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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Tuesday
Oct262010

In Which Heaven Help Me For The Way I Am

  Criminal

by ALEX CARNEVALE

There are many popular and infamous criminals in American history, but they usually become popular after the fact. When the real-life "hero" of the Jim Carrey-Ewan McGregor comedy I Love Philip Morris, con artist Steven Jay Russell, steals millions from a company and escapes prison multiple times, we do feel a vague thrill. Despite our enjoyment of the way he flaunts authority, it's hard not to identify domestic economic instability with thievery. It may be fun to watch someone escape from prison, or even vicariously exciting, but there might as well be a calculator in the corner of the screen tallying up the cost to taxpayers.

Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor in 'I Love Philip Morris'In France, there is no such problem. The release of Jean-Francois Richet's magnificent two part film Mesrine in the United States, a four hour epic about the Paris-born thief and killer Jacques Mesrine proves this. Not since Jean Valjean was it so obvious that civil disobedience was not only an acceptable part of being French, but increasingly essential to it. Portrayed by the incredibly charismatic Vincent Cassel in a performance that makes Scarface look like an afterschool special, the Jacques Mesrine of Mesrine is so much more raw fun than his equally wonderful American counterparts.

France is currently enduring a period of civil unrest because of the prospect of the retirement age rising from 60 to 62. (They are evidently unaware that most people live thirty or forty years beyond this date.) Since living off the government is a more accepted and pervasive way of life over there, the fact that the magnetic Jacques Mesrine robbed banks and escaped from prison is in some sense just another in-house quarrel, like debating a thorny topic with your dad.

When Mesrine comes home from Algeria in the first part of the biopic, Death Instinct, he rips on his own father for collaborating with the Germans and explains his turn to a life of crime as a revenge act. Later on, he justifies returning to a prison he had earlier escaped from with automatic weapons as an expression of his discontent with the abuses of the prison system. L'Instinct de Mort, Mesrine's autobiography written from prison, describes his life story and how being an insane madman is actually a rational act. Richet's overly violent masterpiece in two parts is the most exciting film ever created by someone who idolized Michael Mann's Heat.

robert de niro and val kilmer in 'Heat'

The reason that a criminal (or the idea of one) is a remedy to societal malaise and not simply a symptom is because although a utopia would have no criminals, the fact that it would be impossible to defy the ruling power means that world would be no utopia. Still, we can hope for a better class of criminal. The fact that America has a bad, but not quite as bad, a system as France is morbidly clear from the fifth season of Showtime's Dexter. Its protagonist and hero is a police officer and serial killer of other killers: Dexter Morgan almost never punishes a crime other than murder, perhaps because it is his own crime.

The action takes place in a version of Miami unrecognizable to most of us. The show itself is shot in Los Angeles, and it's hard but not impossible to mistake the two places for each other. Dexter's Miami looks like Los Angeles but feels entirely like a small town. The show's transitions are the most transparent in television, staging banal sets and exteriors that remind us that this is not really our country, just a place that with similar detailing. It makes more sense to surround a fantasy with other cardboard reproductions of reality that are as difficult to believe.

Miami is one of the poorest cities in America, yet the Miami metro homicide unit has rarely processed a case involving a Hispanic or African-American until this season. Although the head of the division is a Latina, she is one real note in a litany of intentionally false ones.

Instead of prosecuting the guilty through his own offices, Dexter hunts them down. He is not great at doing this; he isn't terribly wonderful at even using the internet. The Jeff Lindsay novels Dexter is based on take place in the typical thriller-neverworld, where it's still 1986 and no one is capable of using a computer at a speed other than grandma. Most crimes can't even be committed with all the technology we have now, and fewer killers escape justice. In Dexter's world, they do, at least for awhile.

State cold case units have solved many murders that were assumed to remain unsolved, and only the Civil Rights era, the Department of Justice declared this summer, will still have unsolved crimes. Take the case of America's so-called first serial killer, H.H. Holmes. Holmes opened a hotel which became known as his Castle. Like Dexter, he thrived on elaborate ritual:

The victims' bodies were dropped by secret chute to the basement, where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools. Holmes also cremated some of the bodies or placed them in lime pits for destruction. Holmes had two giant furnaces as well as pits of acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack.

One of the major motivations for murder in those days was finding someone who had money, changing their will to make yourself the beneficiary, and then offing the person. This doesn't happen nearly as often now. Dexter has no such amateur motive, and we approve of progress.

