Intersectionality and Identity: Four Recent Women’s Memoirs
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey. Ecco Press, 2020, 224 pp., $16.99 (paper).
Terroir: Love, Out of Place by Natasha Sajé. Trinity University Press, 2020, 207 pp., $18.95(paper).
Mouth Full of Seeds by Marcela Sulak. Black Lawrence Press, 2020, 113 pp., $17.95 (paper)
Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit, Granta, 2020, 244 pp., £16.99(hardcover).
However solitary, memoir reading, like memoir writing, participates in an important form of collective memorialization, providing building blocks to a more fully shared national narrative.—Nancy K. Miller
In in her iconic essay on the memoir genre, “But Enough About Me,” scholar Nancy K. Miller makes an optimistic claim: that the form, often derided as belletristic, has an active social, even political, function. It enables readers to enlarge the national picture in which their own storytakes place. And so, she writes, memoir “may well be the most important narrative mode of our contemporary culture.”
In the books under consideration, the American narrative expands to include women writing from biracial, bisexual, and binational points of view. The authors come to us from the segregated South; from a combination of East Coast locations and theocratic Salt Lake City; from a winding route that starts in rural Texas and ends in Israel; and from San Francisco as it gentrifies. Their stories reveal a highly variegated way to live as an American woman. Each writer has in common with the others a desire to understand her own provenance and development and, to a degree, to decipher the meaning of her narrative within the larger picture. Race figures in three of these works, religion in a fourth, and gender inequality emerges in all of them.
Review: May I Be Frank? Further Hideous Progeny of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
May I Be Frank? Further Hideous Progeny of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Frankenstein in Bagdad by Ahmed Saadawi, Jonathan Wright trans. Penguin Books, 2018, 281 pp., $16 (paper).
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson. Jonathan Cape, 2019, 344 pp., $27 (hardcover).
Destroyer by Victor LaValle, Dietrich Smith illus. Boom! Studios, 2018, 160 pp., $19.99 (paper).
Comemadre by Roque Larraquy, Heather Cleary trans. Coffee House Press, 2018, 129 pp., $16.95 (paper).
Concurrent with the 2018 bicentennial of the initial publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, a new crop of narratives retell, reimagine, resuscitate, and remix the urtext. These books are the latest in a long line of Shelley’s “hideous progeny” spanning nearly one hundred feature films, countless television episodes, songs, comics, toys, video games, and even a very pink (the color of the monster’s flesh?) strawberry-flavored breakfast cereal, Franken Berry. Frankenstein’s monster no longer only terrifies: he counsels us as a wise father figure, he makes us laugh, he sells us things.
Review: Collected in 2020–Recent Essay and Story Collections of Note
Collected in 2020—Recent Essay and Story Collections of Note
Scott Russell Sanders, The Way of Imagination: Essays. Counterpoint, 2020, 259 pp., $16.95. Paperback.
Megan Harlan, Mobile Home: A Memoir in Essays. The University of Georgia Press, 2020. 171 pp., $22.95. Paperback.
Gilbert Allen, The Beasts of Belladonna. Slant Books, 2020. 156 pp., $34 hardcover, $19 Paperback.
Jay Parini, Borges and Me: An Encounter. Doubleday, 2020. 299 pp., $27.95. Hardcover.
Review: Why, Oh Why, Poetry? On Recent Prose about Poetry and the Future of the Art
Why, Oh Why, Poetry?: On Recent Prose about Poetry and the Future of the Art
Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder. Ecco, 2017, 256 pp., $24.99 (hardcover).
The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016, 96 pp., $13 (paper).
How Poems Get Made by James Longenbach. W. W. Norton, 2018, 176 pp., $15.41 (paper).
We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress by Craig Morgan Teicher. Graywolf, 2018, 176 pp. $16 (paper).
I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
Why poetry, indeed? Or, more pointedly: Why poetry anymore? Why, in the year 2020—when there are so many other seemingly more compelling or at least immediately engaging technologies clamoring for our attention, all of which surrender their rewards with much less effort—would anyone bother to read, let alone write, poetry? Such a question would of course be heresy among the poet friends in my circle of acquaintance, but what about the majority of ordinary people for whom an answer to this question, in the form of some sort of justification for reading poetry, would not be at all obvious?
Review: Marching On: Rereading Little Women and Louisa May Alcott
I read Little Women for the first time in elementary school.
Unencumbered Exuberance: Four Jewish Comic Novelists of Note
In the titular essay of Adam Kirsch’s essay collection Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer? the critic and poet recounts the ways in which many of his and my canonical forebears rejected the moniker. He quotes Philip Roth referring to “American Jewish Writer” as an epithet. Saul Bellow was slightly more diplomatic, saying, “I have tried to fit my soul into the Jewish-writer category, but it does not feel comfortably accommodated there. Lionel Trilling couldn’t find “anything in [his] professional intellectual life” that traced back to his Judaism.
Radical Research and the Scientific Method: Tracking a New Trajectory through Four Recent Poetry Collections
Bradfield, Elizabeth. Toward Antarctica. Boreal Books, 2019. 160 pp. $19.95, paper.
Lee, Ed Bok. Mitochondrial Night. Coffee House Press, 2019. 88 pp. $16.95, paper.
Wahmanholm, Claire. Wilder. Milkweed Editions, 2019. 96 pp. $16.00, paper.
Roripaugh, Lee Ann. tsunami v. the fukushima 50. Milkweed Editions, 2019. 120 pp. $16.00, paper.
When Muriel Rukeyser’s 1938 classic The Book of the Dead was re-issued in 2018, edited and with a new introduction by Catherine Venerable Moore, it became clear that a major, though under-discussed, Modernist innovation was docupoetics. While many readers struggle to understand how certain racist, anti-Semitic, and Fascist writers could be considered so essential for so long, contemporary poets are finding influence in less canonized poets of the twentieth century whose docupoetic aesthetics are proving to be powerfully resonant for the present historical moment.
Gathering Places: The Stories of Six Women and the Worlds They Created
The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice, Judith Mackrell, Thames & Hudson, 2017, 408 pp., $34.95. Harcover
The Riviera Set: Glitz, Glamour, and the Hidden World of High Society, Mary S. Lovell, Pegasus Books, 2017, 434 pp., $27.95. Hardcover
The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home, Denise Kiernan, Touchstone, 2017, 388 pp., $28. Hardcover
A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York, Greg King, Wiley, 2009, 508 pp., $35. Hardcover.
For Friedrich Nietzsche, greatness was achieved through the full, unflinching realization of self by turning life into a work of art. Separated by time and place, six unique women—Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse, Peggy Guggenheim, Maxine Elliot, Edith Vanderbilt, and Caroline Astor—all embody these notions of self-realization and life as art. Despite social conventions meant to dictate the courses of their lives, these independent women reinvented themselves through creativity and tenacity by fashioning worlds in which they could find full expression. The houses they bought or built and the milieux that grew up around them supported their ventures in art, commerce, and activism, ventures that have fascinating stories of their own. The histories of these houses are as richly textured and varied as the lives of their most famous occupants.
