A Child of One’s Own by Rachel Bowlby: A study of “unnatural” parenthood

One could say that the Oedipus narrative gave us <em>Wuthering Heights</em> where the Moses story resulted in <em>Jane Eyre</em>; or at least that between them can be found the spectrum of objective and subjective narrative possibilities.

A Child of One’s Own
Rachel Bowlby
Oxford University Press, 256pp, £20

Without wishing to see too much that is analagous between the artistic and the procreative – the latter being found so frequently to be the enemy of the former – one might say that ours is an era in which the prospective parent has an unprecedented degree of authorial control. The erstwhile notion of “family planning” and the subsequent growth of reproductive technology constitute an invitation to shape the life narrative, to rethink, as it were, the concept of inevitability. Whatever forces we once blamed the mystery of ourselves on – fate, God, the simple randomness of biology – the author’s hand is these days more conspicuous. Freud taught us to see ourselves as psychologically the product of our parents and now medicine has extended that patent to our physical being. Increasingly, a person – a baby – is another person’s big idea.

One might ask what inevitability ever did for us, now that it’s gone. One answer might be that it gave common cause to our mistakes, that the sense of ourselves as part of and subject to some grand, mysterious design was socially cohesive in a way that the narrative of “choice” cannot replicate. A parent, these days, is someone who has got what they wanted and can be left alone. What Freud identified as the parent’s narcissistic objectlove is now serviced by culture even before the object is conceived; the faux-eminence of the contemporary child perhaps only reflects the self-regard of those who, more explicitly than ever, see themselves as its maker. Children do not belong to everybody any more and, as well as being uniquely gratified by the child’s capacity for narcissistic supply, the modern parent is isolated when their creation – as creations are apt to do – goes wrong.

Rachel Bowlby’s study of “unnatural” parenthood is predicated on this interesting elision of art and biology and, among other things, reminds us of how much the notion of “character” has suffered at the hands of the modern author-parent, whereby the subjective self is able to extend itself into others without recognising their objectivity. As Bowlby demonstrates, writers have made some preposterous uses of the biological link – or lack of it – but what, for instance, Dickens loses in realism by breaking the subjectivefamilial continuum he gains in reverence for the human spirit. The hermeticism of the family, in the works Bowlby examines, is indeed the enemy of creativity, for the family seeks to conserve itself by excluding others or else by recruiting them into its subjective world. The family “plot” is no plot at all, hence the novelist’s time-honoured decision to introduce an interloper to stir things up.

Again and again, Bowlby shows writers and dramatists breaking the family structure to get a better view of character, with the Oedipal story as the template not – as the post-Freudian misreading goes – for a vision of “plot” as extensive of the self and its desires but rather the reverse. “The baby [Oedipus] is got rid of for fear of what he may do to the parents”; when the link between parent and child is severed, the greater (artistic) mystery of character is born.

Bowlby makes some interesting comparisons between this and the foundling story of Christian culture – that of Moses – and in doing so demonstrates that these two stories lie at the root of two opposing narrative traditions. The Moses story represents the narrative of wish-fulfilment: Moses’s mother abandons him not because she fears or hates him but because she loves him. At great personal risk, she disguises herself as a wet nurse: ergo, his wet nurse turns out to be his “real” mother, whose love is proved, indeed, to be greater than average. One could say that the Oedipus narrative gave us Wuthering Heights where the Moses story resulted in Jane Eyre; or at least that between them can be found the spectrum of objective and subjective narrative possibilities.

Bowlby finds, by her own admission, the parental “subconscious” of such novels as Mansfield Park, Tom Jones and Silas Marner almost the most fascinating thing about them. She also finds some intriguing antecedents to our world of surrogacy, fertility treatment and adoption (and, brilliantly, in the case of Mary, mother of Jesus, to artificial insemination) in plot twists that are, in essence, novelists’ decisions to rupture reality so as better to make it serve their specific emotional, psychological and artistic needs.

This, in a sense, is the most fascinating parallel between literary and procreative culture and it hints at the profound limitations of the novel as a form. How does the novel decide between being the objective book of life and the subjective book of self? In attempting to reconcile the two, the author becomes a kind of God, making nature in his or her image. But in art, at least, reality is corrective. The novel that wanders too far from what we agree to be real – if only psychologically – dismisses itself from our notice. How far the same can be said of reproductive technology (and for how long) is another question. Bowlby believes the corrective power of reality adheres as much in life as in art: “There always is, or was, or will be, another person or institution or social world in the life of the child . . . There is never, once and for all, a child of one’s own.” I hope she’s right.

Increasingly, a person – a baby – is another person’s big idea. Photograph: Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865. Getty Images
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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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