Circular Narratives and Linguistic Relativism in Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’

When twelve alien vessels arrive on Earth, the world reacts with confusion, violence, and fear. The US military recruits linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to help comprehend the aliens’ language, and attempt to ask the question: “What is your purpose on Earth?”

I am so blown away by this film that I barely know what to say. Every aspect of it has been exquisitely crafted. The otherworldly score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is bookended by Max Richter’s gut-wrenching ‘On the Nature of Daylight’. The visual effects are stunning, with everything taking on a surreal beauty, including the Heptapod aliens themselves and the vessels they arrive in. While the depiction of the world-wide chaos prompted by the arrival of the “shells” is entirely believable, the focus is instead on a group of linguists and scientists attempting to decrypt the alien language of one of the twelve vessels. Amy Adams is outstanding as linguist Dr Louise Banks whose understanding of the world is being literally rewritten as the film progresses. And this leads me to probably the most interesting thing about the film. Essential to its narrative is the concept of linguistic relativism, a theory evolved from the work of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. It states that the structure of a language affects the speaker’s cognition (rather than a person’s cognition dictating the structure of the language). The most famous example of this comes from anthropologist Franz Boas, who suggested that because the Inuit language has so many different words for snow, Eskimos may see snow, even think about snow, differently to the rest of the world.

Linguistic relativism also forms the backbone of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.” (from ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four)

 

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Amy Adams in Arrival. Image © 2016 Paramount Pictures

As Dr Louise Banks learns the written language of the Heptapods, as she begins to dream in it, think in it, communicate using it, her conscious and subconscious begin to resemble those of the Heptapods. The written language itself, known as “Heptapod B” (the spoken language is “Heptapod A”), is created from something resembling squid ink that takes on a 3-dimensional form suspended in space. (Visually, the designers were inspired by Tolkien’s Elvish.) The original story on which the film is based calls it, “fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice.” Its circular form reflects the fact that Heptapod B is non-linear; the Heptapods do not view beginnings and endings in the same way an English-speaker would (in this way it is visually and thematically reminiscent of Ouroboros, the tail-eating snake). When using Heptapod B, the writer knows how the sentence will end. A single symbol cannot be changed without changing the meaning of the entire sentence. The circular writing is reflected in the narrative of the film, both thematically and practically. The first shot of the opening sequence and the first shot of the closing sequence are nearly identical, and Max Richter’s ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ begins and ends the film.

The film goes to great lengths to be scientifically accurate, and the production consulted scientists Stephen and Christopher Wolfram and linguist Jessica Coon to ensure all terminology and references were sound. But while it is intellectually stimulating, and informative without being patronising, it is also profoundly moving. It manages to combine far-reaching concepts about extra-terrestrial life, the nature of time and consciousness, with a deep understanding of love, family, and human nature.

“We are made by what we read.” – Ali Smith

My favourite quotation that I’ve come across this week is from an episode of Desert Island Discs featuring the writer Ali Smith. I’ve long been an admirer of Ali Smith, although the word “admirer” doesn’t quite cut it: I’m more in awe of her, and would happily construct an altar made from her books at which I could daily worship.

I was introduced to her work through my undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature, in the context of what was simply called, “Paper One”. “Paper One”, at the time I was studying, was designed to give us a vague understanding of linguistics, essentially so that we would become better at analysing language in our more literature-based topics. It’s the kind of paper that allowed my friend to perfectly legitimately compare an Innocent Smoothie wrapper with an Emily Dickinson poem. Ali Smith’s writing was perfect for this paper: it’s self-consciously literary, playing around with what it means to read and write, making you pay attention to every single word. At the same time it seems effortless, like every story just tumbled, fully-formed, into the world. I love the way she picks up on the exquisite detail of things, and everything is made fascinating and extraordinary in that detail, whether it’s a bird in flight or a man vomiting.

I was thrilled to find she was a guest on Desert Island Discs, and to find she was every bit as eloquent and brilliant as her writing suggests. I transcribed a small section (from 36:12 onward) that I wanted to keep to remind myself of the immense power of stories.

Kirsty Young: We started today with a quote from you where you had said, “stories can change lives”. We tell ourselves stories about our lives, we write our lives ourselves, and we choose what to edit out, and what to reinforce, and when to repeat an experience, and when to leave a paragraph behind.
Ali Smith: Exactly.
Kirsty Young: In the process of writing for us what have you learned about yourself throughout the decades, do you think?
Ali Smith: I don’t read my writing, you can’t read your own writing, all you do is see the mistakes and the annoying things and hope that something’s working and not knowing whether it is. But I am a reader. And I feel like I have been made by a million books. I feel like any book I have ever written has been drawn together from everything I’ve read, and I don’t mean just books, I also mean the sides of pencils, and the sides of buses, and the things that catch the corner of the eye as we walk past them. We are made by what we read. We are made by what we take into ourselves. If there’s anything at all in this body right now then I’m going to thank all those books for it.

