Going Down the Rabbit Hole with Juan Pablo Villalobos

If you have ever wondered what it must have been like to be one of Pablo Escobar’s children, as one does when they have watched their fourth episode of Narcos in succession, then Juan Pablo Villalobos’ new novel – if it can be called such a thing at just seventy pages – will give valuable insight. Down The Rabbit Hole was first published in the original Spanish in 2010, and was brought to the English-speaking world in 2011 by And Other Stories Press. It follows the story of Tochtli, the precocious ten year old son of Yolcaut, a Mexican drug baron known to rivals and customers simply as ‘The King’.

Tochtli has grown up a spoiled child, and so it is no surprise that the main premise of the novel is his latest must-have: a Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus. An unusual want for a ten year old, but growing up surrounded by murderers and mutes, as most of the thirteen or fourteen people Tochtli knows are – some are murderers and mutes, the terms most definitely not being mutually exclusive – has made him into an odd young boy. It should be ridiculous, almost fable-like that the book is centred on the hunt for a rare type of Hippo, but the fact that Tochtli already has tigers and a lion in his impressive menagerie of pets means we follow along unquestioningly. Villalobos also has an impressive control over his narrative and his characters that make this implausible scenario surprisingly believable.

It is a very funny novel, though the humour is distinctly gallows humour – Tochtli repeatedly expresses his admiration for the French for their efficiency in putting baskets below the guillotines before they execute people. It is clear however that this humour hides the darker message behind the story; that Tochtli has become completely desensitised to violence. He and Yolcaut play a game where they have to guess whether a person would be alive, dead or too early to tell, if a certain amount of bullets entered a certain body part. Two bullets in the head would be dead, for instance.

He also does not flinch when severed heads or limbs are shown on the nightly news, does not find it odd when his father’s bodyguards kill and maim people, and when he discovers that one of the rooms in their palace, that is supposedly not used, is full of rifles, pistols and even a bazooka, he is not shocked at the room’s contents, but shocked that his father would lie to him because as he has been told: there are no lies in gangs. The fact that the entire narrative is described exclusively from Tochtli’s point of view – not that there are many opportunities for this to change in such a short novel – means all of this is described matter-of-factly, as if it were completely to normal to comment that someone with two bullets in the gut is not yet completely alive or dead, it is instead too early to tell.

Though it is normal for Tochtli. He comments at one point in the book that he has not left the palace in eleven days due to his father’s paranoia. His entire life has been marked by encounters with drug barons, bodyguards, corrupt politicians and severed heads on the television. He thinks nothing of asking his father for a Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus, because if he already has a tiger and a lion and an extensive collection of hats too, what’s another animal, however rare? Down The Rabbit Hole is a book that falls completely on the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate. Tochtli may have gained his ‘devastating’ memory – his avid reading of a dictionary before bed ensures there are quirky turns of phrase such as this throughout – through genetics, but his approach to violence and murder is learned through the surreal nature of his childhood.

The hunt for the Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamuses goes slowly, but eventually Tochtli and his gang manage to capture two, a male and a female. They are promptly christened Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of Austria. Odd names for Hippopotamuses, according to Yolcaut, but they are thusly named because Tochtli feels they go together well. At least one wasn’t named Guillotine. They sicken and weaken however, and have to be put down, something Tochtli insists on watching, despite it upsetting him to the point of tears. This is the only time we see Tochtli express emotion akin to that of what we would recognise as a ten year old boy, when his dream is shattered, but even this takes a darker turn.

At the conclusion of the book Tochtli receives a surprise: the two heads of his Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamuses, buffed and mounted, ready to go on his wall. He reacts almost nonchalantly, only wondering which of his hats will look better on the animals-turned-artefacts. His emotion at seeing the animals die, like his emotion at seeing corpses on the news in an evening, has been blunted by his odd upbringing, and this is the dark message behind Villalobos’ debut work. There doesn’t look to be a way out of the violence and confusion for Tochtli.

