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___MINI-VIEWS #4___

EXTREMELY INADEQUATE THUMBNAILERS OF BOOKS I'M TOO LAZY OR TROUBLED TO ACTUALLY REVIEW, OR, TOO BORED, DISTRACTED, MADDENED TO EVEN FINISH READING.

 

PRIDE OF BAGHDAD by BRIAN K. VAUGHAN & NIKO HENRICHON, c.2006.

Before I say anything else, let me confess I cried at the end of this story. Quite a bit, to tell the truth. But after a coupla weeks, sentimentality cleared my system and I looked back at this graphic novella as tainted with blatant sententiousness. I concede that this incident based in fact could probably not be told any differently. It is just too tempting to write these victimized, communicating animals into soaking your soul with remorse. This parable is an old draft-horse with a new set of blinkers. Prosaically, it tells us that bravery is sometimes rewarded with death, invaluable things get lost, goodness and innocence are cruelly or inadvertently destroyed for lifetimes. Anotherwords, war sucks. It adds surprising irony to that slogan printed on wife-beater t-shirts that says, "if you love something, set it free, but if it doesn't come back, hunt it down and kill it."

All in absolutely stunning visuals, by the way.

Don't get me wrong. Stories like this need to be told to upcoming generations. This voice is important as antithesis to the numbing facts and figures of the post-911 debacle I call The Iraq War of the Oughts. It's just that I'm not in the target audience, nor do I welcome such finger-pointing diatribes without regard, even when they fit into my socio-political worldview.

Pride of Baghdad was sold to me as an example of the maturing growth in the graphic novel field; that this new vamping with a commanding marketshare and a fist of future beholdings was an exemplar of a new artform.

I'm sorry, guys, it's still a fucking comic book, but with just a more sophisticated set of stripes. As it grants us boxcars of running illustrations, it de-couples from prose's subtle engineering of nuance. It has not yet risen from its puerile beginnings like its cousin, the cartoon. Maybe that's because it cannot sing and dance.

Kids need to read this. Adults need to read A Farewell to Arms from 1929.

03/06/10

 

UNDER THE PENITENCE by MARY GENTLE, c.2004.

Under the Penitence is an easy, quick read at 76 pages. It is a good introduction into the author's alternative history of Europe in the 15th Century. That world was first explored with her tome of 1113 pages in 1999 called Ash: A Secret History. More specifically, it is the beginning of a new story later novelized as Ilario: The Lion's Eye published in 2006 and quickly followed by Ilario: The Stone Golem of the same year.

Gentle's self-naming title of “a secret history” is more correct than branding it into the alternative history sub-genre. The world explored here is the one under the dusty history books of centuries, vaguely glimpsed between these so-called “factual” pages but supported by real yet mystifying inconsistencies with the accepted viewpoints. For instance, why, when recounting the descriptive glue of the last millennium in mid-stride, doesn't the country of Burgundy come to mind? At the time, it was admired as the hub and highpoint of culture for over a century in medieval Europe. Modern texts usually consider it a duchy of France, bullet-pointing it for “luxury bordering on extravagance”(1), and downplaying any influence or accomplishment.

This novella takes place in a cycle where the Ottoman Turks do occupy Constantinople, but the Visigoths rule Northern Africa, specifically Carthage as the location of this story. A necromantic shroud of continual darkness palls the city as Ilario enters. He's on the run from wealthy and well-placed parents from the minor Iberian kingdom of Tarraconensis who are shadowing to murder him. Looking forward, he's anxious to prove his talent at painting “the thing itself” (PS Publishing, ISBN 1904619118, c.2004, p.4) to the Renaissance masters of The Empty Chair empire—Italy.

Ilario is no ordinary sword-swinging, pec-bulging hero. Possessed of gentle yet obstinate disposition, he is further physically dichotomous as a hermaphrodite. More unusual contrasts abound as he is press-ganged into slavery, though bought by a eunuch scholar from the Library at Alexandria who uses Ilario's skills for fact-finding missions through the elusive treatises of the ever-darkened Carthage.

