two short essays on tiny furniture

I. TINY FURNITURE AS VAMPIRE NARRATIVE

Though in recent years primarily a love story template, the vampire tradition is deeply rooted in the Persephone myth, in which a young maiden is kidnapped by Death to his underworld kingdom. Demeter, her mother, wreaks devastation on the human world in her bereavement, disrupting the necessary mortal cycles of ageing and agriculture, causing a break in the devotional cycle to trouble too those immortal gods complicit in the rape of her daughter. When finally Zeus commands Persephone’s return, Death tricks her into eating a pomegranate seed, thus tying her forever to his world of shades. While free to spend two seasons of the year reunited with her mother, Persephone must always spend the third season back underground, during which time Demeter spites the universe with winter; an end to life, a voice to her grief. A part of her daughter is now forever changed; forever inaccessible; forever lost.

In Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), for example, the bid to capture the beast is tellingly described as ‘the search of her whom a mother had missed’. In ‘Der Vampir’ (1748), Heinrich August Ossenfelder writes of a sanguine bedside visitor, ‘kissing’ his victim-bride to ‘trembling’ on ‘death’s threshold’: ‘And last shall I thee question / Compared to such instruction / What are a mother’s charms?’ In early vampire literature — before the masculine anxiety dream of Dracula or the shimmering totalitarian watchfulness of Edward Cullen & Co. — the natural adversary of the nosferatu wasn’t god, or the vengeful band of brothers, or even the sun, but the matriarch. (An interesting complication here is the allegiance between the vampire and the moon: that ultimate symbol of feminine energy.)

Tiny Furniture is a portrait of the daughter’s goddessification of the mother; the mother as consuming figure/fantasy object. Exhibit A: Aura’s mom is literally named Siri — the all-seeing, all-knowing, path-finding prophetess of the twenty-first century. (The name itself is a telling one, from the Norwegian, meaning ‘beautiful woman who leads you to victory’ or ‘beautiful victorious counsellor’.) In this sense, following the Persephone model, the mother figures as a kind of rivalling love interest. The vampire story is inherently a narrative of identities, in which character roles are profoundly entangled. Think of the importance of mirrors, the mingling of blood. The undead feed from the bodies of others like babies, parasiting the “life force” of their victims. Alternatively, taking from mothers to become mothers, they offer rebirth, giving new life, suckling their young. Mothers become captors, killers, anti-husbands. In Tiny Furniture, Aura represents both maiden — performing that Persephone palindrome of leaving and returning, leaving and returning — and monster.

Aura: I’m really mature but every time I come in to your room, I wanna sleep in your bed.
Siri: Well you can sleep here if I’m here, you just can’t sleep here if I’m not here. … You need to be invited, I have to invite you to come in.
Aura: Like a vampire.

The vampire story is inherently a narrative of boundaries. Think of the importance of the crossing of thresholds, the transgression of the rules of mortality, the trespass on a victim’s bodily (and spiritual) autonomy. The beast must be invited. Desire, whether conscious or otherwise, is a necessary component of the violation and subsequent metamorphosis. It is a story of complicity and coalescence, therefore lending itself easily to narratives of sexuality. But what of the intermingled identities of my mother my self? Try as she might, Aura struggles to achieve the boundless closeness to Siri that she so desires, albeit ambivalently. As eerie double of their mother and veritable wunderkid who is yet to leave home, younger sister Nadine represents a surer, more natural matriarchal ally — a fact that does not escape Aura’s attention. Even jilted college-roommate Frankie looks more like a potential member of the family. In this house, Aura has no reflection.

This push-pull of mother-daughter relations, with all its vampiric overtone, is particularly complicated when each woman is an artist. In early scenes we see Aura poring over Siri’s old diaries in a bid to merge their experiences, cannibalising her mother’s words to create her own art. ‘I want to be like you,’ she decides in the end, rubbing Siri’s aching back as they lie together in that coveted bed. The pose, out of context, is textbook.

 

II. SOMEWHERE A CLOCK IS TICKING

In a great piece on n+1, Elizabeth Gumport celebrates Dunham’s ‘allegiance to her own experience — to having it, to recording it’. She discusses what is arguably the film’s climactic scene:

Aura decides to remain at home instead of moving to Brooklyn with Frankie. It’s a selfish decision, made worse by the fact Aura doesn’t tell Frankie until the day before she’s due to arrive in New York. But it’s also an act of bravery … If protecting it costs Aura her friendship with Frankie, that is perhaps the price she must pay for her work, and success … Moving out of her mother’s apartment would be an ignorant and extravagant waste of Aura’s time, which is finite and irrecoverable, just like everybody else’s.

An obsession with time, the slipping away and preservation of, is one shared by a young Siri in her journals. As they lie together in bed, mother and daughter probe one another with intimate questions, their codependency finally drawn distinct, having bubbled through the course of the film with Aura’s ever-ringing mobile, her reluctance to go out for the night, to make a clean break from the family home. Despite this intimacy, despite their curling together, in the end nothing is fully resolved between Aura and her mother. Realising she can do little to intervene, all too reminded of the haphazard “trying things out” of her own twenties, Siri can only urge her daughter to be careful; can only offer her the refuge of her shared bed for the night.

Aura: I’m really tired, Mom, I just have to go to sleep.
Siri: You wanna sleep with me?
Aura: Yeah.
Siri: Why don’t you shut off the light.

Siri: Do you hear that ticking sound?
Aura: A little bit, maybe, I think it’s the alarm clock.
Siri: Do you think you could move it?
Aura: Yeah, one second.

Aura: I put it away.
Siri: I can still hear it.
Aura: Yeah but only a little bit, right?

This symbolic rejection of time’s incessant tick echoes Aura’s opting out of the traditional workday world, set against her conversation with Ray about 8am alarm calls, her chronic running-lateness, her boss’s refusal to engage in the effervescent apology game. Having quit her hostess job, seeing her work featured in a real-world exhibition (albeit imperfectly, and by Charlotte’s arrangement), she finally admits that she too wants to achieve artistic success; no longer self-consciously dismissing that world as ‘my mom’s racket’. Climbing back into her mother’s bed, she will fold herself into the privilege of Siri’s affluent artistic lifestyle, giving up the self-imposed rigidity of minimum wage existence, experiencing authentically what Ray could only experience vicariously as a houseguest — literally off the clock.

Though returning from a life of certain independence at Oberlin, Aura seems only now to be realising the reality of her autonomy, the concept of choice in who and what populates her life, keenly curious about the names that spatter Siri’s journals, the lost friends and lovers of her past, once so omnipresent and vital. Aura has spent the entire film considering and negotiating the breach and break of life’s relationships: intermittently giving too much to vague acquaintances and asking too much of those she holds dearest. The gulf between mother and daughter suddenly so stark, ‘the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue‘. Though presumably a constant presence in the room, the clock was unheard in any previous scene, and only suddenly now becomes so bothersome — painfully loud and necessarily removed, though never quite silenced. Thinking of the symbolic connection between the clock and the heartbeat, the tick and ticker, one might be reminded of this passage of Adrienne Rich’s Transcendental Etudes, on the subject of her whom a daughter has lost:

At most we’re allowed a few months
of simply listening to the simple
line of a woman’s voice singing a child
against her heart. Everything else is too soon,
too sudden, the wrenching-apart, that woman’s heartbeat
heard ever after from a distance
the loss of that ground-note echoing
whenever we are happy, or in despair.