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___MINI-VIEWS #5___

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

 

SCAR NIGHT by ALAN CAMPBELL, c.2006.

This urban-set fantasy novel is the starter for a trilogy called The Deepgate Codex. It is the author's debut work. I have elected to not continue with Iron Angel and God of Clocks.

The immediate setting engenders the biggest question mark: why would anyone be loony enough to build a city over a yawning abyss suspended on massive chains now rust-bitten by three thousand years of creaking, groaning, and swinging? Well, suspend your disbelief for awhile ‘cause you'll get a satisfactory answer. But, regarding the eminently binding theology of this very restrictive and dogmatic civilization, well . . .

Church doctrine starts out simple enough. Goddess Ayen rules in heaven and god Iril oversees the Maze of hell. But they're both bad gods because Ayen spitefully decides to close off heaven to us mortals—we're wicked, you see--and Iril, well, he's bad ‘cause he's a frickin' demon, for crissake. But Ayen's son Ulcis challenges her decision and, with 99 buddy angels or archons, he manages to lose the battle and gets banished hisself into the abyss. Ulcis figures his only chance is to get more fodder—us mortals—so he promises us he'll re-open heaven if we'll give him our soul-blessed dead for a future, conquering army. Thus, he gets his herald Callis to build a temple over his exile hole balancing on huge iron shackles so it's easier to just toss bodies over the edge. Thus, the city of Deepgate is born.

The populace doesn't have a problem swallowing this hooey because there are two quite real archons living among them right now. One is the last descendant to remain above ground of the famed 99. Dill is sixteen and has been cloistered in the church and raised by Temple ruler Presbyter Sypes. He's unschooled—“where was the merit in [education] when Ulcis waited beneath their feet, when Ulcis was everything”(Tor UK, ISBN 1405090359, c.2006, p.153)—has no social, political, or combat skills. He spends his time collecting snails in his cold, dark monkcell and finding homes for them. He's hauled out during a Sending—the ceremony where the city's dead are blessed then packed into a draft-drawn soulcage and dumped into the abyss—so the populace can see his reasonably useless wings and feathers and feel safe in their direct connection to the gods. And—gee, who'd figure? —he wants to be a powerful warrior and do something worthwhile.

The other angel is as dynamic as Dull—oops, I mean Dill—is anemic. Carnival is just that—the wildest, scariest death-skull of a vomit-comet ride you'll see this side of the Big Dipper. No one's real sure of her pedigree, but every month on the waning moon she vampires a victim dry, leaving a “husk” usually swinging upside down in the chains. For, you see, blood is a sacred fluid, as it contains your soul. This soulsucking invigorates Carnival, has kept her alive and hunting for hundreds of generations, and relegates her now-bloodless pigeon to hell and therefore deprived of Ulcis' salute. She's a terrorizing monster, yet guilt-filled eyes of the shame-stricken peer from under the scarred skin she self-mutilates “to keep some deeper part [inside her] intact” (p.375). She's the baddest of the bad/good/whatever, and she's up and away the most impressive character in the book.

The other female, Rachael Hael, is the sister of Deepgate's young Commander-In-Chief. She's also a fringe member of the Church's Swiss Guard called Spine. Currently, her fellow holy assassin ninjas are using her as bait to stop Carnival's razefests, cantingly known as Scar Night. But, more importantly, she's been assigned to Dill as his “overseer, tutor, personal guard” (p.46).

Then there's Mr. Nettle. He's built like The Hulk and even stupider. A Scrounger, he makes his way through the wastes of Deepgate's alleys, dumps, and chain-nets, collecting detritus for re-sale. He's gruff and pissed-off like TV Foxx's Fred Sanford, but without the wisecracking. Lately, he's rampaging ‘cause his daughter's been murdered and is on a befuddling quest to re-gain her soul and put her back together again.