The End of the World as We Know It: Four Novels of Climate Change
Clade by James Bradley. Titan Books, 2015, 297 pp. $14.95 (paper).
Beast by Paul Kingsnorth. Graywolf Press, 2016, 164 pp. $16 (paper).
The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan. Hogarth, 2016, 272 pp. $16 (paper).
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich. Harper Collins, 2017, 267 pp. $28.99 (hardcover).
In his 2016 book-length essay “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable,” Amitav Ghosh writes about the gradual erosion of humanity’s respect for nature’s power. He suggests,
human beings were generally catastrophists at heart until their instinctive awareness of the earth’s unpredictability was gradually supplanted by a belief in uniformitarianism—a regime of ideas that was supported by scientific theories like [Charles] Lyell’s [gradualist geological theory], and also by a range of governmental practices that were informed by statistics and probability.
Assuring ourselves that change happens slowly and predictably, we grew increasingly confident over the last four centuries in our mastery of the nonhuman environment, lapsing into a “complacency that was almost madness.” Ghosh cites as an example the fact that we began building metropolises in flood zones.
Now, as this and other technological assertions falter in the face of “unprecedented” weather events, Ghosh says, “we recognize something we had turned away from: that is to say, the presence and proximity of nonhuman interlocutors.” Unforeseen meterological, geological, and animal behaviors remind us that we are not the only active agents on this planet. Such forces constitute what Ghosh calls an “environmental uncanny”: “the mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms.”
The four novels considered in this review all explore the uncanniness, the familiar strangeness, in human beings’ relationships to unstable natural environments. The novels have in common moments of wonder, as characters enmeshed in unfolding crises of the near future encounter never-before-seen phenomena, the results of natural systems tampered with and distorted by humans—or, in the case of Beast, as they reacquaint themselves with the mystery of the natural world. Families in these books tend to be small and scattered; the only child is as prevalent here as the orphan-hero is in Victorian novels. The fact that none of these books’ characters reproduce at the replacement rate gives the impression that humans are ceding ground. In the end-times of the Anthropocene, these narratives don’t depict the nonhuman environment as an inert victim but as a transforming force, which humans may admire or fear but can no longer make the mistake of pretending to control.
James Bradley’s Clade takes place primarily around the author’s own home of Sydney, Australia, across the latter half of the twenty-first century. The story unfolds chronologically, but with years or a decade in between each chapter and with frequent shifts in focal characters and narrative mode, varying from third-person limited to the unvarnished first-person of a teenager’s journal. This episodic structure allows Bradley to emphasize escalating climatic and technological changes, along with characters’ reactions to these changes—which are, essentially, its plot.
The book’s many characters are linked through Adam Leith, a climate scientist. Adam is the focal character of the first, second, and fifth chapters, and, as his Biblical name suggests, a kind of diminished latter-day patriarch. Adam’s only marriage breaks up, he has just two direct descendants (his estranged daughter, Summer, and her son, Noah), and his familial ties to several other characters are honorary rather than biological. But Adam’s projects monitoring Antarctic ice and the South Asian monsoon connect him closely to climate change—he is invoked by other characters as an expert—and he’s the only character at the center of multiple chapters. The novel ends with news of his end—somewhere offstage, a decade or so after his grandson, Noah, has reached maturity in his own career as an astronomer.
The environmental conflicts of Clade are projections of our own: the planet is warming, leading to loss of the polar ice caps, intensification of tropical storms (one of which floods England), and displacement of millions of people from coastal and low-lying regions. Young children die of cancer or suffer from acute asthma. Bees, having been saved in the early twenty-first century, are imperiled again. Whereas the previous die-off was linked to pesticide, this collapse seems to have multiple entwining causes. Learning of the bees’ problem, Ellie, a visual artist and Adam’s ex-wife, considers Adam’s prediction that if the planet’s ecosystems reach the point of collapse, it could lead to a chain reaction that would “trigger a similar collapse in the human population.”
Fascinated and sympathetic, Ellie takes the bees as a subject for a virtual installation, combining magnified 3-D models of bees with archival videos of healthy swarms in motion. Looking intently at something small, she renders it spectacular. But later in the novel, we learn the fate of the species. In the midst of a global pandemic, sixteen-year-old Lijuan, who serves as a caretaker for Noah (they are the same age, but Noah is autistic), catalogs things lost and saved. Lost: “Birds, Bananas, Tigers, Frogs, Bees, Coffee, Polar Bears, Coral;” saved “Seeds, Elephants, Dolphins, Each Other.” Lijuan is able to experience some of these missing things through her lenses, personal computing devices that can be used to project simulations (or to explore artworks like Ellie’s). Lijuan can have sensory experiences of the natural world as it once was, but its biological diversity has diminished. How long will the other “saved” items on her list persist?
“Each Other,” the last item in Lijuan’s “saved” list seems especially optimistic; Lijuan is making these lists in her journal while sheltering with Noah and Adam in the bush. They’re able to see Sydney looted and burning on the distant horizon, as their disease-ravaged society rapidly unravels. But Lijuan and all the novel’s other major characters survive the Acute Viral Respiratory Syndrome (AVRS) pandemic that kills millions globally.
The details of how they survive this highly contagious disease and the social chaos around it are lost in the chronological gap between one chapter and the next; Bradley shows us the characters in crisis but doesn’t depict their way out. Structurally, the novel isn’t interested in climactic scenes. Nor is it, on a plot level, concerned with interrogating the privileges that must have facilitated the various characters’ survivals. Our clearest glimpses of the suffering during and after the pandemic come instead through the perspective of Dylan, an unrelated character introduced in the eighth chapter, whose mother died of AVRS and who now produces simulated versions of deceased loved ones for a company called Semblance. Dylan’s profession gives us an idea of the economy springing out of devastating loss.
A clade is “a taxonomic group of organisms classified together on the basis of homologous features traced to a common ancestor”; primates are one example of a clade. While the group of characters at the center of Clade would more aptly be described as a family, later chapters suggest who or what might inhabit the earth in the distant future. Noah’s lab picks up a regular, repeating signal from deep in the galaxy—the first such message ever detected. Considering this, Noah muses:
The ice is almost gone, but while it may take millions of years, there is little doubt that one day it will return, creeping back to cover the land, and the world will change once more, the turmoil and destruction of the past century being little more than a spasm, an interregnum in the great cycles of the planet’s existence. Perhaps there will still be humans then, men and women as different from him as he is from those ancient people on the plains of Africa; perhaps some of them will have spread outward, to the stars, borne there in great ships just as boats bore the first humans across Earth’s oceans.