Occasionally, we find that one of Dexter's victims may not be quite as guilty as they appear. (His own personal burden of proof is rather low.) He does attempt some cursory research, and usually wants to meet the target under an alias before going through with the murder. It's impossible not to become increasingly sympathetic to Dexter's victims — after all, we are forced to justify Dexter's murders, and the slope of blame becomes increasingly slippery. Dexter is forgiven because he witnessed a disturbing crime as a child; other murderers can offer similar excuses. To avoid this problem, the writers conceive Dexter's targets as the wealthy white residents of Miami.

Dexter puts aside one of the basic facts about homicides committed in urban areas. As Heather Mac Donald recently noted, "In Chicago, blacks, at least 35 percent of the population, commit 76 percent of all homicides; whites, about 28 percent of the population, commit 4 percent. In New York City, blacks, 24 percent of the population, commit 80 percent of all shootings; whites, 35 percent of the population, commit less than 2 percent of all shootings." Were Dexter to start avenging violence in impoverished minority communities, we'd feel a lot less sympathetic towards him than if he killed John Lithgow all over again.

Recently, it just occurred to someone for the first time to ask Dexter's sister Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter), his fellow officer, why she doesn't speak Spanish. She answered, "I'm too busy doing my job." Dexter's preference for killing white murderers comes from this prejudice. How can he explain what he's doing to someone who doesn't understand English?

Nor does Dexter simply eliminate the murderer from the population. He blows up large glossy photographs of their victims to show them. Did he think they'd forget? (It is never really explored who he gets to develop these glamour shots of his victims.) His first move is always to sedate the victim with a needle, an extremely dangerous tactic. Last episode, the man he tried this on turned and shot him with a tranquilizer gun. They rode together in an ambulance to the hospital. Apparently no one with a brain was at the scene.

Dexter's victims rarely argue with him. The contradiction in his own behavior isn't obvious — they never address him as a murderer. Wrapped in duct tape, preparing to be stabbed, they must think they are in some kind of otherworldly torture, or that they are already dead.

Certainly a part of Dexter longs to be caught, which is true of most people for whom crime is a compulsion, not a necessity. Jacques Mesrine wished to be caught so much that even after escaping to Venezuela, he returned against to France and continued his armed robberies. For Mesrine, the fact that he will be caught is an essential part of him; for Dexter, it is a reality he respects but does not desire. From this can we conclude it is more important to America that it survive healthy and well than the region of Gaul?

There is always someone on the show at any given time who is on Dexter's trail, but that person never confronts Dexter in front of other people. Even though his wife (Julie Benz) was murdered by another killer, the FBI never made much of Dexter's admission that "I killed her." Currently Detective Quinn (Gossip Girl's Desmond Harrington) has painstakingly uncovered pieces of Dexter's secret, but he seems baffled by just what to do about it.

Julia Stiles and Jonny Lee Miller have been appointed to fill the gaping hole of Benz's departure from the show. Stiles plays Lumen, a woman abducted by one of Dexter's targets who accidentally witnesses him killing her captor. Instead of being grateful and writing a thank you note, she runs for it. He is surprised that she understands so quickly that is a monster too, and feels seen.

Most of the pleasure of Dexter comes from dramatic irony. We know what he is, but no one else does, even though it seems like there are plenty of reasons for people to be weirded out by a creepy blood-spatter expert. Instead, everyone in his life is incredibly supportive, with one key exception — is his now-dead wife's daughter Astor, who apparently intuits just how dangerous he is and demands to live with her grandparents.

It is fitting that Dexter hasn't inspired a copycat and I doubt he ever will. There are a million wannabe Mesrines; the life of a gangster is inescapably dangerous but both fun and profitable. Ritualistic revenge murder, especially when the revenge is not exactly your own, doesn't have the same appeal. America permits criminals to exist, even spends billions to house and feed them, but it does this not because it loves criminals, but because it hates them. Isn't it at least possible that every time the government spends money to house and feed someone, it is for this same reason?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about the HBO show Boardwalk Empire. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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"Stratosphere" - Digitalism (mp3)

"Blitz" - Digitalism (mp3)

"Blitz (Harvard Bass remix)" - Digitalism (mp3)

Friday
Oct012010

In Which It Feels The Same But Different Somehow

Half-Awake

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Boardwalk Empire

creator Terence Winter

The list of things that would never have existed without The Sopranos grows longer by the day. Mad Men, Ryan Gosling, the Brown University class "Middlemarch & The Sopranos," Michael Imperioli's career, 326 instances of James Gandolfini having sex with women, some of my fashion choices during 1998, and now Boardwalk Empire. People enjoy comparing these shows to novels, and since novels usually have terrible beginnings, we shouldn't be surprised that Terence Winter's version of the Roman myth begins slowly. As someone remarked, they should have just had a title card that said "Prohibition Begins."

