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Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Muddy Funsters*

There have been several key changes during my descent into mid-lifeness and fatherhood. The first is that I boo all the time. Seriously, the littlest thing sets me off. I hear the strains of classical music over the scene of a kid and his dad and the tears spurt out. I can’t even think of that scene in the Lion King where Simba lifts his dad’s paw and it flops to the dust all limp. Don’t even mention Finding Nemo, I can’t even see the screen to type now. I mean, WTF? I wade knee deep in daily gore in my job and deal with grimness +10 every day on Intensive Care, but anything that reminds me of Dads and kids and poignancy gets me going.

Anyhow, the blog isn’t about that. It’s not about existential dread that life is ebbing away. It’s not about inability to drink alcohol in anything beyond a thimble or be convinced my brain is oozing from my nose in anger. It’s about how I can’t stand gangster films anymore.

Seriously, I used to be massively into them. If it had Scorcese, De Palma or Coppolla on it I’d lap it up. I’d crave the twitchy De Niro face or Joe Pesci freaking out or Al Pacino gurning. As students we used to love ‘em. Throw in a few about South-central LA and gangsta-stylie drive-bys for variety, just to dilute the crotch-grabbing, you’re a good kid, forget about it lead-ins to stiletto/vice/baseball bat/head shot scenes.

Then it changed. I can’t quite remember what film it was... perhaps it was that one with Leonardo and Jack Nicolson. I sat and watched it and then everyone gets popped at the end in a totally pointless fashion and I thought... I just don’t like this anymore. It’s like I see enough blood and stuff at work without needing a fix at home. But then it can’t be quite that, because I enjoy the gratuitous Game of Thrones...

I think it’s the gangster thing, the crime thing. There came a moment when I ceased to find them of interest, of value. There’s a genuine glamorisation of crime within film and, perhaps less so, literature. The writers and the directors seem to have an admiration for criminals, feeling that if they show some kind of compassionate side (camaraderie, loyalty, GSOH) then it makes the nasty shit they do seem a little more acceptable or understandable. The characters are usually bullies, slinging their weight around to get what they want, feeling that it’s all about ‘respect’ and so forth. Yet they’re the sort of kids who at school used to kick crap out of smaller kids. It’s that romantic notion that if you fight for what you believe (even if that belief is flawed) then it’s acceptable. It’s bollocks, really.

So what altered in me? I think the love of the gangster film and the fascination with crime boils back to the intrigue of the anti-hero (which I blogged about on Alison De Luca’s blog here.). Part of growing up is that challenge of the status quo, testing the boundaries of what we’ve been raised to believe is just and right. We are teased by the Dark Side, with glimpses of the uglier aspects of human nature. The gangster in these films is the anti-hero. He’s the one who does what we wouldn’t, who doesn’t give a shit and fights/shoots/kills to get what he wants. And clearly there’s some anti-heroes that I find acceptable and enjoy and others that I don’t, and I wonder if that’s a touch hypocritical of me? I like reading about the loveable rogue—say like Locke Lamora in Scott Lynch’s books. He’s a con-man, like a Hustler in a fantasy world. We all love Robin Hood, especially if he gives to the poor. Tyrion in Game of Thrones is great... because he’s naughty, but not downright evil. But there’s a tipping point when I can’t enjoy it, when I can’t drag up even a morbid interest in the character. And I think that threshold alters more and more with age.

So am I just a miserable old sod now? Well, yes, I am. To be fair, I do find some crime films/books entertaining—specifically I quite like the gangster-comedy ones like Lock, Stock and Snatch, mainly because I find the southern accents funny. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is one of my favourites, perhaps because of the dialogue and its slapstick nature. On my book blog, The Roaring Mouse, I’m featuring a comedy-crime book about a contract assassin getting married that I would describe as Grosse Point Blank crosses with Meet the Parents. Perhaps that says more about me that I can stomach the gangster-violence-glamorisation when it derides itself. And I suppose that opens up a whole host of new questions...

* The Muddy Funster title refers to an old Harry Enfield sketch where he satirised the BBC and its dubbing over bad language in films. He played a Robert De Niro character in ‘Badfellas’ whose badly dubbed character asked, “Did you fun my wife, you muddy funster?” Watch it... its superb!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Moon's Malady

I've just finished reading Stephen Donaldson's First Chronicle of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. It's taken me about 29 years to finish it, which is approximately a tenth of a page a day. OK, I'm being silly. I started reading it age 12, when I was looking for a book as 'cool' as LOTR and I got through about two chapters of leper-laden woe and thought 'feck this' and went out and bought a Conan book instead.

It can't be described as an easy read. The main character is very difficult to warm to, not least because of a rape scene in the middle of book one. Moreover the prose is very dense in places with adjectives that would keep the grammar goblin happy well into the night, unlike me who tends to fall asleep reading in bed with big words (until the book hits my head and wakes me up).

