I’m getting to an age where I welcome page-turners. Mostly I only find time to read at lunch or on my daily brief tube journey, so anything that can spirit me away for twenty pages at a time, and survive this level of disruption is a boon. But I’m not so fargone into this enforced ADD that I can get any pleasure from trash. I need a page-turner, but I needa head-turner, too, yeah? Palahniuk’s writing does both, and adds alongside a visceral thrill of reading dreadful things in public.
Haunted tells the story of a number of people who volunteer to go on a writers’ retreat; shut off from the world for three months so they can work on their masterpiece, three months before the world embraces them. But none of them can quite manage to get down to any writing, choosing instead to complain about the venue. They demand to be released, sabotaging the place in the hopes that they can force their host’s hand, but it is to no avail. And then the food runs out.
The would-be writers descent into darkness is interleaved with stories, mostly confessional, all with the kind of content we’ve come to expect from Palahniuk. We have the notoriously graphic Guts, at whose public readings people would turn grey and faint. We have stories about accidentally purchased child sex dolls, about strange devices that will show people such nightmares that the rest of their lives become irrelevent; we peer into the worlds of fraudulent invalidity, of the shopping channel circuit; we are offered tales of murder and blackmail, where everyone is struggling to get to the top of the foodchain, be it figurative or literal.
Some will say that Palahniuk is only intent on shocking his readers, but this always strikes me as unfair. Certainly the writing is shocking, but always to make a point, to adopt a stance. The swimming pool masturbator of Guts shocks us not just due to the accident that befalls him, but for the observation that grieving parents of autoasphyiated children would rather face the shame of suicide than of perversion. The central story shocks not because of the mental and physical torture, but because it is perpetrated in the pursuit of fame in the absence of talent.
Others will say that Palahniuk is pessimistic. His view of humanity is cynical to the core. This too is unfair; hope beats at the heart of his writing, and even though that hope is ultimately doomed, it doesn’t die. Palahniuk tells us how sick we are, but also shows us that we generally want to be better, and could be if we could only focus, if we could only maintain the courage.
Declaration: I do not know much about dance.
As a sort of mutual birthday present, Ig and I took ourselves off to see The Most Incredible Thing. We are both Pet Shop Boys fans of longstanding, enjoyed greatly their Potemkin in Trafalgar Square, so the idea of them writing the score for a ballet was enough to get us along to Sadler’s Wells yesterday for a bit of spectacle.
It’s a little confusing that critics have described the narrative as hard to follow. The story is stated very simply in the program but is enough to make sense of the three acts. The King of a cod-Russian country has grown tired of his daughter refusing to find a suitor so sets a competition for his subjects; whoever makes the most incredible thing will win her hand in marriage, along with half the kingdom.
All entrants are rubbish save for young draftsman Leo’s, who inspired by muses creates a clock. Set in operation, figures emerge and dance, putting on a display that is enough to win the competition. But violent ne’erdowell Karl breaks the clock. It is decided that this act of destruction is more incredible than the clock itself. The princess’s hand falls to Karl, and Leo is thrown in jail. There he calls on the muses, who turn up and dispatch the villain, restoring the kingdom to its former order. Leo marries his princess, and all is well.
This is a hymn to creativity, and a thank you to those giants who have gone before, on whose shoulders we stand. This is made clearer in the incorporation of elements of songs into the score (at one point coming dangerously close to transforming into The Village People’s YMCA), and (I am told) in the quotations of previous ballets in the choreography,
The first act was somewhat wobbly - perhaps there was too much of the story to set up and get through, but what it lacked in focus it made up for in pace. The second act, which featured Leo’s clock and its destruction, seemed the strongest, which seems ironic as it really had less story to tell. It could give itself over to spectacle, as the clock counted out its numbers as 12 themed vignettes. The constraint of this form seemed to give choreographer Javier De Frutos the freedom to go wild with interpretation. The seven colours of the rainbow become seven courtesans á la Big Spender. Ten is represented by the ten commandments, as ten dancers gyrate on stage around a God/Moses figure beneath a video screen on which the same ten dancers dance the same dance, with the old man absent. This was perhaps the only taste of the controversy that De Frutos has courted in the past, and it’s easy to wonder if he was keen to involve himself in a project that was a world away from the dirty horrors of Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez.
Act Three seemed almost too slight to stand as a satisfying conclusion. Karl is trapped by the three muses, the clock descends, and he simply vanishes. This seemed oddly too forgiving of him, and I half-expected some nightmarish sequence set withing the clock itself.
The fairytale has neat but gentle satirical touches. The contest is presented Britain’s Got Talent stylee, with three judges (sponsored by a vodka manufacturer) presiding over the poor turns, and there is a timeliness to a fairytale story of a royal wedding (with a commoner, no less!).
Never less than entertaining, the ballet does somehow fall flat. The spectacle seemed primarily to come from the screen projections, but never from the dancing itself. In interview, De Frutos said that he was alarmed when Tennant and Lowe gave him free reign. I suspect that the Pets were keen to allow space for De Frutos to do what he wanted, and so the music rarely becomes the star of the show. It is as if Tennant, Lowe and De Frutos were each too generous to each other; perhaps its failing, ironically enough, is that there wasn’t enough ego on display.
The Most Incredible Thing runs till March 26th at Sadler’s Wells.