Let's not let that discourage us from what appears to be an astonishing new show with a few severe but not unfixable problems. No one remembers that the first season of The Sopranos was a cartoonish melange compared to what followed. You usually need a season to work out the kinks in a concept, although Weeds only needed one season to completely ruin one.

Fictional depictions of historical life either adhere devoutly to realism or descend into wild fantasy. No one can take anything Chuck Bass says seriously anymore, but in contrast Boardwalk Empire seems fairly keen on not having anyone wear out his welcome. Many Gentiles struggled to tell the faces of the Italian foot soldiers apart in Winter's previous television effort, and there are no shortish of burly, mustachioed guys here. Al Capone looks more like a NJ extra than a crime lord on the come.

But no matter — you can always recast, or just kill people off, especially when one of those people is being played by Gretchen Mol. (Unfortunately for a lot of people, you can't kill off Al Capone.) The number one problem foreseen with Boardwalk Empire was whether audiences could tolerate Steve Buscemi's pasty face, and it's generally been concluded that he's at least competent in the role. Here's what I don't understand — other actors gain and lose weight for roles, and Joaquin Phoenix performs an accidental bj on Casey Affleck for the sake of his art, and yet Buscemi can't hit the tanning salon on the way to the set?

In The Sopranos Buscemi played a convict relation to Tony who returned to the family as an awkward accoutrement not long for this world. (They had smuggled his character's semen out of jail, and it became two twin boys. Remind you of anyone?) Here he is the most permanent fixture of life, a googly-eyed reproduction of a boss that is itself new enough to garner our attention. The fact that the real life Nucky Johnson more resembles James Gandolfini is a sad reminder that life is not usually as novel as it appears on television.

Does Boardwalk Empire attempt a simulacra of the period in which its action rests? Occasionally; but it is more insistent on a steampunk aesthetic that makes its denizens more like aliens than real folk. The show's real protagonist is Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a up-and-coming thug who returned from the first World War lacking a healthy fear of death. His relationship with his wife is easily the highlight of the show so far, as she is the proto-New Jersey Jew and they get along in a funny way.

Sopranos production designer Bob Shaw creates a wonderworld of unlikely lighting and subtly changed interiors given the limitations of stage sets to represent entire whorls: Atlantic City, New York, and Chicago, the three centers of crime. When Buscemi's Nucky hits the boardwalk, it's more reminiscent of Disney's hotel than the actual degrading atmosphere of that troubled city, but let's face it, the bright and pastel fantasy is more interesting than the reality.

So it is with much of the milieu. When Boardwalk Empire gets historical, or tries to make fun jokes for tenured professors with unique portrayals of Lucky Luciano and gags about Arnold Rothstein fixing the 1919 World Series, it gets a little bogged down by its details, letting the background of the characters speak more loudly than their actions in the drama. Then again, part of the fun of The Sopranos was constant set-up with unexpected payoff — it was never too certain if your favorite hood was going to make it through another episode or become the next boss.

Deadwood experimented with the same time-shifting, and gradually morphed from hard-boiled western to a gaudy fantasy world of death. Boardwalk Empire is violent, but death and dying is not savored in a sadomachistic way. Wildness is celebrated, is cherished, as an expression of freedom. Once you start dating a call girl and gambling in the six figures every night (adjusted for inflation) a lot of joy is sucked out of things, a happiness that can only be regained by continuing to behave as if nothing else mattered. These are the feelings even a contemporary journey to Atlantic City invariably elicits.

Nucky rules the roost, taking kickbacks from every commissioner in his bureaucracy. Jimmy is his driver, and when he meets up with his mirror image in Chicago Al Capone, blood runs thick. Scorsese shoots the whole thing exactly the same way he would have in 1988, adjusting for inflation. Actually the Ray Liotta of 20 years ago would be a great add here. As in all Scorsese productions, the unattainable women are blondes and your sister and wife are brunettes.

The show is already better at creating convincing storylines for its women than its northern NJ cousin. It was genius to cast No Country for Old Men's Kelly MacDonald as a battered wife in Nucky's parish seduced by his power. Her inclusion was a master stroke; things will likely improve when they discard her immigrant accent and have her journaling about how much she loves Henry James. Her romantically-challenged storyline with Enoch has yet to be very convincing. No matter how many times they show Steve Buscemi pleasuring a woman, it never gets any easier to believe.