The connections contemplated here stretch further than a mere family’s, yet Noah imagines an intimate and innate connection with the future members of his hominoid clade: “they will carry within them the memory of this time, this past, like a stone borne in the mouth, just as he bears the memory of those ancient travelers in him.”
This assertion speaks to the most intriguing aspect of Clade: The book presents disaster after disaster, on different scales—from divorce to flood to global pandemic—and after sketching out the agonies of each problem, its action jumps ahead, a decade maybe, subverting our readerly attachment to the characters and showing how conflicts don’t resolve; they just lose precedence to new problems.
The book’s final focal character, Izzie, is a teenager at a solstice party, floating over the Floodline, “a watery graveyard of partly submerged streets and buildings, sprawling half a kilometer inland along much of [Sydney’s] fringe.” Above these ruins, she enjoys the spectacle of bioluminescent “Gengineered” fish in the water and the thrill of interfacing with elaborate virtual party decorations and music. Her joy is interrupted by a call from her mother, Lijuan, conveying news of Adam’s death. Izzie contextualizes this against larger losses: “Shanghai and Venice, Bangladesh, all those millions of lives.” Izzie’s not oblivious to any of that, as she considers “the Shimmer” overhead—an inexplicable aurora that scientists think might herald a flipping of the poles. Even so, Izzie feels “this is not an end but a beginning. / It is always a beginning.” The episodic structure of the book reinforces this, suggesting that life goes on even after cataclysmic loss—refusing, in fact, to really grapple with the losses it chronicles. There is no resolution, only technologically enabled human adaptations and a somewhat vapid assertion that beginnings will never end.
Clade is a book about change over time, as measured by the span of Adam Leith’s late twenty-first-century adulthood. The other novels considered in this review unfold more succinctly, marking time over months, and adhering more closely to the experiences of fewer protagonists. This is nowhere more true than in the immersive, sometimes stream-of-consciousness Beast, by English author Paul Kingsnorth.
Beast is narrated in the first person by Edward Buckmaster, who ventured onto the moors of England thirteen months prior. He’s been living alone since then, seeking refuge from:
All the weight I threw down, my retreat from the encircling, from the furious thoughts and opinions, the views and the positions soldered together with impatience and anger, enfolding the world in underwater cables and radio waves, singing in the air, darting from brain to brain, jumping from raindrop to thundercloud, glueing the world up, roaring like a storm wave.
Such references (later Edward fantasizes about a plane crash) signal that he is a denizen of the modern world, rejecting its technologies and fleeing its encumbrances of the soul. He’s also fled a female partner and a child. In remembered conversations, Edward’s partner reminds him of his responsibilities to his family, while he insists on his responsibility to a higher truth: to be “what I could be” is his most important charge.
A dilapidated cottage serves Edward as “the place where I would sit in silence and wait for the presence.” But as the novel opens, a storm arises that threatens Edward’s makeshift repairs. The first chapter ends with Edward atop the flaying roof: “If I don’t do something now, the whole roof is going to co” And after several blank pages, the next chapter begins “y eyes. I was lying wet wet through on wet stone slabs.” These truncated words exemplify the tension between the novel’s past-tense voice, which implies that these events are being recollected, and its breathless immediacy.
Unlike the other books in this review, Beast does not engage directly with climate change. Edward’s thoughts and observations convey no awareness of this problem. However, the world around him is indisputably altered after his fall from the roof. The sky is always white. “It always seemed to be hot and light I never saw the darkness come or go and I had no watch so I simply told myself that it was morning when I woke.” Edward attempts to walk to town for supplies, and observes a profound stillness over the land: no humans or animals are about; the road is made of dust. “I realized then that I had not seen or heard any birds since the accident. There was no life here at all. Nothing moved except me.” He finds his way to a church, from which he can see a village in the near distance, but he can’t get there; the road brings him back again and again to the church. The emptiness of the landscape is profound and unsettling: What’s happened?
Whether or not a catastrophe has befallen other humans, something has happened to Edward, and he is on the defensive. Alone and vulnerable, he imagines antagonists everywhere. Even trees are menacing. His thoughts become more jumbled as he envisions a posthuman landscape. Tellingly, he attributes to vegetation an antagonistic, colonizing spirit.
We also see scraps of this mentality in Edward’s dreams, which blend with the present action. In his first dream, Edward finds himself in “a Third World city” populated by “barefoot little black children” who call him sir and teach him how to swim. This reads like a colonialist fantasy, in which the white man is helped and honored by black subjects. Later Edward dreams himself riding a white horse that turns into a white stag with golden antlers. “And then I remembered that there were no forests anymore that you could not ride for days anywhere that you would be stopped by fences roads shops cars people . . . outside the window the only whiteness was the sky and there was no whiteness in me and I was heavy.” Here, whiteness seems to represent the nobility of the dream animals in some kind of romantic idyll or country estate—and as in the Third World dream, the symbolism suggests grasping desire for lost white male imperial power and prominence. Another dream or vision, in which Edward bludgeons a woman to death and drowns a child, suggests that family encumbrances are inhibiting his quest for meaning. Though he has set himself in opposition to society, Edward carries within himself familiar, regressive, and violent fantasies.
The titular beast features in another of Edward’s fantasies, this one of man-as-explorer. The only other living creature in this bleached countryside, the beast first strikes Edward as a low, black animal not featured in his guidebooks. Later, he sees it more clearly as a giant cat. Alternatively stalking and stalked by the cat, Edward finally reaches peace with it in the conclusion. But not before he vents his frustration:
someone found this place centuries ago and built a city here and now it’s all neon and glass and contrails and rainbow slicks of diesel . . . there is nothing left to find nothing to discover it’s all gone i came too late
“There is nothing left . . . to discover:” Edward’s predicament is his insistence on discovery as a model for meaning-making. There are no new lands left; there is no enlightenment awaiting him on the moors. And the big cat is “just a cat”—not a mythical adversary. Once Edward recognizes this, his head clears a bit. The spirit-quest of Beast pits a man against his environment, to arrive at the recognition of his own physical and mental limitations. “I once thought that my challenge was to understand everything, to build a structure in my mind that would support all that I experienced in the world. But there is no structure that will not fall in the end and crush you under it.”
Paul Kingsnorth is one of the founders of the Dark Mountain Project, an international cultural movement begun in 2009 and dedicated to facing “the ecological, social and cultural unravelling that is now underway.” The group’s “Uncivilization Manifesto” calls upon us “to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature.’” Beast, the second book in Kingsnorth’s planned trilogy of thematically linked works,approaches this call through a critique of Edward Buckmaster’s ingrained ideologies rather than through direct treatment of specific environmental issues.
The environmental uncanny of The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Scottish novelist Jenni Fagan, is summarized in the opening paragraph of the prologue:
There are three suns in the sky and it is the last day of autumn—perhaps forever. Sun dogs. Phantom suns. Parhelia. They mark the arrival of the most extreme winter for 200 years. Roads jam with people trying to stock up on fuel, food, water. Some say it is the end of times. Polar caps are melting. Salinity in the ocean is at an all-time low. The North Atlantic Drift is slowing.