Sarah Taylor (producer) and Kirsty Young (presenter), ‘Ali Smith, Desert Island Discs‘, BBC Radio 4, 6 Nov 2016 [accessed 9 November 2016]

But where are the chickens? A novice’s look at chick lit

Katie Fforde’s A Vintage Wedding (2015) tells the story of three women in a Cotswold village who set up a business planning vintage weddings. But who could have guessed from the pink and flowery book-cover that romance would lie around the corner?

This post contains spoilers. But we all saw those plot points coming a mile off, so I don’t feel too bad.

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I hope this chicken compensates for the paucity of chickens in A Vintage Wedding

I just don’t get it. I want to. I want to go with my heart and immerse myself in the indulgent, chocolate-box romance of it all. I should relate to it. I like love. I’ve even had my fair share of dramatic wedding planning, from altering a bride’s dress the day before the wedding to improvising a wedding cake when the first one collapsed just hours before the reception. But there’s something preventing me from taking that leap of faith and falling in love with A Vintage Wedding. Katie Fforde’s novel is marketed as “The Sunday Times No.1 Bestseller”, so it seems that there are plenty of people who do get it.

So I’m going to take a moment to try to understand its appeal. It has three very likeable, well-rounded main characters. There’s Lindy, a young mum with two small boys and artistic flair. There’s Rachel, the neurotic recent divorcée who’s just moved into the village, who has a talent for organisation and choosing between different shades of white. Then there’s Beth, who also recently moved to the area after quitting university, and who believes there’s nothing YouTube can’t teach her. Within a few days of meeting each other they realise that between them they have the perfect skills set to start a business helping people achieve the perfect vintage-wedding-on-a-budget. We’re gradually introduced to their mostly inoffensive romantic interests who perfectly complement each of their foibles. The story doesn’t ever do anything unexpected (apart from a few things working out ridiculously easily) but I suppose that’s part of A Vintage Wedding’s charm. It’s comfort-reading: easy, predictable, the perfect escape. And the story is carried forward if not by plot than by a whole host of likable characters. I particularly enjoyed the cameo by Lindy’s Nan, who responds to a question about how long a wedding veil will take to clean with:”Well, when I’ve gathered the right herbs, when the moon is on her back and the nightingales are singing…” (p.343). I found the tension between Beth and her controlling Mum believable and the way they grudgingly come to understand each other is genuinely heartwarming.

So what do I have to complain about? It was partly that I found the writing incredibly simple. Its style bears most resemblance to a novel I read recently for 8- to 12-year olds (maybe Fforde knows the chickens aren’t very good at reading yet). And I think partly it annoys me because it’s so focused on romance. Yes, I did know that’s what I was signing up for. But I think it’s problematic because the novel pretends to be about female independence and female friendship, but we all know the story wouldn’t be complete without each character getting partnered off. The story attempts to be empowering: “even without our blokes, Vintage Weddings is still amazing!” says Lindy (p.454), but we all know entrepreneurship is not what we’re here for, and it’s no use pretending otherwise.

It was also the fact that the romantic storylines were so predictable. If a man is introduced just with his name, he’s not going to be a love interest. But if a man is introduced and his voice or hair are described, he’ll be a love interest. I wrote down my predictions on p.79 (of 454) and I’m giving myself a 90% accuracy score (I don’t want to spoil anyone else who wants to make predictions, so I won’t say what I got wrong). But I absolutely adore Georgette Heyer, and her novels abound with these “faults”, so it can’t really be that.

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This chicken is lonely because there aren’t enough chickens in A Vintage Wedding

I don’t know if it’s because I was looking for things not to like, but I found sections of it to be bordering on offensive. The first I’ll accept as personal bias, and focuses on an encounter with one particularly unpleasant woman. She’s a bully, and horrible to everyone. But more important than the fact she was horrible, or even that she wore too much make-up, was the fact she was fat. Throughout the book (and she’s referred to a number of times) she’s not called “the horrible bridesmaid” or even the pleasingly alliterative “bitchy bullying bridesmaid” but “the fat bridesmaid”. As if the beautiful waif-like women in the novel (like the one pictured on the cover) simply must be nice, because they’re thin.

My second issue is the depiction of Rachel. Rachel likes things neat and tidy, and she doesn’t like other people coming over and messing up her nice, white house. Over the course of the novel Rachel and her new friends accept her eccentricities and even find them useful—she finds herself well-equipped for dealing with fussy B&B guests, for example, because she’s preempted all of their potential complaints. But Rachel’s neatness and cleanliness are often referred to as both “neuroses” and “OCD”. I’m all for sympathetic characters with mental illnesses being portrayed in popular culture. But I’m not for the casual use of clinical labels without properly addressing the issues. It’s briefly suggested that her compulsive behaviour is to compensate for her lack of control in her previous relationship. It makes sense then, that without the presence of this relationship, she would begin to relinquish her obsessive compulsive behaviours. But I’m still left feeling uncomfortable, and while the message isn’t quite “get yourself a man and you’ll be fine”, I can’t quite shake it from my mind. As a contrast, for a positive view on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder see the Guardian’s take on the realistic portrayal of OCD in Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Or alternatively, see this article in CBC News about using OCD as a punchline in popular culture (something A Vintage Wedding is guilty of).

