Return to the Last Chance Saloon

sick-in-the-headThere’s this notion that as you get older you eventually come to peace with who you are. The hardest part of that process for me was realizing I’m too insecure to do what I really want with my life. I’ve always loved acting, and for a time I loved writing (until academia beat that passion out of me). Growing up, I just always assumed I’d get involved with TV or movies or theater, doing something for a living that genuinely made me happy. And while I do love teaching, the most fulfilling times of my life were when I was doing improv or writing sketches in college or teaching high school kids to do improv or acting and directing in community theater. But when I had the chance to make the leap – I lived near Los Angeles for fifteen years – I couldn’t make myself do it. I even wrote a couple screenplays, but the thought of subjecting myself to the grind of judgment and evaluation was just too much. So I gave up on it. And now of course I hate writing and my teaching schedule eliminates even the possibility of doing some local theater in the evening. The closest I get these days to the thing I love is watching as many movies as I can.

All of which is a lengthy, navel-gazing setup to explain why I’m still irresistibly attracted to books <i>about</i> the creative process, even though as a frustrated, wannabe artist I’m no longer engaged in that process myself. Viewed from that angle, Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head is a delight, a 550-page series of interviews with various comedians, actors, and directors that could’ve been double the length and I still would’ve devoured it. As a high school student, Apatow recognized his desire to be a comedian and suckered various managers into letting him interview their up-and-coming comedians, never letting on he was actually a teenager lugging around a tape recorder for his high school radio station. The book starts with his first interview – a 1984 talk with the still relatively-unknown Jerry Seinfeld – and ends with (in this new, expanded edition of the book) a 2016 interview with author David Sedaris. In between we get conversations about comedy and creativity from such diverse pesonalities as Steve Martin, Garry Shandling, Jim Carrey, Sarah Silverman, Harold Ramis, Mel Brooks, Jon Stewart, Key and Peele, Louis C.K., Lena Dunham, and more – essentially a murderer’s row of the best comedic minds of the last 50 years.

It’s a fool’s errand to try to condense a book like this into a couple paragraphs, but there’s no denying the big takeaway from these interviews (especially in light of how I opened this review): the common thread among all these comedians is an unerring faith in their ability and the ways in which they could add their voice to the larger artistic conversation. That isn’t to say they didn’t have moments of doubt, but it’s fascinating to hear firsthand accounts of how their drive to do what they loved overcame whatever insecurity they felt. Interestingly, this is especially true of Apatow himself, who speaks freely with his guests of how critical he is of his own work (and worth).  I’m not sure what lesson I personally should take from this; at 43, whatever creative ship I might have hopped aboard has almost certainly sailed.  But as someone who lives vicariously through the lives of those doing what I wish I were doing, it’s compelling stuff.

(Tangent: It’s particularly fascinating for me to hear from the people who are Apatow’s contemporaries.  They [and he] are roughly my age, and it’s fun to hear how we all prize the same pop culture touchstones – Carlin, Monty Python, SNL, Pryor, et. al. – even if they eventually went on to do something with their obsessions.)

A bunch of interview transcripts may not sound like the most entertaining read in the world, but trust me: it is. Especially if you consider yourself a fan of comedy, Sick in the Head is essential reading.

*****

Current listening:

malcolm-13

Malcolm Middleton – Summer of ’13

The Darkest Part of the Night

cuckooMy attitude toward the Harry Potter series was nicely summed up in Jane Lynch’s recent interview with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast.  They described some of the various social events they’ve been invited to but declined to attend. “I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun,” Lynch said. “I just don’t want to do it.”  And that pretty much captures my ambivalence about J.K. Rowling’s wizard.  I’m sure the books are good; great, even.  I don’t know a single person who doesn’t love them.  My wife has all the books sitting on her shelf, and I bought her the new one a month ago.  It would be so easy to pick them up.  I just don’t want to do it.  I’ve got too many books of my own to read to even consider committing to seven books and however many thousand pages Rowling’s series represents.  But when the three Robert Galbraith books – written under Rowling’s pseudonym – showed up on Barnes & Noble’s “cheap books” shelves, that seemed much more manageable.  A quick text to, and an enthusiastic recommendation from, one of my former students whose taste in mysteries runs parallel to my own clinched it.  My first experience with Rowling wouldn’t be with Harry Potter but with her schlubby amputee detective, Cormoran Strike, in The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Regular readers of this blog (or my Goodreads feed) might recall my love for two other U.K.-based mystery writers, Ian Rankin and Mo Hayder.  Their series – Rankin’s Edinburgh-set mysteries featuring D.I. John Rebus and Hayder’s grittier stories starring the tortured D.I. Jack Caffery – are, for my money, the best ongoing thrillers today.  So how does Strike stack up against Rebus and Caffery?  Not bad, although it feels as though Rowling is still growing into a genre she’s not yet comfortable with.

