For Stieg Larsson fans, a new voice — and an even darker side of Sweden

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It’s early to be pegging the year’s best books, but “The Wolf and the Watchman,” Niklas Natt och Dag’s stunning debut, is sure to be one of them. A longtime cultural columnist and blogger for Swedish magazines, Natt och Dag brings a reporter’s eye for detail to this feverishly dark historical thriller, first of a trilogy and published in more than 30 countries. Even readers inured to grim depictions of Sweden in the work of writers such as Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson may be taken aback by Natt och Dag’s 1793 Stockholm, a hellish place that seems mired in the Middle Ages, despite the gradual encroachment of Enlightenment ideas.

The watchman of the title, Mickel Cardell, is one of the ragtag crew employed by the city’s police force to arrest vagrants, prostitutes, orphans and others who struggle to survive in Stockholm’s cesspit streets. A veteran who lost his left arm during Sweden’s ill-fated war with Russia, Cardell works at a beer cellar, where he keeps order with a carved wooden prosthetic — a formidable weapon for dealing with truculent customers. Very early one morning, he’s awakened from a drunken stupor by two children who have found a body in a nearby lake that’s little more than an open sewer.

“The waves lap against the shore, churning up a pale yellow froth. Something rotten — a dark lump — is floating a few meters out. Cardell’s first thought is that it cannot possibly be a human being.”

But it is, or was, a human being, so horrifically mutilated that it causes the hardened Cardell to experience a panic attack. The corpse is brought to the attention of Cecil Winge, a young lawyer turned investigator who works with Stockholm’s police chief, Johan Gustaf Norlin. Set during a period of political and social unrest, with rumors of the French Revolution muttered in the alleys, corruption is rampant among the Stockholm police. In the shadows of this chaos, Norlin and Winge, two righteous men, know their days with the force are numbered, especially Winge’s. In the last stages of consumption, with only weeks to live, Winge has nothing to lose by joining forces with Cardell to uncover the identity of the unknown man, whom they name Karl Johan, and his murderer.

“So this man has had his arms and legs shorn away in turn,” Winge calmly observes to Cardell, before noting even more disturbing details.

Yet even more nightmarish are the descriptions of everyday life in a society where numbing poverty is ubiquitous. Naive farm boys who come to Stockholm fall into paralyzing debt, with dire consequences. Crowds gather to cheer an executioner, himself a condemned man so drunk it takes minutes for him to cleave his victim’s head from his body. Those soldiers who survive attack by Russian warships subsequently die of typhus by the hundreds. Female victims of sexual assault are thrown into workhouses indistinguishable from prisons, where they are tortured. Most sinister of all is the Eumenides, a secret charitable order made up of the city’s wealthiest men that supports the workhouses, which takes its name from Greek myth. The Eumenides, “the Kindly Ones,” are also the ravening Furies.

“The Wolf and the Watchman” is exceedingly grim and often grisly, but, in the elegant translation by Ebba Segerberg, it’s never lurid. Natt och Dag has spoken of his admiration for Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.” Like Eco’s novel, “The Wolf and the Watchman” is a cerebral, immersive page-turner whose detective is a rationalist trapped in a world ruled by superstition, fear, and men whose humanity has been debased and erased as surely as Karl Johan’s.

“What kind of wolf are you, then, Mr. Winge?” asks a man under interrogation. “A good wolf? A skilled hunter?” Winge replies, “No wolf at all, I’m afraid. What I do, I do not undertake in order to satisfy my bloodlust.”

Yet even a righteous man may fall prey to his darker impulses. Winge’s ongoing struggle to maintain a precarious balance between justice and vengeance, as well as his own life and imminent death, gives “The Wolf and the Watchman” a moral heft reminiscent of works by Graham Greene.

Natt och Dag takes some narrative risks. Divided into four parts, the book focuses on Winge and Cardell’s investigation in its first and final sections, with Winge himself growing sicker and more corpselike every day. The middle two sections jump back to the previous spring and summer: Each follows a different character whose connections to victim and killer are only gradually and chillingly revealed. It’s a strategy with an impressive payoff, as scenes that initially seemed to serve as stylistic or historical flourishes instead prove crucial to the plot, fitting together as precisely as the gears of the pocket watch Winge obsessively takes apart and puts back together.

“The Wolf and the Watchman” makes sly use of the conventions of the modern police procedural: the coolly clinical investigator and his brawling sidekick; the furtive dance between corrupt police commissioners and their politician puppet-masters; even the coffee-swilling Stockholm policemen who avidly avail themselves of the still-novel beverage. The last 50 pages provide plenty of twists to satisfy thrill-starved readers, but it’s the final haunting sentence that raises gooseflesh and leaves one reaching to turn up the light.

Elizabeth Hand’s  novel “Curious Toys” will be published this fall.

THE WOLF AND THE WATCHMAN

By Niklas Natt och Dag

Atria. 373 pp. $27

Originally published at WashingtonPost.com.

Femininjas: Women in Fiction Fight Back

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In Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millennium series—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.—a disaffected teenaged rape survivor, Lisbeth Salander, kicks ass and takes names. Readers and critics hailed Larsson’s creation as groundbreaking. To pick just one representative case, Michiko Kakutani, in her review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, calls Salander “one of the most original characters in a thriller to come along in a while: . . . the vulnerable victim turned vigilante; a willfully antisocial girl.” One would think the critics had never seen a woman in pants before, let alone one who can hold her own against the patriarchy.

And perhaps they never have, in which case introductions are a couple thousand years overdue. “Let no man think I’m a trivial woman, a feeble one who sits there passively,” Euripides’ Medea announces. “No, I’m a different sort—dangerous to enemies, but well disposed to friends. Lives like mine achieve the greatest glory.”

Ah, Medea—the first bad girl of literature, if one discounts Lilith, who’s never given a chance to voice her own opinion of Adam before he dumps her for Eve. Medea, the raging fury, is most remarkable not so much for her extensive list of crimes, knowledge of poisons, or lack of what modern readers might call sympathetic traits as for her unrepentant, single-minded desire for vengeance against her two-timing lover, Jason. First she poisons his innocent bride, gloating at the news of her anguished death. Then, with her own hands, though not without some protracted anguish of her own, she kills her two young children by Jason. Refusing the grief-stricken Jason a final embrace of the boys’ corpses, she gives him a terse kiss-off—“Your words are wasted.”

Medea might cast a cold eye on Larsson’s characterization of Salander as a near-anorexic, childlike waif who musters almost superhuman powers in her own quest for vengeance. Emphasizing Salander’s youth and gamine appearance evokes some disturbing similarities with Bella—the weirdly infantilized, profoundly unsexy narrator of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series—and with Fifty Shades of Grey’s equally dumb and vanilla BDSM protagonist Anastasia, whose college education might have benefited from a SparkNotes reading of Mary Gaitskill and Mrs. Gaskell.

Whatever might be said about these popular 21st-century novels, they can’t be described as feminist works, books that advocate for, and present a vision of, equality between women and men. Larsson’s novels come closest, although their depiction of Lisbeth as a sociopath, irrevocably and pathologically damaged by her rape, is an uncomfortable reminder that, in popular culture, rape survivors are still defined by their trauma. Recent statistics indicate that one in six women will be the victim of a violent sexual assault or an attempted assault. Add to that the number of sexual assaults that go unreported, and you have a vast number of potential sociopaths.

The truth is that many of us who survived rape have gone on to live relatively normal lives, despite suffering from post-traumatic stress and other psychological disorders. I sometimes wonder if the success of books such as Twilight and Fifty Shades is itself a form of mass PTSD or Stockholm syndrome—a reaction to the ubiquity of violence against women and to the way in which stories of sexual violence, real or feigned, have become a culturally accepted form of entertainment; and a reaction to the often intolerable pressures of living in a world where power is still mostly in the hands of men.

But even Larsson doesn’t venture far enough into this battleground. Lisbeth, for all her violence, does not reject her objectification in male fantasies. However, some recent novels feature female protagonists who do, genuinely, transgress in this way. They are, to borrow a coinage from poets Charmira Nelson and Kai Davis, “femininjas”: women characters who utilize stealth, exile, and cunning, not to mention subterfuge and hand-to-hand combat, in their efforts to fight back.

