Monday 19 January 2009

Minimal subject-hood

I saw Slumdog Millionaire on Saturday night in Lancaster, (which suddenly seemed quite far away as the rail network was reduced to 50mph for fear of forecast storms). It’s been widely described as a ‘feel good’ film and in some sense it is. But although there’s a happy romantic ending, that doesn’t take away the poverty and suffering or the blinding and amputation we’ve seen such evidence of. It’s not as though the narrow narrative is more broadly transforming. (This aspect – that no broader good would come of the central story – is reflected within the narrative of the film itself, though, when members of the urban proletariat crowding his taxi wish the central character well in becoming even richer.)

But the feature of the film which made me perhaps a little less immediately enthusiastic than I might have been is how minimal the central character is. Aside from his specific romantic drive (which exists as a brute and unexplained force), he remains a cipher even though the business of the film is to tell us about him and to tell us it from his perspective. How could that not result in an account of the sense events have had for him and thus who he is? But I have to say it didn’t seem like that to me.

This is also a feature to be grappled with in Dance to the Music of Time (I'm two novels and 500 pages in so far). Does it matter that things seem merely to happen around the narrator whilst he remains so transparent that nothing of his nature gets expressed to the reader?

By chance, the Guardian offered a typically critical summary by Jim Crace of the first novel a couple of weeks ago. The key sentence is: “As usual, I had no thoughts of my own on the subject and continued my impression of a parasitic tabula rasa.” My colleague Peter H-K, however, suggested to me that this isn’t really a problem. It’s just something to work around.

“I’ve been trying to decide whether Crace’s implicit criticism about Jenkins having no inner life really matters (though I’d rather say that he gives hints only of a rather minimal inner life). On the whole, I’m not sure it does: this is not really Jenkins’s story, but the story of all the odd characters with whom he comes into contact. He is at best a bemused, sane observer, a point of view which works very well when it comes to some of the more outrageous characters (you’ve got Dr Trelawney still to come). (However, sometimes it’s just darned silly: when Jenkins gets married, you have no real sense of why, and he subsequently refers to ‘our child’ without giving any clue of what the child is called, or what he/she is like. Indeed, he seems to have absolutely nothing to do with him/her.)”

There’s a sex scene which I had to read twice to check that that is what had happened, so little did the central character seem to be involved.

I was conscious of Gypsy changing her individuality, though at the same time retaining her familiar form; this illusion almost conveying the extraordinary impression that there were really three of us - perhaps even four, because I was aware that alteration had taken place within myself, too - of whom the pair of active participants had been, as it were, projected from out of our normally unrelated selves.
In spite of the apparently irresistible nature of the circumstances, when regarded through the larger perspectives that seemed, on reflection, to prevail - that is to say of a general subordination to an intricate design of cause and effect - I could not help admitting, in due course, the awareness of a sense of inadequacy. There was no specific suggestion that anything had, as it might be said, “gone wrong”; it was merely that any wish to remain any longer present in those surroundings had suddenly and violently decreased, if not disappeared entirely.
[Powell, A. (2000) A Dance to the Music of Time: Spring, Arrow: 490-1]

This stands in a striking contrast with, eg, the central character in last year’s There Will Be Blood. In a pub in Aberdeen at the end of a cycle holiday when, the work over, we fell to banter, Dr Ian Lyne suggested that that film is like a Tractarian ‘resolute reading’. So, just as the Tractatus is supposed, on this reading, to attract the reader with seductive metaphysical noises but then force the reader to realise that no proper meaning can attach to those noises or signs, so we think that we understand Daniel Day Lewis’ character. We think we can see in his reactions a and utterances those of a rational subject in extreme circumstances. But no, on Lyne’s account, actually we come to realise, perhaps especially in that climactic final scene, that our understanding has been a sham. Noone can be like that. It’s a parody of rational subject-hood.

Mere minimal subject-hood isn’t like that. But once it itself comes into focus (once one is aware that the subject is mininal rather than merely of what goes on around him or her), and unless there is some reason for it, it threatens to introduce a dischord into the narrative flow.

In contrast, I saw Che: Part One last night (in Kendal). Its robustly third person and documentary style has the consequence that the issue of the inner life of the central character is never an issue. It is true that we are given no sneak previews of how things seem for him. But that is just what we expect from this narrative style. (Fine film, by the way.)