Abigail's killer is the second most interesting character of this work. Devon the Poisoner runs the Poison Kitchens, creating diseases and venomous malignancies as weapons against the Temple's enemies. Unlike Carnival, he has no redeeming elements whatsoever. Completely nihilistic, hedonistic, sadistic, and monomaniacal—“nothing of his grin belonged to his face: it was a grin wholly owned by the skull inside” (p.287)—he's discovered how to make angelwine, which is essentially the ichor for super-strength, super-stamina, super-longevity, and super-regeneration. He's given some of the best dialogue in the novel, only because as the action becomes more and more cartoonish, his virulent quips act as refreshing counterpoints. But in the end, even Devon's villainy is demeaned to the outrageous comebacks of Wiley Coyote.

Scar Night is no Gormenghast, and Campbell's characters are only Dickensian in outline. Predicatively, the plot drops into Ulcis' realm of the abyss, which ignites some phenomenal action scenes—especially getting out as Deepgate smashes down on top of Dill, Rachael, and Carnival—but the characters passed their depth chapters ago, leaving the remains better suited for comic panels or a gamer's last save point.

And that's where I'd like to leave this series: eyes wide and filled with techni-colors, hands steaming against the plastic, and adrenaline still itchy from a very intense pixel invasion of my rods and cones.

04/04/10

 

OATH OF FEALTY by LARRY NIVEN & JERRY POURNELLE, c.1981.

Name the last novel you read where corporate executives are heroes, I mean action heroes, who shitkick a ratty-looking mugger—named Vinnie, of course—by breaking his jaw with “a polished gold ring on a huge fist” (Timescape, ISBN 0671226959, c.1981, p.271)? Or, any science fiction novel where these selfsame captains of industry talk about murdering their adversaries—all justified, of course—then celebrate their sacrosanct positions by getting snarked on Jamesons and screwing like stoats. Well, if you want to engorge yourself with a mug of Libertarian bitters, this is your book.

Todos Santos Independency is an arcology, owned by the Romulus Corporation and run not like a government to manage services and people, but as a business for profit. It is built on two square miles of burnt-out—I should say rioted-out—blocks of Watts in Los Angeles, and is 1000 feet tall, housing around 1/4 of a million “Saints”. Ringed by “shabby houses and decaying apartments . . . filled with families without hope living on welfare and the leavings from Todos Santos” (p.22), it boasts all the amenities for self-contained living, most notably a giant shopping mall weaving its way through the complex. Even though security guards and surveillance cameras are absolute 24 hours a day, everybody's happy. When asked about trading off privacy for protection, one young resident replies, “maybe we don't have a lot to hide” (p.114).

The “stockholders” seem to also love their corporate bosses who boast and ball on forty-foot yachts in Marina Del Rey “bought . . . for the company” (p.215). When an older “termite” (p.24) is asked if he's jealous of the General Manager's position, he says, “Great Chu, no! I only have one boss. [He] works for everybody” (p.171).

But apparently human nature outside of this “glittering block of whites” (p.21) requires animosity toward anyone living in better luxury or comfort, especially when they're so imperious about it. Every character outside of “The Box” is either bitter, jealous, or wants to move there, including LAPD detectives, high-ups in city government, and the ex-wife of Todos Santos' chief engineer and designer. At the extreme are FROMATES (Friends of Man and The Earth Society), so-named eco-terrorists committed to the arcology's destruction. When questioned why TS is such a threat to the environment, the “eco-simps” answer that “it uses too many resources to support too few people.” And, furthermore, “using technology to fix problems created by technology only puts you in an endless chain. That the more success you have, the more you make people believe that ‘Progress' is possible, and Progress just leads to more technology and more waste and more doom—“ (p.262).