• • •

“This is the story of Bella,” Helen Zahavi writes, opening her debut novel, Dirty Weekend. “She’s no one special. England’s full of wounded people. . . . You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them.”

First published in 1991 to considerable controversy, Dirty Weekend was republished last year in an electronic edition after being out of print, and thank God for that. Unquestionably ahead of its time, the book has been unjustly forgotten, despite (or maybe because of) its Hollywood adaptation directed by Michael Winner of Death Wish infamy.

Zahavi’s novel takes place in Brighton, also the setting for Graham Greene’s great noir Brighton Rock. (Dirty Weekend’s original cover art features a crushed stick of Brighton rock, the phallus-shaped candy that gave Greene’s novel its name.) Bella has a few things in common with Greene’s innocently oblivious heroine Rose. Both have symbolically charged names; both come under the microscopic, deranged scrutiny of sociopathic men; both undergo a powerful religious experience during a nightmarish narrative of Brighton’s underworld.

A minor difference is that Rose’s epiphany revolves around self-deluding religious belief, whereas Bella’s involves the inexpert yet highly satisfying deployment of a hammer into a man’s face.

Bella lives in a spectacularly grim basement bedsit: lightless, clammy, smelling of drains. She’s a “good loser”:

All she wanted was to be left alone, which didn’t seem a lot to ask. She expected little, and received less, and thanked her gods for what she got. . . . it was a dull, grey life, a mutant kind of life, an abortion of a life. But it was hers, and she accepted it.

Bella is one of “the women men don’t see”—to crib the title of a classic story by the American writer James Tiptree Jr., whose real name was Alice Sheldon—until she is seen, in the worst possible way, by a psychotic voyeur in a flat that overlooks hers. Zahavi’s descriptions of Bella’s initial contact with her stalker, Tim, are terrifying; they eschew the sickly pornification of such encounters in too many novels and films. Instead, Zahavi captures the horrific banality of a stalker’s obsession, how in repetition it becomes ritualized sexual behavior.

“Cheap women buy cheap curtains,” Tim says when he first calls Bella, who has an unlisted phone number.

I can see the shape of you through the material. When you have the light on I can see you moving about. I like the way you move. I like looking down and seeing you move and knowing you’re in there. I can tell by the way you move that you know I’m watching you. You’ve got a kind of look-at-me way of moving. It’s naughty of you, to move like that, when you know I’m watching.

The stalker becomes more suggestive, and more threatening, until Bella finally takes action and contacts the one person she believes can help her—not a member of the local constabulary or rape crisis unit, but an Iranian self-professed clairvoyant who goes by the unlikely name of Nimrod. It’s one of the novel’s longest and funniest set pieces, and not without its own horrors: a former journalist, Nimrod lost a hand for his political beliefs. He elicits from Bella the revelation that she used to be a prostitute, then asks, “Tell me what frightens you.”

‘Everything frightens me.’
‘What above all?’
‘Men,’ she said. ‘Men frighten me.’
‘You’ve known many men. You know their weakness. You know their cowardice. What is there to fear?’
‘Their hunger frightens me. The way they look at me frightens me. What I read in their eyes frightens me.’
‘And what do you read?’
‘What they want they must possess. What they can’t possess they must penetrate. What they can’t penetrate they must destroy.’

Bella’s responses become a litany: she is creating her own ritual. And as many rituals do, this one demands a sacrifice. Nimrod gives her a switchblade, along with a brief lecture:

‘For most people,’ he said, ‘The world is divided into murderers, victims, and spectators . . . . You must choose what you will be.’

‘I want to be a spectator.’

‘You don’t have that option.’

‘So I have no choice.’

‘You have a choice.’

‘What choice?’

‘The only choice . . . . Take the knife.’

She does, and she goes hunting.

We’ve been through first-wave, second-wave, third-wave, and now fourth-wave and no-wave feminism. In their gleeful nihilism, books such as Zahavi’s might be seen as exemplars of post-wave feminism. In Dirty Weekend, Zahavi unapologetically stacks the deck against the Y chromosome. Bella is a modern Circe: within a short time of meeting her, each man she encounters turns into a grunting, heaving, lust-addled pig, and she slaughters every one of them.

“You see them on the screen,” Zahavi writes of the men whose fantasies repeat in every medium, “trying not to smirk as they sit there in their freshly laundered linen . . . . And running through it all, bubbling away beneath the surface, you hear the self-justifying snivel of the unrepentant rapist.”

Bella’s killing spree is a fantasy of another sort, a distaff fantasy. Like the eponymous heroine of Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel about a twentieth-century witch who strikes a deal with Satan to escape male tyranny, Bella upends the usual relation in which men see in women only what they want to see—objects of lust. She casts her spell, and now men see only what she wants them to see. She is Wedekind’s Lulu with an Italian automatic, and the ending of Dirty Weekend is an obvious homage to Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s unforgettable silent film Pandora’s Box (1929), down to the confrontation with a knife-wielding serial killer who preys on women, in both versions named Jack (as in the Ripper). Only instead of dying in Jack’s embrace, as Louise Brooks’s Lulu does in the film, Bella guts him.

“To stab him, she discovered, was to know him,” Zahavi writes, and as Bella savages the beast, it would take a heart of stone not to cheer.

Or perhaps not, if you’re a man. Dirty Weekend’s final lines are as minatory and sinister as anything in recent fiction. Mothers, lock up your sons.

• • •

Cara Hoffman’s So Much Pretty (2011) opens with a description of another anonymous victim:

They are looking for someone with blond or dark brown or black hair.

Someone with blue or maybe brown or green eyes. She could be five foot six or five-eight. Her hair could also be red, could be an unnatural color like pink or white.

It is likely she weighs between 110 and 140 pounds and may have a scar or bruise on her throat.

She would be working somewhere unseen. Working as a waitress or secretary or laborer. She could be a student. . . .

She could be hitchhiking or taking public transportation, could be walking. She could be named Jamie, or Catherine, or Liz. Alexandra, Annie, Maria. Any name at all. . . .

As we are well aware, it is easy for a woman who fits this description to just disappear.

As we are well aware, it is easy for any woman to disappear. Perhaps the sole common denominator in the novels discussed here is women’s deeply embedded fear of annihilation. Not necessarily fear of death or murder, though those are certainly on the table, but the far more generalized, frightening, existential dread that the critic John Clute calls “vastation”: a fear of obliteration, of being swallowed by the abyss, of being erased.

Again and again in these novels, a woman’s sense of her own identity comes under threat, and we witness it dissolve like a body in lime.

In Sophie Hannah’s The Other Woman’s House, Tana French’s Broken Harbor, Mo Hayder’s Gone, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the danger appears to come from a husband. In Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, set in the hothouse adolescent world of competitive cheerleading, it comes from another girl. In other books, it’s an entire culture—California’s porn movie industry in Christa Faust’s Money Shot, the Arab world in Zoë Ferraris’s City of Veils, the diseased American heartland in Hoffman’s So Much Pretty.

Hoffman is a former journalist who covered upstate New York’s rust belt. In So Much Pretty, her first novel, that experience bleeds into her characterization of Stacey Flynn, a small-town reporter investigating the disappearance of a young local waitress named Wendy White. The hard-drinking Stacey is fueled by rage; she isn’t obsessed with vengeance but rather with justice:

‘You know, I spent most of today on the phone with the Bureau of Crime Statistics . . . . I looked up the names of all the women who were murdered this year—and the subcategory of all the women who were murdered by their boyfriends or husbands or guys they’d dated. . . .

‘If you wanted to make a memorial for those women who died in that kind of violence throughout history—which no one does, of course—but if you did you would be carving names at roughly the same rate the crimes are being committed. If you wanted a historical monument—you know, one that had casualties, beatings, rapes, disfigurations—you’d need something like the Great Wall of China.’

Hoffman isn’t interested in designing a memorial for those women, but in righting the balance of power between men and women—and not through discussion or education, political empowerment or economic equity, but by the means men have traditionally used: violence, directed at both guilty and innocent.

