Truth is, I’d committed the ultimate Kensal Review sin: I hadn’t read the book. I’d tried to because, well, truth is I’d loved the jaunty cover – Nathaneal West’s Miss Lonelyhearts looked just my cup of tea and, as someone who was simultaneously stuck into Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch, it wasn’t too thick. Instead I’ve learned about it entirely vicariously from my KR cohorts. And boy is it a lesson not to judge a book by its cover. But more on what I gleaned later... Last to arrive in the chatter-filled dining-room of the bohemian Barnes cottage that is Ian’s place, we launched our debate with Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film, Under the Skin in which Scarlett Johansson is an alien in Glasgow (and boy, is she ever). Dave was outraged. ‘Film first? But we always start with the book.’ We’re nothing if not convention-bucking iconoclasts and so it was discussion started with the movie.
Now the problem with our wonderful critique-filled evenings is that so much is said, so much is shared, and in my case, so much was scrawled on a piece of paper, I can’t quite recall which wise insights were about the book and which were the film. (And talking of wisdom, the finest-maned philosopher of our team – Bruce – confessed that this month’s homework had him having to keep going on Facebook to cheer himself up. That’s the state of culture and self-soothing today, kids.)
Based on a Dutch book, the sci-fi art film (a genre we’ve never tackled before) didn’t appear intended as a crowd-pleaser, and I for one almost abandoned it – but after hanging in there, was fascinated by elements of it. Lara and Milly declared it beautiful. But it hadn’t been Scarlett Johansson’s Rubenesque naked body that had grabbed AC’s other half Cathal’s attention – but the fact that a lot of the men walking towards her alien-in-human-flesh body were Celtic fans. As for that whole human-blood-sucking thing, our pretty, petite Milly is a sci-fi heavyweight it turns out and explained to the philistines among us that harvesting food from human flesh is a well-oiled shtick.
Actress Lara even mooted – controversially – the nine-years-in-the-making film might have been better without the world-famous actress-model-singer and Woody Allen muse. Dave’s psychoanalysis was that as a guy you really winced when she turned on her seductive powers and those unsuspecting guys fell for it. It was eye-opening – especially when you know they used real folks from the street after filming them via the van rigged with six secret cameras – ‘just like Beadles About’ one of our higher-browed culture vultures described it. The main reason Ian had suggested the film for KR was he was fascinated to see the interplay of grey Glasgow and a Hollywood 'Beadle's About' approach with a superstar would work.
Ian also flagged up the feminism angle (naturally) and referenced the film as a sociological piece on ‘erotic capital’ – ‘The way it exercises power over men and on men's impulses and weakness in the face of fear of female attraction and its power, contrasting with men's brutality to women and women's fragility. It seemed really obvious that one could read the film that way, although I'm not sure that was the intention,’ says our Mr McIlwain, Honours grad in Women Studies. Apparently in the book it's more clearly stated the central character is an alien on a mission to gather humans as food for her planet. Ian doffed his cap to Sam Rockwell’s District 9 and Moon. ‘I'm really not a sci-fi fan but both those films worked for me because they were rooted in the sort of mundane and the downtrodden and the everyday drudge of outer space aliens… Along the lines of me feeling that the best Bond film is not Fleming but is Michael Caine in the Ipcress File because it shows the pettiness and bureaucracy of the secret service, which is after all only a glorified civil service department. I think the fewer car chases and explosions in these sorts of films, the better.’
Dave had suggested the book meanwhile (thanks to a tip-off from the chap in Daunts), and gave reasons as shallow as my own for wanting to read it:
1) It’s short
2) It has a good cover.
It was clear for most that this 1933 black comedy by a contemporary of F Scott Fitzgerald’s was overall rather unlikeable. As was the main character, a male advice columnist, Miss Lonelyhearts.
‘At the heart of this book is a sadness,’ said one of the gang as we gathered around pizzas at Ian’s house (A subplot at this point was the mystery of the disappearing Quattro Stagioni order and outrage at the mistaken delivery of Quattro Formaggi instead #middleclassproblems). ‘It was all about women, whales, waves and shagging’ – and it was wonderfully easy to read, was one verdict. Here’s an extract to have inspired such a summary:
‘He smoked a cigarette, standing in the dark and listening to her undress. She made sea sounds; something flapped like a sail; there was the creak of ropes; then he heard the wave-against-a-wharf smack of rubber on flesh. Her call for him to hurry was a sea-moan, and when he lay beside her, she heaved, tidal, moon-driven.’
Michelle chipped in that the writing is Chandleresque in parts and she enjoyed the descriptions of hell; Ian saluted the Scorsese ending. I would tell you more but this loser didn’t read it.
Interestingly, there seemed a strange parallel between film and book, too…
‘Both don’t leave much hope for the human condition. With our other assignment: Bruce almost couldn’t watch Under the Skin – ‘I didn’t want to spend an hour and a half of my life feeling bad.’
But at least the book while bleak too in parts had some humour. Although how much of that funniness translates to today? At the time it was published folks thought it was outrageous and dark – whereas now in an era when it’s hard to shock it just seems a little dated.