Strike himself is a compelling character.  Rowling hasn’t finished delving into his backstory, but we get enough of it here to want to know more. Illegitimate son of a groupie and a rock star, Strike served for a time in Afghanistan as part of the British military’s Special Investigations Branch.  While there, he was caught in an explosion and lost part of his leg.  He returned to England, resumed a highly dysfunctional relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and became a private eye.  When we first meet him he’s hit rock bottom, living out of his office and with only one client to his name.  In a fortuitous turn of events, he’s gifted a plucky new receptionist and a wealthy client on the same day.  Robin arrives fresh from the temp office, excited to be rescued from another stultifying turn in a cubicle.  The client, John Bristow, has a childhood connection with Strike: Bristow’s brother Charlie was Strike’s best childhood friend before dying in a freak cycling accident. Bristow has now arrived to ask Strike to re-investigate the alleged suicide of his sister, supermodel Lula Landry.

Strike begins his investigation with reservations, essentially taking Bristow’s money only because he’s deep in debt.  The case takes him through the pretentious upper echelons of London’s fashion scene, and Rowling has a lot of fun contrasting Strike’s hulking, disheveled bulk with the sleek, trim models and designers he comes into contact with.  Rowling’s obvious strength and the book’s great joy – and honestly, the one reason I’d be willing to check out the Potter series – is her dialogue.  Her characters come from a range of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and as a long-time Anglophile, I could hear the different regional dialects leap off the page.  The supporting characters are all finely drawn, from Bristow’s rodent-like obsequiousness to film producer Freddie Bestigui’s bullish thuggery to homeless addict Rochelle Onifade’s crude desperation.  And receptionist Robin – clearly positioned to play a larger role in the next two books – is the most fun of all, an adventurer bristling against her role as an office worker engaged to a banker.  From this book alone, it’s easy to see how Rowling created a world in the Potter series that people wanted to live in.

The larger problem with The Cuckoo’s Calling, however, comes from Rowling’s mishandling of some of the genre’s tropes, which may simply be attributed to a first-timer’s rustiness.  A lot of the plot – and you can see it from the very start of the book, when Robin and John Bristow both arrive on the same day Strike is rendered homeless – hinges on coincidences and lucky twists of fate.  Rowling’s book is no less meticulously plotted than Rankin’s and Hayder’s books, but unlike those two writers, the internal logic she employs isn’t as consistent.  In Rankin’s Rebus series, you can clearly see how each plot twist rises organically from character and motivation.  In The Cuckoo’s Calling, certain plot points emerge only because Strike was in the right place at the right time or was able to make some enormous intuitive leap based only on an offhand comment.  And then there’s the book’s lazy climax, where Strike explains the entire case to the villain and waits for him to confess on a pocket recorder.  It’s a variation on what Roger Ebert called the Fallacy of the Talking Killer, where, at a movie’s climax, the bad guy could easily kill the hero but instead wastes valuable time explaining his motives, which of course causes him to be captured.  The generous view is that Rowling is paying tribute to classic mysteries where this kind of thing was normal.  The more critical view is that she just wasn’t sure how to bring the various plot threads together in any way other than the most straightforward.  No matter which view is correct, the climax doesn’t really work.

All of which is to say – as I usually find myself doing – that I didn’t dislike the book.  It’s a fun, fast read, and the dialogue alone makes it worth your time.  To be fair, the degree to which Rowling grows into these characters and this genre might cause me to modulate my criticism later.  It’ll be increasingly difficult to view this book’s flaws generously if they continue into the next two.  But again, its rocky final chapters notwithstanding, The Cuckoo’s Calling is strong enough overall not to feel exceedingly optimistic about the series’ promise.

*****

Current listening:

air-talkie

Air – Talkie Walkie (2004)

Fanfare for the Comic Muse

Time to play catch up.  Three books, one post, because I’m all about customer service.

familiarMark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May. After thinking about this one for a couple days, I came to the realization that Mark Danielewski may very well have written a book that’s unreviewable. This isn’t to say that it’s bad or that the content somehow puts the book outside the scope of a review – it’s just clearly incomplete. There are, to date, at least two additional volumes in Danielewski’s latest endeavor (with more to come, I think), and Danielewski being Danielewski, the first volume makes very little effort to tell a satisfying story with a conventional narrative arc. Usually the first book in a series sets the stage for what’s to come: introduces the characters, gets all the expositional business out of the way, ramps up the conflict, and so on. What the first volume of The Familiar is, instead, is a series of stories that I suspect will interlock at some undetermined point in the future. For now, we get only a taste of what’s to come: an epileptic girl who may have powers of healing; a Latino gang member; a couple on the run from government agents; a frankly incoherent story featuring (I think) Thai or maybe Korean characters speaking in a patois so thick I couldn’t really figure out anything that was happening.