She creates a heroine who becomes a real-life action hero—Alice Piper, the precocious fifteen-year-old daughter of almost pathologically optimistic artists who moved upstate from the Lower East Side in search of a more authentic, rural life in the town of Haeden, a place that’s been literally poisoned by the agribusiness that bought out its failing dairy farms.

A casual friend of the missing Wendy, Alice is a loner who wishes the kindly older girl hadn’t graduated from high school before Alice started her freshman year. Hoffman—for whom fairy tales such as Peter Pan and Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories are obvious reference points—has said that she’s given her young protagonist the sort of origin story one usually associates with superheroes, though Alice has no actual superpowers. She is, however, an exceptionally gifted child and a superb swimmer. Her one close friendship is with a similarly intellectually precocious boy who, like herself, is an outsider among Haeden’s claustrophobic, small-minded populace. Hoffman doesn’t mince words in her depiction of Haeden, or of anything else for that matter. As Stacey puts it in a diatribe directed against her male employer, Scoop:

‘You’re here because you are comfortable around stupid people. You know they’re easy to exploit. And the cost of living is cheap. There’s about one hundred of you who are even capable of abstract thought! And even those people are nearly unintelligible. . . . I don’t need to learn how to speak your fucking language, because your language is being eradicated, thank fucking God! Do you know that word? “Eradicated”? Your life, your way, your language. And for a good fucking reason. It’s all bullshit!’

Scoop merely gapes at Stacey in disbelief: “He had never in his life seen anyone behave like that.”

Poor Scoop should get used to it. Stacey isn’t the only woman turning a Medusa’s gaze upon the men of Haeden. Alice is young enough, smart enough, strong enough, and idealistic enough that when her ideals are shattered, she adopts a scorched-earth policy toward evildoers. Like Zahavi’s Bella, Alice is a maenad with a mission.

Wendy, the missing waitress, shows up dead after having been abducted, held captive, and repeatedly gang-raped. In the hallways at school, Alice overhears a group of boys talking about the rape and realizes they are the perpetrators.

She doesn’t go to the police with the information. Instead she starts to educate herself by reading about similar crimes.

“These were things I didn’t know about,” Alice realizes.

My mother and father never told me about these things. They gave me books to read. Theory and philosophy. Ideas about why the culture is the way it is. But we didn’t talk specifically about who was doing these things. . . . It was a big gap in my education.

Quick study that she is, Alice immediately grasps who is doing these things, and who did them to Wendy:

Men raped her, men killed her, men dumped her, men found her, men are examining her remains, men are looking for the men who did it. Then the men who did it will be represented in court by men, and a man will make the decision based on laws men made throughout the legal history of this country.

Like Zahavi, Hoffman has no compunction about stacking the deck against the opposite sex. It would take centuries, perhaps millennia, to compensate for all those female corpses. Alice and Bella are simply making up for lost time.

“Research is essential in making any rational decision,” Alice states in one of the novel’s most chilling lines. So Much Pretty isn’t satire, but there are Swiftian echoes in Alice’s actions and in her revelation that “my parents, whom I love, were utterly wrong.”

All the boys I had ignored or pitied or excused throughout school were also something else. They were something entirely different.

After Wendy White’s body was found, I saw the world as it was for the first time. When her body was found, I was also found. I woke up in her grave and gazed down at my legs, took in the power of my lungs, my biceps, my hands, and knew what they were for.

The ending of So Much Pretty is controversial and shocking. On her high school’s Spirit Day, when many of the students wear costumes, Alice dresses in a mermaid wig and glitter makeup, pulls a gun out of her backpack, and starts shooting boys. It’s a horrifying scene, difficult to read, difficult even to write about, especially for a parent, which Hoffman is. The final body count is seven: Alice kills the boys who preyed on Wendy; she also kills innocent male bystanders. As her chilling earlier revelation has made clear, Alice’s response to the boys’ behavior is rational and in kind, with a Glock 37 pistol. She’s now playing the same game they are, only on the girls’ team. She’s just leveling the playing field.

One of the police officers—a woman—who books Alice as a possible suspect notes of the prisoners with whom Alice is briefly incarcerated,

Alice Piper, if she was guilty, had done something I’m sure a lot of them dreamed about. Hell, I think there’s girls not even in jail who’ve had those feelings.

There’s a lot of angry girls in here. That’s just how it is. Put two and two together. You can see it in their faces. None of them were shedding tears over what happened at Haeden High.

Hoffman says that So Much Pretty is only in part about male hatred of women. It’s also a full-bore attack on the commodification of violence against women, so deeply embedded in our culture that we no longer notice how sick it is.

“Every single day, every half hour, someone is disposing of a woman’s life,” she said in an interview. “And that is very entertaining in this country. Look at CSI—it usually begins with a female victim. Look at the news. As much as possible, media links to sex. You see a piece about a man who sets his girlfriend on fire; the picture is of her in a bikini.”

In popular culture, women who don’t play by the rules tend to either be killed or to choose their own annihilation. Even Beth, the manipulative, perhaps sociopathic head cheerleader who wreaks havoc in Abbott’s Dare Me, in part because she’s spurned by the girl she loves, deliberately takes a near-fatal swan dive in front of a packed gymnasium during the team’s final competition.

Alice Piper isn’t self-destructive. Alice Piper doesn’t fit the diagnostic criteria for a sociopath. She’s not impulsive; she has no record of violent behavior; she’s not a compulsive liar, or antisocial, or emotionally detached. She’s a precocious child who has an abrupt and terrible moment of clarity when she sees the world for what it is—a place where the balance of power is determined by violence, lies, and cunning. To seize power from the enemy, one must learn to use his weapons.

In this, as in so many other things, Alice is a quick learner.

• • •

Amy, the charmingly narcissistic antiheroine of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012), really is a sociopath. The “treasured only child of creative-genius parents,” Amy is a wealthy writer possessed of her own creative genius, though we don’t see it in action till halfway through Flynn’s sublimely clever novel.

Gone Girl opens with the frantic efforts of Amy’s husband, Nick, to prove himself innocent when Amy goes missing. Their living room shows signs of a desperate struggle.

Nick knocks back more than a few stiff ones after Amy disappears, and just about everything suggests that he murdered her. The most damning evidence is Amy’s diary, which recounts all the sweet little events and memories they shared during their marriage, and Nick’s gradual unraveling after he loses his job. As one entry reads, “Being married to Nick always reminds me: People have to do awful things for money.”

Do the awful things include bludgeoning your sweet, patient, loving wife and then dumping the body in the Mississippi? Poor Amy!

But two hundred pages in, we find ourselves reading about the real Amy. “Not Diary Amy, who is a work of fiction (and Nick said I wasn’t really a writer, and why did I ever listen to him?), but me, Actual Amy.”

Unlike Diary Amy, Actual Amy is a cold-eyed chameleon who expertly impersonates the kind of woman she believes a man wants. In fact she’s more basilisk than chameleon, and herkilling gaze nails both men and women; her tongue drips acid and some nasty truths: not only are we faking it in bed, but we don’t really like football, either.

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. . . .

Cool Girl . . . is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: ‘I like strong women.’ If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because ‘I like strong women’ is code for ‘I hate strong women.’)

Gone Girl topped out at number one on Publishers Weekly’s hardcover fiction bestseller list. It’s a brilliant novel, witty and creepy and often hilarious. But I have to wonder how many women laughed out loud once Actual Amy took over the page, and how many boyfriends and husbands cringed. Nick isn’t a rapist or an abusive partner. He’s sexy, intelligent, and mostly supportive. He communicates well and seems eager to please his romantic partner. His mortal sin is to be taken aback when, after two years of marriage, Amy stops pretending to want to be a Penthouse centerfold:

I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. I hated him for not knowing it had to end, for truly believing he had married this creature, this figment of the imagination of a million masturbatory men, semen-fingered and self-satisfied. He truly seemed astonished when I asked him to listen to me. He couldn’t believe I didn’t love wax-stripping my pussy raw and blowing him on request. That I did mind when he didn’t show up for drinks with my friends. . . . That awful phrase men use: ‘I mean, I know you wouldn’t mind if I . . .’ Yes, I do mind. Just say it. Don’t lose, you dumb little twat.