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Amanda Knox: The Morality of True Crime and a Trial by Media

It should not be a surprise given the success of Making a Murderer in 2015 – in its first 35 days available to stream it had over 19 million U.S. viewers – that in 2016 Netflix decided to delve into the world of true crime again, this time releasing a documentary entitled simply Amanda Knox. It details the life of the eponymous Knox after she was accused and then convicted of the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher in 2007, along with her boyfriend at the time, Raffaele Sollecito. The events occurred in Perugia, Italy, and the Italian policing and court system are shown in full view here, as Knox’s conviction is quashed, then reinstated, and then definitively quashed by the Italian Supreme Court.

The documentary follows and interviews four key people involved in the case; Knox, Sollecito, the lead prosecutor in the case Giuliano Mignini, and a British freelance journalist who covered the case, Nick Pisa. Although all four have radically different experiences and perceptions of the case, everyone’s testimony is left unaltered and unchallenged. This is incredibly effective, leaving the viewer with no doubt as to how the situation could have gone so awry. When four different people see a situation so differently, three of which were directly involved in the trial itself, it is not hard to see how the Italian court system could end up backtracking on itself several times.

An opinion piece in the Independent newspaper expressed dismay that Amanda Knox was exploiting her fame once again, and stated that the kindest thing she could have done after her release was to go home and get on with her life, out of respect for the Kercher family. Now, although the Kercher family are distinctly missing from the documentary, this is hardly surprising, they are unlikely to want to go over events that they have undoubtedly talked and heard about countless times. And the crucial point here is that Amanda Knox did not kill Meredith Kercher. She was wrongfully imprisoned, and as Knox has stated that she wishes to become an advocate for the wrongfully accused, taking part in the documentary makes sense. It does not exploit fame for the sake of money, it highlights an injustice that occurred. The opinion piece states that the documentary sensationalises it, as it is edited in such a way to keep the viewer watching. This is the point of a documentary though, to be viewed, and anyway, the film follows the case as it happened, the suspense was created simply by real life events that were quite evidently torturous for all involved. It did not alter or bend facts for the sake of sensation, it told the story.

Perhaps a wider debate into the reasons behind the popularity of true crime needs to be had, but Amanda Knox is not a film that sensationalises or exploits the events. It simply tells them as they occurred, and allows the people involved to give their insight into why certain events unfolded the way they did. More remarkable than the rise of a genre committed to telling the stories of the worst capabilities of a human being, is that in a documentary detailing a horrific murder, a journalist who covered the story manages to come off as the most thoroughly unpleasant person involved. This is in part due to the lack of information given on Rudy Guede, the man convicted of Kercher’s murder, but also due to the despicable actions of Nick Pisa.

Pisa worked the case for the Daily Mail, and when describing his feelings when he got a front page story detailing Kercher’s autopsy in the newspaper, he compares it to ‘having sex’. Tasteless, yes, but Pisa goes further to encourage the many who took to social media after watching the documentary to express their disgust at him and his actions. When asked if there was a trial by media conducted against Knox and Sollecito, he states that he was only reporting what he was told, and that he could not fact check everything, as he risked losing his ‘scoop’ to a competitor. This means Pisa saw it as better to be first and wrong, rather than second and correct. The important thing was speed, not accuracy when it came to his reporting.

It is also coy of Pisa to say he was simply reporting what he was told. He boasts of publicising the ‘Foxy Knoxy’ moniker that was widely used during the trial to demonstrate Knox’s supposed sexual promiscuity and lax morals. Knox puts it most effectively herself when in the documentary she states “The whole world knew who I had sex with: seven men! And yet I was some heinous whore: bestial, sex obsessed, and unnatural.” The reporting of the investigation and the trial was so heavily biased to Knox’s guilt that the Italian prosecutors working the case were accused of character assassination.