The year is 2020—now, basically—and the book is divided into sections according to the falling temperatures: November 2020, -6 (21 F); December 8, 2020 -19 (-2.2 F); January 31, 2021 -38 (-36.4 F); March 19, 2021, -56 (-68.8F). News reports interspersed throughout the novel track escalating global mayhem, flooding and freezing and social upheaval; delegates unable to travel to the United Nations meetings. For the novel’s main characters, the looming embodiment of this problem is a giant iceberg drifting toward their home in remote Clachan Fells, Scotland. The iceberg is personified and anticipated throughout the novel, as characters trade myths and scientific theories—stories to assuage the dread the iceberg inspires. Fagan shows us characters at the margin of modern society trying to situate themselves in a rapidly changing environment.
The Sunlight Pilgrims is written in third person limited, alternately following two focal characters, Dylan and Stella. In the novel’s early chapters, thirty-something Dylan MacRae leaves the arthouse cinema in London where he was raised by movies and by two recently deceased single women—his mother, Vivienne, and his grandmother, Gunn—to travel to Clachan Fells. There, months before her death and knowing that the debt-encumbered cinema would have to close, Vivienne secretly purchased a caravan (trailer home) for her son. Dylan takes little with him besides his mother’s and grandmother’s ashes; he finds his mother’s sketchbook waiting in the trailer.
Twelve-year-old Stella and her mother, Constance, live nearby in the caravan park. Constance has kept two lovers for over twenty years, to the disapproval of many in the community, but she’s currently at odds with both. She makes a living salvaging furniture and transforming it into shabby chic—or “shabby shit,” her daughter says. Stella is transgender, having transitioned in the past year; she discusses the development of sex and gender cozily with her mother but also copes with her schoolmates’ cruelty while agonizing over her emerging male secondary sex characteristics. Stella bypasses parental controls on the household computer to watch porn, hang out in chat rooms, and make unauthorized purchases—other reminders that the novel takes place in our own era. The village doctor is reluctant to prescribe hormone blockers to someone Stella’s age, and in one of the novel’s cliff-hangers, Stella takes supposed blockers that she ordered from the Internet.
The characters’ twenty-first-century problems with love and identity are foregrounded, occupying much of their energy as the iceberg steadily approaches. Man-child Dylan, having never known much about his heritage, finds a distressingly tangled family tree left for him in his mother’s sketchbook. For the first time, he must live independently, outside of SoHo, and he immediately imprints on the first maternal figure he spots. Dylan longs for Constance with the same adolescent intensity that Stella exerts toward Lewis, her classmate and pre-transition best friend. Stella and Lewis have kissed, but Lewis ignores her afterward for many months. Stella thinks, “If he would kiss her again, it would be enough to keep her happy for the rest of her life. Except that isn’t true. Kissing must be like smoking. If you like it, you always want another.” Meanwhile, Dylan “can’t work out what is worse: wanting a kiss and not getting one, or getting one and never getting another.” With school closed due to the weather and no market for shabby chic, the characters are largely housebound, making their own throwback fun with aurora parties and snowmen, tobogganing and bonfires (and sometimes kissing). Fagan describes these diversions with such lively, lovely language that the deepening winter seems almost like a lark.
But the whimsy is barbed. Fagan uses the evolving myth of the sunlight pilgrims to emphasize the characters’ peril. The story of the pilgrims comes to Dylan from his grandmother and to Stella perhaps from the same source: an unfamiliar white-haired woman whom Stella encounters at their garden fence, staring directly at the sun. The woman explains that she learned this ability from “the sunlight pilgrims . . . from the islands farthest north. You can drink the light right down into your chromosomes, then in the darkest minutes of winter, you will glow and glow and glow.” Later we learn that these light-absorbing pilgrims were monks, living in isolation and eating only gannets. “One year they all went mad, threw themselves off the cliffs, about seventy of them.” No one knows how the monks sustained themselves or what led to the deaths of all but one. Still, Dylan and Stella identify with the mythic, mad pilgrims and with the model of living off available resources, however improbably. This is all well and good in Dylan’s domestic fantasies and Stella’s dank vision of an iced-over “Goth paradise,” but neither of them is attuned to practicalities, as Constance is. Though Constance has amassed a significant “apocalypse larder,” it is finite; Dylan calls her “a survivalist pilgrim,” but all her preparedness and ingenuity can’t mother them through an ice age. As Constance puts it, “‘Now we have this endless fucking Narnia, and where is it all going to end?’”
Constance’s frustration with fantasy signals the book’s biggest conflict: in this story, the enchantment of winter can’t be broken. The iceberg is a consequence not of magic but of climate change. Finally the iceberg does reach Clachan Fells, looming behind a field of penitentes, tall prostrated blades of ice. Nature is seen worshipping itself, and the characters join in, in their way—awestruck by the spectacle, joyful, bantering, despite the incredible cold. Stella proposes that the iceberg, millions of years older than humans, is a kind of time traveler:
—So, if winter has come to us now from millions of years ago, then time travel really is possible. If the world has fifteen million years of frozen geology there and it can enter the present and melt and bring forth another Ice Age, then it’s like the planet has kept them as an insurance system.
—Insurance against what?
—Humans. I took my first hormone blocker this morning. . . .
Even as Stella proposes that the iceberg has traveled from the past in order to kill them, her train of thought shifts to her own individual problems—as all of ours do. In this scene, however, the iceberg asserts itself. The characters must ski for their lives to escape a sudden blizzard that swirls up from the ice. The novel concludes with the characters sheltered and drowsing around a hearth. Their curiosity and imagination, their faith in transformation kept them safe (or feeling that way), kept the iceberg a novelty, until things got real. As a reader, I would have appreciated a more definitive resolution: the sunlight pilgrims dove, lemur-like, off a cliff, but Fagan’s latter-day pilgrims don’t succumb to desperation or rapture. They just go into “hibernation mode.” Anticlimactic though it may be, this gentle representation of a bigger sleep implies that the characters—like us?—never wake up to the enormity of their crisis.
Storytelling and myth are also essential elements of Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God. The novel takes the form of a diary, kept by twenty-six-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker from August to February of her first full-term pregnancy and addressed to her child. That child was conceived with an angel (later revealed to be white guy named Phil wearing a church pageant costume), and is due on December 25. Hoping to learn more about her heritage, Cedar—the “adopted child of Minneapolis liberals”—seeks out her Ojibwe birth mother. She learns that her prosaic birth name is Mary Potts and that her Ojibwe family is Catholic; Cedar herself converted as an adult. Like Cedar, the women of the Potts family venerate Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks. Snippets of saints’ lives and works are mixed with family narratives, lore, and lies, and the various explanations concocted around the book’s unfolding environmental crisis. As these stories complicate, complement, and undermine each other, they are held by the overarching narrative of Cedar’s pregnancy.