• • •

In “The Women Men Don’t See,” Tiptree’s notorious 1973 story, Mrs. Parsons and her daughter are vacationing in Mexico. When their plane crashes, they’re marooned in the Yucatan with a fellow American who feels his job is to “protect” them, even as he casually contemplates rape:

The woman doesn’t mean one thing to me, but the obtrusive recessiveness of her, the defiance of her little rump eight inches from my fly—for two pesos I’d have those shorts down and introduce myself.

At the story’s close, the narrator is stunned when the Parsons opt to take their chances with an alien spaceship rather than remain safely with him. “Do all Mrs. Parsons’s friends hold themselves in readiness for any eventuality,” he wonders, “including leaving Earth?”

Maybe. “What women do is survive,” Mrs. Parson tells him at one point. “We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.”

What women do in the books mentioned here doesn’t consist of survival so much as sabotage. They throw bricks and rocks and flaming bottles into the chinks of the masculine world machine, then pick up a gun and fire into the turning gears. If rape and other sexual violence, religious servitude, and the politically determined inaccessibility of contraception can be seen as acts of war, stories like these may not just be a means of escapism. In the mind’s eye, they might be weapons, to be picked up, opened, and deployed.

Originally published on BostonReview.net.

The Look of Disaster: Comic Books as a Documentary Form

Artwork: Jacques Callot, "La pendaison" (detail), from  Les Grandes Misères et Malheurs de la Guerre  (1633). From    Wikimedia   .

Artwork: Jacques Callot, "La pendaison" (detail), from Les Grandes Misères et Malheurs de la Guerre (1633). From Wikimedia.

Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form
Hillary L. Chute
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, $35 (cloth)

If violence is intrinsic to human culture, then the history of human violence is also the history of art. Greek vases from the fifth century BCE illustrate scenes from the Trojan War: blood spewing from the wounded Hector’s chest, a grief-stricken Achilles. Roman texts show images of war machines. The first purely informational literary work was a richly illustrated military how-to guide, Roberto Valturio’s 1472 De Re Militari (The Art of War).

In 1633 the innovative printmaker Jacques Callot published Les Grandes Misères et Malheurs de la Guerre (The Miseries of War), eighteen sequential prints depicting the horrors of what became known as the Thirty Years War: soldiers ransacking a farmhouse, raping its inhabitants as well as burning them alive; two dozen corpses hanging from a vast tree while onlookers chat casually a few yards away; public tortures and executions by burning at the stake.

Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War print series (published posthumously in 1863) remains one of the most compelling statements against war. Created in response to the 1808 Dos de Mayo uprising in Madrid and the long conflict it spawned between Spain and Napoleonic France, Goya’s terse written comments suggest that he was a witness to some of the scenes: “I saw it.” “One cannot look at this.” “Why?” accompanies a picture of a man being bound and strangled by soldiers. “Barbarians!” editorializes a trussed man being shot point-blank. One of the most horrific images—the remains of mutilated, disarticulated corpses arranged on a tree—earns the sardonic, “A heroic feat! With dead men!” Goya makes viewers complicit in these horrors, unable to look away, despite his injunction.

Pictorial journalism became an increasingly popular form during the nineteenth century, when newspapers and magazines like Harper’s Weekly published the work of battlefield artists who produced on-site drawings of the Civil War. By the twentieth century, photojournalism was commonplace but still had not supplanted documentary illustration. The English artist Bruce Bairnsfather sketched his fellow soldiers in the trenches during World War I. According to the artist, his weekly Fragments from France cartoons in the Bystander showed those at home the “macabre and pathetic predicament of mutilated landscapes, primitive trench life, ceaseless wearing drudgery.”

The first cartoon documentary to be shown in theaters was also the first animation about a wartime catastrophe. Winsor McCay’s twelve-minute The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) relied on eyewitness accounts to create the thousands of hand-drawn cells. McCay’s rendition of “the crime that shocked Humanity” resembled a contemporary newsreel, which in some sense it prefigured. Viewing the film remains a disturbing experience. Black smoke spews from the doomed ship as drowned corpses float in its wake. Hundreds of passengers leap to their deaths in scenes evocative of 9/11. The final, haunting image shows a mother sinking below the surface, helplessly trying to hold her infant above the water that swallows them.

One might think that a genre typically known to depict fantasy might be viewed skeptically as history. Indeed, Bruno Latour has argued that “the more the human hand can be seen as having worked on an image, the weaker is the image’s claim to offer truth.” Yet Hilary Chute argues in her new book, Disaster Drawn, that documentary comics are capable of unflinchingly representing events that verge on the unrepresentable—at times doing so better than media more conventionally associated with documentation, such as photography and film. This is because of what Chute calls their “plenitude,” the way they combine and juxtapose points of view, perspective, characters, chronology, and styles (in both words and images), allowing the viewer to become truly immersed.

Chute’s 2010 study Graphic Women explored autobiographical and sociopolitical narratives by comic book artists such as Marjane Satrapi, creator of Persepolis (2000). Her new book focuses on Art Spiegelman, Keiji Nakazawa, and Joe Sacco, whose best-known, groundbreaking works make readers experience atrocity at ground level: as Spiegelman says of Maus and Auschwitz, “It was a way of forcing myself and others to look at it.” In Disaster Drawn, Chute offers an elegant aesthetic and theoretical argument for how “made-up pictures” allow us to enter into traumatic historical events, “inviting one to look while signaling the difficulty of looking,” making them not only an accurate form of witness, but an ethical one. Chute thus underscores her main tenet: that the form of comics is inextricably tied to a moral response to trauma. This is not advocacy, as Chute writes of Sacco’s work, but the experience of history as “a kind of haunting by the other that does not end.” “Events are continuous,” Sacco writes in Footnotes in Gaza. “But the past and present cannot be so easily disentangled. They are part of a remorseless continuum, a historical blur,” not a liminal state of transition, but an immurement in the past that one is not condemned to repeat, but to confront.

• • •

Among the most significant documentary comics is Keiji Nakazawa’s 1972 Ore wa Mita (I Saw It: The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima: A Survivor’s True Story). As a six-year-old, Nakazawa witnessed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima: he was shielded and saved from the blast when a concrete wall collapsed on him. His artist father and two of Nakazawa’s siblings were among the seventy thousand killed outright, as his pregnant mother watched. Traumatized, she gave birth that day to an infant who died four months later of malnutrition. Eventually she and her son found refuge with relatives outside the ruined city.

Like his father, the impoverished young Nakazawa was an artist. He drew on the backs of discarded movie posters, sewing the pages into books, and at an early age worked as a sign painter. Enthralled since childhood by the work of Osamu Tezuka, the legendary manga artist and activist best known to Americans as the creator of Astro Boy (which debuted in Japan only six years after the bomb), Nakazawa moved in 1961 to Tokyo to become a cartoonist. He did not disclose his experience of the bombing: after the war, the American occupiers and Japanese government censored mass media in Japan, outlawing mention of the devastation wrought by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the lingering effects of radiation poisoning. Within the resulting culture of silence and denial, survivors were known as hibakusha, “explosion-affected people,” stigmatized not unlike American AIDS sufferers during the height of the epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Nakazawa found work as a manga artist, and by the early 1960s was publishing generic manga—spy stories, science fiction, samurai adventures—in Boys’ Pictorial magazine. His mother’s 1966 death from radiation sickness shattered him. When he went to retrieve her remains from the crematorium, Nakazawa says: “There were no bones lef in my mother’s ashes, as there normally are after a cremation. Radioactive cesium from the bomb had eaten away at her bones to the point that they disintegrated. The bomb had even deprived me of my mother’s bones.”