And all of it is written in typical Danielewski style, with experiments in font and text placement, illustration and color, and shifts in perspective. It’s fun if you’re into this sort of thing (which I am), but anyone entering into it expecting a satisfying story is going to leave disappointed. But if you’re on Danielewski’s wavelength, there’s no way not to be really excited at the prospect of what’s to come.

*****

Your_Fathers,_Where_Are_They-_And_the_Prophets,_Do_They_Live_Forever-Dave Eggers, Your Fathers, Where Are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Your Fathers, Where Are They? works more effectively as a thought experiment and an exercise in conversational flexibility than anything else, which marks this as minor Eggers. It’s a fun little thing, and a quick, relatively breezy read, but basically Eggers sets out to answer these questions: Why are white males such dickbags? (and) What’s missing in their lives to make them so angry and unsatisfied despite the fact they’ve had every advantage a person could want? I mean, it’s a compelling question (especially as one of the white males in question), but I find books that set out to do this kind of heavy lifting usually fail as solid narratives because they’re primarily concerned with responding to a thesis instead of telling a story. This one isn’t a failure – Eggers is too talented for that – but where a book like Eggers’ masterful Zeitoun works because the message is embedded in its heartbreaking narrative, the message is the narrative inYour Fathers, Where Are They?, and once that becomes clear it’s hard to get involved in the plot when we know that plot is just a means to try and answer a question.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a man named Thomas. He’s 34 and disaffected, angry about the shooting death of a childhood friend, and someone so unstable we learn he once tried to burn down a hospital to make a point. But now he’s kidnapped half a dozen people and chained them in separate buildings in a decommissioned military base. The book is told exclusively in dialogue, as Thomas essentially interviews them (with the threat of violence right below the surface) about a variety of topics. From an astronaut, he wants to know what it felt like to work toward a shuttle mission for his entire life only to have NASA defunded just as he was on the cusp of career success. From a congressman he wants to know how and why even politicians with the best of intentions get sucked into the bureaucratic machine. From his 6th grade teacher he wants to find out if he and his friend were molested as children. And so on.

Watching Eggers play with dialogue and perspective in this way is fun, even if, as I said above, it becomes less satisfying once we clue in to what he’s doing. It ends ambiguously, as it must, which is probably only going to annoy people who aren’t already on board. I think Eggers fans will enjoy the exercise, but for the uninitiated, Your Fathers, Where Are They? will probably be more frustrating than anything else.

*****

To riseJoshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. I mean, I don’t know. Clever is good, right? It indicates intelligence (I think) and a certain sense of humor (I think). I like clever. Monty Python, Christopher Guest movies, Michael Chabon. But it’s gotta be effortless. If I can see the flop sweat, it’s not clever, it’s work. And Joshua Ferris sweat all over this mofo.

For a while, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour read like a worthy successor toAnd Then We Came to the End, Ferris’ previous book, which I loved. Paul O’Rourke is a dentist with some impressive anxiety issues, an unhealthy tendency to get overly attached to the women in his life, and an obnoxious devotion to his atheism. As a guy of comparable age who shares all three of those traits, I could relate. And Ferris is funny and unusually perceptive at times. I love this quote, which is going to haunt me every time I head into the classroom with students who grow farther and farther away from my age with each passing year:

The 1980s were thirty years ago. The people now following [minor celebrities] Daughn and Taylor thought of the 1980s as I used to think of the 1950s. The 1980s had, overnight, become the 1950s. It was unimaginable. I might as well have been wearing a Davy Crockett hat and cowering under my desk for fear of a Soviet attack.

Then Paul discovers someone is posting as him online. First appears a website for his dental practice where there hadn’t been one before. Then a Facebook account. Then someone using his name on the Boston Red Sox fan forum he frequently visits. Then Twitter. And at first the postings are innocuous and full of non-sequiturs. But then they become fixated on Judaism, and an ancient sect of religious doubters called the Ulm, and the tweets and postings start to sound more and more anti-Semitic.