Set in Erdrich’s home state of Minnesota, Future Home of the Living God offers a less familiar take on climate disruption than those depicted in the other books in this review. In Future Home, the climate has warmed, and evolution is apparently reversing—though no one is quite certain how or why. However, species are undeniably changing in spontaneous ways; creatures that Cedar cannot name appear in her urban backyard. A lizard-bird; a saber-toothed tiger—visitors that rebut gradualist scientific theories. With this confusion, Erdrich suggests that the real terror of climate change is its refutation of humans’ sense of superiority over nature. These biological transformations are not incremental; nature is responding innovatively to crisis, and animals are getting larger and more ferocious. De-evolution is also happening among humans, leading to increased infant mortality and maternal deaths—and to Cedar’s speculation that in time humans will lose their capacity for scientific reasoning. She is not even certain that her future child will be able to read the journal she’s leaving him. However, as she writes in a forward to Zeal, the Catholic theological journal that she founded and edits, “the children born during this present time will be possessed of souls whether or not they are capable of speech, and should be considered fully human no matter what scientists may conclude about their capacity to think and learn.” Even if, as Cedar’s adoptive mother fears, humans will lose poetry, they will keep their souls—one argument for humanity’s exceptionalism?
Unlike the stasis accompanying our own present-day climate “debate,” the political situation in Future Home has reached a crisis; the United States’ borders are closed, and the president is contemplating a state of emergency. Under article V, section 215 of the Patriot Act, the government can “seize entire library and medical databases in order to protect national security”—i.e., identify pregnant women. But the country’s centralized, secular government has been destabilized by regional, religious governments like the Church of the New Constitution. Represented by a middle-aged white woman named Mother, the group renames Minneapolis streets after Bible verses and operates “Future Home Reception Centers,” where Womb Volunteers gestate “‘the leftovers. The embryos not labeled Caucasian. We’re going to have them all and keep them all.’” Throughout the novel, Mother appears to Cedar through computer monitors—even when said computers are turned off, or smashed to bits. Her message is mundane but disquieting: “Mother is thinking all about you.” Mother seems all-seeing, thanks to her group’s employment of next-generation micro-drones—one aspect of humanity that has not yet begun to de-evolve.The novel’s three sections trace different phases of Cedar’s experience. In section I, everything is new to her, from her birth family to the social controls cropping up around her, to the sensations of pregnancy. Cedar prepares for her child’s birth (with a shopping spree at Target), but also for a possible apocalypse, as she stashes ammo and booze behind her drywall. Driving away from her childhood neighborhood during a power outage, she reflects, “instead of the past, it is the future that haunts us now. Section II picks up after Cedar’s capture, chronicling her time in the Fairview Riverside Hospital, where her pregnancy is carefully monitored. Her adoptive mother and an ability to finger-braid like Grandma Virginia facilitate her escape. Section III finds Cedar ensconced for the first time on the reservation. Rather than succumbing to the despair her adoptive mother feels about the future and about Cedar’s pregnancy, Cedar is adapting to these new conditions, under which her Ojibwe family seems poised to thrive (at least for the short term). But Cedar is not allowed to settle here. Kidnapped by white penitents at the Saint Kateri Tekakwitha shrine, she is taken to the maximum-security Stillwater Birthing Center.
Future Home of the Living God is a diary and also a hagiography of sorts: Cedar’s true name is Mary, after all, and this is a chronicle of her actions and persecution. While detained at Stillwater, Cedar studies a wall of portraits in the common area—pictures of women she terms “martyrs” who’ve died there in childbirth. Cedar herself sits for such a portrait before going into labor. She hasn’t joined them yet—though of course, her diary ends with the end of the novel. We imagine her portrait might be placed alongside the others, with shared epigraph “She served the future.” But in what way?
Future Home differs from other gynocentric dystopias in the sense that the abridgement of women’s reproductive rights is not in service of a defined ideology or plan: it’s not clear where seized infants are taken or how the Church of the New Constitution will prepare them for the changing world. For various reasons the reader anticipates that Cedar’s child will be superhuman: within her Catholic paradigm, he could be a savior, born on Christmas. Or the child might be remarkable because of its Ojibwe heritage, and the special favor the Potts family holds with Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. (Grandma Virginia even tells Cedar’s half-sister that they have “‘supernatural blood’”). Or the child will be persecuted because it’s not white; at points in the novel, brown and black people seem to have disappeared. However, in this chaos, simply being born an “original” human is exceptional. Cedar gives birth to an original son—and that’s the last thing the reader learns about the child.
Future Home of the Living God reminds us in a different way than Clade of the ultimate insignificance of even the most holy individual human. Cedar reflects “I am beginning to see that what the paleontologist says is true—we do not understand how much time has passed on this planet, and we have no concept of our limited place in the enormousness of that time.” At the end of the novel, Cedar describes to her son what snowfall looked like—it’s something that he will never see and that she, a child of Minneapolis, barely knew herself. The last line of the book could be an elegy for humanity as a whole: “Where will you be, my darling, the last time it snows on earth?”
Like the other novels in this review, Future Home ends in contemplation of the non-human environment—the last snowfall, the oncoming iceberg, the portentous auroras of Clade, the black Beast—things that seem spectacular from a human’s perspective. But these four novels also share a source of uncanniness: the characters’ awareness that this planet preceded us and may well carry on in our absence, without us there to see it. In different ways, the four novels illustrate the last item in the Dark Mountain Project’s “Uncivilization Manifesto”: “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.”
Rags to Riches: Five Biographies from the World of High Fashion
“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” —Oscar Wilde
Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney. Penguin Books, 2011, 448 pp., $18 (paper).
Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, 377 pp., $35 (hardcover).
Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man by Mich le Gerber Klein. Rizzoli Ex Libris,è2018, 254 pp., $37.50 (hardcover).
Alexander McQueen: Blood beneath the Skin by Andrew Wilson. Scribner, 2015, 367 pp., $18 (paper).
As a child, the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli thought she was ugly. In her memoir she wrote that she had “enormous eyes and looked half starved.” It didn’t help that she was often compared unfavorably to her beautiful mother and older sister. During a moment of inspiration, she decided to turn her face into a “heavenly garden.” She planted seeds in her ears, nose, and throat, but as she waited for flowers to sprout and adorn her face, she discovered that she couldn’t breathe. It took two doctors over seven hours to remove the seeds. The vision of young girls with faces obscured in flowers stuck with her as an image of self-transformation, and years later, in her Paris salon windows, her mannequins often sported bouquets of flowers for heads. Alexander McQueen, as a young man from East London, felt
equally self-conscious about his appearance. Inspired by Schiaparelli, he sometimes covered his runway models’ faces in blossoms and butterflies, creating a whimsical obfuscation. The lives of the four fashion designers whose biographies are reviewed here are united by their tenacity, intelligence, and imagination, as well as their quests to reinvent themselves through fashion. Their stories are dark fairytales, as each worked to metamorphose from poor, unattractive outsiders into stylish, attractive fashion insiders, only to discover later an underside in their extraordinary rags-to-riches life courses.