This errant reporting is the central issue of the film; hear the name Amanda Knox and you still think of the murders, of her public trial and the intimate details of her life that were irrelevant to the case. But Knox is innocent, her conviction has been definitively quashed, and this is what this documentary is highlighting; that Knox and Sollecito were caught up in a horrible situation, and served time in jail that they never should have. There is nothing wrong with true crime, however painful the situation, when it is attempting to uncover the truth, and publicise this to a wider audience. A trial by media has to be countered, to show that for every errant journalist like Pisa, there is another guided by integrity, by the drive to provide the facts, even if they are the last to do so.

The Girls: A Meditation on Growth and the Madness of Manson

If you have not read Emma Cline’s 2016 debut novel The Girls, undoubtedly the one thing you know about the book is that it is based upon the Manson Family and the murders they committed in the late 1960’s. This is true, to a point. A cult that closely resembles the Manson Family does play a key part in the novel, but it is used as more of a backdrop, a setting, onto which Cline writes the main character, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd. The Girls is named almost erroneously, as although the girls of the cult, particularly their mother-figure Suzanne, are always close in the novel, it is Evie that the book is centred around, and it is when focusing on Evie that Cline’s writing is most effective.

The cult that Evie becomes a part of in the novel is the Manson Family in all but name. The prophet-like leader named Russell a parable for Charles in real life, and the ranch they inhabit is quite obviously Spahn’s Movie Ranch, where Manson and his followers decamped after being thrown out of the house of Dennis Wilson (of Beach Boys fame). The violent, horrific murders that are heavily foreshadowed, and occur at the end of the novel are similar to those committed by Manson’s followers on the actress Sharon Tate, her unborn child and numerous family friends and visitors to her property.

Perhaps because Cline is so heavily hinting that her cult is that of Charles Manson, she leaves the characters – Russell, the leader, and Suzanne, the most central of the eponymous Girls in particular – lightly sketched out. There is no examination of the inner workings of the cult, and those hoping for first-hand accounts of the murders themselves will be left disappointed. Evie is absent for both the deterioration of the commune from idyllic escape from her mother and her dating life to a toxic environment of hatred and suspicion, and the killings too, being dropped off at the side of the road on the way to the house, when Suzanne realises the extent of Evie’s youth and naivety. Instead, we join Evie in finding out about the crime through television at her father’s apartment.

Evie is frequently pulled by Cline out of life at the commune and back to her parent’s house for lengthy periods. It would be tempting to look at these as uninteresting asides, irrelevant to the story. But they are not simply asides, they are effective, particularly in comparison with the sections set in the present day, when Evie is middle-aged and house-sitting for a friend, only to be interrupted by the friend’s son and young girlfriend. This look into the mind of a middle-aged Evie accomplishes nothing other than pointing out that people still recognise her as part of the cult, which is surprising given her limited involvement with the crimes and the subsequent trial, and that her life has not turned out quite as her fourteen-year-old self would have hoped. The one effective piece of writing about Evie in the present day is at the very conclusion of the book, where it becomes apparent just how much fear is left in her about reprisals for her involvement.

However, the scenes in Evie’s youth, where she is either at home lamenting her mother’s choice in men after her divorce, or desperately flirting with her best friend’s brother, work better. They may not be involved with her time on the ranch, but the cult and the murders are just a thin frame of plot, from which is hung the impressive writing in the book; that detailing Evie’s struggle dealing with her parents’ divorce and her imminent departure for boarding school. This departure, coupled with classically teenage faux pas while flirting, drive a wedge between Evie and her best (and only) friend. This, along with a strained relationship with her mother and a largely absent father, is what drives her to the ranch, into the dangerous relationships Russell, Suzanne and the other peripheral members. Cline’s best writing is when she is writing about Evie’s teenage struggles, not when describing the ranch, though it should be noted that the entire novel is written with assured confidence. It makes sense that her focus is pointed towards her strengths; Evie.

