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Simon Stålenhag and Your Tales

An image from artist-author Simon Stålenhag’s book for the Amazon Original Series ‘Tales From the Loop.’ Image: Prime Video and Fria Ligan, Stockholm
‘You Couldn’t Put This in a Book’

In newsrooms, the weirder the news gets, the more frequently you hear reporters muttering, “You could not put this in a book, nobody would believe it.” And you don’t have to be a reporter to find yourself saying that this year.

Two weeks ago I got my first haircut in three months. Double-masked and so was the barber. Gloved, both of us. I even wore long trousers as well as long sleeves to be sure I touched no surfaces with bare skin. And for you good northern readers, that’s a signal of severity: Nobody moves to South Florida to wear long pants. Nobody.

Simon Stålenhag

If the public health emergency isn’t yet queasily intrusive in your sense of equilibrium, maybe the political outrages of the day are (we won’t go there), or the Twilight Zone of an economy in an induced coma, or today’s news that Europe may ban travelers from the United States. It just gets better, doesn’t it?

But when I had a chance to interview Simon Stålenhag [1], the author and artist behind Tales from the Loop [2], I realized that our current state of sometimes surreal challenges may be changing the standard for what you could put into a book. Or a film. Or a television series. Or your manuscript.

In the chicken or egg question, the art came first. Stålenhag’s images reimagined his boyhood in Sweden as a place and time full of casual suburban teenage hanging out – against a snowy landscape studded with the carcasses of big, abandoned techno-relics. “The Loop” is a CERN-like particle accelerator underground (and under-snow) in Mälarö. And what makes Stålenhag’s visual work so arresting is that residents seem at ease, at home with the otherworldly pieces of machinery that surround them, all somehow connected to the unseen high-tech explorations below ground, a  source of jobs for the townspeople, of course.

Stålenhag discovered that fans of his art were online making up stories about what his enigmatic imagery meant. Initially, they didn’t have even as much information as I’ve told you so far. They were getting it wrong. So his first (of three) books, Tales from the Loop [3](Fria Ligan, 2014), was how he basically took control of his artwork, writing – fortunately, he’s good at it – a memoir of his youth that illuminated his visions of a population both empowered by and subjected to the uncanny impulses of subterranean energies.

Five years ago, filmmaker Nathaniel Halpern met with Stålenhag, told him that he could make a television series that would be faithful to the imagery and its intent, and would also build on Stålenhag’s text to develop what might best be called New Tales from the Loop. New, because the series – the eighth and final episode is directed by Jodie Foster – deepens and amplifies Stålenhag’s tales into ethereal, essential fables of human relationship in time.

I commend Halpern’s production to you, with Paul Leonard-Morgan’s music collaboration with Philip Glass – at 83 making his cinematic television debut. Jonathan Pryce and Jane Alexander headline the show. The series, which moves the work to Mercer, Ohio, is a meeting of two creative minds and hearts, Stålenhag’s and Halpern’s, in that it spins out the original ‘Tales’ in a new centrifuge of unsettling, lonely longing watched over by cowering, abandoned apparatus: social structures gone mute. Icons ignored.

And I commend this moment to you.

Because it’s all so enjoyable.

No, seriously, because I think there’s potential in these upheavals that have exposed so much evil and beauty. In us.

The Passion of Aunt Jemima

A detail from one of Simon Stålenhag’s images for his third book, ‘The Electric State.’ His fourth book, ‘The Labyrinth,’ he hopes, can be released later this year. Image: Fria Ligan, Stockholm

My provocation for you today has something to do with seas of young adults in streets and with Stålenhag’s third book (optioned, itself, for a film by AGBO). The Electric State is a road trip through an America ravaged by culture wars, a journey to a West Coast that’s become a junkyard of looming happy memes.

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

Is it possible that 70 years after the last genuinely successful civil rights action in the United States, these millions of peaceful protestors and countless yanked-down monuments to racism and oppression could change us?

As cameras roll and tear gas billows, we see so many white protesters leading the way – wisely dressed like Floridians, in shorts.

“We are gentle, angry people,” says the resistance anthem too old for many of them to know it.

“And we are singing, singing for our lives.”

Do 121,225 coronavirus deaths at this writing in the States give you a pause? How about the fabulous vote-fixated nonchalance of our politicians, the stark-staring warnings of public health officials, the white knees on black necks, Robert E. Lee face-down on concrete, and your fading memory of what a flight ticket looks like? Do these things mean that you can dare to bust open that chapter you always wanted to? – without, I mean, smartass critics like me saying, “You can’t put that into a book, nobody will believe it.”

Try us.

Even Uncle Ben is being recalled. And the CDC chief Robert Redfield said Tuesday in testimony on Capitol Hill that COVID-19 “has brought this nation to its knees.”  If you don’t know what he’s saying yet, you will. By the power not vested in me, I order you to wear a mask in all public settings. Because I like you better alive than dead. And I’d like to know if you’re ready, you gentle, angry person, to write something nobody will believe.

Update: I’ve jumped back in to add “Singing For Our Lives,” in case  you don’t know it. (Spcial thanks to Ms. Walsh for technical assistance.) Holly Near wrote this after the assassination of Harvey Milk. If you’d like to know more, here’s the PBS American Masters piece [4]. And here’s the song [5].

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About Porter Anderson [6]

@Porter_Anderson [7] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [8], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [9] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [10]

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