Trouble comes when some college-age kids, armed with boxes filled with sand labeled “dynamite” and “bombs”, break into TS as a prank. But nobody's laughing when they are killed, especially influential city councilman “Big Jim” Plancet, who is father to one of the deceased. A murder warrant is issued for Preston Sanders, the Saint who ordered lethal force to stop what he perceived as a hostile attack. Forcing the reader to make a hard right turn at the stacked deck, the authors leave no doubt this action was justified. But Preston, being a responsible and upstanding black man--meaning he can have nothing but a Steppen Fetchit position and attitude to Whitey authority(1)—is overwhelmed with guilt and remorse, and so he does the stupidest thing he could do: turn himself in to the hatemongering, misguided, and incompetent bureaucrats of Los Angeles.

The book bounces along with a fleshing out of corporate personalities, technological atmosphere, gimmicks, gizmos, and more social and political slip-‘n-slides, while the mainspring plot turns from ridiculous to unbelievable to downright insulting. There is a real eco-terrorist assault on Todos Santos using real bombs and a real shootout where real eco-insano badguys die, really. Then Preston is broken out of jail with the use of a Total Recall-like digging vehicle/machine by Executive Action, which is about as believable as Arnold's eyes popping out at the end of the before-mentioned film. The final bang is achieved when the eco-simps retaliate, kidnapping and dyke-mauling TS's sexy Director of Economic Development, then are subsequently taken down by TS's Blackwater-like SWAT team. The world is shown that Corporate ways and means are RIGHT, as if we didn't already know that from the novel's gross didactic slant. Oh yeah, as a post-thump—as in we're so sure we're RIGHT, we'll murder to prove it—Councilman Plancet continues externalizing blame by shotguning to death a UCLA professor for his affiliations with leftist, eco-stupido cells that led his son astray.

I don't know why I bothered reading this work, let alone writing a review of it. But at least now I remember why I never read Heinlein after Starship Troopers.

 

(1) The only other Negro character is Preston's stereotypical opposite: "Reverend Ebenezer Clay, an old-time civil rights activist and leader" (p.116), a Jessie Jackson wannabe, but ranting far less believably and demanding unrealistic solutions within the context of this biased diatribe. And where does the corporation wanna send Preston once they free him? Africa!

04/08/10

SHUTTER ISLAND by DENNIS LEHANE, c.2003.

I never would have come onto Dennis Lehane if I hadn't seen Affleck's earnest cinematic rendition of Gone, Baby, Gone from 2007. That made me re-watch Mystic River of 2003 and realize how constipated Eastwood had become as a director. I missed a big-screen viewing of Scorsese's version of this story, so decided I'd read it instead.

Man, am I glad I did.

First of all, this guy can write. His metaphors, similes, and allusions—not to mention the terse brilliance of his ironies—flow as smooth as water down an un-pebbled stream. Open the book anywhere and you'll bump into things like, when our hero is studying a photo of the insane escapee, that “the eyes themselves were too wide, as if something hot were prodding them from inside her head. Whatever she saw beyond the camera lens, beyond . . . anything in the known world probably—wasn't fit to be seen. . . Those eyes. Even frozen in time, they howled” (Morrow, ISBN 0688163173, c.2003, p.39). His bounce from exposition to dialogue in this limited omniscient narrative is in perfect cadence to the information he's leaking out to you, keeping mystery, suspense, excitement, and growing intensity right out in front where you like it. Structurally, the story unfolds like stepping stones, with hardly a sidebar or backstory trickle and only the occasional revelatory nightmare to interrupt what's ongoing and forthcoming. But the stones get mossier and slicker as you proceed, and your gumshoeing begins to lose purchase. Pretty soon your feet are wet and the current is pulling you further and further away from safety.

And what's real and what's make believe and by whom and whose regulation.

At first look—and last look, too, for that matter—U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is top contender for the Jim Thompson Posterboy of the Post-Pulp Fiction, Neo-Noir, Me-Me-Me Era. He's carrying a grudge and wants revenge. He's on a covert mission sent by shadowy hi-ups, maybe. He has no friends but the one he's currently made. His past is filled with loss, killings, cold-bloodedness, and fuck-ups. He's glib, confrontive, and very likely delusional. In lotsa ways, I see Charles Bigger out of Savage Night of 1953.

