Summer Reading, Summer Viewing: Film and Fiction

It’s summer in the northern hemisphere, and that means holiday season for many of us.

I’m a pretty voracious reader at any time of year, but I squeeze in one or two extra books when the days run longer and vacations slow the pace of people’s work emails. And a trip to the movies takes you out of the heat and out of your head, with an air-conditioned spell in the world of someone else’s projected dream.

Inverted Manhattan skyline from the cover of Fleishman is in Trouble
The flipped city of New York, from the cover of Fleishman Is In Trouble

My summer recommendations are two very different works of art about New York, one old and one new, both offering prisms through which to look at how we live together today.

Fiction

“Reading is your first line of defence against an empty head […] I read for a lot of reasons, pleasure being the least of them.” – Twyla Tharp

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I just finished Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is In Trouble, an exceptional novel about marriage, divorce, parenthood, and friendship. It’s set in the world of Manhattan’s elites, where no amount of money is ever enough to secure the best lifestyle, and bankers sympathetically ask a doctor, “struggling” on a mere six-figure salary, what you should tell your children if they foolishly aspire to a career in medicine.

Brodesser-Akner’s protagonist is that doctor: liver specialist Toby Fleishman, whose uber-successful talent agent wife has disappeared on the eve of their divorce being finalised. He wakes one morning to find she has deposited their two children in his apartment. People see her around the city, but she refuses to take his calls; suddenly the demands of his hospital, and his desire for the women he picks up via dating app, must be fit around the responsibilities of full time parenthood.

Toby feels burdened by his kids despite his deep love for them, intoxicated by the freedom of being newly single in a social media world, and mystified by the privileged yet fragile life in which he finds himself; yet this isn’t his story, or at least not his alone.

Brodesser-Akner has an astonishing talent for capturing the intimate languages we use within the walls of our head, and with our closest friends, our partners, our lovers. She grants this power to the book’s narrator, too. Toby’s college friend Libby is a journalist whose job at a men’s magazine has led her to write about her problems through the prism of her subjects: “Trojan horse your way into a man, and people would give a [****] about you.”

Libby, and her creator, write of the “dark matter” of human relationships: “a substance they know nothing about that seems to bind objects in space into some kind of rhythm with each other. You can see the objects, but you can’t see the dark matter. The dark matter is the mystery, and yet everything depends on it – you can’t see it, but it drives everything into motion.”

When the Fleishmans’ daughter expresses a dislike for this idea, which comes from astrophysics – “I feel like you can’t just decide something must exist because everything’s reacting to it. You can’t just give it a name and hope it’s true” – Toby replies:

“But maybe the objects are just behaving in a way we don’t understand. Maybe nothing is making them act that way but themselves.”

Fleishman isn’t a pity party for one resentful middle-aged man: Toby, himself, is a Trojan horse for us to discuss what goes on between women and men (this is a pretty heterosexual novel) of a certain age and status in 2019.

As the story progresses, and Toby rails against the way he has been treated by his absent wife, we start to question just which of the Fleishmans is really in trouble. And the conceit of Libby telling their story, to an almost telepathic degree of intimacy, challenges us with what we are being told, how it has been related, and what this story might have to say about our own lives. I’m confident it’s the best work of fiction I’m going to read this year.

Film

Brodesser-Akner’s new novel intimately tracks the journey of one marriage, from the tiniest shifts to life-altering changes. We’ve also had time this summer to revisit another artwork which is no less tender or thorough in its scrutiny of a wider social scene.

Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing is thirty years old, and the British Film Institute brought it back to the big screen this month in collaboration with We Are Parable.

The film is more relevant and compelling than ever, touching on climate change, gentrification, police brutality, and the power of community as it chronicles the build up of tensions over a scorching summer in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Like Fleishman, it’s about the matter, not always visible, that connects us. Above all, Spike Lee’s movie highlights the ways in which the air we all breathe is contaminated by prejudice. There’s a death at the hands of cops, there’s violence, frustration, and sour racial hatred, but also brightness, music, joy, and connection – all entwined and seemingly inextricable from one another.

Like Fleishman, Do The Right Thing challenges us with the puzzle of who we are and what we do to each other as human beings, offering truth without prescription, our authors refusing to take the side of any one character.

The movie’s closing captions juxtapose Martin Luther King’s espousal of nonviolence with a quote from Malcolm X, recognising that self-defence might be necessary to challenge entrenched power:

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by destroying itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”–Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self- defense, I call it intelligence.”–Malcolm X

When to fight injustice, and how to avoid the spiral of violence which leads to destruction for all?

That question goes back further than 1989 – and it will be with us through 2019 and beyond.

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