of you and force you to desperately pour out something resembling an essay in response to a set of unseen questions. I’ve thought about them long and hard over my time at school and college and uni, and come up with some pros and cons:
The fear forces you to study, to recap the information learned over your course.
The early stages of studying can be fun. You’re relearning and rereading, and in the process making interesting connections between texts, based on a more mature understanding of the course gained from reflection.
It can be an opportunity to shine, to show that you can come up with something original in a very short space of time.
You learn the value of concision.
If the questions are well-designed, the exam can be a true test of your analytical abilities and skill for quick-thinking – there are not many other times when you have the adrenaline necessary to formulate a coherent piece of writing in such a short period.
It’s nice to realise that you’ve learned chunks of poetry by heart. Even if they begin to slip away fairly quickly once you’ve left the exam…
Risk of being a memory test. While remembering and recalling information is important for lots of subjects from law to physics, English Lit and other humanities subjects is often about critical thinking skills rather than just remembering ‘data’ aka quotes. Lots of students memorise whole essays and go into the exam, then shoehorn and regurgitate what they’ve stored in their head. Sometimes this works, other times it ends badly. Either way, it isn’t testing much more than your ability to write fast and repeat.
Anxiety. This is a real problem for some people and can really hinder their performance in an exam, even if they’ve studied hard.
Breadth vs. depth. In an essay, with the advantage of time and access to material, it’s a lot easier to formulate a response which balances careful close reading and discussion of relevant secondary criticism and theory. In an exam, it’s too easy to fall back into the trap of plot summaries, even though you’re perfectly capable of analysis. Exams don’t always reflect your ability to synthesise material, or the extent of the research you’ve done.
Too much weighting. In my degree, exams are worth 50% of each course grade. There’s a lot of stake in those two hours, and if you have a brain freeze or something goes wrong, you can really drag down all that hard work you put in during the semester.
There are probably lots more, but here are the ones that immediately spring to mind. My solution would be not to scrap exams entirely, but to use them more effectively. Perhaps have mid-term close reading tests, which would examine your ability to respond ‘naturally’ to a text and your critical skills, rather than just your memory. Maybe also a 25% end of term exam, replacing the other 25% with another 3000 word essay. Maybe it will go that way in the future with credit standardisation; some universities don’t have exams for English Literature at all. The problem of course is that unlike subjects such as law and medicine and business, exam conditions are more unlikely to be part of any aspect of a future career sprung from a literary subject. While some jobs will require you to do set tests e.g. solving financial problems as part of the interview process, you are unlikely to encounter something like that in journalism, academia, publishing and so on. An essay with a deadline seems more akin to the work English Lit tends to lead to.
I can’t remember the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in an exam. There’s always that brief five minute panic when ‘your questions’ haven’t come up, and you have to radically rethink your answers and quickly choose a question; but usually in turns out in the end, and often the most spontaneous answers get the best mark. I guess one of the hardest exams I’ve ever done is Higher Music Listening. I mean, it shouldn’t be, but it just seems to be this horrible trail of riddles, where you have to discern different instruments out of tangles of sound in a very short space of time before the clip stops playing. Also, because you have to maintain concentration as a room of people listening to the same tape, your brain gets pretty muddled. And you can get distracted: I was so excited when the tape played The Strangler’s ‘Golden Brown’ that I made such a hasty decision about which rhythm change it contained that I put the wrong answer down. The coding sections of Higher Computing were also tricky, and writing four essays in an hour and a half for Higher Modern Studies is always the bane of your fifth year existence. Every student in Scotland who did languages will probably remember the terrifying voice that blasted the announcement about this being the STANDARD GRADE FRENCH LISTENING exam through the crackly stereo at the back of a gym hall, with all the aggression of someone holding you up in an armed robbery.
There was a golden moment towards the end of my last exam, when I realised there was less than ten minutes to go, and I was onto the conclusion, and soon that would be me – done forever. I definitely wouldn’t say that I’ll miss exams (hopefully, I’ll never have to do one again unless I decide to take up driving), but there’s something completely rewarding about the adrenaline rush and the nerves and the exhausting release afterwards that seems pretty unique. A bit like doing the Olympics, but for your brain (and your wrist). To anyone who still has exams to sit, good luck and remember it’s not the end of the world; and ultimately, they are always going to be a somewhat artificial test of your ability!
(Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether exams are a good means of assessment or not for literature-based subjects).