The vision of Mary Gentle is a summoning of sorts: it is not to be taken literally as much as it is a reminder that the recording of the past should always be questioned from all sides, and not just from the position of current favor. After thumbing past conspiracy theories, the necessary proof is easily found after a cursory look through prominent historical texts on the Northern American indigenous civilizations and their demise written before Dee Brown's landmark Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee of 1970. And furthermore, if Cortez and Pizarro could once be considered historical heroes bringing civilization to savages, what will be the fate of Adolf Hitler 500 years from now?

(1) http://weuropeanhistory.suite101.com/article.cfm/duchy-of-burgundy-leaves-a-legacy-of-luxury

03/05/10

THE CITY & THE CITY by CHINA MIEVILLE, c.2009.

Is it time to reappraise my unabashed praise of China ever since I read Perdido Street Station at the turn of the century? Considering the critics, apparently not.

http://www.sfreviews.net/mieville_city_and_city.html

http://geektheory.wordpress.com/2009/04/22/review-the-city-and-the-city-by-china-mieville/

Above are two of the best, sampled out of a range from UK's Guardian to the L.A. Times.

And, I get it. I got it while I was reading it, I think. Boundaries creating blinders because of nationalism. Xenophobia. Authoritarian autonomy.

East vs. West Berlin. Irish and the Protestants. Israel and Palestine.

Denial made mandatory. Legal. Punishable by Breach.

Ah, Breach. That “most notorious bogeyman” (Ballantine Books, ISBN 9780345497512, c.2009, p.186) fashioned in the nightmares of East European black-leather trenchcoats and non-descript, grim faces below buzzcuts filling the shadows with Orwellian expulsion. Just as the citizens remain confused about what to acknowledge and what to deny as real in the crosshatched areas between the overlapping cities, Breach becomes more unequivocal than physical space. Our 1st person narrator, Beszel police inspector Tyador Borlu, thinks of it as a “mindless silence”, but discovers it's “a dream arena where I was quarry” (p.241). In the end, he admits to living in the “interstice . . . in both the city and the city” (p.312). For me, as a reader, I'm left in a vacant room filled with smoke and mirrors.

Okay, I admit the concept of two actual cities with very different citizenry and cultures occupying the same space—buildings, roads, parks, etc--is a phenomenally creative and a unique solidification screaming of hidden, symbolic import. It causes the read to always be swaying on that unstable foundation queasy with doubt and retching up misinformation. The murder—the plot's main gear—is committed in this fuzzy vision of dubious pasts and blind futures, and is solved by maintaining the lie, or as Borlu rationalizes, by supporting “the skin that keeps law in place” (p.312). But the atmosphere is not that Kafkaesque, ominous engulfing that grays the reader to everything but despair. No, it's more akin to the feeling of waking from a midday nap and not knowing for a minute where you are. Once we get to it, the pervasiveness of that Gestapo terror upon capture is missing. Yeah, I know, Breach is just another glorified regimentation, but the experience of it feels like a meandering complacence similar to watching network TV for hours on end. For me, this makes for a somewhat weary and soiled conclusion to an otherwise original adventure. Furthermore, I didn't jump-rope with the characters very much. Even with subordinate Sariska's fevered loyalty and enthusiasm, and Qussim Dhatt's constant cussing and humorous disgruntlement, there's just not much personality delineation. Borlu is a fine, jagged-enough pointman, but there's no real villainous opposition here, just confused perps.

Metaphor as reality. It's the building block of fantasist literature. It's just that I never got it visualized; I never felt even tremors beneath my feet. I just kinda shuffled through in a dictatorial daze. Smirking. Unbelieving and untrusting. Grumpy. Emotionally, I closed down and never got opened up.

I think maybe I Breached the whole fuckin' read.

03/20/2010

 

THE GREAT GOD PAN by ARTHUR MACHEN, c.1894.