In the aftermath of her death, Nakazawa wrote “Pelted by Black Rain,” his first fictional work about Hiroshima and the first Japanese comic about the bomb. It made the rounds of traditional publishers before finally appearing in 1968 in Manga Punch, a men’s magazine, where it was followed by four other atomic bomb–themed manga. In 1970 Nakazawa’s “Suddenly One Day” appeared in Boys’ Jump magazine, considered, like Manga Punch, to be a lowbrow rag. An unprecedented eighty pages long, “Suddenly, One Day” was the fictional account of a second-generation hibakusha whose child dies of leukemia, a result of his parent’s exposure to the bomb. It was many readers’ first encounter with both the facts of the bombings, and the lingering effects of radiation poisoning. The story triggered a huge public response (Nakazawa’s editor wept upon reading the story’s first pencil draft).

After the success of “Black Rain” and “Suddenly, One Day,” Nakazawa’s editor at Boys’ Jump encouraged him to create I Saw It, published as a stand-alone issue in 1972. Its grotesque images of shambling hibakusha and smoldering, melting corpses inevitably call to mind illustrations from horror comics like Tales from the Crypt and George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Other scenes evoke the destruction wrought by Godzilla’s “atomic breath.” But Nakazawa transforms these horror tropes into an extraordinary act of witness: “he responds to the most high-tech of high technology, the atomic bomb . . . with the deliberately low-tech, primary practice of hand drawing.” Chute astutely notes that in I Saw It, Nakazawa recognized science fiction “as a genre of reality” that irradiated our world more than seventy years ago.

• • • 

The first version of what became Art Spiegelman’s masterwork, Maus, appeared as a three-page black-and-white comic, “Maus,” in Justin Green’s anthology Funny Animals (1972). The story was later expanded, serialized in Raw, and finally published in two volumes, an edition that received the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, the first ever awarded to a comic book.

A fan of Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD Magazine, the wellspring of American underground comics, Spiegelman began drawing as a boy. “I was oddly imprinted very early like a baby duck with Mad,” he said during a 2011 conversation with Joe Sacco at the Pacific College of the Northwest. “It was like tree, rock, Mad. Once I realized that comics were made by people, I wanted to be one of them.” At eighteen he started doing freelance work for Topps, where he designed trading cards, most memorably the Wacky Packages series of stickers that sent up name brands, MAD-style—Neveready Batteries, Crust Toothpaste, Ratz Crackers, Jail-O—a huge playground hit for those of us who grew up in the late 1960s (and now highly collectible, if any readers still have theirs). After moving to San Francisco in 1971, he became part of the city’s flourishing underground comics scene and, like Nakazawa, published cartoons in second- or third-tier men’s magazines like Cavalier.

Spiegelman’s Polish immigrant parents, Anja and Vladek, were Holocaust survivors. Like the hibakusha, they did not speak openly of their experiences. The young Spiegelma first learned about the Holocaust from his mother’s “forbidden bookshelf,” which consisted of pamphlets written by survivors, many illustrated with cartoons. The often-crude production values and sometimes comically drawn characters underscored the stark horror of camp chimneys churning smoke and emaciated figures trapped behind barbed wire fences. Most of these booklets were printed after the war. A few were drawn by prisoners in the camps, like Horst Rosenthal’s Mickey au Camp de Gurs (1942), which featured Mickey Mouse imprisoned in the same camp as Rosenthal, who later died in Auschwitz.

After returning to New York, Spiegelman began compiling the massive amount of documentary material—written, visual, and oral—that he used to research and write Maus, including interviews with his father, Vladek. Just as Nakazawa draws on the imagery of pulp horror, Spiegelman deploys comics tropes, such as talking animals, to chilling effect. Maus’s mouse narrator, Mickey (Art Spiegelman’s alter ego), inhabits a world of George Herriman–inspired Nazi cats and Jewish mice. This choice was inspired by Spiegelman’s research, through which he discovered that Nazi propaganda often represented Jews as rats: “Posters of killing the vermin and making them flee were part of the overarching metaphor.”

Spiegelman has said that his work “materializes history.” In Maus, as in I Saw It, the bodies of the dead are revived and revised, by hand, on the page. Like their human counterparts, many are then disembodied again, executed or consumed by camp crematoria. In Maus, as opposed to the earlier three-page, densely crosshatched “Maus,” the reader’s identification with those in the concentration camp is heightened by what Chute calls a “shaggier” drawing style: “the specified features of the animal characters are replaced by a more minimal notational style—a visual system in which the reader cannot ‘take comfort,’ as Spiegelman puts it, that ‘it ain’t you.’” There is no comfort in Maus; it “goes into the camps and stays there at length, re-creating a world meant to be studied and engaged at one’s own pace.”

Maus’s publication was a game changer for comics, the moment when the medium came of age as a documentary form worthy of scholarly study and serious critical attention. With regard to the latter, Spiegelman insisted on no less. In a 1991 letter to the editor of the New York Times, he took the newspaper to task for placing Maus on the fiction bestseller list.

. . . to the extent that ‘fiction’ indicates that a work isn’t factual, I feel a bit queasy. As an author I believe I might have lopped several years off the 13 I devoted to my two-volume project if I could only have taken a novelist’s license while searching for a novelistic structure. . . . I know that by delineating people with animal heads I’ve raised problems of taxonomy for you. Could you consider adding a special ‘nonfiction/mice’ category to your list?

The Times responded:

The publisher of Maus II, Pantheon Books, lists it as ‘history; memoir.’ The Library of Congress also places it in the nonfiction category: ‘1. Spiegelman, Vladek -- Comic books, strips, etc. 2. Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Poland -- Biography. . . . 3. Holocaust survivors -- United States -- Biography. . . .’ Accordingly, this week we have moved Maus II to the hard-cover nonfiction list, where it is No. 13.

• • •

Like Spiegelman, Joe Sacco is the son of immigrant parents, who survived German and Italian airstrikes on Malta during World War II. Born in Malta, Sacco lived in Australia until 1972, when at the age of ten he moved with his family to the United States. He received a bachelor’s in journalism, and although he cites the New Journalism of the 1960s and ’70s as a major influence, he grew disenchanted with a journalistic career after college. He moved to Malta, where he created the country’s first narrative comic, before returning to the United States. He founded an alternative comics journal and did satirical comics work before becoming engrossed in the ongoing Gulf War. This led to Palestine, which was published in nine installments beginning in 1993, received the American Book Award, and was collected as a standalone work in 2001. His later works, Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992–95 (2000), The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo (2003), Footnotes in Gaza (2009), The Great War (2013), and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012, with Chris Hedges) all explore “how history becomes legible as history.”

An on-the-ground journalist, Sacco immerses himself in the lives of those who lived (and are living) through conflicts that have torn their countries and lives apart. His crowded pages, the result of Sacco’s “saturation reporting,” are dense with meticulously drawn, almost photorealistic details. Sacco calls his work “slow journalism.” One can get lost in the pages for hours.

Sacco never loses sight of individual bodies, dead or living. He writes: “You see extremes of humanity in places like Palestine and Bosnia. . . . Mostly what you see is innocent people being crushed beneath the wheels of history.” His work expands the limits of what can be documented. In “A Thousand Words,” a six-page installment of Palestine, Sacco recounts his unsuccessful attempt to photograph Israeli police brutalizing a peaceful protest of Palestinian women and children. He was not standing in the right place to get the shot. “There’s nothing here,” an editor tells him. A camera limits what an artist can capture in ways that drawing does not: Sacco eloquently explains how the comics artist’s ability to place himself anywhere within the frame can surpass even a camera, to capture Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “perfect moment.” “When you draw, you can always capture that moment,” he writes. “You can always have that exact, precise moment when someone’s got the club raised.”

Sacco’s close-up drawings put the reader in a crowd being attacked by Israeli soldiers as the club slams down. Palestine’s final, black frame underscores the brutality of everything we’ve read so far, but also might suggest a tabula rasa for beginning a new story. In the Middle East alone, myriad artists have joined Sacco in creating comics of witness, including Magdy El Shafee’s Metro: A Story of Cairo (2012); Wajdy Mustafa’s Levant Fever: True Stories from Syria’s Underground (2015); and Ari Folman and David Polonsky’s animated film Waltz with Bashir (2008). In a world in which sophisticated photo editing has taught the savvy viewer to approach purportedly documentary photos with due skepticism, pictorial journalism—trustworthy, ironically, for the undisguised nature of its contrivance—might in time achieve nearly equal footing with more conventional documentary forms.