And that’s where things go downhill. I love a good conspiracy novel as much as the next guy, but I shouldn’t see the gears and cogs of the conspiracy’s machinery at work. In To Rise Again at a Decent Hour the machinery was so obvious and laborious I could practically smell the grease and feel the steam. Where before we got wry humor, we suddenly get entire pages that go like this:

The Ulms’ origins were well documented by references to those books of the Bible where the Amalekites were mentioned, from Genesis through the Psalms. It was said that the Greeks called the Ulms metics and were known to them as anthropoi horis enan noi, or “the people without a temple.” There was a list of ways the Ulms had been systematically suppressed since the advent of Christianity . . .

And on. And on and on. And on. By the end of the book I was bored with the whole thing. I didn’t care about what happened to Paul or his practice or any of the other characters, really. And it’s a good thing, because the book ends with a damp squib of a resolution. I don’t mind vague endings – I’ll go to the mat defending the end of the movie adaptation of No Country for Old Men – but you’ve got to give me something. In this case, there was a story, and then it was done.

How did this get short-listed for the Man Booker Prize? The mind boggles.

*****

Current listening:

Beatles red

The Beatles – 1962-1966

Crawl Out from the Fall Out

GirlIt’s no secret that of all the fictional monsters out there, zombies have been employed to do the most allegorical heavy lifting.  Director George A. Romero has made a cottage industry of this practice, using zombies to critique race relations (Night of the Living Dead), consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), the military-industrial complex (Day of the Dead), economic inequality (Land of the Dead), social media (Diary of the Dead) and – I think – survivalists (Survival of the Dead, which is easily his worst movie, so it’s hardly a surprise there’s no apparent theme).  The reasons for this are well-documented; the most popular theory goes that because zombies are personality-free eating machines, directors can easily filter the conflict through whatever message they hope to impart.  In all this time, though, there hasn’t really been a zombie movie – or book, since that’s what I’m writing about here – that deals with the inescapable humanity of zombies.  In the pressure to survive, characters engage in very little hand-wringing over killing things that used to be people.  Jonathan Maberry is the only other author I can think of who’s tackled this subject.  In his Young Adult series Rot and Ruin, a character “releases” zombies with as much dignity as possible in an effort to respect the people they once were.  But virtually every other depiction of zombies is mainly a vehicle for lots of stabbing and smashing and gooshing.*  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I love a good gorefest as much as the next horror movie nerd (which I absolutely am), but I also like movies that confound our expectations and tinker with the tropes we’ve come to expect.

Which brings me, if you couldn’t guess, to M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, one of the best novels I’ll read all year, and one of the best horror novels of all time, full stop.  Carey does something that’s almost unthinkable: he writes a novel that works simultaneously as a  thrilling horror story, a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be human, and a critique of what comedian Patton Oswalt describes as, “Science: We’re all about coulda, not about shoulda!”  And he does this the good, old-fashioned way by creating characters that we come to care deeply about and for whom we want the best to happen.  Even the villain – and I use that term loosely, because this is a book that deals exclusively in shades of gray – is complex and sympathetic.  Carey does so many things well that I almost don’t know where to start – and I’m very hesitant to say much at all at the risk of ruining things for everyone else.

Here’s what I will say: The book begins twenty years after the Breakdown, a biological catastrophe that turns most of the population into ravenous zombie-like creatures the survivors eventually call “hungries” (which I have to admit is probably my favorite nickname of all the ones given to zombies by movies and television and books).  At a remote military base in the north of England, Helen Justineau teaches a class full of young hungries, small children that display all the zombie signifiers but which are also capable of speech and rational thought and, most importantly, learning.  They behave like normal children except for the fact that they have to be strapped to chairs with arm and neck restraints, and Justineau and the other adults at the school have to slather themselves with a medicinal astringent that masks their scent.  Justineau develops a particularly strong connection with Melanie, the smartest child in the class, and this causes her to butt heads with Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a military scientist in charge of studying this unique group of children in the hope of finding a cure.  Also present is Sergeant Eddie Parks, the no-nonsense leader of the guard who essentially views the children as a threat to be carefully monitored.

For the first part of the book we watch these four characters in uneasy orbit around each other.  Justineau becomes heavily invested in the well-being of her students, and especially Melanie.  Melanie, even though she doesn’t fully understand what she is, loves Justineau for seeing her potential and giving her glimpses (especially through Greek mythology) of the wider world.  Caldwell sees the children only as subjects, and has no compunction about, say, removing their brains so she can study them further.  And Parks is all about by-the-book containment; he doesn’t hate the children, they’re just part of his job.  As a result, Parks and Caldwell see Justineau as unnecessarily (and probably unforgivably) soft-hearted, failing to see the animalistic nature of the children.  Justineau, in turn, sees Parks as a violent military puppet who just follows orders and Caldwell as a cruel sadist who delights in torturing (undead) children.