The rest is easy to fabricate, because our ideas of these times is already bound up in films like The Untouchables. (Mamet's influence on the dialogue is almost painful.) The way of speaking is neither too foreign or too modern, and the show takes advantage of the fact that modernity lurks 75 years in the future in Bill Gates' garage. Misunderstandings and isolated incidents affect life in unexpected ways. The freedom of doing whatever you want during a restrictive time in America is literally intoxicating.

Sometimes we forget how restrictive the society we live in now is. It's disappointing to live in a world where there is not more than an outside chance you will not be caught after committing a murder. The inherent chaos of perpetrating crime in this context creates a sprawling pastiche of action and character that is unlike even Boardwalk Empire's obvious progenitors.

Comparing any television show to a novel is an unserious analogy. No novel written in this period or any other had the luxury of so much action or such a spread of characters. Boardwalk Empire is more reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, an epic poem with many individual endings and stories.

Eventually the show will focus on who really possesses power — basically men in ballrooms stroking dogs — and will soon become a not-very-veiled attack on the indiscretions of the financial industry. All shows about criminals seek to prove that the taint of crime touches every sphere of life. It is tough to equate the actions of America's early entrepreneurs with offenses against the SEC. The first was the inevitable byproduct of the wild American economy, the second was the inevitable failure of a bureaucracy that was itself unregulated in a regulated industry.

In fact, there is a great danger in judging the past by the standards of the present. We live perpetually with the idea that this is the only age, but in reality the ancient Egyptians pursued the dream of flight and may have even constructed airplanes, the Indians of central America built massive suspension bridges, and indoor plumbing in Crete far predates the birth of Jesus. The tumultuous but vibrant life of another America is proof that these times look straight at their antecedents, not down at them. We have come not far at all.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He last wrote in these pages about the double life of James Tiptree Jr. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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"Don't Wake the Dead" - Guards (mp3)

"Crystal Truth" - Guards (mp3)

"Long Time" - Guards (mp3)

Time Has Been Kind To You My Friend

Friday
Sep102010

In Which James Tiptree Jr. Is His Own Auxiliary Corps

Alice in Jungleland

by ALEX CARNEVALE

I may be an actress, I may be a writer, I may be most probably some man's grief.

- Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.

1921. Former taxidermist and self-appointed naturalist Carl Akeley planned a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. His brainstorm was to slaughter a gorilla from one of the most remote regions of Africa, an animal first seen by Europeans in 1902. Who better to accompany him than a family with a six-year old daughter? That girl was Alice Bradley, and she would become more famous than them all, even the mountain gorilla, as the literary giant James Tiptree Jr.

There you see Alice's domineering mother Mary Hastings Bradley. This was not a garden variety safari. The destination was the Congo, and the journey was difficult, although not for Alice, who was carried most of the way by porters. Later she wrote that "If I dropped something I was quite accustomed to clap my hands and have six large, naked cannibals spring to attention and pick it up for me." Her mother penned a children's book about the trip called Alice in Jungleland and a book for adult audiences called On the Gorilla Trail. Alice's mother Mary Hastings Bradley would tour and lecture about this trip and others for the rest of her life.

one of the four gorillas killed during the trip

The impact it had on her only daughter was more profound. The horror of Africa's extremes affected the young Alice deeply. After slaughtering five gorillas, they kept one of the babies under Alice's cot, causing the smell of formaldehyde to pervade everything. Her mother killed a lion and posed next to it until it came back to life, not fully dead until she shot it in the heart.

The sort of parents who would expose a six-year to such things can barely be imagined, but the resultant fifteen minutes of fame her mother enjoyed constituted a shadow that Alice would fight to step out from under for the rest of her life. In Julie Phillips' magnificent biography of Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon, Alice, much later tells her mother that "You taught me, without meaning to, that love is the prelude to appalling pain."

When they returned to Africa in 1924, nine-year old Alice asked her parents for a rifle. This was refused, but the vision of her gun-toting mother in the brush created an indelible image — a persona she could never live up to. In other ways, Mary Hastings Bradley was an inspiration and a talented author in her own right. She did things few women of the period could boast; one of her stories won an O. Henry award. Though she loved young Alice, her daughter evolved into a depressed teen, even attempting suicide by cutting her wrist with razorblades.