My degree programme requires you to take at least one ‘pre-1800’ course – i.e., anything that’s not Victorian or Modern, anything that stretches back into the depths of distant history. For some people, the prospect of reading up on Shakespeare or Medieval literature is a dream, but I chose a course which was dated 1660-1785 – the most modern dates I could get my hands on. I was at first pretty worried about studying the eighteenth-century, possibly sharing Esther Greenwood’s view in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: ‘I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason’. When my copy of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela arrived, reading one paragraph of the heroine’s gushing account of her virtue left me exhausted. I looked at the fat Collected Works of Samuel Johnson and my heart sank. However, with some surprise, I soon found myself enjoying the books I was supposed to read. The truth is that the eighteenth-century has a lot more to offer than stuffy old men and their commitment to reason. Of course, it was the time of the Enlightenment, but it was also the time of radical social upheaval: of the expansion of empire, changing gender roles, political turbulence, religious opposition, the loosening of sexual mores and of course literary innovation. The renewed critical interest in eighteenth-century post-Reformation literature in recent decades has meant that the canon is no longer confined to Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson, as I feared it might be. I’ve had the chance to study more ‘obscure’ works by women novelists, parodies, life-writing, vicious epistles and pastoral poetry that does more than merely sentimentalise the countryside. ‘Tight little couplets’ neatly encapsulates the idea of formal restriction, but the eighteenth-century was actually a period of literary experimentation, facilitated by the shift from a system of patronage to individual publication, and the more general rise in literacy which meant there was a wider market for more writing. It produced the phenomenon of the ‘peasant poet’, as well as the likes of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an aristocrat and ‘woman of letters’; it saw the merchant Daniel Defoe becoming a successful novelist in his sixties after years of prolific journalism, and Jonathan Swift penning sharp satirical pamphlets that criticised government policy (suggesting that the problem of poverty in Ireland could be solved by fattening up the starving babies and feeding them to rich landowners…ah, never mind, just go read A Modest Proposal – but bear in mind the irony). So yeah, I’m going to give you a walking tour of what I’ve learned from studying literature in the eighteenth-century. It’s funny how much we already know about eighteenth-century literature, often without realising it. Reading Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, for example, I was struck by how many of Johnson’s aphoristic statements have been absorbed into our general consciousness, such as that hardened phrase of pessimism: ‘Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed’ or the wisdom of ‘do not suffer life to stagnate; it will grow muddy for want of motion’ (these terms acquired greater significance to me proportionate to the amount of time I was spending in the library, where life certainly grows muddy for want of motion). I was struck too by Alexander Pope, whose poetry is generally written in heroic couplets, which makes them snappy and easy to remember. So many couplets from An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man will strike most people as familiar:
‘Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join; | To err is human, to forgive, divine.’
‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, | As those move easiest who have learned to dance.’
‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast: | Man never is, but always to be blest.’
At first, Pope’s couplets do sound smug, especially in poems where he’s satirically tearing shreds from literary critics, other writers and the artifice of dress and manner which ‘ladies’ must shroud themselves with in ‘Epistle to a Lady’. But you start to get a feel for them, and the neat syntax and rhyme scheme quickly becomes pretty satisfying, especially in his Pastorals and Windsor Forest. Windsor Forest is an interesting poem because it’s a panegyric (a poem written to commemorate a public event) written to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht (which was basically a deal allowing Britain freer access to the slave trade), but its attitude to slavery is ambivalent, and with his vivid images of animals being cruelly hunted, Pope via synecdoche (‘if small things we may with great compare’) invites us to compare the treatment of the pheasant to the foreign subject, the slave:
‘Short is his joy! he feels the fiery wound / Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground’.
I’m quite happy I remember this quote from my exam. Anyway, it’s a fairly distressing image, with all the assonance of flutters and blood stirring up this sense of entrapment and terror, raising our sympathy for this humble piece of ‘game’. The poem is a good one to start with because you learn a lot about history from it, and the poetry itself is enjoyable to read. Pope definitely falls into pompous patriotism, especially towards the end, but because it’s framed through delicious images of silver and gold and rushing rivers, it’s hard to put the poem down purely because of it’s subject matter. And there’s always a sense of unease to Pope’s ideology, as it’s filtering through mythical allusions always adds an ambiguous, extra dimension to the meaning. This is the sort of thing you have to grapple with: not only ‘getting’ the mythical and historical references, but being able to trace their ambiguities through a poetic tradition you’re not quite familiar with.