• • •

In her introduction to Disaster Drawn, Chute recalls Roland Barthes’s visionary 1970 essay “The Third Meaning,” which analyzes still frames from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1944 film Ivan the Terrible. The essay was also one of the first to describe the ability of comics to “open up the field of meaning through its dual inscription and mobilization of time.”

Barthes notes the two most common ways a viewer responds to a film or series of related images. The first is largely informational: we register the characters, settings, costumes, time frame, and dialogue, and from these construct a narrative that interprets the series of images. The second meaning is symbolic. Whatever information we’ve already absorbed can be deepened, and our perceptions perhaps altered, by an image’s symbolic or metaphorical weight: a clenched fist; a bowed head; teeth bared in a grimace that might be a snarl or smile.

There is a third, subtler hermeneutic Barthes identifies, which he terms the “obtuse meaning.” This meaning derives from the profound pleasure found in a purely visual depiction. Think of the sublime moment in Chris Marker’s 1962 La Jetée—a film consisting solely of black-and-white still frames, except for when we see the motion of a woman’s eyes suddenly opening to gaze into our own. It is the moment that can only be experienced in film or another diegetic art, Barthes states, “namely the photo-novel and the comic-strip. I am convinced that these ‘arts,’ born in the lower depths of high culture . . . present a new signifier.”

In comics as with film, our recognition of the artist’s hand and eye elevates our experience from that of passive viewer to engaged witness, even as we acknowledge the unreality of what we see. As film critic Matt Levine wrote in a blog about Barthes’s essay:

In the fissures and cracks of the filmic image, when we realize that pictures on film are indeed unique in a limitless number of ways, the transfixing real-unreal rift by which cinema operates becomes quite clear. This is what the third meaning is about: realizing that these images are illusions, and becoming simultaneously enraptured by how immersive, striking, and real they are.

It is this real-unreal rift that Sacco explores so memorably in his work: “the past and the present cannot be so easily disentangled,” he says in Footnotes in Gaza. “They are part of a remorseless continuum, a historical blur.” And while photographs that claim historical accuracy can be faked, provoking outrage, we know (and trust) that the artist’s hand and eye have collaborated to create the images we linger over in the work of Sacco, Spiegelman, Nakazawa, and the emerging artists whom they have inspired. They render the unspeakable in a language we can all understand, conjuring voices and histories that might otherwise go unheard.

Originally published on BostonReview.net.

An America That Never Was: Norman Rockwell's Vision

Norman Rockwell's studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Photo by    Carol M. Highsmith.

Norman Rockwell's studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell

Deborah Solomon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30.00 (cloth)

Seventy years after the appearance of the Four Freedoms sequence, among Norman Rockwell’s best-known works, the artist continues to be derided as an assembly-line purveyor of sentimental kitsch, a victim of his own popularity and of the changing tastes of the late twentieth century.

But that judgment isn’t damning. An American Art Museum exhibition recently featured his paintings from the collections of George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. And on December 4, seven of his paintings went on the block at Sotheby’s, where his Saying Grace netted $46 million, tripling the previous record for a Rockwell sale.

Today viewers can admire Rockwell’s humor and eye for detail while dismissing the end result as saccharine and self-consciously folksy, embodying a mid-century patriotism and optimism that most Americans no longer feel or even recognize. For instance, nearly all of the figures in his pre-1960s work were white. His masters at the Saturday Evening Post, the magazine whose covers he illustrated from 1916 until 1963, refused to let him depict African Americans in anything but subservient roles.

It was a situation Rockwell attempted to remedy with his most influential and perhaps greatest work, The Problem We All Live With. Run as a two-page spread in Look magazine in 1964, after Rockwell had left the Post, the painting was inspired by Ruby Bridges, the first African American to enter an all-white grade school in New Orleans after court-ordered desegregation. Rockwell’s painting shows the first grader, escorted by federal marshals, determined and staring straight ahead. She ignores the concrete wall beside her, painted with the word “nigger”and the letters “K.K.K.,” and she ignores the unseen, ugly crowd that stands where we, the viewers, stand. The marshals are seen only from the shoulders down, emphasizing the girl’s solitude, and courage.

Five decades later the painting retains its power. Yet at the same time it demonstrates what the U.K. critic Mark Hudson calls “a peculiarly American approach to external conflict: the idea that it is what is being defended that counts; what is being fought about and against is almost irrelevant.” It is an acute insight into Rockwell’s work. His gaze nearly always focused not just on the home front but also on an idealized representation of home and comfort. His were not so much reflections of our country’s innocence as visions of an America that never was.

As Deborah Solomon writes in her expansive yet oddly superficial American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, “Rockwell’s art, however accessible, keeps his deepest inspirations hidden from view.” And they remain hidden, even as she takes readers on a long journey from Yonkers, where Rockwell’s maternal grandfather painted domestic chickens and game birds such as grouse and quail; to New Rochelle, where he lived alongside successful illustrators and artists such as Joseph Leyendecker (creator of the Arrow Collar Man) and Coles Phillips; to Arlington, the Vermont village where his flinty neighbors posed for myriad Saturday Evening Post covers; to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, another quaint New England town.

Rockwell began drawing when he was six or seven years old, copying cigarette cards. Other childhood influences were books illustrated by Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. And his father used to read Dickens aloud to his children, which suggests young Norman would also have seen the work of George Cruikshank and John Leech, noted illustrators of Dickens’s novels and stories. Gangly and unhappy with his appearance, “a bean pole without the beans,” as he wrote in his 1960 autobiography My Adventures as an Illustrator, Rockwell left high school at sixteen and entered art school. His work became his life.

“I put everything into my work,” he wrote.

I feel that I don’t have anything else, that I must keep working or I’ll go back to being pigeon-toed, narrow-shouldered—a lump. When I was younger I used to work night and day, possessed by a sort of panic that I’d lose everything if I didn’t drive myself. . . . the drive is still in me. People ask me why I don’t take vacations or retire altogether. I can’t stop work, that’s the long and short of it.

The panic never went away. Despite the domestic warmth captured in his illustrations, the adult Rockwell was emotionally reticent, depressive, and plagued by near-constant anxiety. He had years of therapy with the famed psychologist Erik Erikson, who came up with the term “identity crisis” to describe a critical stage in human development when an adolescent grapples with various “identity fragments” and attempts to integrate them into a healthy psyche. It is a condition that Solomon’s Rockwell seems to embody. He wed three times, twice impulsively; none of his wives appears to have been a love match. Summing up his first marriage, which lasted fourteen years, he said, “It wasn’t particularly unhappy, but it certainly did not have any of the warmth and love of a real marriage.”

He had three children with his second wife, Mary, an alcoholic who was repeatedly hospitalized for depression. A major impetus behind the family’s move to Stockbridge was the presence there of the Austen Riggs Center, a well-known psychiatric hospital where Mary and Tom, one of the Rockwell’s three sons, had spent time. According to Solomon, Rockwell believed Mary “had trouble harmonizing with anyone besides psychiatrists.” It is something that might have been said of the hypochondriac Rockwell, who made a point of surrounding himself with doctors, going so far as to rent a garage apartment to an Austen Riggs psychiatrist and his family.

His late-life marriage to a retired schoolteacher, like him a septuagenarian, appears to have been content.

• • •

Rockwell took pains to refer to himself as an illustrator rather than a fancy-schmancy artist.

“The story is the first thing and the last thing,” he said in a taped lecture at the Art Center School in Pasadena in 1948. To gauge a painting’s success, he’d observe a viewer’s reaction to it.

If you came in, I would just wait to see if you laughed or not. I just love that. That isn’t what a fine-art man goes for. I don’t care whether it is art or not. And by the way, I always say that, and then I have to put in an argument that it is art.