Lisa Chaney’s Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life uses newly discovered letters, archival material, and interviews with family and friends of Chanel’s lovers and fellow artists to revise the portrait of a narcissistic world-class couturier into that of a compassionate, humanized version of one of the greatest pioneers of modern womanhood. After a brief depiction of her rural peasant lineage in preindustrial France, Chaney begins Gabrielle Jeanne Chanel’s story with her birth in a charity hospital in 1883. Her parents, Jeanne and Albert, were impoverished seminomadic traders who sold haberdashery and domestic tools. Her father, a drinker and womanizer, was forced by the court to marry Gabrielle’s mother and acknowledge paternity. Yet his wandering spirit was undeterred; he often left his wife and children in run-down accommodations. When Jeanne was struck down with asthma and bronchitis, she died unattended by a doctor in a garret at age thirty-one. “All too soon, I realized that life was a serious matter,” Chanel recalled.
Along with her two sisters, eleven-year-old Gabrielle was sent to a convent orphanage in Aubazine, where she was trained for six years in religion and domestic work. Rather than marry a village peasant, she moved to Moulins, where she first took a job as a seamstress, then
became a performer in small-scale music halls. While she didn’t have much of a voice, she was coquettish and witty. Her elfin beauty attracted a following of rich young officers who nicknamed her Coco for two songs in her repertoire: the verse of a revue called Ko Ko Ri Ko and the song “Who’s Seen Coco at the Trocadero?” After minor successes in Moulins, she moved to Vichy, one of the most fashionable spa towns in France. To Coco, the wealthy people who paraded the boulevard represented worldliness and sophistication. According to Chaney, she longed to conquer “the citadel of extravagance.” Chaney sees this moment as a turning point for Coco, who felt that “there exist in the world things that I should be that I am not.” Living in Vichy clarified that what she wanted most was to escape the poverty of her upbringing.
Chaney details with precision France’s well-defined system of prostitution, which included street and brothel prostitutes, kept women, and courtesans. Coco chose for a time to live openly as a mistress. Her lover, Étienne Balsan, a wealthy French ex-cavalry officer, inspired her love of horse riding and her first sartorial discovery. Preferring not to ride wearing the women’s riding habits of the day, she borrowed clothes from his closet—fisherman’s shirts, turtlenecks, oversized sweaters, and polo shirts—modifying them for her own use. Unknowingly, she was working out how women should look in the new century.
Coco knew that money was the key to freedom, but she also wanted to have a vocation, which was unusual for French women. She opened a shop that sold simple, unadorned hats of her own creation. By 1911, she owned a shop in Paris during a time when a new kind of marketplace was overtaking the city. Chaney depicts the exciting world of le grand magasin—the Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché—offering “off-the-peg” clothing that freed women from hiring dressmakers or making their own clothing. She places Coco among this new religion of commerce that based style and elegance on individuality rather than membership in any particular class.
The financial and social support of two wealthy former lovers—Étienne Balsan and Arthur Capel—helped begin Coco’s transformation into an elegant sophisticate. Yet when she arrived in Paris, she neither took the city by storm nor launched herself as a socialite. The person she aspired to become—a designer and a businessperson—had a lengthy gestation. Slowly and methodically, she formalized her ideas about fashion as both self-presentation and conformity: “Like music, it is improvisation within a structure.” Her avant-garde friends—Sergei Diaghilev, Serge Lifar, Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Igor Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau—provided support and inspiration and encouraged her belief that art released people from standard conventions.
A rejection of the Belle Époque tendency to turn women into monuments of flamboyant art by dressing them in costumes, Coco’s earliest known dress design was a simple dark velvet sheath with a collar of delicate white pearls. Convinced that the practical and the everyday could be a source of high style, she was in sync with the changing times. The onset of World War I made a pared-down, sober wardrobe a necessity. Shortage of textiles required that Coco make her clothes from machine-made knit jersey. Rather than keep it natural cream or gray, she dyed it corals and blues and transformed it into a high-fashion textile. She also raised the hemline, lowered the neckline, and relaxed the silhouette. Soon the most stylish women were seen in Coco’s salons buying her “ruthlessly simple clothes.” By 1916 she had three hundred people working for her. She recalled, “I was in the right place, an opportunity beckoned. I took it. What was needed was simplicity, comfort, neatness, unwittingly I offered all of that.”
Coco had now traveled beyond the early humility of poverty when she “fed on sorrow and horror, and regularly thought of dying” to exemplify the very sense of modernity. She dictated her own life, financing herself and her work and becoming the best advertisement for her fashion. Yet by 1935, the woman whom Samuel Goldwyn had called “the biggest fashion brain ever known” was in creative decline, replaced by her first serious competitor, Elsa Schiaparelli, “that Italian woman.” While Coco was known for her austere elegance, Schiaparelli reveled in witty, outrageous designs—“a hard elegance”—many of them done in collaboration with Salvador Dali. Chaney takes great pleasure in characterizing the rivalry between the two designers. The women’s personalities were at odds. Coco was understated while “Schiap” was flamboyant. “Chanel launched sailor sweaters, the short skirt, I took her sweaters, changed the lines, and there Chanel is finished,” Schiaparelli boasted. This was not exactly true. In 1954 the knit Chanel suit once again became the image of youth and elegance, and the sales of Chanel No. 5 had always remained healthy since its formulation in 1921.
Toward the end of her life, Chanel wrote: “I am not a heroine. But I have chosen the woman I wanted to be.” She found herself alone, having outlived most of her friends and lovers. While work had helped her transcend “the meanness of her upbringing” and sustained her through two world wars and many personal tragedies, she grew tired and disillusioned and became addicted to morphine, dying in 1971. She might have questioned her life, but not her accomplishments, knowing that she left behind many fashion innovations that have become part of the grammar of fashion: the little black dress, costume jewelry, sling-back shoes, trench coats, and suits and trousers for women.
In many ways, the narrative arc and themes of Elsa Schiaparelli’s life resemble those of Chanel’s. Both women recreated themselves when they were young and then nourished their images over a lifetime. They used clothes as protection to conceal feelings of shyness and inadequacy, and they also knew how difficult life was without money. As self-taught designers, they built their fashion empires through tenacity. Schiaparelli’s life is a rags-to-riches saga that biographer Meryle Secrest relishes telling. Secrest knows her way around the art world, having written about the lives of Salvador Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright, Amedeo Modigliani, and Leonard Bernstein, among others. In Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography, she revels in her subject’s improbable success as an inventor of wide-leg pants, swimsuits with built-in bras, and dinner dresses with matching jackets. Secrest delights in the ways “Schiap” translated concepts of surrealism into fashion: her pockets looked like drawers, her hats were high-heeled shoes, and her buttons could be anything from lips and eyes to vegetables and insects.