But one theme I found interesting is the idea that Covenant, the main character, is in a world that he denies. Throughout the book you ponder whether it is his delusion that you are reading about, although we find it easier to believe in the Land than Covenant does. The doubt is fuelled by him flipping back to our world at the end of each book, usually with an injury that correlates with whatever hurt him in the Land. This idea has sort of been done to death now, although to my mind the perfect version of it was Life On Mars/ Ashes to Ashes.

I digress. What fascinated me was the concept of delusion in a world of fantasy. It fascinates me because it is a key theme in my own fantasy series. When I was devising the plot for the trilogy I wanted some spin on the fantasy setting that would feel fresh, perhaps a little different. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to have the main character suffer with a psychiatric condition, and from there it sort of grew to include a few other characters. I couldn't recall many fantasy books I'd read where there was mental illness as a theme beyond the odd psychopathic persona (and you'd argue whether psychopathic traits are psychiatric illnesses or severe personality disorders). A quick web-search didn't pull up many, so I thought 'let's go with this.'
The idea that evolved was that the type of magic that the heroine Emelia utilises, Wild-magic, is a kind of psychic phenomenon. the magic involves telekinesis, pyrokinesis, some telepathy etc. So I thought, 'What if the magic of the mind also produces a disorder of it?' In Emelia's case she develops a bipolar type condition--manic-depression--with some degree of delusional thought processes. Like 'real' bipolar disorder it fluctuates, not only between hypomania and depression, but in its intensity and how much it compromises her life. In Volume One it is mainly the depression and the delusions we see (especially in the finale); in volume two (out perhaps later in year) we get a far more florid appearance of her condition, with hypomania and quite marked depression. The impact this has on her and her friends is key to the plot and I hope that I have written it well enough to reflect the distress of the condition.

This left me with consideration of how i would portray the other Wild-mages in the book. The biggest difficulty was Jem, who is a major character and Emelia's mentor. I needed him to have a degree of stability and order in his make-up as Jem is all about rigidity and control in his life. Clearly a fervent mania wasn't right for him, nor a florid schizophrenia.

In the end I settled on obsessive-compulsive disorder for Jem. OCD is something that is often made light of-- after all, most of us have little 'obsessive' traits that infiltrate our lives. For my part I am a bit of a checker--I can't leave the house (especially on holiday) without checking all the doors are locked, to the point I have turned around on my way to work to come back. But this is mild, insignificant compared to 'real' OCD.

OCD is remarkably common--about 2% of the population suffer with it to some degree, and the profile has been raised by celebrity sufferers like David Beckham (and Samuel Johnson and Howard Hughes in the past). I saw a number of cases when I worked in Psychiatry, mainly co-existent with depressive illness, but one sticks in my mind beyond all others. It was a patient whom I met in Canada. He had a huge number of obsessions and compulsions, and some times the individual ones would compete within him and he would become 'frozen' , like when your computer is given too much to do at once. I recall finding him stood before a doorway once, unable to pass through yet unable to step back. For him medication was only a beginning, it was cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) that helped to unravel his condition.

Would OCD fit into a fantasy world? Well it was probably around in the olden days anyway--I imagine, along with other conditions such as schizophrenia, it was regarded as possession. You can visualise the effect admitting to compulsive thoughts to expose oneself in church would go down in Purtian times. Quick trip to the Exorcist. (As an aside Jean Foucault proposed, in Madness and Civilisation, that in the olden days we were far more acceptant of mental illness and it was the development of rationalists (and Victorians) that created the stigmatisation of mental illness). In my fantasy world, Jem copes with his OCD via discipline and meditation, which was taught him by a Galvorian monk. He practises his own CBT and calming techniques, although his traits emerge at stressful times (such as the checking and need for cleanliness). In volume II (book 3) we get to see how he reacts to a trip into the swamp and by book 5 we can see him cleaning his environment utilising his magical abilities.

Mental illness and psychiatric conditions are far more prevalent in the modern world than we give credit for. Most of us have either experienced or had close friends who have suffered from one or more such problems and have insight into the impact they can have on lives for many years. I hope that by writing about them, even within fantastical settings, they can become a topic that become easier to discuss and think about.

As a last note, the title, the Moon's Malady, is a reference for how the girls that Emelia knows in her workplace think of mental illness: namely that it is linked to the lunar cycles. This was taken straight from our own world's history of understanding mental illness--for many years it was considered 'madness' was related to the moon, hence 'lunacy' as an archaic term. And the world I've just created has four moons--so if that hold any weight, the inhabitants of Nurolia will have to become far more relaxed about discussing it than we are as a society!