Review: When Everything Feels Like the Movies, by Raziel Reid

9781551525747_WhenEverythingFeels>>Published: October 2014

Everyone fell into one of three categories:

  1. The Crew: They made things happen. They took over the honour roll, sports teams, extracurricular activities, and clubs. They had the most volunteer credits and were first to raise their hands whenever the teacher asked a question. They weren’t necessarily the smartest, most talented, or prettiest, but they were involved. Without the crew, nothing would ever get done, and we’d all be wandering down the hallways in search of our marks.
  2. The Extras: All the misfits, outcasts, and social rejects. If you were as chipped as my nail polish and didn’t belong, you were an extra—kind of the opposite of the Crew. They were there, but you didn’t really know it; they were just bodies in desks filling space, anonymous smiles in faded school photos on a boulevard of broken dreams
  3. The Movie Stars: No one thinks they’re more special than they do, but everyone wants to be tagged in a Facebook picture with the stars and get their autographs in the yearbook. They’re selfish, spoiled, and overly sexed. There isn’t much beyond the surface of their flawlessly airbrushed skin, and everyone talks about them behind their backs. Their eyes light up when you can do something for them, and everything that comes out of their mouths is totally fake.

I didn’t fit into any category. I definitely wasn’t a part of the Crew; I wasn’t about to be involved in anything unless it was court-appointed. I wasn’t an Extra because the last thing I could ever be was anonymous. But I wasn’t a Movie Star either because, even though everyone knew my name, I wasn’t invited to the cool parties.

So there was me, the flamer that lit the set on fire.

***

Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies is a little like American Beauty: The Teenage Years in that it telegraphs the downfall of its doomed protagonist Jude Rothesay from very early on. However, this awareness does not hurt or in any way lessen the impact of what is in the end a tightly constructed life-as-a-stage allegory, complete with filmic idolatry and requisite amounts of love, lust, and all associated melodrama.

The novel begins post-Christmas break. Jude (nicknamed Judy by the more homophobic of his classmates) and his BFF Angela are a pair of almost-outcasts navigating their school on the periphery of the popular crowd. Jude is desperate to escape his small, unnamed town in the middle of nowhere, where he fears he is likely to become “the next Matthew Shepard!” In his eyes, he’s destined for stardom—for the success, for the admiration, for the scandal, for everything that term entails. But first, he’s got to get the hell out of dodge with his skin intact. Easier said than done when your mom’s a stripper and your allowance is doled out in singles; when your stepfather’s a drug user with a mean streak who disappears occasionally and without warning; and when the bullies at school are hashtagging your demise as if Twitter were the new The National Enquirer. But Jude is determined. He won’t let the bastards win, even at the cost of his own life.

What’s clear from very early on is that both Jude and Angela are seeking love. It’s the driving force for much of their young lives, at least for the duration of this story. In Angela’s case, the love she seeks is akin to acceptance—she’s filling the holes in her life by sleeping her way to the top of the food chain. She wishes Jude were not gay because in him she sees her other half, more than just a partner in crime. But since he is gay and therefore unavailable to her in the ways she needs most—physical—she’ll climb higher and higher, even if it means wounding Jude in the process. Jude, similarly, desires a love he can never have—Luke, one of the bullies who torments him with some regularity (or, at the very least, associates with the worst of the bullies, Matt, who early on attempts to cave Jude’s head in with a skateboard). But where Angela seeks acceptance, Jude seeks adoration—he isn’t content skimming the perimeter of the world’s stage; he wants to be front and centre, the focal point of whatever audience he can acquire.

To this end, the novel is told via the language of film. Each chapter is another stage or element inherent to the film industry: “Preproduction”; “Flash Back”; “Fight Sequence”; “Director’s Cut”; and my favourite, “9021-Opiate.” But the novel isn’t just an allegory for stardom—Jude presents himself to the world as a star on the rise, as someone about to explode into the public consciousness if only he can get himself in front of the right people.

Despite the abuse Jude suffers from some of his more Neanderthal-like classmates and his stepfather Ray, there exist positive influences in his life: there’s Keefer, Ray’s son, who looks up to Jude, who loves him, completely, for who he is; there’s Mr. Dawson, the teacher who offers Jude such sage advice as it’s better to be hated for being oneself than loved for being a construct or a phony; there’s even Jude’s biological father, who shows up with a gift—several missed birthdays all in one—that has the potential to change Jude’s life for the better.

But that potential is moot, because we know going in that this is a tragedy, that it won’t have a happy ending. That the father who shows up in the twist that closes out the second act can’t really save Jude’s life; that the best friend who had his back throughout all the shit not fit to print won’t really be there when it matters most; that sometimes it’s not enough to have only dreams. And that the strange love pentagon that has formed around them will only lead to crushing disappointment and betrayal.

Reid’s writing is sharp, and quite visual. The novel has a kinetic pace to everything in this book; it’s easy to imagine this story as a screenplay. His visual acuity is most on-point, however, in one of the novel’s most violent scenes, when Jude is horribly abused in a bathroom stall at school, after things get out of hand with Luke: “I tried to speak, but it was like the bathroom mirror had broken in my throat.” Perfect. Horrifyingly perfect.