Then there’s Pamela, Samuel Richardson’s novel about a young servant girl who falls prey to her master’s endless and increasingly insistent attempts to seduce her, becoming more violent every time. While she does not suffer the terrible rape that Clarissa endures in Richardson’s much longer novel, Clarissa, Pamela goes through a lot and chronicles every scrap of it in her letters home to her parents. Pamela can seem a slog, especially with all those self-justifying lines about how pure she still is and virtuous in spite of everything. It’s frustrating that she never seems to do anything but weep and write and swoon. Still, there are some funny moments, like when she tries to escape but mistakes two innocent wee cows for scary bulls, adding a dab of Freudian psychodrama to the otherwise relatively static action. I guess the main thing we can take from this novel is its intense focus on the individual (something that wasn’t really available before in fiction, because romances were interested in characters as archetypes – princess, villain, hero – rather than real people), and the process of introspection, the attention to everyday detail. The same goes for Robinson Crusoe: part of what’s seductive about Defoe’s novel is not just the adventure and pirates, but all those long passages about how he sets up his little domestic fortress on the island; how he learns to cure raisins, build boats, grow corn. He goes into so much detail you think you’ll go mad, but when you go back and read it, there’s a certain satisfaction to it. You can imagine yourself in his position – Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously claimed that Robinson Crusoe’s success was that he represented human nature in general – and the novel becomes a sort of survival guide to living on a lonesome tropical island.
Incidentally, Crusoe’s story was loosely based on that of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish man who ran away to sea to escape punishment for bad behaviour back home. When he got into an argument with the captain of his ship, he asked to leave and go ashore on one of the South Pacific islands they were close to. Selkirk thought some ship would come and find him soon enough, but instead he was stranded there for over four years. Crusoe, by contrast, is on his island for twenty eight years. Part of the wonder of the story is how sane he stays. Crusoe rediscovers religion and his spiritual devotion is essential to giving his life order and meaning on the island. It’s the little things that matter, that give him a sense of self: carving the days into a wooden cross, having dinner with his ‘family’ of animals and writing in his diary. The whole novel basically celebrates the power of human reason and endurance, as Crusoe notes that ‘by making the most rational judgments of things, every man may be in time master of every mechanic art’. I guess in this way it’s very typical of the Enlightenment attitude of the time, but there’s also a very strong capitalist motive for Crusoe’s actions and attitudes. As Ian Watt points out in The Rise of the Novel, many of Crusoe’s behaviours prefigure that of the canny venture capitalist: his restless travels for more trade, his saving of supplies and investing of crops, his careful planning of time and stock, and the mythological story of the individual’s capacity for survival. In fact, it could even be read as a kind of Puritan spiritual autobiography, because Crusoe has all his capital successes rewarded supposedly by ‘Providence’ as a blessing for his religious (re)awakening. It’s funny how a lot of eighteenth-century texts like Robinson Crusoe are perhaps best known for their adaptations into children’s literature (NOT as the rather awful film versions which insist on adding an irrelevant romance plot to everything). I suppose it’s because Defoe’s novel is also an adventure narrative, encountering pirates and ‘educating’ his ex-cannibal slave ‘Friday’ with Western values (another problematic but critically rich part of the story is Defoe’s relationship to ‘my man Friday’, which sheds light on the colonial context of the time). Another example of an eighteenth-century novel being famous as a children’s book is of course Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. The irony here is that Swift wrote this tale about fantastic worlds with tiny people, floating islands, people who could extract sunlight from cucumbers, giants and talking horses (Houyhnhnms) to deliver a harsh satire on the politics and Enlightenment culture of the period. Unless you have a canny eye or an edition rich with footnotes, you might miss all these references, and so revel along in Gulliver’s story and thus fall prey to the kind of naivety Swift critiques in Gulliver himself. Indeed, because the book was so cleverly prefaced and presented as a true account of a man’s travels, many people thought that the events and the strange places described were all true. In addition to lashing the follies of man’s claim to reason and pursuit of enlightened knowledge, Swift was attacking travel writing itself, albeit with lesser gall. He parodies the supposed objectivity of travel writing, and its attention to seemingly inane details. He gives very precise numbers, showing the reader how he cleverly carves up the worlds he encounters, noting ‘three hundred tailors’, ‘six of his majesty’s greatest scholars’ and so on. He also feels the need for self-justification, as when he describes how his excrement has to be taken away by two wheelbarrows by the tiny Lilliputians:
I would not have dwelt so long upon a Circumstance, that perhaps at first sight may appear not very Momentous; if I had not thought it necessary to justify my Character in Point of Cleanliness to the World, which I am told, some of my Maligners have been pleased on this and other Occasions, to call in Question.