Born in 1890 in the Palazzo Corsini in Rome to a half-Scottish mother and an academic father, Elsa had a childhood that was comfortably middle class, but she battled feelings of inferiority when she compared herself to her beautiful mother and older sister. Fueled by her youthful reading and writing of erotic poetry, she cultivated an independent personality and dreamed of a romantic life. When her family sent her off to a convent school in Switzerland, she went on a hunger strike. Her father retrieved her, ending her formal education, though she did learn the rudiments of sewing.
At twenty-three, Elsa married a penniless theosophist, Count William de Wendt de Kerlor. The couple moved to New York and lived on her dwindling dowry as he told fortunes and eventually passed himself off as a criminal psychologist. While the fight for mere
sustenance became acute, Elsa was building a sturdy self-reliance and resourcefulness, which she needed in 1922, when he left her and their daughter, “Gogo,” penniless. At thirty, she had no means of making a living. She divorced de Kerlor, moved to Paris, and went back to her maiden name. She credits this period of poverty as changing her life: “If I have become what I am, I owe it to two things: Poverty and Paris. Poverty forced me to work, and Paris gave me a liking for it.”
Through a Dadaist group of artists, Elsa met Paul Poiret, the fashion revolutionary who was credited for liberating women from the corset and introducing harem pants, the tubular coat, and the lampshade tunic in fauvist-inspired printed textiles. He mentored Elsa and helped her gain entry into Paris society. Dissatisfied with her looks, she decided she was what the French call a jolie laide. With her dark eyes, high forehead, and wide mouth, she would emphasize her dramatic features and use clothes to boost her self-confidence.
When a spokesperson for a fashion house saw her early portfolio of designs, he told her she was more equipped to dig potatoes. She was undeterred. By 1924 she was able to eke out a living on the fringes of the fashion world. Her break came when she saw the need to bridge the gap between casual and dressy. She designed a V-neck sweater with three-quarter sleeves in an amazing variety of geometric patterns. Her silhouette was sleeker and jazzier than Chanel’s. In less than three years, she attracted the attention of Galeries Lafayette and was able to establish Schiaparelli Inc.
As she aligned herself with the surrealists, her sweaters and dresses became more eccentric. She saw in clothes the capacity for art and had the ability to transform fringe ideas into wearable, flattering garments. Her collections found their inspiration in the circus, the solar
system, paganism, music, the zodiac, and commedia dell’ arte. Her most famous surrealist-inspired piece is the lobster dress, a sleeveless white organza evening gown with a gigantic lobster printed on the skirt. Like Chanel, she also responded to the realities of women’s changing roles. Chanel gave women freedom of movement, while Schiaparelli made clothes even more adaptable, designing clothes that could go from day to evening with the addition of a stylish jacket. She also made women feel powerful with her “hard thirties chic” and wooden-soldier silhouette.
While her energy was prodigious, the demands of the profession and her own perfectionism took a heavy toll. She understood that in the world of fashion “an out-of-date dress is absolutely worthless.” By 1950, though she was working ceaselessly to maintain her reputation, her star was in decline. She was trying too hard; her clothes became pedestrian. Christian Dior’s “New Look,” launched in 1947, had reintroduced to women’s fashion the restrictive elements Chanel and Schiaparelli had eliminated: a wasp waist cinched with a modified corset and a voluminous skirt layered in petticoats, squeezing women back into an hourglass shape.
As business dropped off, debt mounted. Schiaparelli presented her last collection in 1954. Like Chanel before her, she questioned both her life’s work and the hard-edged, fault-finding personality that she had cultivated in order to survive. “Alas I am not in love with myself for I am devoured with a burning desire to criticize. I criticize everything and everybody.” In the end she felt as if she mostly criticized herself. Secrest contends that after she shut her shop, she lost her reason for existing. Schiaparelli died in 1973 at eighty-three.
Like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, Charles James was self-taught, yet he was never able to sustain a commercially viable career and achieve the visibility and renown of his peers. Mich le èGerber Klein’s Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man portrays James as someone who relentlessly revised and revisited his masterworks. As a result, Klein writes, “His complete oeuvre might be as few as 250 to 300 independent designs over three decades.” She argues that while he was a wonderful fashion designer who contributed several innovations, he could never get out of his own way. A complicated, self-destructive genius, he too often bit the hand that fed him. It was often said of James, “The only talent he lacks is getting along with people.”
Charles Brega James was born in 1906 in Surrey, England, to a wealthy family that provided “entrée to society on two sides of the Atlantic.” His stylish, beautiful mother, Louise, came from a shipping and real-estate fortune in Chicago, while his father was a British aristocrat from an eminent military family. Privilege did not mitigate his personal struggles. Despite the comfort of Edwardian opulence, his childhood was marred by the brutality of his father, who felt that his precocious son was cosseted by his mother. In 1920, fourteen-year-old Charles was sent to Harrow, where he made friends with the photographer Cecil Beaton. He chose to openly call himself homosexual. For his father, this put an end to an already tempestuous relationship. Disapproving of his son’s arty, sloppy friends, his father withdrew him from Harrow during his third year, ending his formal education.
When his father cut him off financially and from the family, Charles moved to Chicago and with a small inheritance from his grandfather opened a hat boutique. From there he moved to New York to establish a style headquarters that would cater to a community of intellectually and culturally influential peers. Because Charles did not have income from his family, he had to rely on his own talent and personality to succeed. Exaggerating his dandified proclivities, he became known for his brilliant, outspoken, and larger-than-life persona.
Unlike Chanel and Schiaparelli, James never tried to build a traditional business. He focused on designing fashion for some of the richest, most remarkable women of the era—Millicent Rogers, Rosamond Pinchot, Tilly Losch, and Austine Hearst—whose own interesting stories Klein also brings to life. During the stock market crash, he relocated to London and catered to a small group of aristocrats, theater professionals, royals, and members of the influential Bloomsbury Group. Working among this intellectual and artistic society, Charles developed his theory of style. Klein writes, “Individuality was an absolute prerequisite for what he would come to define as elegance, which for him always had more to do with character and intelligence than symmetrical shape.” James made as few as ten dresses a year, each designed for a woman to stand apart from her peers. Being dressed by James helped these women be recognized as original and elegant. But it didn’t help his bottom line. Often on the verge of financial collapse, he went bankrupt a number of times. Schiaparelli, an early inspiration, teacher and friend, often helped him run out on debt collectors, a skill she had acquired from her early years of dodging creditors with her husband de Kerlor.