Teddy's come to the Ashecliffe Bug Farm for the Criminally Insane on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of an inmate. But, instead of solving what appears to be an island-sized variation of the Agatha Christie Locked Room Mystery, everyone ends up playing “Who's On First?” Teddy's second baseman is a virgin partner assigned to him who he comes to trust and rely on. Teddy also has an instinctive dislike of psychology, which is contrary to the whole premise for this island's existence. It's the fifties, where everybody smokes and prattles on about all the new ideas and technologies that'll solve all our problems and make life much easier to boot. Like transorbital lobotomies, neuroleptic sessions, hallucinogenic drug experimentation, hypno-therapy, regression therapy, role-playing therapy. Like brain surgery verses pharmalogical solutions verses psychoanalysis all rolled into one, big psychotic swallow.

Lehane's emphasis is not really on what fixes us and barely on how we got there. He's about the pain, the confusion, the loss of identity that makes “less a person who had lived and more the dream of one.” (p.176). It's about stripping away the denial and feeling it. Getting around that sprung defense mechanism like a poacher's rusted trap and freefalling into the shame of self-loathing and poor-choices guilt. There are no answers, no condemnations. Just suffering, pain, delusions. Yes, this is a fun house with false doors, traps, leads, but it ends up a merry-go-round taking you back ‘round again, and again. We all live our lives on painted ponies like this sometime. That's what breakthroughs in psychology have gotten us: more information, more supposed data, but few definitive answers, just more impressive spin.

But what's real is the anguish and despair. And the fear that “once you're here, you're not getting out. No one leaves Ward C” (p.236).

What condition, under any circumstances, could you never, ever live with? The world thinkin' you're loony, or you, yourself, realizing you are markedly insane? Or, that whatever it is trapped inside you, “you can't get to it and you don't really control it. But it controls you, doesn't it?” (p.98).

Shutter Island may only answer this question paradoxically, but it'll give you a pretty fair taste of livin' it.

 

04/16/2010

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by STIEG LARSSON, c.2005.

I just happened to read 2 Locked-Room Mysteries back-to-back where the inescapable confinement is an island. It is difficult not to compare this book to Lehane's Shutter Island of 2003, because they are so antipodal. They are both ingenious solutions, so plot sketching is unadvised. So what else is there to talk about?

I have already praised the evocative style of Dennis Lehane, so I must say that comparatively, Larsson's writing is unadorned and methodical due, I suspect, to his lifetime of penning non-fiction, magazine feature stories. Lots of people like this kind of approach because it makes the material seem more authentic. “Just the facts, ma'am,” as Sgt. Joe Friday of 50s TV Dragnet useta say. Personally, I demand it from a talking head on a news byte, but, when it comes to something from the imagination like prose, I prefer a little poetry. Did I mention that Mr. Larsson's straightforward style has driven over 27 million book sales, so what do I know, huh?

Another difference is scope. Although most of Dragon Tattoo's action is confined to everyday quests and machinations—the gearworks, so to speak—the larger engine it serves is the macrocosm of national politics and commerce. This is the playground of the rich-an'-famous bestsellers, and it takes a certain cultivated flair to bring these larger-than-your-life people to bear believable actions, situations, and settings. Larsson bookends his main plot with his financial reporter Mikael Blomkvist's tribulations against a ruthless and unscrupulous billionaire businessman, but it seems too perfectly laid-out, too contrived. It stands apart from the main meat of the story like parsley on a plate. I know why it's there—Blomkvist's reputation is propped back up with the righteous, the steadfast, the ethical crusaders who protect us from the greed-driven infidels and show us that good guys business-wise turn to moral lighthouses like his Socialist watchdog magazine Millennium—I just think this device injected into the author's documentarian style emphasizes an unnecessary order that needs unhinging, not validation.