Eventually they packed her off to college, where her mother expected Alice to follow in her footsteps and attend Smith. She declined and went to Sarah Lawrence, where the beautiful, precocious painter was immediately a star. It was at this age that Alice began to notice she was as interested in women as men. She struck a debonair figure as a busty, 5'8" sixteen year old, and later she reflected on her ambivalence about how she appeared: "I do not 'fit' my body. Never really have. When I was an 'attractive girl,' a 'beauty', I didn't want to be a pretty girl. I didn't fit the interactions forced on me." Too vain to wear glasses, Sheldon's time at Sarah Lawrence was invariably wild. (The president of the school wrote her parents a letter describing Alice's unusual sleeping and eating habits.) In some ways, her behavior was reactionary: she had discerned, beneath the pretense of her education, that most Sarah Lawrence girls were preparing themselves for their wedding day.

Phillips describes a typical Alice vignette:

One night at two in the morning, Alice was in the art department trying to master photography under artificial light. She had on black velvet overalls and spike-heeled lizard pumps, and she was taking pictures of the department's anatomy skeleton, which she had arranged so that it was reclining on the floor, reading the Sunday comics, and drinking a can of tomato juice through a straw. As she adjusted the lights she was interrupted by a "plump little girl in a pink wool skirt, Braemar sweater and pearls" who looked at the photo session, looked at Alice, and said, "You don't live right."

As a form of rebellion against her controlling parents, Alice eloped with a boy, William Davey, who sat next to her at her debutante ball. Since neither Sarah Lawrence or his school, Princeton, allowed married students, they both transferred to Berkeley and drove to California.

Their six year marriage was a complete disaster, highlighted by Alice going to jail for kicking a policeman in the penis and extensive drug experiments, which she described to Philip K. Dick in later life as "early opiates, wine, and — ugh — thyroid extract." As for her marriage to the hard-drinking Davey, she wrote, "Anyone who shoots a real gun at you when drunk and angry is simply not husband material, regardless of his taste in literature." Although Alice's husband expected her to cook and clean (neither of which she did, Bill's mother eventually paying for a housekeeper), he was further disappointed with her other wifely duties.

Bill and Alice's sex was terrible, aggravated by the fact that Alice was unable to have an orgasm through intercourse. Her continuing interest in women didn't exactly help matters, and they both drank enough that they should have been able to get it right. Instead they took solace in affairs, where Alice could express her desire to penetrate and be penetrated without being a simple object of affection. Though she desired women, she rarely acted on those desires outside of unrequited love, or whenever she was hammered. Instead, she sublimated those feelings, a choice that would later find expression in her male alter ego.

Alice's nude self-portrait hanging in a gallery

After some legal troubles in San Francisco (Bill had thrown a woman Alice was performing cunnilingus on out a plate glass window), the couple moved back to New York, and spent the following summer in New Mexico. She sold a nude self-portrait, and spent the money on a shotgun, killing ducks in the marshes around Santa Fe. Bill also gave her a .38. They moved to Carmel, California, but Bill broke his jaw when a car backfired while he was operating a hand crank. Alice never visited him in the hospital, and by 1940 the marriage was over.

Newly a divorcee, Alice settled in Chicago. American involvement in World War II was on the horizon. After a brief start as the art critic for The Chicago Sun (a job for which she cut her hair), something drove her to sign up for the army. Which she, incredibly, did. At the end of September 1942, she dressed up in a classy suit and presented herself at the recruiting station. She gave her parrot to the Brooklyn Zoo, her science fiction magazines to the library, and reported to Des Moines.

in her uniform

As a member of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), Alice was known by Davey, her ex-husband's last name. Her dominant and aggressive style was a hit in the military, and she quickly became a sergeant, applying to Officer Candidate School. Though the WAAC was occupied chiefly by tasks like making Army Christmas cards, she was still able to earn the ire of a commanding officer. Sent to Newport News and made a supply officer, she fucked one of her fellow officers and wrote in her journal, "Jesus it was good to get my legs around a young man again!" What a woman.

After the WAAC was shut down and most women returned to civilian life, Alice reenlisted. She eventually reported to air force intelligence school in Pennsylvania, but not before dating a variety of staid military men. Of one particular dud she wrote, "I like him thoroughly — and he appeals to me. But he keeps making me feel like a lady tigress, and that is not promising." Alice studied photointerpretation, and once she graduated, her group was moved to the basement of the Pentagon. Looking at photographs of Japan and occupied China, she listed military targets for the commanders.

In her spare time, she wrote her first novel — the Washington war jaunt The Victories of Light. As would become her custom in both art and life, the dumb male narrated the novel while the female was the one who really knew what was going on.