A story “like this is like a nest of Chinese boxes; you open one after another and find a quainter workmanship in every box” (From Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, Knopf published in 1948, story c.1894, p.79). Machen's characters flow in and out of this narration like Machen himself, walking around London as acquaintances, old and new, met and never-met, drop in then off the gait, through encounters of conversation, action, or just observation. Episodes demanding new arrivals are launched on the exhausts of old ones, yet always cycling back to pick up the former fares to meet its rather strict timetable, although not always in logical or temporal order. This story makes the reader work as hard as its participants to unravel the puzzles, and in doing so, engenders a creeping terror of incongruity with the world. By the time it is over, you feel as if you've gazed through an arcane window into the dark underbelly of reality, and the safety of agreed coherence has been shaken forever.

This tale told in straight narration would be rather prosaic, just as Tarantino's Pulp Fiction of 1994, stripped of its time warps, would be just another sleazy crime drama. Summarizing the plot like this would defuse its magnificent energy. Suffice to say it is a deciphering of untutelary possession brought about by one man's arrogance and total misunderstanding of the primeval forces in deadlock. It is an old saw: a portal is opened, a union is forged, mayhem ensues.

But the telling. Ah, the telling.

Just as Machen has borrowed—or epiphanized—the structure from those before him, more contemporary authors have continued that trend. An overt nod from another writer of the macabre is seen in Steven King's story, “ N.”, from Just After Sunset of 2008, referencing Machen's own “N” from 1936. Both stories involve the discovery among the commonplace world of a remarkable doorway to another domain. Machen's ingress is concerned with “the delights of the primal Paradise” (p.302), whereas King's is on preventing the fiends of Hell from stepping out for a permanent night on the town. The 1920s pulp horror of J.B.Cabell, Lovecraft, and C.A. Smith notwithstanding, some critics have even tossed out that Straub's masterwork, Ghost Story of 1979, is heavily influenced by The Great God Pan.

And margin notes from the founders of post-modern, American literature are all over Machen's manuscript, mainly those of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon. Specifically, in Gaddis' JR of 1975, two characters' narrations will transition as they pass on the street unnoticed by each other, or conversations via the telephone will cross in plot flow from one to another like a 50s party line. Pynchon's V. of 1963 is a monomaniacal search for a mysterious woman whose many aliases begin with the letter “V”, and who changes major historical events from the inside and under-side, throwing up conspiracies like leaves in the wind. The plot of The Great God Pan is mainly concerned with unmasking a nefarious and wicked woman referred to as “Helen V.”, and who conspires with unimaginable forces on socially-prominent men to deadly alterations. Furthermore, Pynchon's self-appointed gumshoe is named Herbert Stencil. In Pan, there's a Charles Herbert who is murdered by this strange, terrible woman. One of the ending realizations of V. is that Pynchon's Herbert is bumbling the search for that woman who possibly killed his father.

But musings about influences aside, Machen brillantly leads us down convoluted pathways, exposing some of the deeper revelations that distemper simple solutions. A rational man would say Arthur Machen's writing falls prey to the intellectual entanglements of occult thinking, gloated on by Man mirroring back his own fears.

I say, if the Beast should strike, it will be in the cities of Man that we shall find him.

 

03/01/10

 

THE RED MEN by MATTHEW DE ABAITUA, c.2007

There's a lot of fun in the disgruntled voices of artists and office workers alike while confronting and complaining regarding corporate domination of everything. Monad is the company under scrutiny. Its business is the creation of robotic surrogates—the red men of the title who insist on being called “hypothetical people” (Snowbooks TPB, ISBN 9781905005581, c.2007, p.58)—to make executives' workload run smoother. Its visionary is Hermes Spence, “a corporate prince of the Brand Age” (p.64). Along the way we rub up against other upper-echelonians like Bruno Bougas who studies portents and scripture “seeking cultural and numerological synchronicities” (p.79) to present to the Product Development Department. Or facilitator Morton Eakins, a personal director for Monad who believes “he was a superhero, his unnatural sensory acuity perhaps augmented by a childhood accident with a radioactive bloodhound” (p.39).

