Tropes, Trains, & the Empire’s Veins

letter to a friend

Rather than recast these rough ideas into a formal article focused on tropes and trains, I’m leaving this letter to a friend, who is conducting an online book club, in its original form, babbling, informal, and intimate. I let the reader fall into the water, splash in medias res, but trust it will be easy to see the upward drift of the bubbles.

Hi. Re Studio Ghibli-esque graphic novels, I realize you’re quite knowledgeable about graphic novels, & you likely have a direction in mind for your new group, so don’t let my limited field of vision warp your plans. I’m looking forward to Hex Wives.

I have to watch/read The Girl on the Train — it’s on my list. I might be confusing it with another movie — I thought she witnesses a murder from a passing train (kind of like Antonioni’s Blow-Up, in which a professional photographer is messing around in a park shooting some pictures, & it’s not until he gets back to the darkroom that he discovers he’s coincidentally photographed a murder in progress).

I went through an Amtrak phase, and when you enter Chicago, which is a hub to the system, you go by all these ramshackle houses & get a candid cross-section of American Life. This is also what I love about Latin America: a cross between traditional Spanish architecture & tropical climates means lots of open shops into which you can see deeply from the sidewalk, so the whole city seems like a huge bazaar… But I digress.

Trains generally create one huge super-set of tropes. As I mentioned they have symbolic value of transition for the characters, so, for example, in Doctor Zhivago, Yuri and Tonya take a train & escape post-revolutionary Moscow (not a good place for a poet with bourgeois sensibilities) and head for their family’s dacha beyond the Urals. That’s a huge shift in their lives from being society’s upper crust — ladies & gentlemen, financiers & physicians, fancy folk who host Rachmaninoff concerts in their living rooms — to eking a living by scraping potatoes out of the earth. David Lean, as he was wont to do, romanticizes the hell out of it, and Tonya’s father tells Yuri & Tonya, "You’ll look back at this as your happiest days," but the book says that it was hard living.

Trains make great sets — from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train to A Hard Day’s Night draw upon the resources of a train as mise en scène (George Harrison met Patti Boyd on the train set). Then there are train window tropes; station tropes; departure & arrival tropes; I feel like Bubba in Forrest Gump listing all the ways to cook shrimp.

I have a theory (that I haven’t researched yet) that all stories are either road stories or island dramas. Moby Dick is an island drama because they’re sealed up in the microcosm of the Pequod. Thelma & Louise is a road story as is Kerouac’s On the Road because, while there’s an insular group at the core with whom we identify, they interact with the Brads Pitt & Deans Moriarty they find along the way. Camus’s The Plague, definitely island drama (there’s a quarantine). Bram Stoker’s Dracula is kinda like two island dramas (Transylvania & London) joined by an isthmus of very dark road story.

A story set in a car tends to be a road story, but a story aboard a train is most likely an island drama.

I checked Hex Wives out with Hoopla today. Maybe I’m early because I have to turn it in a week before the next meeting, but I’ll make notes.

I’m curious about Hex Wives because it sounds as if it might touch upon a theme of great interest to me: the ancient cultural war between, to use the contemporary vernacular, the matriarchy & the patriarchy (though I like calling them the Literati vs. the Philistines). One battleground in this war lies in the attitudes of the two sides toward female nudity. In the purview of the matriarchy, the female nude is the archetype for all forms of beauty in the world, the portal through which beauty enters the world.

For the patriarchy, however, the nude female is an object of shame. She is the nexus of both objectification of women & the demonization of Paganism and its priestesses. Yes, I’m referring specifically to how Christianity flowed into Europe through the veins of the old Roman Empire, but I strongly suspect that this cultural conflict is much older than the christianization of Europe. I’ve barely scratched the surface, but this email has gone on far too long already. I’ll close out with this table of contrasts:

writer / poet / explorer

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