While Rockwell’s artwork is often dismissed as kitsch, most of it lacks the most distinctive feature of kitsch—pretentiousness. An exception is the set of illustrations he did for Look in the 1960s and early 1970s, presidential portraits and attempts to illuminate serious social issues of the day, with titles such as How Goes the War on Poverty?, The Peace Corps (J.F.K.’s Bold Legacy), and The Right to Know. Few of these have anything like the power of The Problem We All Live With.

That power may have emerged from Rockwell’s association with child psychiatrist Robert Coles, a colleague of Erikson’s who witnessed Ruby Bridges being escorted to school. Coles volunteered to counsel Bridges during this period. In 1963 he published a study of the psychological effects of desegregation on African American children, and went on to write Children of Crisis: A Study of Courage and Fear. Solomon notes that Rockwell probably read Cole’s 1963 study, and it’s easy to imagine that he was deeply affected by it (he illustrated Coles’s 1968 Dead End School, another book about desegregation). Bridges didn’t model for Rockwell’s painting, but he captured the self-assurance and dignity of the little girl.

Solomon is rightly dismissive of those who refuse to see the artistic merits of Rockwell’s paintings. Yet American Mirror engages in more pop psychology than it does serious analysis of Rockwell’s work or its influences upon American popular culture. It is less mirror than telescope, peering through gaps in the curtains for glimpses of the unsavory in the artist’s life. The book suffers from le vice americaine, that tendency to reduce every life to childhood or sexual trauma or dysfunction or, ideally, all of the above. In Rockwell’s case, there were mother issues (she, too, was a hypochondriac), an ineffectual father, and an older brother who was a star athlete, “a real boy’s boy” whom Rockwell grew estranged from.

Most of all, there is the question of Rockwell’s sexual identity: Was he a repressed homosexual? And did he have a secret thing for young boys?

Solomon isn’t the first to explore sexual undercurrents in Rockwell’s work. In 2006 Richard Halpern’s Norman Rockwell: Underside of Innocence made many of the same points that Solomon does. John Waters’s late films gleefully explode Rockwell’s vision of a more innocent America. He told Solomon, “That painting he did about the little black girl walking . . . inspired Lil’ Inez in Hairspray.” Pecker, the innocent savant obsessively photographing his friends and neighbors (including male and female strippers) in Waters’s eponymous film, could be a sweetly perverse shutterbug stand-in for Rockwell. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks can be seen as sexualized subversions of Rockwell’s golden age vision of small-town America, just as Lynch’s The Straight Story is a Disney-produced homage to the Rockwellian ideal. “Norman Rockwell meets Hieronymus Bosch,” as Lynch’s sound mixer described Blue Velvet. “I love his work,” Lynch told Solomon in a 2008 interview.

Solomon presents a great deal of anecdotal evidence for Rockwell’s repressed homosexuality. She makes much of a 1934 fishing trip the forty-year-old Rockwell made with his studio assistant Fred Hildebrandt, five years his junior. The two shared a bunk in a remote Quebec camp, with their guides in the upper bunk. In his diary Rockwell writes, “Fred is most fetching in his long flannels” and later, “We paddle to portage near a waterfall. I strip and frollick about—see photos.”

“All of this,” Solomon writes, “is suggestive material, up to and including the ‘lick’ in his spelling of ‘frollick.’”

Really? Given Rockwell’s reticence, would he truly have left a written record of anything that would suggest physical impropriety with another man? Whatever Rockwell’s predilections might have been, Solomon seems almost comically off the mark here. Her speculations take a somewhat darker turn when she discusses Before the Shot, a 1958 Post cover. It shows an eight-year-old boy holding up his pants so that part of his bare backside is exposed. The doctor behind him prepares a needle as the boy stares suspiciously at the doctor’s medical diploma hanging on the wall. The painting is meant to be funny—it is funny, if you can put any thoughts of pedophilia from your mind, which Solomon believes is almost impossible to do in twenty-first century America.

Solomon also sees latent homoeroticism in The Runaway, in which the same young model, hobo’s bindlestick on the floor beside him, is painted sitting in a diner with the kindly cop who is buying him lunch before taking him home to his parents. The diner’s amused owner leans expectantly on the counter, presumably waiting for the boy to decide what he wants to eat.

“The officer represents the warm arm of the law,” Solomon writes:

authority at its paternal best; he’s the quintessential Officer Friendly. On closer reading, however, the cop can be seen as a figure of tantalizing masculinity, a muscle man in a skintight uniform and boots. There is something sensual about the expanse of his massive back, the sharp creases in his shirt formed where the fabric pulls.

Solomon also raises an eyebrow over Rockwell’s long affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America, first as a longtime illustrator for Boys’ Life, and later as illustrator of the Boy Scout calendars, which he drew nearly every year between 1925 and 1976, two years before he died.

Solomon’s suggestion that repressed homosexuality was the dark wound that bled into Rockwell’s work is not necessarily wrong, but who knows? And who cares? It is a blinkered view, and her zeal to unearth hidden meanings contributes to some odd readings of individual paintings, a with her analysis of Saying Grace, the Thanksgiving-themed 1951 Post cover and record-seller. The painting shows a grandmother and grandson, formally if not expensively dressed, saying grace in a crowded restaurant to the bemusement of other, more casual diners. Solomon eloquently describes the work as “a ballet of gazes, a delicate interplay of actions and reactions that together affirm the power [of] . . . the act of looking.” She goes on to note:

A smattering of backward, Cubist-style lettering on the window—“TNARU”—spells the end of the word restaurant while containing the anagram UN-ART and suggesting the self-mocking message U R an ANT.

Well, okay, maybe. Whether or not Post readers saw a coded reminder of their own cosmic insignificance, in 1955 they voted Saying Grace their favorite Rockwell cover.

• • •

The Norman Rockwell of American Mirror is a cold fish, clinically anxious and emotionally detached from those closest to him, dependent on psychiatrists and pharmaceutical amphetamines to combat panic attacks. He sounds more asexual than anything else. His third wife lived with another woman before she wed him, and afterward didn’t share his bed. “At last, he had found his feminine ideal,” Solomon writes, “an elderly schoolteacher who was unlikely to make sexual demands on him.”

Yet the golden glow that clings to his images of young boys (and girls) doesn’t strike me as a haze of latent sexual desire. It is a more complex and intense longing: for childhood, for family, for human connection. And it is one that Rockwell himself was acutely aware of.

“Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I thought it to be,” Rockwell mused:

I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be and painted only aspects of it—pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers, in which, on the contrary, there were only Foxy Grandpas who played football with the kids, and boys fished from logs and got up circuses in the backyard. If there was any sadness in this created world of mine it was a pleasant sadness. If there were problems, they were humorous problems. The people in my pictures aren’t mentally ill or deformed. The situations they get into are commonplace, everyday situations, not the agonizing crises and tangles of everyday life.

In his introduction to Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers (1979), Christopher Finch writes:

Every image interlocks with half a dozen others. In a sense they are all part of one massive work. Each takes on a greater significance because of those that have preceded it and those that will follow it. . . . We should not judge Rockwell by any individual work, nor even by a selection of his finest paintings, but rather by the cumulative effect of his total output.

Viewed like this, Rockwell’s century-spanning American panorama isn’t nostalgia or kitsch. Nor is it the “social document” that Solomon memorably calls “America before the fall—a world devoid of pollution, drugs, and violent crime.” It’s something richer and stranger: an alternate history of the United States, one as Rockwell wished it had been. Even his autobiography is a kind of alternate history. “His memory,” his son Tom told Solomon in 1999, “was the Norman Rockwell version of his life.” Most of Rockwell’s work is not even illustratio in the purest sense of that word—images designed to elucidate an individual text—but invention.

Nearly all of the work he is best known for—the 332 covers he did for the Saturday Evening Post—depicted vivid scenes and characters, executed in photorealist detail, that were sprung from his own imagination. They are scenes and characters from a movie playing in Rockwell’s head, cast with his neighbors in Arlington and Stockbridge, a film that he projected onto canvas for an audience of millions.