It is a world where all is fashioned then manipulated, with drugs scheduling your emotions and “reality filters” (p.48) protecting you from “impossible, unthinkable information” (p.49). Everything demands to be owned, bought or sold; even the rebellious and non-conforming artists are useful when “it was more important to be seen as being capable of extracting useful work from creative people than being seen as creative themselves” (p.84). And, since “privacy is absurd. Information wants to be shared” (p.192), surrogated hosts' minds are copyrighted to the company. There's a sidebar hook with xenotransplantation—“the swapping of vital organs between man and beast”(1)(p.74)—but if it surfaces later in the book, I missed it.

Throw into this byte-and-icon stew two friends working for Monad who have chosen different spoons to stir this spin of both cheeky and subversive foolishness. Our 1st person protagonist, Nelson Millar, past editor of the angry and inflammatory rag called Drug Porn, has swallowed back his youthful arrogance for the pacifier of family and social responsibility. Best buddy, Raymond Chase, has remained an outsider, a poet co-conspirator of The Great Refusal(2), and major black-comedic relief in his inability to coalesce for the corporate ease of Monad, where everyone is “as lithe as information itself” (p.40). Nelson thinks demonstratively-antisocial Ray has been hired into Monad's Customer Service Department because “any team . . . requires a scapegoat to function properly” (p.42).

The first act is piquant and rubber-boned, mainly because the more boring Nelson(3) takes a sidecar and lets Raymond drive while juggling sharp knives. Plotwise, the red men act up by turning on their masters—gee, who'dfiggure?—and casting Ray out when he goes fugacious under accusations of murder. In Act Two, Nelson's back in the lead—181 pages in and we find out our POVs got a live-in wife?—as Monad goes ahead with its Redtown project, a simulation to predict the “complete confidence of the outcome” (p.179). It is quickly hindered by attacks of “occult terrorism” (p.223) which includes gas-masked men masturbating on Monad's logo. When it is suggested they call in a “corporate magician” (p.224), everything got too mutton-headed for me, and the lost burn left any persuasive sarcasm behind.

This is a genre where everything is based on contrivance—duh—but The Red Men directs us with things that seem more a dalliance. In too many places I felt like a captive Nielsen TV family being tested with popular culture snides and witticisms seemingly placed for show-an'-tell inside Matthew's big brain. I didn't think they were untenable or not clever; I just questioned the appropriateness. Admittedly, after passing Palahniuk, I hold modern sardonicism on a short leash, as the Punk generation's nihilism along with current Tea Partier's intransigence can leave facetious comments like upchucks of smarminess, ya know? There's certainly a place for satire; I'm just shy of it in contemporary literature because most of the time novels prove too lengthy to sustain the depth and continuous sharpness required. I mean, considering the context of its time, can much top Heller's WWII antics of Yossarian and the Fighting 256th?

Dead at 237 out of 377 pages.

 

(1) “The acquisition of a spare set of organs is a rite of passage to be lined up alongside your first child or your second mortgage. . . A gold-wrapped xenopig had displaced the glans-red sport car as the mid-life crisis investment of choice” (p.321-2).

(2) the compiling argument against “the society of screens. . . A book insisting on authenticity assembled by the very technology we despise” (p.118).

(3) he describes himself as “sedentary and settled, the fast-flowing channels of ideas, notions, and schemes were silted up by habit. A stagnant puddle here and there of old dreams and aspirations” (p.66), and later as “the defining aspect of my character. My cowardice” (p.76).