Swift’s writings had been previously critiqued for their lewdness, as in A Tale of a Tub and ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, where the human body becomes a site of grotesque revelry and disgust. Swift, therefore, is here fashioning his own self-defence with thick layers of irony, inviting critics to judge him against his own self-protection, his free reign expression on matters abject and bodily. Travel writing was a big thing in the eighteenth-century, what with the growth of the British trade empire and the trend for the ‘Grand Tour’. While they didn’t have access to a railcard, undergraduate (men) would often take the Grand Tour of Europe, learning about refined French manners and Greek culture to more fully develop their education. This of course also involved a lot of drinking and probably visiting prostitutes, but then again, such matters were perhaps necessary to a gentleman’s education – he could ‘get it out of his system’ overseas and come back to Britain enlightened and satisfied and ready to be a ‘good’ citizen. Hm. One of my favourite pieces of travel writing is James Boswell and Samuel Johnson’s account of their journey to the Western isles of Scotland. Their approach was slightly different, as they each wrote separate accounts of the time. Boswell focused mainly on Johnson himself (as he tends to do in his writing!) whereas Johnson spent much time critiquing the dreariness of the scenery and observing the primitive lives of the locals with some disdain, though respect for their hospitality. You can read A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland for free online via Project Gutenberg, and I think it’s worth a gander, if only to take a brief lunch-break holiday into the wilds of eighteenth-century Scotland. There is also a rather humorous article in The Telegraph detailing the author’s attempts to retrace the steps of Boswell and Johnson’s tour, though I am somewhat uncomfortable with his complaints about encountering a range of ethnicities rather than ‘native’ Scots on his tour…can Scottishness not finally now be defined as authentic through multiculturalism, as everywhere else in Britain, or must it still be hailed as a land of blood and soil nostalgia, pale skin and tartan…? just a wee grumble! I have only skimmed over the stuff we covered in our course on the eighteenth-century. Other things worth reading are the hilarious parodies of Pamela, which cast severe doubt on the veracity of Pamela’s ‘virtue’ and burlesque Richardson’s prose style – some good ones include Eliza Haywood’s Anti-Pamela and Henry Fielding’s Shamela. Also, Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City is a marvellous book which looks at how the countryside was often falsely represented in various examples of pastoral and Georgic poetry through the ages as an idealised contrast to the corruptions of the city. Millenium Hall by Sarah Scott is a very intriguing epistolary novel which has been dubbed a ‘feminotopia’, an early representation of a utopian community run by women on a country estate. I suppose what really strikes you about this period is the sheer diversity of works, and the strong political ties most of the literature displays. It was a time of experimentation, but because the novel in particular was still a nascent form, it’s possible to perceive all the strange incoherences, the little faults and cracks which allow us to reflect on the form in general and its relationship to ideology. Edward Said, after all, has argued that the novel is by definition born out of colonialism: it is ‘fundamentally tied to bourgeois society […] it accompanies and indeed is a part of the conquest of Western society […] the novel, as a cultural artefact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other’. The novel’s representation of social authority in the hands of the British, its focus often on middle-class life and relentless individualism are all part of this bourgeois basis of the novel. Whether we agree entirely with Said’s statement, it’s a compelling argument that challenges us to rethink how we consider what is probably the most popular form (other than celebrity biography) in the contemporary literary market. And I guess that’s one of the thing’s I enjoyed most about this course: returning to origins, understanding how modern literature came into being out of the cultural circumstances and experimentations of the long eighteenth-century. It is rather ironic that while Samuel Johnson characterised the typical novel reader as ‘the young, the ignorant and the idle’, reading novels is now one of those activities that mark you out as ‘cultured’, ‘educated’, perhaps even ‘bourgeois’. Not only in its form, but also in its critical reception, the novel has come a long way. Some extra info:
Alexander Pope was a dissenting Catholic during the time of Protestant monarchy, which meant he was barred from participating in many societal institutions, like university. In 1719, he retreated to Twickenham in the rural outskirts of London, building himself a villa and a grassplot garden whose verdant beauty was to imitate the Arcadian landscapes of much of his poetry. Pope’s residence is notable and pretty cool because he constructed a tunnel under the road connecting his garden to his villa. It led to the basement of his villa in which he fashioned his own grotto. He wrote a rather beautiful description of his delight in a letter to Edward Blount:
When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture…And when you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms…at which when a Lamp…is hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place.
So small as the daisy, pulled
into petals from the precious lens
of a leaf.
Unfurl the tangles like twine;
as an organ,
the quick pulse
of some other body, the beautiful body:
that lies over there and empty,
still empty in the yellow light
of this warm morning.