The novel is also consumed with investigation and reporting, leaving the hard action smoldering in the background until it's time to burn the book down in climax. The disappearance/murder/whatever occurred 40 years ago; the torture chamber is seen, not really used; even Blomkvist's real-time bankster nemesis is never met. There's descriptions, there's lotsa discussions; nothing is exclaimed, everything is pretty droll, even. Settings and atmospherics are, well, wintery, as if it snowed everywhere, leaving things formulated but undefined.

When first met, the voices of the book come off like chess pieces instead of characters, but that's okay. They identify their detached squares, objectify into stereotypes to establish cover then move through the cubbyholes to advance the plot. The Crusader, The Robber-Baron CEO, The Astute, Supportive Female Business Partner & Lover, The Misanthropic Bat-Caver Hacker, The Gracious Old Financial Wizard, The Faceless Killer. Of course, Mysteries welcome the withholding of characters like Cecilia Vanger for adding necessary suspense—if not the housewarming gift of red herring—and Sweden's national mood seems one of reservation anyway. As such, the sheen of the novel starts off quite leaden. But when backstory reveals that society's institutions consider our punky, very relunctant heroine Lisbeth Salander to be “seriously retarded . . . [with] psychopathic and asocial behaviour” (Knopf, ISBN 9780307269751, c.2005 p.129), it signals that buried, more complex resonances are sure to come.

Salander is the idiosyncratic sorceress of the book. Her magic slays the monsters, and these IT abilities of hers are as much an urban legend as the mythological beast she's tattooed on her backside. Her ink professes power and defiance to a shallow society that plots her as an outsider and troublemaker. The irony is that dragons are traditionally slain to maintain the status quo, whereas Salander burns down captains of industry and other miscreants with hack spells to protect the very organizations that deride her independent declaration. She's also leading the thematic demonstration against misogyny by having the only sexual abuse scene in the novel. Her thuggy, Goth-Girl exterior with tattoos, piercings, and that “anorexic spook” (p.348) look parades her insecurities and self-esteem issues like a Pasadena float for jejune-inspired dysfunction. But behind the detached and defiant posturings is the photographic memory and Asperger intelligence for discipline and determination; and deeper still, a moral command post for truth, trust, and love. Appropriately, the book's title alludes to this enigmatic personality, as she is up and away the biggest cipher—and largest enchantment—of this series.

Oh yeah, back to the comparison: if you slide toward the emotional and untidy instead of an analytical approach with explanation-to-follow, put your money down for Lehane. Especially if, like me, you're fixated more to the noir view of things.

 

04/21/2010

 

CLOCKERS by RICHARD PRICE, c.1992

Spike Lee's movie in 1995 plus the fundamental setup on HBO's The Wire(1) from 2002 has given this story lots of exposure, and, even though the source material is almost two decades old, there's still a tremendous resonance left to shake you right down to your mortal coil. The characters are rasty and real enough so that any reader's sympathy is challenged by their moral choices, and the atmosphere from the Projects to the prisons, from the mangled streets to the gaudy boulevards, seeps into your innards and festers like Strike's perforated ulcer with enough pain, fear, and loss to make even finishing this 600-page assault a challenge.

But finish it you will, because Price's command of this journey keeps you tottering between longing and desperation, false hope and vacuous pleasures. This is a novel beyond the bounds of hero and villain, action and consequence, and certainly past ethical sermonizing. Everyone appears, well, caught in a neverending spin of situational survival, trapped in a ZipLoc full of transparent justifications labeled Preserve Me. The very real sub-culture of addictive and deadly drug commerce becomes a consumptive ouroboros created by yet mirroring Mainstream's fixations with celebratory recognition, success through cutthroat competition, revenue over relationships, and, most insidiously, denial via self-induced delusion. Within this trap, author Price mounts the ultimate, behavioral question managing this “irretrievable world” (Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0395537614, c.1992, p.556):

him or me?