The beauty of all this is just how subtly Carey establishes these inherent conflicts.  Even though we see them developing, nothing is telegraphed, nothing is obvious. It wasn’t until the second third of the book, as the characters (along with naive soldier Kieran Gallagher) have been cut off from the base and now face a long march south to the main military complex, that I realized just how clever Carey had been.  He took his time to bake in the suspicion these characters have for each other and then put them in a situation – marching over hostile terrain, pursued by human enemies and encountering more hungries – where they have to depend on each other.

So that’s the horror/thriller part.  But I also said at the top that it’s a thoughtful rumination of humanity, and it is.  Melanie is kind of an ingenious creation: an engaging and preternaturally smart child who also happens to be a ruthless killing machine.  She’s constantly at war with herself, fighting against her nature and refusing to harm the humans with whom she’s traveling.   This is largely down to how they view her.  Justineau, especially, takes her seriously, and even Parks comes to respect what she brings to the group.   She has a role.  She belongs, and Melanie doesn’t want to jeopardize that because of a little hunger.  So she encourages them to keep her in restraints and muzzled, and makes sure they remember to coat their exposed skin in “e-blocker,” an ointment that renders them scentless.  But during their journey she starts to learn more about herself, who she is, and what Caldwell ultimately wants to do to her.  Justineau and Parks know this, too, and as the external threat increases the farther south they travel, so too does the internal one.  This all comes to a head in London, when the characters learn the truth both about the Breakdown and what Melanie truly is.

It’s a fantastic book – an effortless thriller that, yeah, also made me a little weepy at the end.  The movie adaptation comes out later this year, and I will fight everyone involved if they mess it up.

 

* Colson Whitehead’s Zone One also qualifies as a thoughtful take on the zombie genre, but I think I’d argue that the zombies are almost incidental to what he’s doing and therefore Zone One isn’t really a zombie novel.  Nit-picking, probably.

*****

Current listening:

Sonic murray

Sonic Youth – Murray Street (2002)

A Girl Called Destruction

Lauren shining

Sometimes an excess of pop culture knowledge is a hindrance.  When I first heard that Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls dealt with a time traveling serial killer, there’s just no way I wasn’t immediately going to think of Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells in pursuit of Jack the Ripper in then-modern day (but really 1979) San Francisco.

It wasn’t exactly two strikes against the book, but the baggage didn’t help.  And that’s sort of a shame, going in with those preconceived notions, because The Shining Girls is all kinds of terrific.

Most notably, Beukes does some really fun stuff with narrative structure.  In some ways she’s telling parallel narratives.  In one of them we follow Harper, a killer who discovers a dilapidated house whose front door serves as a portal into other times.  In the other we’re following Kirby, the only one of Harper’s victims to survive his attack.  But rather than tell this is as a linear narrative – even one where the author alternates perspectives in each chapter – she skips around from character to character.  Where we might be with Harper in 1937 in one chapter, in the next we might be with Kirby in 1994, and then with another character entirely in the next.  It’s not nearly as confusing as it sounds: Beukes helpfully titles each chapter by character and year, but because she’s drawn the characters so indelibly, they’re easy to track.

So we have this bit of structural ingenuity on one hand, and on the other we have a substantial degree of playfulness afforded by the time travel conceit.  When Harper discovers the house, he also discovers in an upstairs room a list of girls’ names written on the wall.  The names are – title alert! – literally shining, and beside them is a collection of artifacts: a lighter, a cassette tape, a Jackie Robinson baseball card, and so on.  Harper begins visiting these “shining girls” as children, talking to them or giving them one of these artifacts, and then returning to them as adults and killing them, as he believes he’s destined to do.

Cut to Kirby, one of Harper’s victims.  He first tracked her down in the 1970s, giving her a plastic pony to hold, and then returned to viciously attack her in the late 80s.  Now, in 1994, she’s a survivor and an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times.  Paired with Dan Velasquez, a grouchy sports writer who used to work the homicide beat, Kirby sets out to find out who attacked her.

Beukes skillfully skips back and forth between the characters, and we watch as Harper works his way through his list in a variety of time periods while Kirby conducts her investigation in the early 90s.  We know there will come a reckoning between the two of them – how could there not be? – especially because Harper doesn’t yet realize that Kirby survived his attack.