24 year old Alice at a Georges Braque show

In 1944 the army set up an "exploitation division." Its mission was to recover and evaluate the extent of German science recovered by the Allies after the war. Its leader was Huntington Sheldon. Alice didn't think much of her assignment, as most of her study had been of the Far East, and she was even less optimistic about her commanding officer. She confronted Colonel Sheldon, known to his intimates as Ting, and she challenged him to a game of chess and won. Blindfolded.

They married quickly after meeting, Ting being twelve years her senior. The sex was horrific; in Alice's words "masturbatory." He was better when he was drunk — and he was usually drunk — but he couldn't stay erect. This early sexual problem threatened to end the marriage before it had really begun. Alice concluded that she loved Ting more as a friend than as a passion.

Eventually they bought an egg hatchery in Toms River, New Jersey and planned to live off the income. This plan was slow in developing even near the end. Though she wanted children, complications from her abortion of Bill Davey's child had blocked her fallopian tubes. By 1952 they had sold the hatchery and they both took jobs in the CIA.

Alice was still Alice — in the context of her open marriage she had little qualms about sleeping with other Pentagon analysts. This was complicated by her continued use of mind-altering drugs. At some point, the CIA issued everyone on Alice's project Dexedrine. Speed was back in her life, an old friend from her unhappy days with her first husband. Later Alice told Philip K. Dick that she "fell repeatedly in the clutches of Dex — and did the insane bit of trying to come down with barbs. All, all by myself, and keeping up work in the world."

After entering academia and pursuing her interest in psychological research, Alice felt confident enough to send out her work in the genre of science fiction. Many critics later assumed it by order of the CIA that forced her to create her nom de plume of James Tiptree Jr., but really, she wanted to protect her academic career. Still, there must have been a part of her that was more than amused by the idea of being a man. Another identity fit her aggressive, multitasking personality, and with the suggestion of Ting that Tiptree should be a Jr, she was off and running.

Within a year legendary editors like John W. Campbell and Frederik Pohl were buying her stories. At first it was the deftness and the hurtling speed of her plots that garnered attention, but her CIA background added a technical element that was irresistible to journals like Galaxy and Astonishing Stories. Though she never imagined she'd keep up the pen name for long, she soon opened a bank account under Tiptree's name after convincing the manager that it was both legal and necessary.

Her first artistic triumph was "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain," a story about a scientist in love with female Earth who spreads a strain of influenza that will kill off its most destructive inhabitants. It was nominated for a Nebula, and opened the community of science fiction writers to her. An incestuous and eccentric crew, Tiptree could never see them in person, but that was no matter. Most weren't social butterflies, and she was alive in letters, even writing to authors like Tom Wolfe and Italo Calvino as Tiptree. (They wrote back, Calvino asking to see her work.) In the same year, 1969, she made first contact with Philip K. Dick.

At first the forty-year old Dick related to Tiptree when she wrote him in a nice way, as a fan, and she kept things on that level. But once he read "Dr. Ain", he wrote to ask her to collaborate on a novel with him. To say she was overwhelmed would be an understatement. The correspondence sputtered for a time, but others thrived. Of the many callings Alice had in her life, letter-writing was chief among them.

David Gerrold, a science fiction writer who would later create "The Trouble With Tribbles" episode of Star Trek, even tried the pop-in on his friend Tiptree. Alice opened the door and when he and a friend asked for Tiptree, she stared at him in shock. A few lies made Gerrold none the wiser, and forever afterwards Alice kept her change of address cards flying. In her will she included an apology to Gerrold: "It killed me not to be able to speak."

An acceptance from the flamboyant Harlan Ellison was also a particular source of pride for Alice during this period. Ellison wrote, "You are the single most important new writer in science fiction today. Not me, not Delany, not Blish, not Budrys, not Disch, not Dick...none of us...I am so fucking destructed by what you've allowed me to read. I don't know how to say thank you."

Though Ting never read her writing, and their marriage was sexless, they were close despite these handicaps. The editor David Hartwell commented that "They were always calling each other 'my sweet, my heart, my dear.' If he were in the room she had to touch him." More comfortable with each other than ever, Alice was fifty-five to her husband's sixty-seven. As she began to feel more safe in her life, her work improved.

Tiptree first wrote to Ursula K. Le Guin in 1971 after admiring her classic The Lathe of Heaven. Le Guin lived in Portland and was married to a history professor with three children. It would be marvelous to see Ursula's letters released in her lifetime, because what is public of them shows the exertion of a magnificent mind. Of Philip K. Dick's religious conversion and his lack of willingness to discuss it with her, she wrote to Alice, "Oh hell I don't blame him, I suppose anyone who gets within a letter's length of me scents the Voltaire lying in wait."

