Reviews

The Wave and Other Stories by Caren Gussoff

John Sears

Caren Gussoff's short stories map feminine experience of contemporary reality from the inside, and offer jolting rides through disturbed, damaged lives and minds. Her fictional worlds are fractured by emotional pain, criss-crossed by barely-healed scar tissue, gnarled and knotted by frustrated desires and thwarted ambitions.


The Wave and Other Stories

Publisher: Serpent's Tail
Length: 181
Price: £7.99 (UK)
Author: Caren Gussoff
UK publication date: 2003-06
Amazon

Caren Gussoff's short stories map feminine experience of contemporary reality from the inside, and offer jolting rides through disturbed, damaged lives and minds. Her fictional worlds are fractured by emotional pain, criss-crossed by barely-healed scar tissue, gnarled and knotted by frustrated desires and thwarted ambitions. Her characters are partially traumatised by the realities they conflict with, partially wrecked by the people they're condemned to mix with, partially stunned by their own failings, but wholly strangers to themselves, floundering through seas of words to try to make sense of who and what they are.

The narrator of 'Unpretty' typifies the Gussoff scenario: "When I was twelve years old, my sister offered me to a Frenchman for a kilo of coke", the story opens, and things do not get better. Gussoff, a New Yorker with a novel, Homecoming, already published by Serpent's Tail, critiques the brutality of a contemporary world-view that represents people as exchangeable commodities, that sees the worth of the individual solely in terms of price, and that encourages everyone to act out its own consumer fantasies on a daily basis. Characters seek self-assurance, self-reflexivity, but find only blankness:

When I was twelve, I felt capable of change. You could become anything you wanted. I knew this from television and novels in translation. Secretly, I savored the possibilities. I could be pretty. At thirty, I stare into my compact, blinking back exactly who I have always been.

Here the 'I' is fixed, condemned to its own identity, circumscribed by the inevitability of the mirror image. "Television" and "novels in translation" offer a code to crack, a series of tantalising opportunities that hammer home the impossibility of change. Gussoff summarises in such moments the trivial, violent existence of a dispossessed generation.

Sometimes her writing slips into the easy contemporary mode of the born postmodernist, the lessons of the generation of American writers of the sixties and seventies -- Kathy Acker, John Barth, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon -- wholly assimilated into a kind of post-No Wave, post-Blank Generation blur of incompletely mediated sensation. In The Wave: A Novella, the longest piece here, this mode dominates in a kind of tour de force of contemporary misery, a gut-wrenching promenade through self-loathing and despair:

At twenty-two [Gussoff is very specific about ages], I dated a guy way out of my league. It lasted a total of two weeks, the last ten days out of courtesy. He was nice, and even nicer looking, although I can't even remember his name. He was a photography assistant at Elite, and I still don't know why we hooked up, how we hooked up, except that I had early-twenties low self-esteem masquerading as fuck-me feminism, and my withdrawn exterior worked this well.

This from a narrator who has already commented, like a delinquent Merleau-Ponty, on her "teenaged sense of the tenuous synchrony between the mind and the phenomenal world of perception". The Wave offers a complex, shocking meditation on the kind of existential angst that, as this narrator knows, is proper to teenagers, but here spills over into adulthood with unpredictable, tragic consequences.

The narrative, told in three blocks, progresses away from the first person / past tense through second person to third person / present tense, a movement way from the self (which apparently existed in the past, but not here, not now) contradicting the ostensible journey of self-discovery that constitutes its theme. Self-discovery is, in Gussoff's world, self-annihilation, and if The Wave mimics On The Road it's only because it has to, because that's the form ("television" and "novels in translation" as the only resources, again) that's available, that enforces itself on the content.

The Wave opens with a quote from Virginia Woolf's 1931 novel The Waves, a profound, high-Modernist experimental text. Gussoff's writing experiments in its own way, offering its formal innovation alongside a willingness to leave unexplained both the motivation for the narrative's denouement and its moment of mystical trickery, a sub-Gothic postmodern vampire joke. But Woolf permeates Gussoff's writing in different ways, in the persistently unstable psychologies that she inhabits, and in the texture of her language, which is deft, subtle, highly woven.

Despite the overtly mordant tendency (one of the collection's epigraphs is taken from a Smiths song, a warning to anyone in the know), she's also, at times, very funny, although the humour is that of despair, of the laughter that accompanies dying ('to die laughing', as philosopher Simon Critchley puts it) and somehow ameliorates it. In The Wave, Olive, excited at finding Allison's blog online, spills tea on the keyboard:

That keyboard never worked correctly after that, even after I pried off each letter and swabbed it with alcohol wipes. The A and the R would stick, making me seem like I was typing in pirate phonetics: 'Aaaaaarrrrre you in the Aaarrrmy?'

In the collection's final tale, 'Love Story', a romance is acted out through employment application procedures (interview, feedback, the lot), culminating in a "Job Description" of such painful accuracy the reader is left both laughing and cringing in self-knowledge.

These jokes, however, are writerly, to do with words, the forms and mechanics of written language, as if all we can safely do is play with words, because everything else we play with -- people, things, ourselves -- we destroy. Gussoff's writing ultimately restricts itself to brief moments of humour in scrutinising a contemporary landscape strewn with the lives of American women who can see no escape, whose relation to their culture is one of mutual abandonment. As the narrator of 'Astronaut' succinctly puts it, in short, fractured sentences that sum up a short, fractured life:

I am falling, arms spread wide. I snap open my eyes before I can dream. When I wake up, I am alone. Outside, gravel under parking tires. I slip out of bed. I hold up my empty palms. On your knees, you are closer to the ground.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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