John Wray has a dark side. And it’s dark.

wray

Even though he’s not the jaw-dropping prodigy his publicist would have you believe, John Wray kicked out a pretty bitchin’ book this year with Lowboy, and we decided to see what else (aside from his earlier novels, and his No Mortals Allowed poker game) the kid can do. Turns out he can do dark. Dark and scary. For The New York Times, no less.

Back in May 2006 he wrote a big article about “doom metal.”

The music was unbelievably loud — so loud, in fact, that the sound waves made your rib cage vibrate like a stereo cabinet and your teeth literally rattle in their sockets — but the effect was somehow more meditative than violent. The overall experience was not unlike listening to an Indian raga in the middle of an earthquake.

Then he turned in a profile of Michael Haneke, the Austrian filmmaker who convinced Naomi Watts and Tim Roth to run screaming around a suburban home for an hour and a half while a pair of gleeful teenagers tortured them brutally. Wray drew some great quotes out of Haneke.

“Political manipulation is rampant in the American media,” Haneke told me over lunch in downtown Manhattan last winter. “It’s present in the movies too, of course. It’s everywhere. I teach filmmaking in Vienna, and I like to show my students ‘Triumph of the Will,’ by Leni Riefenstahl, then something by Sergei Eisenstein — ‘Battleship Potemkin,’ for example — and then ‘Air Force One,’ the movie in which Harrison Ford plays the U.S. president. Each of these films has a distinct political agenda, but all make use of exactly the same techniques, all have a common goal — the total manipulation of the viewer. What’s terrible about the Harrison Ford film, though, especially terrible, is that it represents itself as simple entertainment. The audience doesn’t realize there’s a message hidden there.” Haneke sat back and shook his head gravely.

Haneke later says, “I’m trying to rape the viewer into independence.”

Dark.

But the kicker came in May 2008, when Wray wondered aloud why two separate Austrian men had been caught imprisoning their daughters in makeshift dungeons beneath their homes. Wray basically aired out the unspoken accusation that all Austrians are monsters.

An attractively pat case for cultural specificity could be assembled, making those allusions to internment, denial and ruthless efficiency that are practically begging to be made. It certainly does seem significant that two men could have carried out their plans so successfully not only in the same country, but in the same province, not 100 miles removed from one another.

Dark and scary.

Why Austria? Apparently John Wray is half-Austrian, with dual citizenship there. Why doom metal? Apparently he used to play in a band. (We say “apparently” as in, “according to Wikipedia.”)

So, yeah. Write a few bitchin’ novels, and The New York Times will hire you to comment on pretty much anything you feel like talking about.

Wray’s latest articles are a bit on the lighter side. In May 2008 he wrote about one-man bands, and in May 2009 (Always in May!) he tailed Zach Galifianakis for a while. Still, when a man who’s fixated on doom metal and Austrian brutality starts writing about a fiery, bearded comedian, we have to wonder if Zach Galifianakis is on the verge of doing some really dark shit.

We’ll end this tour of Wray’s “non-fiction” with a quote from Michael Haneke that is both dark and scary, but also kind of brilliant in terms of 20th century history and the role of fiction in our lives. Haneke the Austrian is addressing the question of why his films often deconstruct or just plain violate the storytelling norms.

Haneke has his own theory for the divergent routes taken by Hollywood and Europe, one in which, perhaps not surprisingly, the darker side of German and Austrian history plays a central role. “At the beginning of the 20th century,” he told me, “when film began in Europe, storytelling of the kind still popular in Hollywood was every bit as popular here. Then the Nazis came, and the intellectuals — a great number of whom were Jewish — were either murdered or managed to escape to America and elsewhere. There were no intellectuals anymore — most of them were dead. Those who escaped to America were able to continue the storytelling approach to film — really a 19th-century tradition — with a clear conscience, since it hadn’t been tainted by fascism. But in the German-speaking world, and in most of the rest of Europe, that type of straightforward storytelling, which the Nazis had made such good use of, came to be viewed with distrust. The danger hidden in storytelling became clear — how easy it was to manipulate the crowd. As a result, film, and especially literature, began to examine itself. Storytelling, with all the tricks and ruses it requires, became gradually suspect. This was not the case in Hollywood.” At this point, Haneke asked politely whether I was following him, and I told him that I was. “I’m glad,” he said, apparently with genuine relief. “For Americans, this can sometimes be hard to accept.”

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3 Comments

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3 Responses to John Wray has a dark side. And it’s dark.

  1. Elfriede Jelinek, whose book THE PIANO TEACHER was made into a movie by Haneke, had some similar comments in a couple of journal articles about the tendency for post WWII German-speaking philosophers to engage in an analysis of storytelling and their own textual existence, although she throws in some additional lines about the place of feminism in these philosophies. And also porn.
    But there does seem to be a preponderance of self-inquiry in narratives offered up by your Eggers & Co. Is this trend simply less obnoxious when it’s rooted in a national wound like the Holocaust rather than an individual’s personal trauma? If there’s a pervasive sense that one needs trauma in order to write, which I think is a very real paradigm in modern American literature, is this just negated by real trauma, like, say genocide?

  2. fictionadvocate

    Is there a link to her comments about how WWII shook up people’s relationship to storytelling? I’m kind of interested in that right now.

  3. I have hardcopies at home (so old school!) but getting to it digitally might require some work on JSTOR and other probably not free sites. Maybe it was in this article (?): Hanssen, Beatrice, 1996. “Elfriede Jelinek’s Language of Violence.” New German Critique, 68, pp. 79 – 112. I wrote a paper about smell in THE PIANO TEACHER, but can’t remember which paper has the comments I’m remembering. The thing that struck me was how matter of fact she was about it, she didn’t seem to be saying “maybe this caused that” so much as “this happened and as a result, we all do this.”

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