Posts tagged ‘Oedipal conflict’

portents and blowflies

And the Ass Saw the Angel
Nick Cave
1989

In his only novel, Australian Nick Cave out-Southern Gothics William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor with his ur-swamp tale of total corruption, the degradation of all life and complexity into unthinking muck. The primal swamp lies in Ukulore Valley, which travellers and the march of history avoid even before the apocalyptic three-year rain. Despite spanning the 1930s through the 50s (arguably beginning even earlier, when Euchrist’s father is born in 1890), the valley is untouched by wars and social progression.

This rift in the land nurtures both sugar cane and the most repellent consanguineous tribes of people on earth. One is the Ukulites, the minority ruling class population in the valley who follow the 1861 bible written by an excommunicated Baptist. The other is the Morton clan, sometimes cannibalistic inbred hillfolk who prey on travellers, and are nearly wiped out by lawmen in the novel’s early chapters. One, Ezra Eucrow, whose tangled genes are revelled only in his shuddering light blue eyes, escapes before the slaughter and settles with the town’s outcast moonshiner, Crow Jane. Jane gives birth in the burnt corpse of a Chevy to twin boys, badly damaged by their tangled genetic code, fetal alcohol syndrome, and congenital disease. The firstborn, luckier twin dies soon after; the second, Eucrid, grows into a twisted and desperate young man who lacks the power of speech.

Despite its religious focus, Cave insists And the Ass Saw the Angel is not an allegory. Nevertheless, it is packed with possible thematic markers and symbols that blend to ultimately form little more than a message of abject wretchedness. Breaks in this despair are rare and exist sole as lights to be snuffed out by the next horror and leave the darkness that much deeper.

Euchrid’s insane parents avenge his terrible beating by throwing his persecutors into a patch of nasty thorns, where he later hides from his pursuers. Before her own mob assault, the town’s heroin-addicted whore treats Eucrid kindly, establishing an internal heaven in his mind made up of her perfumes and soft breasts. From this safe mental haven come his worst heavenly commands to build himself a fort of horrors and plan the murder of the town’s young Virgin Mary. The town’s disgraced minister adopts and sincerely loves this foundling girl, but allows the parishioners to “prime Beth for sainthood” in return for their care and cooking.

In Ukulore Valley, individual yearnings toward the spark of divinity lead only to mass abuse and profanity. God’s plans figure heavily in every character’s thoughts, albeit in twisted and self-serving fanaticisms. For Euchrid in particular it shapes his formless need for acceptance into a targeted and devastating vengeance on his small world. The Ukulites scramble to keep hold of their faith in the face of a hard rain that for three years destroys their cane crops and keeps them inside. They briefly fall under the sway of wayward preacher Abie Poe, who moves them to symbolically destroy the corruption in the community by brutally beating the whore Cosey Mo and to clense themselves in the fetid swamp. They reject him after the aborted mass baptism—crippling an innocent is fine, but humiliating the parishioners is right out.

Euchrist and the townspeople descend separately into mad religiosity after the discovery of Cosey’s abandoned infant coincides with the return of the sun. Euchrist lurks on the fringes, abused by all who spy him there, escaping into dreams of his angel that cover and entwine with masturbation (he notes the “ectoplasm” left on his hand from the angel as proof of her presence). He thinks of himself as “a Voyeur to the Lord.” Meanwhile the townspeople venerate Beth as the womb of Christ’s return, medically verifying her virginity and impatiently waiting for her to conceive. Beth retreats into the same staring fits that marked Ezra’s mountain lineage and pathetic religious visions similar to Euchrist’s, implying Ezra had a progenitive relationship with Cosey, whose body he secretly buried with tenderness.

These two insanities come together as Beth misapprehends the mute and wild Euchrist as the Holy Spirit come to enact the Big Plan the townswomen have groomed her for. Euchrist, in a very concrete Freudian slip, comes to kill the teenaged Beth (as a false prophet and devil) and instead has sex with her, an act lost in the delusional muck of his perceptions. As the Ukulites hunt him down and destroy his hideaway of horrors on the suspicion he’s assaulted Beth, he succeeds in plunging his scythe into her in the town square (this time, not metaphorically). As the townspeople kill Euchrist in revenge, the rain once again begins to fall.

The final image is of the core fundamentalist women gathering around their newborn Christ. The labor has killed Beth, who narrowly survived Euchrist’s attack. With Ezra’s “shivering, pale blue eyes,” Beth’s son is the consanguineous grandchild of the despised town rejects brought to the very heart of the community. Euchrist has proved not a cancer to be removed from the town’s body (in which his mother’s moonshine is shown repeatedly to be the blood) but a testicle, the literal distillation of their shared nature producing the next generational evolution.

The fanatic Ukulites and the twisted, dying clans will descend into fruitless entropy together.

he did and he didn’t

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I, Fatty
Jerry Stahl
2004
Found: Soho Original Books

 

Is there anything more popcorn-ready than old Hollywood gossip? All those geriatrics, well back in the fog of boredom and conformity that ruled before those Boomers changed society with their long hair and their Beatles albums, getting Lifetime Achievement Awards months before dying in unfashionable Hollywood neighborhoods…the sanitary images giving way to the bold whispers that Hearst shot Ince, thinking his was murdering Chaplin for sleeping with his teenage mistress. Drugs, promiscuity, and hard-hearted scheming, all even before cracking open the encyclopaedia of paranoid malevolence written on Howard Hughes.