Or, perhaps, his works constitute a deck of magically resonant tarot cards, Major and Minor Arcana depicting the distinctly American, numinous world echoed in their titles: “Contentment,” “Springtime,” “A Temporary Setback,” “First Flight,” “The Critic,” “Fleeing Hobo,” “Armchair General,” “Ticket Agent.” Shuffled and reshuffled, they can be arranged in countless patterns, avatars creating a narrative of hopeful yearning that still manages to move us, even as the imaginary world they inhabit remains forever just beyond our reach.

Originally published on BostonReview.net.

Was glam any different from pop? Simon Reynolds has the answer in 'Shock and Awe'

David Bowie in May 1973; a year earlier, he'd memorably performed "Starman" on "Top of the Pops." (Associated Press)

David Bowie in May 1973; a year earlier, he'd memorably performed "Starman" on "Top of the Pops." (Associated Press)

Myriad books have been written about the birth of punk, its cultural godparents in the Warhol Factory and Detroit, and distaff cousins in the United Kingdom, where Margaret Thatcher was punk’s evil stepmother. 

Yet with a few exceptions, punk’s gold-sequined older sibling, glam rock, has mostly been ignored by the critical establishment. Simon Reynolds’ “Shock and Awe” goes a long way to fill that void. If David Bowie’s death inspired more writers to tackle the subject, they’ll be hard-pressed to surpass Reynolds’ work. 

The best music criticism comes from equal parts love and obsession, often cut with a modicum of grief — the dissolution or slow decline of a once-great artist can break your heart as much as a great love song. Reynolds' behemoth (the book is 700 pages) grew from his exposure to Marc Bolan on "Top of the Pops" when Reynolds was 8.

Still—700 pages devoted to a self-consciously superficial musical phenomenon that blazed at the dawn of the '70s, then fizzled out in just five years? Reynolds states that his book has been cooking since 1985, which is a long time to contemplate what seems like a simple question: "What is it that makes the glamorousness of glam different from the standard-issue razzle-dazzle of pop music?" The answer can be summed up in two words: David Bowie, whose career runs through "Shock and Awe" like real gold thread among all the rhinestones and Lurex.

Glam was music for kids (mostly white) weaned on the Beatles, whose 1970 breakup opened a chasm between 1960s rock and whatever would come next. This rising generation of young teenagers formed a huge audience eager for a music to call their own. In the U.S., we called it glitter rock, and our exposure was mostly limited to scattershot AM/FM airplay and the occasional, much-anticipated appearance of a band like Slade or T. Rex or Mott the Hoople on the biweekly TV series "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert." The Brits, on the other hand, had weekly shows like "Top of the Pops" and "The Old Grey Whistle Test" that regularly introduced new acts to a mass audience.

Enter Bolan, whose platform shoes stomped all over the last remnants of the '60s. Formerly a member of the gonzo-styled band John's Children, Bolan went on to form the winsome folk-rock duo Tyrannosaurus Rex. After penning twee, occult-tinged songs ("She Was Born to Be My Unicorn"), Bolan ditched his acoustic guitar and picked up a white Fender Stratocaster, whereupon Tyrannosaurus Rex morphed into the hard-rocking T. Rex.

T. Rex's self-titled debut contained a few hippie holdovers, but glam finally made its entrance when Bolan sashayed onto the set of "Top of the Pops"  in 1971, bedecked in satin and his wife's glitter makeup, and warbled "Hot Love." The album "Electric Warrior" appeared soon after, riding on the success of monster hit singles "Get It On" (in the U.S., "Bang a Gong") and "Jeepster."

Meanwhile, Bowie, Bolan's brilliant frenemy, was struggling through a series of hitless albums, despite (or because of) his knack for relentless self-invention, leapfrogging from Anthony Newley-styled cabaret songs to the horrors of "The Laughing Gnome," finally penning the melancholy "Space Oddity," which became his first hit.

In 1970, he released "The Man Who Sold the World." Its sleeve flaunted a photo of a languid Bowie sporting pre-Raphaelite locks and a long blue-and-white satin gown. Later, an equally androgynous image adorned "Hunky Dory," though more Garbo than fin de siecle damsel.

Then came Bowie's historic April 14, 1972 "Top of the Pops" performance of "Starman." Bowie stood beside guitarist Mick Ronson, both gorgeously attired in outrageous outfits by designer Freddie Burretti. In a gesture that looks tame now, Bowie drew close to Ronson and suggestively snaked an arm over the guitarist's lamé-clad shoulder and then sang the line, "I had to phone someone so I picked on you," and with a sly, knowing smile, stared and pointed directly at the camera, beaming his message across the country.

For a generation awaiting their watershed moment—Elvis shaking his televised pelvis in 1956, the Beatles storming "Ed Sullivan" in 1964—this was it.

Americans missed that broadcast, one reason glam never caught on here the way it did in the U.K. But there were other factors as well, which Reynolds nimbly examines. U.K. glam's camp hearkened to the rollicking, tongue-in-cheek excesses of English music hall and panto dames, rather than the brittle irony of the Warhol Factory. Britain also retained remnants of a once-vibrant dance-hall culture, and unlike that other musical stalwart of the '70s, prog, you could actually dance to glam's 1950s-inflected rhythms.

American glam trended darker, inspired in part by the divine decadence of Bob Fosse’s film “Cabaret,” with Joel Grey as the sexually ambiguous, demonic MC whose Pierrot whiteface looked like a death mask. Lou Reed’s detached, almost funereal litany of Factory drag queens in “Walk on the Wild Side,” its chorus fading into Bowie’s ghostly saxophone solo. And America’s obsession with violence provided fertile, blood-soaked ground for Alice Cooper’s Grand Guignol antics featuring dead babies and boa constrictors, as well as the (literally) self-lacerating performances by the ferocious Iggy Pop, frontman for the Stooges. 

British glam had its high-toned side, represented by Bowie, of course, as well as Roxy Music, with a legendary lineup that included Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Bryan Ferry. 

Still, much U.K. glam was self-mocking and seemingly impervious to embarrassment. "Shock and Awe" encourages YouTube viewing of performances by nearly forgotten bands like the Sweet and Mud, whose deliriously silly "Dyna-Mite" and "Tiger Feet" spawned a dance known as the shoulder jive. A beefy Gary Glitter rolled eyes and hips, lip-syncing "Rock and Roll Part 2," though amusement at his ludicrous prancing is undercut by knowledge of pedophilic crimes that he was sentenced for in 2015.

Indeed, the history of glam is haunted by the faces of the young female groupies, some barely pubescent, who came to be as much a part of a musician's wardrobe as feather boas and teased hair. On the Sunset Strip, Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco drew all the name bands of the day, along with an army of camp followers like Sable Starr and Pamela Des Barres.

By 1975, glam's target demographic was aging out of red satin hot pants and into the monochrome palette favored by the Ramones and Patti Smith. As the decades passed, it seemed little more than the brief interregnum between the 1960s and the long shadow cast by punk. But Reynolds makes a good argument for glam representing an "individualized, privatized form of revolution" and "glamour as a spooky insistence of self."

Its most enduring cultural legacy is glam's open engagement with the fluidity of gender: with gay, bisexual and trans identities. Reynolds cites the mass popularity of Queen's Freddie Mercury, whose Beardsleyesque flamboyance somehow managed to elude the attention of the band's audience, enabling him to enrapture them in "an embrace that hovered somewhere between acceptance and ignorance." As Bowie wrote in 2001, "We were giving ourselves permission to reinvent culture the way we wanted it. With great big shoes."

"Shock and Awe" ends with a chapter noting glam's influences over the last 40 years. Unsurprisingly, it's a Bowie-centric list. Ultimately, "Shock and Awe's" examination of the glam era doesn't solve the mystery of who David Bowie was, or begin to fill the cultural black hole left by his death. "What if there is an afterlife, after all?" Reynolds ponders as he listens to the last track of Bowie's final album, "Blackstar." "Perhaps that's another definition of glamour: lustrous images generated by organic, perishable beings that live on in personal and collective memory, long after their source has withered."

Hand's most recent novel is "Hard Light."

"Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century"

By Simon Reynolds

Dey St. Books: 704 pp., $18.99 paper

Originally published on LATimes.com.