James and Schiaparelli also shared an interest in wrap dresses. They were both looking for a leaner, closer fit. James played with the placement of darts and seams, moving them from the side to the front to create what he called a “false profile.” His first radical design was the “Taxi Dress,” a wrap dress with a hook at the hip for easy removal in the back of a taxi. They also played with the exaggerated broad shoulder. And while Dior was more widely credited with the “New Look” that was the antithesis of Chanel’s and Schiaparelli’s designs, James’s own silhouettes with diminutive waists and crinoline-lined skirts contributed to the 1950s return to a highly feminized style of dress.
Other than a brief stint designing a custom fashion collection for Elizabeth Arden’s cosmetic empire, he lived in professional uncertainty and was often entangled in a web of business complications. At the end of his career, he mourned the increasing commercialization of fashion: “What the market takes up the markets destroys.” James, with his English manners, elite American background, and fierce talent for creating beauty, brought to America unparalleled luxury, but by the 1960s, he was penniless. He retired to the famed Chelsea Hotel in New York City, where he lived rent free and spent his days perfecting his designs. He died in 1978. When a hospital attendant asked him his name, he reportedly had said, “It may not mean anything to you, but I am what is popularly regarded as the greatest couturier of the Western world.”
The story of Alexander McQueen, as told by Andrew Wilson in Alexander McQueen: Blood beneath the Skin, shares similar elements with Chanel, Schiaparelli and James: a humble, impoverished childhood, feelings of inadequacy, unstoppable energy and love of work, and, most of all, the desire to transform the self through reinvention. While Chanel’s fashion was classic and functional, Schiaparelli’s artistic and playful, and James’s architectural and elegant, Alexander McQueen’s designs embodied his personal biography and emotional state in ways the others would never have hazarded to explore in their own work. He considered his fashion work a form of “confessional poetry” as he battled in life and work between the dark and light. McQueen stated, “I oscillate between life and death, happiness and sadness, good and evil.”
Wilson imbues Alexander McQueen’s story with the quality of fable as he traces his rise from shy, homely working-class kid to the millionaire bad boy of fashion. Lee Alexander McQueen was born on March 17, 1969, in southeast London, the youngest of six children. His father, Michael, was a taxi driver, whose mental breakdown shortly after Lee’s birth left money in short supply. The McQueens were not alone. Wilson reminds us that life in 1970s Britain was gripped by economic and social unrest. Lee’s father expected his sons to get steady, reliable jobs as plumbers, bricklayers, or electricians. If he saw his children “getting beyond or above themselves,” he could be harsh. Yet at a young age, Lee wanted more. He was absorbed early on “by the style of people, by how they expressed themselves through what they wear.” He started to read books on fashion at the age of twelve. In school, he later recalled, he “didn’t learn a thing. I just drew clothes.” While he was a fat boy with “buck front teeth” who was often teased for being goofy looking, he had what his mother recalled as a “strange mix of surface toughness and unusual vulnerability.”
McQueen’s sexual awakening in the ’80s coincided with the rise of AIDS. Wilson details the era of the “gay plague” in London and the impact that growing up under the specter of the virus had on an imaginative gay man like Lee, who witnessed the generation before him decimated. McQueen felt that despite the grimness, it gave him a sense that “I have only one life.” What he wanted to do in that life was to design clothes. He apprenticed as a tailor at Anderson & Sheppard and enjoyed “sitting cross-legged on a bench and padding lapels and sewing all day.” From Anderson & Sheppard, he moved to Gieves & Hawkes, where he learned the art of cutting without a pattern.
In 1990, after a brief stint in Italy working for Romeo Gigli, a designer who blended postpunk street fashion, Japanese avant-garde style, and Italian refinement, he went to Saint Martins, the London art and fashion school, and asked for a job as a cutter. After looking at his portfolio of drawings, the director enrolled him in an MA course, despite the fact that he did not have a BA degree in fashion. In 1992, McQueen met Isabella Blow, an influential stylist who worked for British Vogue. She recognized in his work his immaculate tailoring that beautifully manipulated and flattered the female form, bought many of his designs, and promoted him as often as she could. They bonded over their belief that clothes shielded a person from the brutalities of the world.
Having proved himself a skillful tailor, he also became known as a showman. McQueen’s fashion shows and collections became first-rate theater, taking inspiration from film, art, history, and literature. His show Eclect Dissect was a mélange of visual references to anatomical drawings, Edgar Allen Poe, Frankenstein, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. With each runway show, his fame increased, but as an overweight gay man working in the fashion industry, which had a near fanatical emphasis on appearance, he began to feel like a freak. He shaved his head, fixed his teeth, lost weight, and started dressing in elegant, flattering fashions of his own design. The scruffy common boy from London’s East End was replaced by a sleek and elegant man.
Wilson contends that the journey from McQueen’s hard East London upbringing to the hedonistic world of fashion was especially difficult. In 1996, when he was hired as director at Givenchy, he got a full dose of the elitism of the Paris fashion world. His workload was heavy: four collections a year plus two shows a year under his own label. Friends felt as if fame had begun to change his humble, self-effacing character and that he was surrounded by exploitive people. Dogged by self-doubt, he feared that his couture house would fire him when they realized he was nothing more than “an East End yob.”
There was something deeply toxic about the world of fashion and the unrelenting treadmill of producing. McQueen began dreaming of escaping the fashion bubble, but many people relied on him. In 2000, he cut a “super-deal” with Gucci that turned him into a very rich man, but he knew he had lost the sense of anarchy and chaos that fueled his best work. A clutch of stresses and anxieties left him drained. He said, “I have built my own prison.”
When McQueen saw Lady Gaga perform in 2009, Wilson writes that the designer recognized in her music themes from his own life: “The pressures of fame, the dangers of celebrity, the pleasures of hedonistic abandon, and the interchange between sex and violence.” Forty-year-old Alexander McQueen committed suicide on February 11, 2010 at his London Mayfair flat. Close friends believed that death for him was an escape that he had longed for. He believed in the power of fashion to transform the appearance and mindset of those who felt ugly, shy, and strange in the world, but in the end what he created was not enough. Still, he was concerned about his legacy. He said, “I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette or a way of cutting, so that when I am dead and gone people will know that the twenty-first century was started by Alexander McQueen.”
Chanel, Schiaparelli, James, and McQueen moved fashion beyond the borders of applied art and into the realms of high art, offering new, more intellectual ways of looking at dress. Their lives were also works of art, in which they reinvented themselves and then translated that
vision to a new way of looking and being. As they made themselves interesting, they made fashion interesting through a unique and passionately felt aesthetic. One of Charles James’s loyal clients, Augustine Hearst, remembered her grandmother telling her as a child, “If you have a black lace dress and a ham in the ice box, you are ready for any emergency.” She liked to interpret her grandmother’s wisdom to mean that “If you could cover your body gracefully then you can cover whatever upsets your heart.” These four fashion designers believed that if they created themselves anew and then dressed beautifully, they were in control. For much of their lives, that belief served them well.