There wasn’t much that didn’t work for me in Reid’s novel. About the only thing I struggled with was the speed and suddenness of Angela’s about-face in the final chapter. It was so quick, so harsh, and seemingly without any remorse that it felt like character assassination—it was like the author had flipped a switch inside Angela and turned off her former self. Granted she was on the defensive because of ways she feels that Jude had jilted her or pushed her aside, but the transformation was so complete that it felt like a brand new character introduced in the final act just to drive that last tragic nail in Jude’s coffin.

As stated at the beginning of this review, When Everything Feels Like the Movies is very American Beauty-esque in its ending, which is unjust yet strangely cathartic. Because even as Jude is turning the last page of his script, he remains strong, remains in the only spotlight that ever mattered: his own.

Review: Silence Once Begun, by Jesse Ball

41jx7U4-UQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: January 2014

>>Finally got around to it: September 2014

I am trying to relate to you a tragedy. I am attempting to do so in the manner least prejudicial to the people involved, those people who were survivors of the tragedy, but also the agents of it.

Oda Sotatsu signed a confession. He did not clearly understand what he was doing, perhaps. Or perhaps he did. Nonetheless, he signed it. The next day, Saturday the fifteenth, he was dragged off to jail. Because of the comprehensive nature of the document, the confession, his guilt was never in any doubt. The trial, when it happened, was a rapid affair in which Oda Sotatsu did little, certainly nothing on his own behalf. The police attempted, over the course of the time he was in jail awaiting trial, and the time when he was on death row thereafter, to get him to speak about the crimes he had confessed. He would not. He carried a sort of tent of silence with him, and out of it he refused to come.

Oda was visited many times during the next months by Joo. He never saw Kakuzo again.

Our story continues with information related to me by officers, guards, priests, journalists (present at the time), and by the Oda family. This is how Oda Sotatsu’s story is told.

***

Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun is a book of mixed identities: it is at once an artfully written narrative, pieced together from interview transcriptions and testimonies; a journalistic endeavour from a husband attempting to understand his wife’s sudden silence, which descended upon her like an illness; and a mystery focusing on one man in particular, Oda Sotatsu, and why in 1977 he signed a confession to crimes he did not commit.

The “crimes” for which Sotatsu was imprisoned, and eventually executed, were “the Narito Disappearances”: beginning in June 1977, eight people, two per month, disappeared from the villages surrounding Sakai. The disappeared were both men and women between the ages of fifty and seventy. All lived alone. There were no witnesses, no signs of forced entry or violence. Only a playing card stuck to the door of each victim’s home indicated some type of foul play.

As previously stated, Ball’s book is stylistically divided. In the first part, “The Situation of Oda Sotatsu,” the author sets out not to solve the mystery of the disappeared, but to understand why Sotatsu, an otherwise ordinary individual, would, following a lost wager with a man named Sato Kakuzo, sign a confession to crimes for which he was innocent. Even more confusing, why Sotatsu, when questioned by police, chose to remain silent instead of fighting for his freedom. Indeed he said little to anyone, even family, during his incarceration—and certainly nothing that would’ve mitigated the charges against him. No, Sotatsu maintained his false guilt all the way to the gallows.

Ball traces Sotatsu’s final days via interviews with his family: his brother Jiro, who was Sotatsu’s most ardent supporter; his mother, who warns that Jiro is not to be trusted; his sister Minako, a professor at a university in Korea who returned to Japan for the purposes of Ball’s interview; and eventually Sotatsu’s father, who decided some time ago that Sotatsu did not exist, and the family was not to speak of him—both Sotatsu’s father and sister assumed his confession to be the truth, as did the rest of their village, many of them turning against the family in response.

The author also presents transcriptions from recorded interviews between the investigating officers and Sotatsu himself. They attempted to bribe Sotatsu into giving them further details on the disappeared, offering him better accommodations and the possibility of avoiding the death penalty. But still Sotatsu said nothing.

In the second section, “To Find Jito Joo,” Ball tracks down the woman who, along with Kakuzo, was with Sotatsu the night he signed his life away. He discovers that she visited him frequently over the duration of his imprisonment. In Joo’s own words, she and Sotatsu were in love—a love that is seldom matched in this world.

However, the novel’s third and final part, “Lastly, Kakuzo,” turns Joo’s testimony on its head. The aging anarchist Kakuzo reveals all—his role in the Narito Disappearances, his rationale behind convincing Sotatsu to throw his life away, and how he pushed Joo, his on-again-off-again lover, into Sotatsu’s arms, to convince him to stay silent all the way to his end. And why did he do all this? To upend governmental control—to send an innocent man to his death, and only then reveal that there was no mystery, no disappearances or even malicious intent, in order to illustrate the system’s inherent fallibility. In Kakuzo’s own words, he gained and abused both Sotatsu and Joo’s obedience in order to “cause a dislocation in the life of my society.

Ball’s novel, filled as it is with unreliable narrators, is presented as a fiction based in fact. Its thesis: anarchy is as much the device of the selfish as it is the revolutionary—the trick is in being aware of what lines are being crossed and to what end. In Kakuzo’s case, his ill thought-out anti-government plan only succeeded in losing him the love of Jito Joo, turning an entire village against one family, one family against their son, and costing an innocent man his life.

Not knowing how little of this book is fact and how much of it is fiction does not hinder it in the least. Silence Once Begun is a haunting, minimalist endeavour, and though Sotatsu’s reasons never felt fully clear to me, the impact his short life and incarceration had on those closest to him is readily apparent. And while Sato Kakuzo’s plan did not have the reach he’d hoped, the result was nonetheless catastrophic.