I’m not normally a time travel guy, but I really enjoyed The Shining Girls.  There’s an infectious sense of play to the proceedings, where even though we’re watching some exceptionally grisly crimes play out and are getting caught up in the suspense of Kirby’s sleuthing, we also can’t help but admire how thoroughly Beukes has created a range of worlds in which the characters travel.  Just as importantly, Kirby and Velasquez make for a compelling team, the former increasingly obsessed with finding her would-be killer and the latter basically along for the ride because he has the hots for Kirby.  Harper is a little trickier to get a handle on.  We never get a very satisfying reason for why he discovers the time traveling house – or why the house does what it is – but Beukes does so many entertainingly mind-bending things with loops in time that it seems a little churlish to pick at the details.

The best recommendation I can give is that the same afternoon I finished The Shining Girls, I went out and bought a couple of Beukes’ other books.  Color me impressed.

*****

Current listening:

XTC white

XTC – White Music (1978)

Hounds of Love

AnsariOne thing immediately became clear to me as I read Aziz Ansari’s excellent treatise on modern romance (titled, conveniently, Modern Romance) and it’s this: I would have had more dating success as a young man if I had had the options afforded by today’s technology.  As a shy, awkward kid with – how to put this? – “a face that is not pleasant to look at,” I wasn’t super successful with the ladies.  I was (and still am, I think) fairly proficient with words.  If I had had access to text messaging instead of the painful “date request” phone call, if I could’ve charmed from a distance with my written wit, if I’d been able to make a good physical impression via the smoke and mirrors possible in Instagram, I might have been happier as a wee lad.  I’m generally useless in social situations, especially at first, but once I warm up I can hold my own.  If I could’ve warmed up to the girls I was interested in through technology (instead of stumbling haphazardly through a gauntlet of clumsy personal interactions) I think I would have fared better.

But as I reflect on this, I guess I’m getting a little ahead of myself while also failing to mention what I found most fascinating about Ansari’s book.

Modern Romance is absolutely a humor book.  For those who know and enjoy Ansari’s humor (whether with his Human Giant sketch show, his standup, his indelible role as Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, or his fantastic Netflix show, Master of None), you’ll quickly hear his voice come through loud and clear:

To be honest, I tend to romanticize the past, and though I appreciate all the conveniences of modern life, sometimes I yearn for simpler times.  Wouldn’t it be cool to be single in a bygone era?  I take a girl to a drive-in movie, we go have a cheeseburger and a malt at the diner, and then we make out under the stars in my old-timey convertible.  Granted, this might have been tough in the fifties given my brown skin tone and racial tensions at the time, but in my fantasy, racial harmony is also part of the deal.

But while it’s unquestionably a book where Ansari gets to be laugh-out-loud funny, it increases the comedy book stakes by also being an honest-to-goodness social science text.  Ansari and his research partner, New York University’s Eric Klinenberg, spent years conducting focus group interviews and analyzing interactions with volunteers on a subreddit forum to present an illuminating view of what it’s like to date in the 2010s (in the U.S. and in other countries), and how it differs from generations past.  We get chapters dealing with the “initial ask,” online dating, international trends, the implications of technology, and so on.  Each chapter is grounded in their research and shot through with Ansari’s unmistakable humor.

While there’s certainly a wealth of information here, much of which I didn’t know (Japan is in the middle of a marriage crisis? A third of the people who got married in the first decade of the 21st Century met online?), the most striking issue the book reveals is the problem presented by having too many options.  Ansari sets this up early by discussing the interviews he conducted with older Americans, most of whom met their spouses in a very small radius.  Over 80% of those interviewed lived within 20 blocks of their future spouse, and many of them lived in the same apartment building or on the same street.  This is true of my parents, who lived four houses apart, met when they were 13, married in their early 20s, and stayed married until my mom’s death in 2011.  According to Ansari, this was a pattern repeated by many people in my parents’ generation (that is, meeting someone from your neighborhood and marrying young, not necessarily dying an early death from cancer), but it’s one that has largely disappeared.

Instead, thanks to the rise of online dating and apps like Tinder – as well as increased mobility and larger social circles brought about by social media networks – people today have dozens (and in large cities, literally hundreds) of possible mates a phone swipe away.  When you combine this with people’s increased need to find the best thing possible – Ansari very funnily recounts the tortuous process he uses just to find the best taco joint in town – it only makes sense that people are dating more and marrying less (or at least later).  Because we can now see just how many other attractive single people are out there in our vicinity, Ansari argues, people are increasingly less satisfied with their current situation in the hope that they can eventually find not just something better, but the best there is (be it taco joint, television, or spouse).

