OF BAGHDAD by
BRIAN K. VAUGHAN & NIKO HENRICHON, c.2006.
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
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
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.
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
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?
CITY & THE CITY by
CHINA MIEVILLE, c.2009.
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.
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
East vs. West Berlin. Irish and the Protestants. Israel and
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
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
daze. Smirking. Unbelieving and untrusting.
Grumpy. Emotionally, I closed down and never got opened
I think maybe I Breached the whole fuckin' read.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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).
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
02/05/2010 by Larry Crawford