‘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.
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, the author and artist behind Tales from the Loop, 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 (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
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.