Most fascinating, Ansari reports that this isn’t really a thing in the other countries they researched.  People in those countries still largely fall in love as a result of meeting through friends or at work or in bars or clubs (although he also details the frankly horrifying verbal assaults women in Buenos Aires face on a daily basis).   This need to find the “best” seems to speak to a restlessness in the American psyche that I can’t help but think also speaks to our competitive, capitalist identity.  Doesn’t it make sense that when a country has as one of its bedrock principles the notion of upward social mobility, its people would find themselves increasingly unwilling to settle for second-best in all aspects of their lives?  We typically see this occurring in the context of economics, but in light of Ansari and Klinenberg’s work, it seems unavoidable to consider how this mindset has influenced other aspects of American culture, including dating.  Even though Ansari doesn’t make this connection himself, it’s to his book’s credit that it allows for this sort of speculation instead of merely settling for funny.

This is a rare book that’s able to mix laughs with research, and the few topics I’ve mentioned here are really just the tip of the qualitative iceberg.  Modern Romance is a fascinating read, not just as social science, but as a snapshot of America – and young Americans – at the dawn of the 21st Century.

*****

Current listening:

Dream days

The Dream Syndicate – The Days of Wine and Roses (1982)

First Day on a New Planet

StingerIf you’re writing genre fiction, it’s a gamble to swing for the fences.  In some ways it’s easier (and maybe more satisfying to some readers) to forgo things like character development and thematic resonance in favor of plot momentum.  Just strip it down and let it rip.  If, on the other hand, you want to go for longevity, you’ve got to give the reader more than just cheap thrills, and that’s where Robert R. McCammon’s almost successful Stinger (1988) ultimately fails.  Because if you’re going to take the time to dig a little deeper into character and story, you’d better be good at it.

The novel is almost begging for the first approach I described above.  A benevolent alien, escaping from an intergalactic prison, crashes its craft near Inferno, a remote Texas town, and takes over the body of a six-year-old girl until it can find a way to escape.  Meanwhile, one of the creatures maintaining the prison traces the escapee to Inferno, activates a skygrid around the town that imprisons everyone inside it (like Stephen King’s dome, only written 25 years earlier), and proceeds to hunt it down, wreaking havoc in its wake.

When McCammon gets there – when Stinger, as its called, crash lands in the center of Inferno and begins its violent search – the book is a narrative steamroller.  It’s creepy and thrilling and does all the things you want a pulpy horror novel with literary aspirations to accomplish.  The problem, however, is that it literally takes over 200 pages to get there.  Here we are, on page 203 of 539:

The fireball – almost two hundred feet across – roared down and crashed into Mack Cade’s autoyard, throwing sheets of dust and pieces of cars into the air.  Its shock wave heaved the earth, sent cracks scurrying along the streets of Inferno and Bordertown, blew out windows, and flung Cody Lockett off his feet . . .

As fun as Stinger ultimately gets, what precedes that passage is 200 pages of deathly tedious world-building and attempts at developing characters we care about.  We’re treated to these various plot threads:

• Tension between the white residents of Inferno and the Mexican-American residents of Bordertown, which usually manifests itself in gang violence between high school students (and some frankly atrocious racist language and attitudes, which I think is meant to be critical of the white townspeople, but because it’s handled so clumsily just comes off as garden-variety racism).

• The activities of the Hammond family – parents Tom (high school teacher)  and Jessie (veterinary doctor) and their children Ray and Stevie – which include Ray’s creepy obsessing over his female classmates and Tom’s attempts at motivating two students, Cody and Rick, who are – surprise, surprise – key members in the two opposing gangs.

• A World War II vet who takes care of an imaginary dog.

• The arrival in town of Rick’s hot sister Miranda, who exists for no reason other than to create more tension between the gangs because Cody, natch, thinks she’s “a smash fox” (a dumb phrase McCammon overuses the first time it appears).

•  A whole lot of clichéd father-son tension between Cody and his neglectful alcoholic father Curt.

• The arrival of two Air Force men – Barnes and Gunniston – on the search for the crashed spacecraft.

It goes on and on in that vein for almost half the book, just a lot of generic prefab family drama that might as well have come out of a kit.  I know why it’s there: McCammon’s trying to ultimately show how different groups of people who don’t particularly get along can band together against a common enemy.  But the payoff isn’t satisfying because the setup is so hokey.

And again, that’s kind of a shame, because from the moment Stinger lands, the book gets a whole lot more interesting.  As Stinger tracks down Daufin – the name the escapee gives itself after taking over Stevie’s body – it does so by killing Inferno’s residents and reanimating their bodies in variously creepy ways: human form but with needle teeth and claws; a man with half a dog growing out of his chest; a horse with a scorpion tail.  In this way it removes any threats from the town while in its different human forms it tries to blend in in ways not totally dissimilar from John Carpenter’s adaptation of The Thing.  It ultimately becomes a race against time for the town’s survivors to help Daufin escape before Stinger brings its entire army to Earth for colonization.

