It’s just my luck that the first novel I read and the first movie I saw upon returning to New York this autumn have been massive disappointments, despite their seemingly engaging premises. Admittedly, I had higher hopes for Felicia Luna Lemus’s Like Son than I did for Julie Taymor’s cloying Beatles singalong Across The Universe. I first heard of Like Son via a feature interview in the April 12 Time Out New York. The novel follows the pilgrim’s process of Frank Cruz, nee Francisca, a Mexican-American trans man whose father dies, leaving him an Edward Weston photograph of Nahui Olin, a mysterious woman. The picture of Olin – a real-life member of the Mexican avant-garde movement in the 1920s and a fascinating figure in her own right – obsesses Frank over the course of a decade, during which he moves from Los Angeles to New York City, falls in love, and becomes a man. I’m fascinated by trans culture, particularly with the under-looked demographic of female-to-male transsexuals, and the Olin angle made the book even more attractive to me, because god knows I love forgotten female artists. Various other themes Like Son promised to examine included race, class, and 9/11.
The curious thing about Like Son is that it flatly does not discuss most of its supposed themes. Frank’s sexuality is only addressed when it can’t be avoided or ignored. Early on, he states that as a troubled teenager, “All I knew was that I was a boy and that being a boy felt safe and true and right” – a statement that almost directly treats his male identity as a salve for the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. It’s not that I wanted Frank to constantly justify his transsexuality, but it does seem odd how little attention the topic receives, especially in the context of Frank’s eight-year sexual relationship with his girlfriend Nathalie; they “fuck” constantly, and Nathalie wants a baby, but Lemus never addresses how all of this physical love takes place. In fact, Nathalie herself is another black hole of a character. The woman is a standard-issue indie sexpot, all messy beehive hairdo and chipped nail polish, the kind of dame who wears vintage silk cocktail dresses all the time (despite the fact that she’s apparently an office temp) and vacuums in the nude. May I suggest an industry-wide ban on these dreamy, weepy, skinny wet-dreams of the thick-framed-glasses set? These chicks have been popping up in literature like mushrooms in a dirty shower. But I digress.
Most of Like Son focuses on cutesy-for-cutesy’s sake vignettes from Nathalie and Frank’s domestic life. Nathalie is flaky and sensitive, with a tendency to run off to different states when she feels sad. Frank steals trees from the outer boroughs and replants them in Tompkins Square Park. They go to a movie at the East Village Cinemas and drink coffee from bodegas. Nahui Olin takes a backseat to this thrilling litany of fin-de-siecle New York life, emerging from time to time to enchant Frank for about an hour before he goes on to the next melodramatic thing, like getting an ill-advised tattoo before boarding a train in search of his runaway girlfriend. Most frustratingly, at the end of the book, nothing is resolved: Nahui’s picture gets put in the safe-deposit box, along with Frank’s past, which he has completely failed to explore. Like Son reads like YA author Francesca Lia Block – that progenitor of Weetzie Bat and anorexia glamour - for grownups. It would have thrilled me when I was thirteen and obsessed with anything that seemed new and different, but unfortunately now I’m just obsessed with finding novels that earn their page count.
I can't say that I thought Across The Universewas even a good idea for a movie. I’ve enjoyed Julie Taymor’s previous work, especially Titus, but a Beatles musical just seems like a terrible idea no matter who directs it. The band itself covered this territory satisfactorily during their career, and besides, what about that Cirque de Soleil thing? Mightn’t the latter be a better exploitation of the music in question than a zany Taymor-a-thon, especially considering that live performance would at least inject some energy into the proceedings? Alas, my entreaties seem to have fallen on deaf ears, because the showing I saw was packed at four in the afternoon. The film’s crimes are almost too diverse to list. Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess, as the story’s titular lovers (if you’ve seen the trailer, I doubt you need a plot summary, but here’s one anyway: “In a time of change, they loved”) have about as much chemistry as my seventh-grade self trying to light a Bunsen burner. They both behave in a peculiarly modern fashion – Wood, especially, seems more like her character from Thirteen than a hippie-turned-political activist, although probably less fun in the sack.
As The A.V. Club noted, by far the worst musical number is Eddie Izzard’s performance of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” but equally excreable is anything that comes out of the lame mouths of Hendrix and Joplin rip-offs "Jojo" and "Sadie." Ultimately the film proves so frustrating, and so wildly inconsistent – why is there an Asian-American lesbian from the Midwest in the mix? Why can’t the movie make up its mind where it cares about the civil rights movement or not? Why does Vietnam look suspiciously like a museum diorama about war? – that the true sweetness of certain of its moments its completely obliterated (anachronism or nor, T.V. Carpio’s performance of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is lovely). Weirdest of all, Across the Universe presents a Sixties America where free love and radical politics don’t deadend into the interesting, fucked-up seventies, but blossom into an endless hugfest. In a world where the Beatles are endlessly abused but never even mentioned by name, that’s a tough pill to swallow.