Cline could have delved deeper into the machinations of Russell’s cult and those who inhabited it. She could have even distanced her plot entirely from the spectre of Manson, and had her cult be entirely different from the infamous Family. But to criticise Cline here would be to miss the point of the novel. The focus is Evie, her struggle into her teenage years and her relationships with those close to her. The cult, particularly its inspiration being the Manson Family, is almost just a selling point, something that would make people buy her work – and buy it they did, Cline’s advance for the novel was rumoured to be in the six or seven figure range. When people do buy the book, they find her strength lies not in a gruesome murder mystery, but in writing about the awkward growing up period all teenagers have to go through. It is here that the novel excels, and Cline really shows off her talents.

 

 

Trump, The Plot Against America, and Vonnegut’s Accidental Apocalypse

In 2004, Philip Roth published The Plot Against America. It is a novel that depicts an alternate history, one in which the world renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats the incumbent Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a landslide. Lindbergh, in both the novel and our true history, had no prior experience in political office, and was instead best known for completing the first solo transatlantic flight, when in the summer of 1927 he flew from New York to Paris in his plane, the Spirit of St Louis.

In the novel, Lindbergh has become a prominent member of the ‘America First’ party, is a staunch isolationist that wants to keep the United States out of the war in Europe, and consistently blames a minority – Lindbergh’s scapegoat are the Jews – for trying to push the country into war. He is a surprise Republican nominee, only appearing on the floor of the party’s convention in the early hours of the morning after the last day, and once he has won the nomination he comes up with a slogan that, on first glance at least, is hard to vote against; “Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War.”

This will undoubtedly sound familiar. When the book was released Roth was asked if it was allegorical to the policies of the George W. Bush administration, something he had been openly critical of. He said no, but if the book had been released this year, imagine the obvious comparisons critics would draw between the fictional version of Lindbergh and the current President, Donald Trump. Like Lindbergh, Trump had no prior experience of holding office when he announced his candidacy, and he was a long-shot to win the race for the White House. But he had a slogan that would appeal to the Republican base; “Make America Great Again”, harking back to a non-existent bygone era when the United States was a utopia for all. He also had a scapegoat, or rather, numerous scapegoats, Trump preferring to be much more all-encompassing with his scorn than the fictional Lindbergh. Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans and women, to name just a few groups that are inferior according to the President.

Roth’s Lindbergh also had ties to a nation that, in a normal administration, would be condemned. After his Presidency has ended, and how it ends will be delved into later, the novel’s protagonist’s Aunt, who had married a prominent Rabbi that had endorsed Lindbergh and become close to power, presents her theory as to why the improbable had happened. According to her theory, Lindbergh had been forced to run for President by Nazi Germany, who had been the kidnappers of his first son Charles Jr. He had been raised as a young Nazi and held hostage, in return for Lindbergh carrying out policies of discrimination against the Jews, with the ultimate end being the Final Solution being brought to America. When Lindbergh had told the Germans that America would not accept this, he was simply removed by them. The protagonist, a young fictional version of Roth himself, discounts the theory as far-fetched, but not the least-convincing version of events.

Of course today it is not Nazi Germany but Vladimir Putin’s Russia that Donald Trump has ties to, and these ties run so deep that, according to the C.I.A. (admittedly not a reputable source on their best days) Russia actually meddled in the 2016 election. Whether Russia did or did not meddle in the election, and whether they are or are not very close to the Trump administration, it is chillingly similar to the theory espoused by Roth’s aunt in The Plot Against America. Donald Trump has not suffered the great injustice of having a child taken from him, but the fact that theories of blackmail, coercion and downright incompetence surround the administration shows just how odd modern-day America has become. Trump and his cronies are out-novelising the novelists.