Philips interviewed Le Guin for her biography of Alice, and Ursula described the experience of communicating with the writer who she knew only as James Tiptree Jr.:

He was an extremely charming persona, and I think aware of his charm. The flirting was certainly mutual. The charm consisted partly in vivid intelligence, interestedness, epistolary wit and elegance and humor and good humor - really good letter-writers aren't common, after all and partly, like all charm, was mysterious, irrational, irresistible. It is flattering to be written wonderfully clever, admiring letters to. Tiptree's letters combined lavish praise with personal reticence, also a rare combination. He courted, flirted, joked, charmed, and evaded. Masterfully. The praise did get in the way of open friendship. He refused equality, in that he was always writing as the admirer. This is perhaps why I always felt a certain element of play-acting, of performance in my side of the correspondence. I had to play up to Tiptree, and it was fun to do so; but a plain frank friendship would have been even lovelier. But that, of course, is denied to a persona.

When Tiptree won his first Nebula for "Love is the Plan The Plan Is Death" in 1973 Ursula half-suspected what might be up from "his" reaction to the prize: "This was just too improbable, a man who didn't think he deserved a prize." In truth, it was only the hard-boiled nature of Alice's stories that prevented her from being IDed earlier — if the internet had been around, she would not have been able to hide in plain sight.

As the feminist movement began its charge, Alice fell into correspondence with one of its finer representatives in her world: the brilliant novelist and academic Joanna Russ. Though she had yet to come out as a lesbian when she began her correspondence with Tiptree, Russ couldn't have been prouder of who she was, and her mindbending novel The Female Man remains an immortal classic. Though she and Alice never met in person, Russ felt no compunction about lecturing her older "male" friend on the inequities faced by women writers. Unbeknownst to her, the receiving party was all too aware of these differences.

Russ also went after Le Guin, who, she was convinced, chose too many male protagonists. Le Guin was considerably less sure of the feminist movement — though she wrote from an undeniably feminist perspective, she disdained Russ' embrace of the oppressive patriarchal power structure as a skin that women could also inhabit. As a happy wife and mother, she also resented some of Russ' ideas on those subjects.

Split between her two friends, neither of whom knew she was an incredible synthesis of both ideals, Alice couldn't help but be ambivalent. She shared the ideals of the feminist movement without question, but was unsure of what it meant for her work. Alice's second pen name, Racoona Sheldon, sent out stories under separate cover (sometimes with a recommendation from Tiptree) and explored these ideas more closely.

When Alice's mother died in 1976, Alice's life exploded. Her mother had been in many ways the center of her world; by her death she had published in most major American journals of the period including The New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post. Mary Hastings Bradley merited an obituary in local papers, and Alice thought only of her grief.

In letters she let slip that her mother died, and many of her correspondents, including Harlan Ellison, were aware that her mother was a Chicago naturalist. Confronted by Jeff Smith (the editor who would become her literary executor) she was forced to confess. She came out to many of her closest friends, and even wrote a letter to Robert Silverberg apologizing for allowing him to praise her for her excess of maleness in an introduction to one of her stories in his New Dimensions anthology. She appears to have been extremely uneasy with how correspondents would now view her. Here is her letter to Le Guin:

I want you, alone, to know first from me because of our special relation. I write this feeling a great and true friendship is wavering on the balance, about to slide away forever to the dark.

Ursula, Ursula, I am petrified. All the friends, the sf world
will they take it as "deception"? Will I have any friends left? Will the women who mean so much to me see it all as an evil put-on?

Well dear Starbear an old age is dead and time to begin a new. But I think I'm finished.


Tip says goodbye to a very dear friend and all that is hers.


Let me know what you think if you're still speaking to


Tip/Alli

Le Guin wrote back, reassuring her friend:

Dearest TREE,

oh strange, most strange, most wonderful, beautiful, improbable - Wie geht's, Schwesterlein? sorella mia, sistersoul! ... Do you know what? I don't think I have ever been surprised before. Things have happened but when they happen one thinks Oh, of course, this had to Be, etc, deep in my prophetic soul I Knew, etc but not this time, by God! And it is absolutely flatfoodedly surprised it's like a Christmas present! I want to laugh, also slightly to cry, because the whole thing now is on this huge and unexpected scale of real and total reversal only what does reversal mean? Explain to me, my Gethenian friend. ... I don't know about people's reactions, I suppose there are some who resent being put on, but it would take an extraordinarily small soul to resent so immense, so funny, so effective and fantastic and ETHICAL a put-on.

