conrad-secret-agent

So I went to see Noah last weekend, and left with deeply mixed feelings. On the up side, some of the images and scenes in it are among the most jarring and searing in director Darren Aronofsky’s filmography. (Yes, this includes the demonic refrigerator in Requiem for a Dream.) More problematic was the gulf between the film’s aspirations towards psychological realism in the midst of an ages-old story that, in its broad outlines, isn’t intended as a vessel for nuanced character studies. And that caused, at least for this viewer, a host of problems as the film progressed. The same applies to the film’s (to my mind) problematic handling of gender, about which pages could, and should, be written. (Melissa Anderson’s review of it for Artforum touches on this somewhat.)

At around the same time, I was reading Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial, a bleakly funny and deeply sinister novel in which a feuding aristocratic family is given intimations that a coming catastrophe will render them the sole survivors of humanity. This happens shortly after the funeral of one member of the family (at the hands of another), and the youngest of the bunch appears to be a budding sociopath herself. And while Jackson certainly nods in the direction of classical prophets and harbingers of apocalypse, from Noah to Cassandra, working with decidedly unheroic characters lends a welcome irreverence to the proceedings, even as the accumulated cultural weight of her references builds. And, as compared with the film I spent part of last Saturday watching, it suggests ways of alluding to an older work without being hobbled by it.

After last week’s false start, I purchased a copy of The Haunting of Hill House that contained the correct set of pages. Two or three days after finishing it, I realized that a scene from it had caused me to wake from a dream with a shout, which may be all the endorsement I need to give. It’s a seemingly straightforward narrative with intricacies that get under the skin; I realize that saying this about a book now considered a classic is probably preaching to the converted, but hey.

But sometimes classics, and our perception of them, can be jarring in other ways. I sat down with Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agentabout political radicals, violent action, and the upending of a family–ready for its political commentary but not expecting some of the risks Conrad took in his storytelling. There are shifts in time and perspective that, while not experimental today, had the effect of taking me by surprise, and turning what had been a fairly straightforward narrative into something more furtive. (Which, not surprisingly, echoed its characters’ movements and motivations.) It’s unsettling stuff, and all the more welcome for it.

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