03/18/2010

 

THE PIRATE DEVLIN by MARK KEATING, C.2010

Buccaneer books are always about being free, being weird, and being greedy. They are also about being obliquitous, drunk, and downright feisty. Most of the “classics” in this field are found in the playpen of Children's Literature—i.e., R.L. Stevenson, J.M. Barrie, etc.—but notable long-deaders wrote to this theme, such as Defoe, Scott, Poe, and Cooper. Since they are usually set in the East Coast's vacationland of the Caribee, it's a shame America has no honored Moby Dick-like swashbuckler. Imagine the Pequod as a criminal instead of a capitalistic enterprise.

The Pirate Devlin is not gonna sit in this vacant throne. First of all, Mark Keating is a Redcoat as well as a virgin author. His book is a wonderful best-seller-like read with enough nuance, sub-textual sophistication, masterful sailing and skirmish details, and deep bows to the motifs that hold this sub-genre together. There are numerous plot and character borrowings--even Blackbeard puts in a cameo--but at least Keating doesn't break down amidst Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

The cliché's of Patrick Devlin are twofold: storywise, he's a servant gone rogue out of necessity who finds—sigh—honor among thieves, respect beyond birthright, and an chivalrous attitude about sparing human lives. All this adds up to the venerated Anglospheric—yet these days somewhat tattered—value of FREEDOM(1). Secondly, in numerous instances, especially through the leading chapters, he is Warner Bros.-flamboyant. I mean, in his nascent trialrun as an aye-matie co-conspirator, he helps orchestrate the kidnapping of an island governor in the manner of a 1930-40s Hollywood Hero, even ad-libbing by laying in the road to lure his pursuers into ambush. He's Errol Flynn straight from the set of Captain Blood filmed in 1935, but without any of the sly seductions of mannered beauties like Olivia de Havilland. Fortunately, this emerging persona is diluted considerably for the rest of the novel, making the third act believable and realistically vibrant. And, to be fair, there is ample parody of the old plotlines, as the before-mentioned governor in a grisly scene of capture and self-mutilation, loses a hand, reversing the traditional Captain Hook stereotype.(2)

The sailing savvies aren't exactly C.M. Forester of the 1930-40s or Master and Commander from the 1970s, but they are more than adequate without the humph, uniformities, and assignments of strict navel novels. The historical, social and limited political backgrounding of the 18th Century appears satisfactory as well.

In general, the plot of steelin-de-gold(3) is smooth, serviceable, and stirring. The building oppositions between Devlin and Captain Coxon could use more fleshing, possibly with the use of flashbacks showing their relationship in more amicable times. Also, the device of using the gold depository commander's toothache as a way of securing entry above suspicion is, well, suspect. The alongside action of “using bloody whores like a Trojan horse” (Hodder & Stoughton UK, ISBN 9780340992661, c.2010, p.248) seems quite conducive. The emphasis on subterfuge—as summed up by the dogmatic Coxon with, “If you open the front door to one of you, another goes in the back” (p.320)—is as snickery as it is compelling. As to the ending: it stinks like rotting trapbait for further installments, to which I take reluctant objection.

I was hoping for a pirate novel extending the current trend of realism in fantasy led by the likes of Abercrombie, Morgan, Lebbon, and Kearney. There's too much use of the older blueprints in this realm for that, but I did discover a thoroughly enjoyable read for an afternoon or two of blue skies, warm waters, and clever strangers met.

 

(1) Sorry, but in the context of cliché, I hear William Wallace's final scream from Braveheart of 1995 here. Embracing the Commonwealth roots, of course.

(2) Discerning readers might want to take objection to this, as Gov. Mendes--like Hook--is an unsavory character receiving comeuppance, yet he's playing what Dandon later refers to as "the old game" (p.328) on the pirates in counterpoint. Unlike Hook, however, his amputation has nowhere near the powerful and brillant symbolic import of a dasterdly life tick-tocking to its demise.

Further, this cut-off-your-own-hand-to-save-yourself plotploy is seen more recently in Luc Besson & Guy Ritchie's Revolver of 2005.

(3) "we three kings be steelin' de gold" from filmdom's Three Kings of 1999.

03/13/10

 

Copyright 02/05/2010 by Larry Crawford

 

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