In the Critics this week

Žižek on Batman, Leo Robson on McEwan and Tracey Thorn on the novels of Elizabeth Taylor.

Revolt, violence and class struggle are the themes jostling to the fore of this week’s Critics pages, most explicitly in Slavoj Žižek's essay on Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise.

Žižek writes that “The Dark Knight Rises shows that Hollywood blockbusters are precise indicators of the ideological predicaments of our societies.” “The trilogy of Batman films follows an internal logic … they show in short, how our civilisation has to be grounded in a lie – one has to break the rules in order to defend the system.” Its villain, Bane "reveals himself, as the critic Tyler O’Neil has put it, to be 'the ultimate Wall Street Occupier, calling on the 99 per cent to band together and over-throw societal elites’.” Yet “the occupy Wall street (OWS) movement in reality was not violent… the film absurdly misrepresents its aims and strategies.” Just as telling is Žižek's examination of Batman’s wealth, “arms dealer and speculator – this is the secret beneath the batman mask. How does the film deal with it? By resuscitating the archetypal Dickensian theme of a good capitalist who finances orphanages (Wayne) versus a bad, greedy capitalist.” Yet for “all the characters, Batman included, morality is relativised and becomes a matter of convenience, something determined by circumstances. It’s open class warfare – everything is permitted in defence of the system when we are dealing not just with mad gangsters, but with popular uprising.”

One imagines that among the 1 per cent cheering into their gold-dusted popcorn at The Dark Knight Rises are those described in Tim Burt's book, Dark Art: The Changing Face of Public Relations, which the NS's reviewer Elaine Glaser believes to be “revealing – perhaps unintentionally so – about how corporate ‘leaders’ and bankers really think.” “Burt’s despatches from the world of corporate self-justification show how precarious our poor, put-upon multi-millionare chief executives feel themselves to be.” Their answer? PR, which "treats" us to “better performances of corporate probity while the reality occurs someone else.” “While business and finance may feel under attack from public opinion and a hostile media, those institutions wield more power than ever. And if big money continues to hire clever people such as Burt, malpractise and corruption won’t even see the light of day.”

Though the messages of PR and The Dark Knight Rises may be pure fantasy, Harriet Sergeant’s book Among the Hoods: My Years with a Teenage Gang examines a demographic that really did explode into violent rioting last summer. Alan White says of it: “read this book and the events of August 2011 make a whole lot more sense,” and though “not revelatory, this is still a magnificent book.” Yet the picture painted bears no resemblance to the dark masses of Batman. “Harriet Sergeant… who does most of her writing for the Daily Mail… was never going to convince us that three years she spent in the company of a south London gang was a daring foray into a hard-to-reach societal fringe. She’s just a concerned mother who befriends some very troubled young men and tries to help them.” The result is “a tale that will provoke harrumphing from both sides of the political spectrum.” “How the right will wail as she increasingly sympathises with the gang, begins to conclude that there is no option for them other than commit crime to survive." "But how the left will gripe when they see, time and again, examples of how their values have let these children down.”

Another tale of politicised violence is the IRA thriller Shadow Dancer. Ryan Gibley notes that “surprises that could have been cataclysmic tend to register here as muted tremors, which is not to say the movie isn’t powerful – only that Marsh is unfashionably interested in aftershock, rather than explosion.” As “a film that insists its characters are unknowable is in danger of relegating them to enigmatic specks in the distance but Shadow Dancer gets the balance about right, maintaining the urgency of [IRA agent] Collette’s predicament without explaining or sanitising her.” This subtlety carries through to the film’s exposition and characterisation, with “pregnant glances filling in for pages of dialogue.”

A quiet tale of conflict and espionage also forms the setting of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, which follows the story of a young woman who works as a spy during the Cold War. Like much of McEwan’s recent work, Leo Robson finds that it “rewards rereading, but not reading” as “a triumph of the most negative kind, a novel  that turns out to have been tiresome for a good reason.” “Ample precedent has taught the reader not to trust McEwan’s books any further than one can throw them (the thicker ones tend to be sneakier). His every sentences seem capable of slipping its skin to expose another.” It also “follows to an almost caricatural degree McEwan’s well-established version of the male-female dynamic” and his trademark “belief in the indispensability of solid, not to say exhaustive, scene-setting.” “It is knowing without being exactly postmodern. Another way of describing it is that McEwan is trying to resolve the conflict between humanism and postmodernism.”

Amongst these stories of earth shaking conflict and social upheaval, Tracey Thorn’s eulogy to the shy and underrated writer Elizabeth Taylor is a welcome respite. She notes that, “as in all great writing, the joy lies in the closeness of the observation.” “This reserve informs the very style of Taylor’s fiction, in which subtly, economy and understatement reign supreme. Even her humour – and she is an extremely funny writer – is dry and precise.” “She finds interest and drama in the tiniest details, the dustiest corners of our lives, and in revealing these details so accurately and gracefully she transforms the mundane into something vivid; she makes sometimes dull lives seem worth noticing, and so worth living.”

A man dressed as Batman (Image: Getty)
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times