In 1963, Kurt Vonnegut released his fourth novel; Cat’s Cradle. Unlike Roth’s work, it is allegorical, its year of release no accident in terms of what the work is referring to. In 1962 the world had narrowly avoided mutual assured destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it is the apocalypse that is the backdrop of the Vonnegut’s novel. It is bizarre, and so thoroughly Vonnegut; this being the only plausibly accurate way to describe his work. The protagonist, Jonah, or sometimes just John, becomes President of an island nation called San Lorenzo, after travelling there with the three children of the late Felix Hoenikker, a renowned scientist. Unbeknownst to Jonah, the trio each have pieces of Ice-9, a substance made by Hoenikker to aid the U.S. Army through swampy and marshy terrain by hardening the slush and mud. Instead, it has the ability to freeze anything it comes into contact with, and when a disaster does occur; U.S. military planes crashing into a tower on San Lorenzo, spilling the substance into the sea, killing almost all life on Earth, it is a complete accident. But of course an accident made possible by the very existence of the substance.

Vonnegut is trying to convey his disdain for the inspiration behind the man who created Ice-9, whom he identified in a 1969 speech to the American Physical Society as “an old fashioned scientist who isn’t interested in people.” The novel rails against those involved in nuclear weapons, only to know that they are going to be put in irresponsible hands – that is, any human being. Who could create such a thing that was capable of such destruction, when such terrible accidents like the accidental apocalypse in his book could occur? Vonnegut had lived through and witnessed the Missile Crisis, and as he usually did, saw the complete absurdity of it all. Cat’s Cradle was the answer to the absurdity.

Now, imagine a world where the President is a hyper-sensitive, ignorant, bigoted man known for rash judgement with his thumbs via Twitter. Suddenly the likelihood of not just a nuclear accident, but also an attempted gesture of strength by the man-baby President that turns into all-out war between powers with weapons capable of wiping out entire countries seems slightly increased. Cat’s Cradle may criticise the scientist for creating Ice-9 in the first place, but it also criticises those who hold on to the substance. The apocalypse in his novel would not have happened had Hoenikker’s three children not kept the substance, the same applies to nuclear weapons. The fact that they exist makes a disaster more possible, and if this disaster comes, whether it is an accident or not will be mute.

Near the conclusion of The Plot Against America, Charles Lindbergh vanishes after making a speech, climbing into the Spirit of St. Louis, and flying off into the distance. He is never found. His Vice President takes over, and violence mars the street, violence that is only calmed by the intervention of First Lady Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Franklin D. Roosevelt then runs as an emergency Presidential candidate, wins, and soon after, Japan attacks Pearl Harbour and America is drawn into the war. A happy ending, if one can call a horrific attack and the drawing of a world power into a war a happy ending. But Trump won’t just vanish into the sky. He is President of the United States, and his thumbs, as well as having access to a Twitter handle, have access to nuclear codes. Nuclear accidents, as well as all-out nuclear war, are more likely because of it. We do not need Kurt Vonnegut to be able to point out the absurdity of it all.

Jackie: A Snapshot of Grief and the Myth of Camelot

Calling the 2016 film Jackie a biopic would be inaccurate, in a sense. It does focus around one woman: Jackie Kennedy, and Natalie Portman’s performance ensures that she always remains the central figure on screen. But, rather than focusing on her life as a whole, the film concentrates on the days surrounding her husband John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the actions of Jackie within them.

Portman did extensive research for the role, and it shows. The film shows Kennedy’s famous 1961 ‘Tour of the White House’ throughout, and recreates it almost frame by frame. The use of black and white for the section, coupled with Portman’s flawless portrayal of Kennedy’s voice and mannerisms, almost tricks the viewer into thinking they are watching the original footage.

The incredible portrayal of Kennedy – Portman becomes the eponymous figure rather than simply acting as her – and the way the film shows two sides of its titular character so effectively: the soft and friendly President’s wife in public, the sharp and witty grieving widow in private in the days after the assassination – “I don’t smoke,” she comments as she lights yet another cigarette – is at odds with the way it portrays the man thrust into the Presidency by the events of November 22, 1963, Lyndon Johnson. He is a less than sympathetic figure in the film, affronted when Robert Kennedy shouts at the men and women in the room who have just witnessed Kennedy’s suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald being murdered on national television, “Excuse me?” he says accusingly, after Bobby tells him to sit down.

