Friday, December 05, 2014

the babadook, and what i read in october and november

Over Thanksgiving weekend, AK and I saw an Australian horror movie called The Babadook, about a woman whose husband died in a car crash as he drove her to the hospital while she was in labor. Six years later, she’s a single mom struggling to raise a son who sees invisible monsters. She’s frazzled. She wishes he would just go the fuck to sleep.

The movie has a great Tim Burton-ish aesthetic, but with more restraint.
One day a spooky children’s book about a monster called the Babadook shows up in their house. The book promises a terrible fate for any who ignore it and, the text cautions, the monster never goes away. At first, only her son sees the Babadook in their house, and he seems like one of those classic creepy horror movie kids, crazed and possessed.

Nothing like an old-timey rocking horse to make a kid seem creepy.
Then the mother begins to see it. Her son promises to protect his mom, even as she swallows the amorphous monster like so much black ink, becoming angry and cruel, and admitting she wishes her son had died instead of her husband.

This is a mother’s worst fear: becoming the evil mother of horror movies and fairy tales. At this point, the film’s POV flips. She’s the monster, and her son is sweet and brave (which takes some serious acting chops on both parts).

The Babadook, we know by now (“we” meaning not the film-nerd douche bags in back of us, who were excited to compare the movie to others but totally missed its unsubtle metaphors), is nothing more and nothing less than grief, embodied. The film’s simple but cautionary message is: don’t ignore it, or it will come after you and eat you and your loved ones alive.

Reading is terrifying.
So she faces it down in a scene that had me clutching AK’s arm and bawling. Yes yes yes—this is what the ball of grief and fear inside me feels like. I know I’m not alone in having a personal Babadook, and yet the nature of the Babadook is to convince you that you are utterly alone.

After the woman battles the Babadook, effectively choosing her son and the present over the seductive past, they develop a happily ordinary mother-son relationship. He gets to goof around and do magic tricks instead of parenting his mother. In the final scene, he hands her a bowl of dirt and worms he’s dug from the garden. She goes into their heavily barricaded basement and feeds it to the still-lurking, but much smaller, monster.

“How was it?” her son asks.

“It was small today,” she says.

Take note, movies and self: children are impacted by your pain (“Careful the things you say, children will listen,” sings the witch in Into the Woods). But also: they can heal. They can help you heal. It’s okay. The monsters will come and go, and to see them is not to be ruined.

Here are some books I read these past months:

This book is about neither beads nor a woman named Bailey. Discuss.
Bailey's Beads by Terry Wolverton: This girlfriend-in-a-coma story is an interesting examination of how we create our identities, and especially those of our loved ones, through story. The novel plays with form in a way that feels ahead of its time (the original pub date was the early '90s, I believe), and the questions it asks are still relevant. It's also a good read for anyone who's ever dealt with a difficult in-law. :-)

Man on wire.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann:  I'm probably not the first one to suggest that Colum McCann has written a 9/11 novel that takes place twenty-five years before 9/11. His connected short stories spin around a single, improbable event involving the World Trade Center. But instead of a tragedy, the event in question is one of beauty, artistry and comedy: a high-wire walker's stolen stroll between the twin towers in the mid-1970s. I think McCann is asking us to see the world's chaos as an opportunity; without being maudlin, each of the characters whose lives bump and crash together rise to become their best selves. Case in point: Claire and Gloria, a wealthy uptown white woman and a poor, though educated, black woman living in the Bronx. They initially become friends in a support group for mothers who've lost sons in Vietnam. Racial dynamics and sorrow dovetail in a painfully awkward moment that threatens their friendship. But they keep moving and work through it.

I can see why this novel won the National Book Award. It finds the good in Americans without denying our ugliness--slavery and poverty, Vietnam and drug addiction. Like a black-and-white photo of a person boldly displaying a scar, this is a portrait that can win even a cynic's heart.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters: This is the first Sarah Waters I've read, and her writing lives up to its reputation as "literary historical fiction" (it's always weird when genre gets legitimized with the literary tag...and yet on some level it's useful shorthand). Like Richard Yates, Michael Cunningham and so many of my favorite writers, she describes the intricacies of human emotion perfectly. She also provides a cinematic dose of well integrated historical detail, to the point that I feel like I know what WWII-era pajamas look like. And by making queer characters visible in these scenes, she commits a needed and quietly radical service.

Yet, while plenty of things happen in this book, and secrets are slowly revealed, I came away feeling like there was no real story. Or maybe that the story was too mechanical compared to the telling of it. The four young people whose lives unfold against the backdrop of WWII London are interesting and likeable, but I never know quite *why* I'm getting this glimpse into their lives. It's like Sarah Waters is such a documentarian that she never fully seizes thematic poetic license.

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