The Q & As are presented between the two, contrary protagonists: Strike, aka Ronald Dunham, the “clocker” or street-level crack dealer, and Rocco Klein, the vexed vet homicide detective, with an alienated marriage and the longing for a “Mission, in order to anchor himself in his job before he drowned in his own banal terrors” (p.584). A known ounce-level dealer has been murdered and Victor Dunham, Strike's older straight and proper brother, has confessed to the crime. Rocco is determined to prove he's covering for Strike, and Strike—knowing his brother incapable, therefore had to be extorted—is without a clue. Throughout, the unrelenting beating “like a bloody-knuckled fist” (p.246) of inner-city squalor and sensibility controls the destiny of its inhabitants from drug lord to police chief. Strike simply rationalizes away his role in poisoning the community: “'Cause if I don't, somebody else will. Me not selling it ain't gonna stop nothing out there but my money flow” (p.414). And Rocco, so frustrated that the system is ineffectual in stopping the mental and physical carnage he sees daily, blindly pounds ahead with the wrong conclusions unmindful of collateral damage just as long as he solves the crime and ends the situation. This is chillingly illustrated when his wife goes into hysterics at their young daughter's momentary disappearance and he thinks, “so, we'll have another kid” (p.557). In a shell shocked-like trance, his denial has cost him his humanity.

Strike, who does no drugs himself except Mylanta and Yoo-Hoo for his bleeding stomach, is nonetheless hooked on the money and status. When his world caves in between prison time and a baseball bat beating from his drug boss, he embraces the gift from Rocco to a free ride out of town. Conclusions for change can only be appeased on a personal scale—you either remove yourself from the slaughter, or, if like Rocco you can't leave, you make things go fair and easier for the people within your influence.

But the bargains keep rolling in—crushing the people it attracts as well as those who keep it rolling. Clockers is that Nolan Ryan fastball blazing past America's glamorizing of crime and addictive escape. The batting stance can only be one of attitudinal adjustment. Few novels of American Crime Fiction close out the last Century as, well, strikingly.

 

(1) The Wire 's run of 4 seasons should be considered the prime, artistic achievement in Crime Drama on TV, as the scepter has not been raised this high within the genre since Hill Street Blues of 1981. If it wasn't for that pesky 2nd season, The Wire could have vaulted into the rarefied air of Perfection. And, ironically, even with the other accomplished writers like George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane backing creator David Simon's play, the series garnered not a single stinkin' Emmy.

05/05/2010

 

GIVE + TAKE by STONA FITCH, C.2010

It is unfortunate timing reading this after Clockers. The seeker protagonists are similar, in that they are searching for meaning in life while making money. Strike feels forced into dealing by social and peer pressures; Ross Clifton of G + T is resigned to play piano for “huddled lovers and clusters of bankers anxious to be entertained” (St. Martin's Press, ISBN 9780312599874, c.2010, p.1) in lizard lounges because of a dysfunctional self-image congruous with the over-bloated view of his less-appreciated talent. Both suffer from repressing the shame brought by their under-weight, public accomplishments. Strike's is seen in his ulcer; Ross acts out as a pussy burglar, stealing diamonds and BMWs from rich, bored, clichéd housewives then giving the fenced money to charity. Strike's problems go nuclear when his brother cold-bloodedly murders a drug dealer. Ross's start when he's forced to babysit his arrogant and obnoxious 16-year old nephew whose ambition at the moment is to write a porn novel, which is probably exactly what Ross was like as a teener. After all, even now women are objects and relationships mere tools. Vying his prospects for the evening, Ross rejects one because “she's ringless and her earrings are crap” (p.71).

Strike's world is as serious as a dum-dum bullet; his survival is based on decisions weighted a little more than which cufflinks to wear, or what song to follow in encore. Ross Clifton comes off as so suave he's foolish; so self-blundering he's misplaced his heart with his asshole; so laughingly egotistical he's a bore.

I'm sure he'll straighten out by book's end and be just like the rest of us. I didn't hear him finish the set to find out.

Dead at page 72 out of 244.

05/06/2010

 

Copyright 05/05/2010 by Larry Crawford

 

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