A Puddle of (Sometimes Funny) Gore: Hilary Mantel's 'Bring Up the Bodies'

This novel deserves all of its near-unanimous praise. If you haven't read it yet, what are you waiting for?

Bring Up the Bodies

Publisher: Henry Holt & Company, Inc.
Length: 432 pages
Author: Hilary Mantel
Price: $28.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-05

There's a famous moment in Nabokov's Pnin, in which the title character drops a nutcracker, and watches as the "leggy thing" falls toward the ground. James Wood writes about this moment in How Fiction Works. He says it's a brilliant example of free indirect discourse--a tool that allows the author to slip in and out of a character's consciousness.

"Leggy", Wood argues, is Nabokov's word: it's a perfect, precise adjective to describe a nutcracker. "Thing", however, is Pnin's word: the flustered professor can't quite find the term for "nutcracker" as it flies from his hands. We get to hear both the narrator's voice and the character's voice--both, in just two words. This clever shifting-back-and-forth is part of the reason that Pnin is such a pleasure to read.

There's a similar moment in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. Thomas Cromwell, Mantel's protagonist, is holding his newborn baby; with one hand, he supports the baby's head. Mantel refers to the head--the precious, singular object in Cromwell's hand--as a "fuzzy skull". This is every bit as memorable as Nabokov's "leggy thing". Cromwell, an awestruck father, experiences the fuzziness, the cuteness, the heart-melting properties of the object in his hand. "Fuzzy" is Cromwell's word.

Mantel, however, is less sentimental. Mantel is aware of life's fragility; she knows that many of her characters will die swift, shocking deaths before her story is over. Cromwell may be holding something cuddly and sweet, but Mantel wants us to know that her character is also holding something that could lose its life, its soul, its dearness at any moment. Mantel wants us to know that Cromwell is holding a skull.

These two words--"fuzzy skull"--evoke some of the major themes of Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, a sequel to Wolf Hall. Bodies is a love story, but it's also a tale of shocking revenge. It's quite funny, but it's also chilling. It has a great deal of fuzziness, and it has quite a few skulls.

A love story about Thomas Cromwell? Readers of Wolf Hall will be surprised. Does Cromwell, the coldly efficient politician, really fall in love? Let me clarify: it's not romantic love that pushes Cromwell through Bring Up the Bodies and governs most of his major decisions. It's love for his mentor and his son that often determines the way that Cromwell behaves. Cromwell's hero and surrogate father, Cardinal Wolsey, was brutally demoted by Henry VIII and his henchmen in Wolf Hall. Now that Cromwell has vast and ever-growing stores of power, he will ensure that Wolsey's enemies pay for their sins.

Also, he will protect himself and his riches, so that his son, Gregory, might have an easy life. It's evident that Cromwell--this blunt, calculating man who looks and acts a bit like Tony Soprano--wants great things for his son. The depth of feeling that Cromwell has for both Wolsey and Gregory makes him complex, unpredictable. It's sometimes hard to believe that this loving man could commit some of the evil acts Mantel describes.

It's hard to believe, but it's not impossible--and this is the result of Mantel's genius. Mantel shows how a sympathetic character can also be a devil. Cromwell's behavior toward the end of the novel is appalling. He coolly sends Anne Boleyn and a few of her friends to their graves--not because these people have done anything seriously treasonous or unspeakable, but because Cromwell's employer, the King, lusts for blood.

Cromwell makes a series of allegations--likely false allegations--against Anne and her friends, and so these unsuspecting characters are beheaded. Cromwell assumes, if these victims are not guilty of the crimes ascribed to them, then they are certainly guilty of other misdeeds--and, thus, they might as well die. For example, they are guilty of humiliating Cromwell's beloved Cardinal Wolsey. For this, alone, they are not to be mourned. Cromwell does not spend much time thinking about them after they are dead.

Can a novel with so many corpses be funny? Yes. Here are a few of my favorite moments. A woman complains that her husband, George, is sleeping around: "The only fault George finds with God is that he made folk with too few orifices. If George could meet a woman with a quinny under her armpit, he would call out 'Glory Be' and set her up in a house and visit her everyday, until the novelty wore off."

At another moment, Cromwell's anti-papist disciples build a snowman in the form of the pope, with a small blue-orange carrot for his nose, and a smaller carrot "for his prick." Early in the novel, malicious gossipers suggest that Anne Boleyn's male friends stand around "frigging themselves" so that they are immediately ready, upon receiving a summons, to go to the Queen's chambers and fulfill her sexual needs.

Funny, sure, but this book might also send chills up your spine. The ability to combine humor and terror has been a hallmark of Mantel's prose, at least since the publication of her creepy Middle East tragedy, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. In Bring Up the Bodies, the terror comes from your awareness that Cromwell will die a bloody death. This seemingly omnipotent statesman will end up dead, with his head on a spike, in just a few short years. You care about Cromwell's fate; you can't help but love him. Despite his frequent cruelty, he is a man who feeds the poor and whose viewpoint is almost unbelievably seductive.

Like David Chase in The Sopranos, Mantel ensures that you are often, uncomfortably, rooting for the antihero's team. Mantel foreshadows Cromwell's downfall in a brilliant way. We eventually realize that Cromwell has taken down all of Cardinal Wolsey's enemies... with the exception of the King himself. The King cannot have forgotten his own complicity in Wolsey's degradation--and he cannot have forgotten Cromwell's fondness for Wolsey.

None of this bodes well for Cromwell. By the end of Bodies, Mantel has you almost salivating for the tale of Cromwell's death--a tale that will have to wait for the third and final volume of the Cromwell trilogy.

Mantel has occasionally said that she wants to make readers aware of just how different life was way back in the 26th century. At that time, you were lucky (maybe) to make it to your 40th birthday. There was a bit less time, a bit less leisure, for nursing psychic wounds. This is clearly true, and part of Mantel's great achievement is to introduce you to a parallel universe--a richly imagined Renaissance world, in which you'll occasionally feel like an alien visitor.

Still, I have to add that Cromwell often seems like the sort of person you might meet today in the office, or on a TV show with a contemporary setting. He is a great thinker with flaws. He wants to protect the people he loves, and he can't help but seek vengeance against the people he hates. He lives among people who are capable of both tenderness and violence--in a world full of "fuzzy skulls". And so you might find that Cromwell will occasionally surprise you: you might find that this nasty, charitable, compelling, long-dead Cromwell...will occasionally remind you of yourself.

In any case, Bing Up the Bodies is entirely worthy of a Nabokov comparison. It's brisk, wrenching, and pleasantly filthy. It's the work of a natural storyteller who is also a first-rate intellectual.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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