Not surprisingly, Alice plunged into depression. She had shed one of her selves, and there was bound to be a toll. She was a person far from inured to criticism, and this was her most exposed moment. Some of Tiptree's critics believed her work lost some authority when Tiptree "died", but it only changed into something just as compelling, if less flashy. Her collection of horror stories Tales of the Quintana Roo even won a World Fantasy Award.

Ting's failing heath had also changed Alice's life. She was using so much Numorphan that she had to check into a hospital to break its hold over her. More and more frequently she spoke of suicide. She had planned it for years. When the time came in May of 1987 she killed her husband by shooting him in the head while he was asleep (friends speculated that he was not exactly ready to go), making a few goodbye phone calls and offing herself. The police found them in bed together — after observing how messy Ting's exploding brain was, she wisely wrapped her own in a towel.

It is sometimes asked whether Alice would have achieved the same level of acclaim if she had written as Racoona Sheldon from the beginning. It is at least a possibility that some of material seemed fresher coming from a man, who rarely attacked the same themes at this time. Le Guin and Russ both thought Tiptree an excessively enlightened male; e.g. "you're one of the good ones." Really, there weren't any good ones, and most of the friends who abandoned Alice once she was only Alice were males like Frederik Pohl and Harlan Ellison, though it seems reductionist to ascribe this merely to her sex. They perhaps understandably felt betrayal at a person who pretended to be one of their own.

The taking of a pen name is in many ways a frightening process. It is easier than we believe to become something other than ourselves. Yes, Alice was every bit as incredible a man as she was a woman. It worked because she was only herself, a devastatingly iconoclastic figure whose brilliance in carrying off the deception at all is underappreciated. That she was also one of sf's signature talents is difficult to believe, and that was the problem for both the world, and Alice. We forgive liars, but only when we understand their reasons for their untruth. This was the block that many of her friends stumbled over, perhaps because it wasn't entirely clear to woman herself.

If she was Tiptree, and he was undeniably a part of her, then who was Alice? And if she was Alice, then she was no longer Tiptree, and that particular voice was what first distinguished her and must have been a source of enormous comfort and confidence. She was capable of so many voices in her writing, which hurt her more than it helped — one powerful voice is preferred by many to a single strong one. Her most powerful voice had been compromised. A close look at the stories of Racoona Sheldon reveals them to be near identical to Tiptree's quality, and yet they did not meet with the same measure of success. Her friends continued to urge her to write as Tiptree, even after her public identity was widely known. Perhaps she subconsciously (or even consciously) shaped certain material through Tiptree. When her Boswell comes along we'll know, but for now, what a fascinating experiment she made. There is power in names, and keeping Tiptree around instead of making a clean break with her identity may have ended her — and Ting's — life more quickly than it did.

Real lives reach a tender and appropriate resolution even when they are filled with the kind of tragedy we usually only read about. Fake lives have no such honor: they are doomed from the first, created from air to avoid a reality that is too shameful or prescient to bear. It is easy to say that Alice Sheldon stepped outside of her time. She did things most women of her generation could only dream of. The toll of two other people, plus the sex-starved wife, plus the repressed lesbian, was unimaginable.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about the AMC series Mad Men and Fairfield Porter and the New York school of poetry. Thanks to Julie Phillips' magical biography of Alice, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon, which you can purchase here.

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Consider how odd it would be if all we knew about elephants had been written by elephants. Would we recognise one? What elephant author would describe — or perhaps even perceive — the features which are common to all elephants? We would find ourselves detecting these from indirect clues; for instance, elephant-naturalists would surely tell us that all other animals suffer from noselessness, which obliges them to use their paws in an unnatural way. So when the human male describes his world he maps its distances from his unspoken natural center of reference, himself. He calls a swamp "impenetrable," a dog "loyal" and a woman "short."

nine year old alice flanked by a dead elephantThe only animal who can observe man from the outside is of course the human female: we women who live in his house, in his shadow, on his planet. And it is important that we do this. This incompletely known animal conditions every aspect of our individual lives and holds the destruction of Earth in his hands. ...

I don't identify with "normality," not in this world. I don't hold, nor do you, illusions about the great dazzling sanity of sf, no, it's more a matter of looking for the direction in which the darkness gives way to something that may be, someday, sunrise.

- Alice Sheldon