#002 — Living Out A Train Of Thought

Hi, hello, how are you? This is your still-in-its-infancy newsletter from me, Adam Wood, to let you know what I’ve been reading, watching, playing, listening to, and thinking about, on a week when I was worried the wind would steal the laundry.

This week I made my way through Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s loose trilogy of films set in Oslo.

Reprise (2006)

A sort of Trainspotting without the drugs, this is a touching, subtly complex portrait of male friendships. It perhaps risks over-romanticising the creative process, but it’s smart enough to know that it’s walking that line. Literature, post-punk, turn of the millennium Scandinavian apartments — what’s not to love?

Oslo, August 31st (2011)

In Elizabethan drama, the easiest way to figure out whether the play is a comedy or a tragedy, is to skip ahead and see if it ends with a wedding. The second instalment in Joachim Trier’s trilogy of Oslo films opens with a failed suicide attempt, undertaken by a recovering addict. From that point on, it’s clear that to some extent at least, the tenor of this story is going to be determined by the manner in which it ends. The ways in which Trier modulates this tension over the course of one day in his protagonist’s life, remain captivating throughout.

Following Anders as he leaves the seclusion of rehab, we watch as he measures aspects of his own life against those being lived around him. A friend who escaped their shared history of recreational drug use, has married, has a child, and is working an enviable job. Former romantic partners. Even — in a wonderfully executed sequence of people-watching — an assortment of people who happen to be in (or walking by) the same café.

Both the script (by Trier & frequent collaborator Eskil Vogt) and the central performance by Anders Danielsen Lie (every bit as impressive as he was in Reprise (2006)), are admirably subtle and without judgment. I’m curious to find out, now knowing the film’s resolution, whether it maintains its sense of internal tension on a rewatch.

This might double-bill well with Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002).

The Worst Person in the World (2021)

The shorthand for The Worst Person in the World, is that it’s a female-led revision of many of the themes with which the first two films in Trier’s Oslo trilogy are concerned. In many ways, however, the film reads like a maturation of Trier’s style, and of his thinking. By comparison, 2006’s Reprise (made when Trier was in his early 30s) appears somewhat solipsistic: it presents a relatively insular world of one friend group, as they struggle with intellectual and philosophical problems inherent to their youth. Whilst The Worst Person in the World features a comparably small cast, their concerns and struggles are developed more complexly, and are more effectively universalised. Though it is not a direct continuation in the same way, elements of the film felt similar to returning, two decades later, to the central relationship in Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy. The third film in that set — 2013’s Before Midnight — is also less interested in being cool than its originating movie, and happy to be messier, and less certain. Trier’s third instalment is similarly content to raise more emotional and philosophical questions than it has answers to.

As a filmmaker, Trier here augments the relatively simple style of the first two films, with playful touches that reminded me somewhat of the work of Mike Mills. It’s still a style that centres character — in the showiest sequence, quite literally freezing the world around Renate Reinsve’s Julie — and (here as before) the film is showcase to a pair of stellar central performances.

I can more easily see myself returning to The Worst Person in the World with some frequency, than I can Reprise & Oslo, August 31st. Like Mill’s Beginners or 20th Century Women, it is certainly melancholy in parts, but Trier has managed to capture, alongside his characters’ discontent, a genuine sense of human warmth that would escape a lesser film.

This week I read Maggie Shipstead’s 2014 novel Astonish Me. On the surface it’s a story about what it can mean to pursue a career in a demanding artistic pursuit like ballet. Shipstead uses this platform, however, to reach into other things: the Cold War era propaganda opportunities presented by prominent defections; the manner in which family dynamics shift as children grow up.

Shipstead is obviously passionate about ballet as an art form. She is good at bringing to the page its technical and physical intricacies, as well as its emotionality. Throughout, she makes good use of the opportunity it presents as a way to manifest her characters’ inner lives. Over the course of the book, there is well executed development of mothers, sons, daughters, and the relationships between them, as mediated — at least partially — through dance.

Shipstead appears somewhat less interested in the geopolitical aspects, which are certainly present in parts of the novel, but remain largely unexplored. It would have added a dimension to the novel, for example, to further complicate one of its characters: the brilliant ballet dancer — and Soviet defector — Arslan, around which much of the plot revolves. His personal connections to other characters are well rendered, but exploration of his patriotism (or lack thereof), and his feelings about being an object of American propaganda, are only sketched.

Taken as a whole, I found Astonish Me thoroughly enjoyable, despite the fact that it leaves some of its potential unrealised. I wonder whether Maggie Shipstead felt at all similarly about the novel; it would be seven years before she published her next, and it would prove to be far more ambitious. That is what we in the newsletter writing business, call a segue.

In three weeks’ time, I’ll be firing the starting pistol for the 8th annual running of my summer-read along project, Sipped Ink. You, dear reader, are the first to find out that this year’s novel will be Maggie Shipstead’s 2021 opus Great Circle. The book was shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize, and is currently shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022. It’s my belief that the less one knows going in to this novel, all the better for one’s enjoyment. However, I’m not expecting anyone to jump into things entirely on faith, so here’s the briefest of descriptions offered by UK publisher, Penguin:

A soaring, breathtakingly ambitious novel that weaves together the astonishing lives of a 1950s vanished female aviator and the modern-day Hollywood actress who plays her on screen.

I read Great Circle last autumn, as part of a marathon of all 13 books on the Booker longlist. You can find my impressions of all those novels if you poke around the Sipped Ink website, but keep in mind that spoilers abound. To lessen the risk of you encountering something you’d prefer not to know at this stage, let me quote a section from my own review:

I can only say that I found Great Circle to be an unalloyed pleasure. The experience of reading it was reminiscent of first encounters with similarly ambitious novels, such as Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013). Having deliberately begun the novel with no prior knowledge, I was at first surprised and delighted, and then found myself walking the emotional tightrope of being so impressed and swept along by a novel that I was desperate for it to not falter! And it does not; having spent the best part of the last two days reading Great Circle I can honestly say I’m already looking forward to revisiting it in years to come.

And that time is now! Well, soon: this summer’s Sipped Ink read-along will begin with an introductory email on Sunday 5 June, with reading to commence the following day. There will be an email newsletter from me each Sunday, discussing the week’s progress, until the final instalment on Sunday 17 July. If you would like to join us in reading this wonderful novel, you can pop your email address in the box on this page right here. The only other thing you will need is a copy of the novel, which is due to be published in paperback on 26 May. I’m sure your local indie bookstore would happily put one aside for you, or you could place a preorder on Bookshop.org using this link (full disclosure: I’ll get about £1 if you do!).

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As is becoming tradition, let’s close this out with some bullets:

Thanks as always for reading. If you have comments, questions, suggestions, or photos of dogs, just hit reply and drop me a line. Until next time.


— Adam