Perhaps even better are the speculations you can draw from the period details; perhaps your great-grandmother soothed your infant grandfather with Bayer’s heroin but was wary of their strange new pill, aspirin?

Out of this hidden morass Jerry Stahl, himself a late-era Hollywood horror show, pulls the fictional biography of Roscoe Arbuckle, the sacrificial victim that conjured up the modern tabloid cycle. Better known as “Fatty,” Arbuckle was the highest-paid actor of his time, the first to make a million dollars per year, but today is mostly remembered for the three trials he underwent for the alleged murder of a starlet named Virginia Rappe. Although cleared of all charges, he never quite escaped the moral indignation, or the American public’s appetite for it, whipped up by Hearst’s papers against Arbuckle and Hollywood itself.

In the introduction, Stahl calls Arbuckle “the OJ of his day…aside from niggling matters of race, guilt, and innocence,” and, one could argue, talent, but also argues that the public condemnation was a logical and not entirely unexpected shift for “Fatty.” Mack Sennett anachronistically cribs from Mel Brooks: What I think, comedy is you fall in a ditch and die. Tragedy is I get a hangnail…people just naturally love watching bad go to worse.

Stahl makes an effort to distinguish his tone as presenter in the introduction from Roscoe-the-narrator. His fictionalised self speaks in something approaching early Chuck Palaniuk, but Roscoe’s tone too often drifts. Roscoe is recording this, we are told, near the end of his life while desperately in need of a fix, which his manservant refuses to provide until he’s worked through another chapter of his past. Given this state, he’s quite patient in describing his earlier years, unexpectedly in the moments he describes as a young child rejected by his father for “breaking Mama’s little flower.”

He seems to be talking from a stage to a larger audience, speaking dismissively of his servant, in the third person, rather than “you.” The one who controls the heroin Roscoe desperately needs isn’t flattered, isn’t coaxed. This man with a second-grade education peppers his narrative with Freudian observations and complex sentence structures that sit uneasily next to his childish worldview.

This opens up a distance between the narrative and the reader’s expectation that allows in the wrong kind of doubt. I should be looking for the clues of the unreliable narrator, the gaps in the verbal wallpaper that let through the truth he won’t admit; instead, I see places where the author isn’t in control of the flow. This leaves Fatty’s story feeling like a penultimate draft rather than the final novel, a work that needs one more rewrite to strip out egotistical turns of phrase that fit the writer rather than the character and adjust the flow to fit the frame.

Still, it’s impossible not to be drawn into the main subject, who may have been a poor conflicted sap set up by his studio owners and used to assure a titillated public that Hollywood was cleaning house of all immoral dangers.

Roscoe himself is so emotively fleshed in that even the flawed voice can’t prevent an instant bonding with the character. Stahl effectively uses a classic screenwriters crutch—the Freudian biopic backdrop—with a bit of a twist: his difficult, unassisted birth physically traumatises his mother, who “stopped being a wife” to his father. He had partially fulfilled the Oedipal complex before emerging completely into the world, and his father despised him and his girth, believing he took her from him sexually. His size, his fat, his identity as “Fatty” were the focal point of his father’s abuse, and later, that of his audience’s adoration—and still later, again, that audience’s abhorrence.

Unique among the fat-narrator genus of novels, Roscoe never loses or considers losing weight. As much as he may be feel unhappy or limited, his fat is him, not a separate element that could be shed. He often thinks of keeping up his weight as he polishes off extra food, his third milkshake. The weight is his paycheck, and his identity.

As an aside, how fat is fat, this elephantine beast? Five foot seven and 260 pounds at the height of his fame—today, the size of the charming IT guy, the one who gets a lot of interest in his Match.com profile.

Nevertheless, at the turn of the last century, that was tall and that was wide. Many were fascinated by his round childish body and wholesome face, the eternal energetic child. However, it seems that as “obesity serves as a cue for pathogen infection,” along with the more popular “people are borderline sociopathic jerks in general” theory, his audience was also primed to reject him as a morally depraved glutton. And much like the later—if less legally fraught—scandal surrounding Paul Reubens, it provoked extreme reactions on the part of the audience and studios, which agreed to pull all of Arbuckle’s movies from theatres and prevent him from working even after his aquittal. The childlike image (that one could fairly expect an audience of adults to conceptualise as an act) juxtaposed with the realisation of the adult person made Fatty and Pee-Wee horrifying, monsters capable of any imagined horror. It’s possible to continue the Freudian metaphor that, having identifying a performer as a child, their growth into sexual maturity provokes a different Oedipal fear, of being the parent who is deposed or erotically taken.

More simply, however, Stahl and his version of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle take us to the place where we struggle to remember what we believe of ourselves against the dark carnival of scandal, but grotesque gossip is what becomes history. Stahl has continued to muddy the Arbuckle/Rappe waters with his potluck of fiction and history, but in doing so may be a gifting the entire cast with one humane remembrance among thousands of pantomime villains and damsels.

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