It is through Bobby Kennedy that Johnson is portrayed as ruthless and unsympathetic when it comes to the Kennedy’s plight. He is almost referred to as a villain of the day – Bobby refers to him not being able to wait to be inaugurated, insisting on doing the ceremony in Dallas – rather than a former Vice President thrown into power by a violent act. This is surprising, as Jackie Kennedy commented on the kindness of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson in the days after the death of John, and historians have reported that, motivated by the chance of doing something kind for Kennedy, Johnson offered her an ambassadorship to France, knowing her fondness for the culture and atmosphere of the country. Kennedy declined, and would decline further offers of ambassadorships to both Mexico and Great Britain. It is in its portrayal of Johnson that the film perhaps goes too far in its portrayal of grief. Portman’s performance ensures the devastation of the situation is not lost on the viewer, the awkwardness around the new President Johnson and his wife is unnecessary.

The film is centred on Jackie Kennedy’s interview with Life Magazine’s reporter Theodore H. White, conducted at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a week after the assassination. It is the frame of the film from which time flits back and forth. White was known to the Kennedy’s already, he had attended school with John’s brother Joseph. The interview with White is the interview in which she famously describes Kennedy’s administration and time in the White House as ‘Camelot.’ “There will be great Presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot.”

When White dictated his one thousand word essay to his editors at Life the evening after the interview, they stated then that the ‘Camelot’ theme had been overdone. But, when he revised the piece, Kennedy objected to the changes. He wrote afterwards that his indulgence of Jackie had been a kindness to a newly-widowed former wife of the President, that his essay was a “misreading of history. The magic Camelot of John F. Kennedy never existed.” Historians have also disagreed with the description, Robert Dallek commenting that Kennedy was attempting to “lionise” her husband.

Camelot itself is of course a mythical place. The court of the fictional King Arthur, its location, even the location it is based upon, forever a mystery to scholars. ‘A castle by a river’ is a common description, but the beauty of it is that it can be anywhere. This is why it is such an effective description, it is hard to pin down what it means to be described as Camelot. It evokes visions of myth and magic. In the aftermath of a Presidential assassination, when a country is reeling and uncertain, harking back to the era of relative stability, when a President had not yet been shot as his motorcade drove through a plaza as a wonderful, magical place, would not have seemed so extraordinary.

In the interview Kennedy describes how much history John read as a child. “You must think of him as this little boy, sick so much of the time, reading in bed, reading history, reading the Knights of the Round Table, reading Marlborough. For Jack, history was full of heroes.” This knowledge of history, this history of heroes, was transferred on to Jackie. In the film her character comments “I have read a lot of history. More than people think.” It is perhaps why the film uses the 1961 Tour of the White House so extensively. It shows just how interested in the history of the building Jackie Kennedy was, and into history as a whole.

She is aware of how former Presidents are remembered, or not. In another scene in the film, as her and Bobby Kennedy are riding with John’s casket to the autopsy, she asks the driver if he has heard of James Garfield, or William McKinley. He is not. They were both of course Presidents killed in office, and yet the driver does not remember them. The interview with White is a way to ensure Kennedy’s administration is remembered, and remembered positively. Bobby Kennedy’s character comments near the end of Jackie that “History is harsh.” But Jackie Kennedy overcame this harshness by plunging her husband and his memory into mythology, into a time when handsome men and beautiful women danced together and all was glorious.

White’s character, credited simply as ‘The Journalist’, comments that Kennedy’s funeral was a ‘spectacle.’ But wasn’t that the point? Jackie Kennedy was adding to the pageantry of the Kennedy myth. The film, by focusing mainly on this weeklong period, not only studies grief, but rather than being a traditional biopic – something that director Pablo Larrain is not known for – also studies Jackie Kennedy’s attempt to preserve her husband’s legacy in history, to ensure it is not ‘harsh’ but rather magical. At this, it is a masterpiece