Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in Fargo. Photo: Channel 4/MGM
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Sympathy for a wife-murderer: a feminist killjoy review of Fargo

The television adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ film exhibits an uncomfortable attitude to violence against women.

Fargo, the FX television series adapted from the Coen Brothers’ film of the same name debuted in the UK last night on Channel 4. In the run-up to it being aired, I was excited. I’m in between boxsets just now, having finished Breaking Bad a couple of months ago and not yet settled on a successor, and Fargo appeared to have all the ingredients for a series I could really get my teeth into. To avoid spoilers, I tried to avoid reading too much about the plot in advance. Perhaps if I had, I would have averted some disappointment. Because one hour in, it became clear that it’s probably not going to work out between Fargo and me. My feminist killjoy button has been activated, and now there’s no turning it off.

In the first episode, we meet insurance salesman and henpecked husband Lester Nygaard, played by Martin Freeman. Lester, we are to understand, is one of life’s losers, one of those essentially nice guys that the world just isn’t kind to. We learn that he was aggressively and humiliatingly bullied at school; that his younger, richer, better-looking brother is embarrassed and piteous of him; that his wife, Pearl, is a nagging harridan who openly impugns his masculinity, and laments the fact that she married the wrong brother. Lester works hard at his job, despite the fact that he is a hopeless salesman, and attempts to satisfy his harpy of a wife, but in so doing – trying but failing to mend the turbulent washing machine – only further demonstrates his lack of manhood in her eyes. Lester is presented as the perfect underdog protagonist, the kind of guy we can’t help rooting for. Seeing him being taunted afresh by the high school bully seventeen years on, and being mocked and harangued by his heartless crone of a wife, the viewer is almost willing him to flip and go on a murderous rampage.

And of course, that’s what happens, or something along those lines. Inspired by the brutal act of retribution a new acquaintance inflicts on the high school bully, Lester makes one final attempt to reclaim his lost manhood. Once more taunted by Pearl’s hectoring, and pushed over the edge by her derisory, scornful taunts – “oh, are you going to hit me?!” – Lester inevitably snaps, and hits her over the head with the hammer he had been wielding. For a second or two we, watching through Lester’s eyes, wait in stunned silence for the consequences of this act of madness to become apparent. As the blood begins to trickle down Pearl’s forehead, it becomes clear to us, and to Lester, that this is serious – there’s no going back from this. He might as well make sure the job is done properly now. And so we watch, as he continues to bludgeon her with the hammer, until she is well and truly dead.

What are we to make of this, the audience who up until this point have been rooting for the underdog, the nice guy who always finishes last? I can only assume, given how sympathetically Lester has been presented – and given that he is the story’s main protagonist – that we are to feel understanding and compassion for the predicament he now finds himself in, and share his panic about how he’s going to get out of it. And indeed, the part of my consciousness that is not being drowned out by the feminist killjoy klaxon felt exactly that for him. Of course Lester beat his wife to death with a hammer. Who wouldn’t, with a wife like that? The poor guy, constantly belittled and emasculated in every aspect of his life. Of course he snapped. Of course he lost his temper. She was mocking him. She was taunting him. She was daring him to do it. I would have hit her with that hammer too.

But this is the point at which I can’t just go with the flow, and shut off the feminist klaxon. I can’t just let myself be carried along in this natural wave of sympathy for Lester, even though this means my enjoyment of Fargo is now effectively ruined. I feel this way about Lester because I have been directed to feel this way by the narrative presented, and the not-at-all-nuanced portrayal of his character. If this were an accurate depiction of a true story, as the opening message at the start of the show would have us believe, I might really think that, heinous as his crime is, poor Lester Nygaard is still deserving of some compassion and understanding, that the blameworthiness of his actions is mitigated by the myriad ways in which the world has wilfully broken and humiliated him. If such a pitiful and tragic character could ever exist outside of the world of fiction, then he would indeed be deserving of some sympathy. But in reality, no person could be so tragic, so comprehensively victimised and universally dehumanised, and no wife could be so thoroughly, completely cruel, so callously and relentlessly disparaging. To present spousal murder in this way is to reinforce a dangerous myth about the men who murder their wives – that they are henpecked husbands, ground down by their wives’ nagging and emasculated by their hectoring, who then inevitably, understandably, snap. Or that they are loving, caring husbands and fathers, right up until the moment that the humiliations and indignities imposed upon them by an unjust world leads them to execute their entire families before killing themselves.

It is understandable why we would want to believe that the men who murder their wives are Lester Nygaard figures, and that the women they murder are cold-hearted, nagging shrews getting divine retribution for a lifetime of emasculation. Apart from enabling us to enjoy Fargo without discomfort, it also allows us to avoid confronting the real truth about domestic violence – that it is not the inevitable but tragic snapping of a mind pushed to the edge, but endemic to our societal notions of masculinity. We all know by now that in the UK, two women a week are murdered by their partners or ex-partners. Comforting as the illusion may be, these murders cannot be neatly filed away as individual catastrophes, the sad but inevitable consequence of shrill, domineering women pushing kind, loving, hard-working men to breaking point. Most wife-murderers are not decent, gentle Lester Nygaards, no matter how much they believe that they are, or want us to believe that they are. They usually have long histories of violence, towards their wives and others. Most wife-murders don’t just happen out of the blue, when a kind but fragile man snaps. They are usually the culmination of a long pattern of controlling and abusive behaviour, and could possibly have been prevented, if only we cared enough to take them seriously.

I will probably keep watching Fargo. If I wanted to avoid everything that contained damaging depictions of women, I would have to live in a cave. But I definitely won’t be rooting for Lester Nygaard. 

 

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper is a lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Warwick. She tweets as @boodleoops.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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