My final issue is with sex. I don’t mind too much the romanticised portrayal of women whose eyes are suddenly opened to the wonders of sex through their new partners. I mind that a certain type of behaviour is advocated in the book. Be keen, but not too keen. Show a man you’re interested, but not easy. Outgoing in all other respects, each of the women suddenly become shy and unsure of themselves when speaking to men. When one character does sleep with a man after only seeing him socially a couple of times, it leads to  multiple pages of self-doubt. “In her sane mind she would never have slept with anyone she’d only just met and hadn’t even been out with. It was crazy.” (p.299). “Easy didn’t describe her…The thought of it made her cringe…” (p.300). Ok, you think, the character’s quite traditional, and she’s scared of anything moving too quickly because she wants to put her children first. But the casual judgement extends to other characters too: “Lindy and Angus seemed to have got together quite quickly…but that was sweet. He was her first love, after all.” (p.421). It’s as though Fforde is saying, “I know, it’s a bit damning that a woman is so keen to have sex, but look, it’s ok because she’s had a crush on him for ages.” Perhaps this is one reason I enjoy Georgette Heyer’s novels so much—the sexual mores are unambiguous because they’re set in a time when there were such clear behavioural rules.

In spite of my reservations, reading A Vintage Wedding was an enjoyable few hours. Since my recent experience of romantic fiction is limited to the aforementioned Georgette Heyer as well as Fifty Shades of Grey, perhaps I need to read a few more to understand the genre and get past my own biases. And maybe next time there’ll be more chickens.

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The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale is due to be published by Penguin Random House in January 2017. It is the debut novel of Katherine Arden, and tells the story of a young girl coming to terms with her place in the world, and fighting threats “both real and fantastical”. It is set against the backdrop of Russian fairy tales, and the conflict between burgeoning Christianity and traditional folklore.

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My parents, in their infinite wisdom, decided to buck all baby-name trends and call me “Anouska”. This led to years of questioning, commenting, and explanations along the lines of, “no, it doesn’t mean anything, no, I’m not Russian”. Emboldened by the years of monotony spent explaining why the Welsh girl with the English accent had a Russian name, I started making up stories. I was a Russian princess in hiding. I was named after my great-great-grandmother who fled to Wales from the Russian mafia. It means “she who must endure years of comments on her parents’ choices”.

Full disclosure: I love my name. I love that it’s unusual, and I love that it connects me to a culture that, admittedly, I know very little about. It was with great excitement, then, that I embarked on reading Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale. It’s a book that’s steeped in Russian folklore, fairy tales, and, appropriately, names. I loved everything about it, the style, the story, the characters; but I think it’s the blending of the familiar and the exotic that is one of this novel’s greatest triumphs. Every culture has some sort of story-telling tradition, and so basing the story around fairy tales makes much of the novel feel deeply familiar. Not only this, but almost all stories communicate some basic truths, and so The Bear and the Nightingale is full of characters and dilemmas that could have stepped right out of any of the pages of books I grew up with. We see issues that can unite or divide a family, we come face to face with Death, we see a young girl growing into her destiny and out of the village that doesn’t quite understand her, we witness the eternal struggle of mostly good versus mostly evil. And yet these familiar tropes are tinged with exoticism—unfamiliar words, creatures, textures, and tastes. Arden has captured a distinct Russianness (at least this is how it seems from my sheltered British perspective). Arden’s fascination for Russian language, literature, and culture is clearly based not just on love and interest but academic understanding. And perhaps it is this understanding of two different story-telling traditions that means Arden can so deftly weave the two together.

In case it is not abundantly clear, I loved this book. I read an uncorrected proof copy thanks to the generosity of Bookmarks. Being sent a book you have to read and knowing nothing about it is a wonderfully liberating experience. As I began the first chapter I felt like a leaf that had been dropped into the Katherine Arden river—I had no idea where I was going but was quite happy to let the current take me where it would. And what a journey! Love, magic, and oh so believable characters that dwell in the morally ambiguous grey areas of real life. Literature always needs more strong and independent heroines, and I found Vasya, in her curiosity, openness, and vulnerability, extremely relatable. The story builds slowly, and ends perhaps a little quickly, but no word is wasted. I loved Arden’s beautiful, somewhat lyrical, way of writing. Overall, The Bear and the Nightingale has everything I look for in a book.

Without meaning to resort too much to hyperbole, I was left desperately wanting more and I genuinely can’t wait to see what she writes next.

Favourite quotation: “Dread settled over the village: a clinging, muttering dread, tenacious as cobwebs.”