I first read Stinger in high school (McCammon was one of the authors I discovered around the same time as Stephen King) but remembered very little about it.  What I really need to do now is revisit some of his other books because I actually have very warm memories about them.  I’m not sure if Stinger is a weak spot in his bibliography, or if I just hadn’t developed the critical faculties to help me see how disastrously ordinary the first half is.  If McCammon had cut out most of the ancillary world-building and structured the first half to focus on the discovery of Daufin’s pod, the takeover of Stevie’s body, and the arrival of Barnes and Gunniston, and then skipped straight to Stinger’s arrival and the town’s imprisonment, the book would have been a lean, balls-to-the-wall thriller.  Right now, though, it’s just needlessly flabby: a 530-page novel flailing about for importance when it could have been a hugely satisfying 300-page book that just wanted to scare the bejsus out of the reader.

*****

Current listening:

Lou new

Lou Reed – New York (1989)

You Only Disappear

Klosterman visibleLike the singer who decides to record a solo album or the marquee actor who wants to direct a vanity project, it always makes me a little nervous when an author primarily known for one genre decides to try something new.  This is doubly true of Chuck Klosterman, a fellow who belongs to that little coterie of unlucky authors and journalists with whom I identify to a probably unhealthy degree (see also: Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Rob Sheffield).  He’s known primarily for penning pop culture-obsessed essays whose train of thought runs so closely parallel to my own that in rare moments of self-confidence I find myself thinking, “See, I could do that.”  His nonfiction collections, Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto  and Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, are clever and perceptive and often laugh-out-loud funny, and they’ve sort of served as a bellwether for my own thinking about music, media, and celebrity.  In his book Writing with Passion, Tom Romano talks about “distant teachers,” those people from whom we learn even when separated by geographical distance.  For a dozen years, Chuck Klosterman has been one of my distant teachers.

So I was a little nervous when, in 2008, he published his first novel, Downtown Owl.  I still haven’t read it.  If it sucked, if fiction was a poor fit for his talent, I wasn’t sure how it might tarnish my view of his other work.  Then he published The Visible Man in 2011, and it somehow ended up on my shelf, which meant I was obligated to read it as part of the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project. (There’s a slash in blue magic marker along the bottom of the pages, which makes me think I must’ve picked it up in Barnes & Noble’s clearance bin, to be read at some distant point in the future when I was emotionally and intellectually prepared for disappointment.)

Here’s the verdict on The Visible Man: It’s delightful.  I use that word rarely, but it fits in this case.  It was blast from start to finish, a breezy (but at times deceptively sophisticated) treatise on identity, human nature, motivation, and The Beatles.  I devoured it in two 90-minute sittings.

Written in the form of a book draft written by therapist Victoria Vick and submitted to her editor, The Visible Man details her run-in and subsequent sessions with a patient who claims to have invented a suit that essentially renders him invisible (Klosterman describes the science, but I’m not sure I understand it, and even if I did it’s too complicated to relate here).  Victoria is understandably skeptical, and she treats their first several sessions (the synthesized transcripts of which make up the narrative) as the rantings of a delusional individual who’s suffered a break from reality.  Then Y__ (as he’s referred throughout the book) shows up at her office in the suit, and Victoria realizes he’s telling the truth.

As he explains it to her, Y__ is using this tremendous invention to conduct an experiment on humanity.  He simply sneaks into people’s homes (hoping to find that alone; multiple residents present too many logistical complications) and watches them.  He stays for several days, seeing how they act when they think no one else is watching.  This, he believes, will give him insight into the true nature of humanity, for it’s only when no one else is around that we’re truly being ourselves.

The Visible Man, at this point, shifts into what reads almost like a series of short stories, as Y__ tells Victoria several of his most memorable interactions with those he observes.  There’s Valerie, an obsessive-compulsive who works out with fanatical zeal only so she can spend her evenings smoking massive amounts of pot and eating ungodly amounts of junk food.  There’s Bruce, the Internet multitasker who’s mainly concerned with drafting the perfect email to a woman.  There’s “The Half-Mexican Ladies Man,” who somehow divines that Y__ is watching him.  And most disturbingly for Victoria, there’s the tale of the Heavy Dudes, an interaction that ends in death and incarceration.  All through these sessions, it becomes clear that the relationship between Victoria and Y__ is developing into something beyond therapist and patient, and the implications of that evolution push the book into his final suspenseful chapters.

Because this is a Chuck Klosterman book, there are passages that are undeniably funny, such as when Y__ describes one 74-day-long relationship as “like having sex with the Falkland Island War.”  And of course there are references to music throughout that are entertaining but read more like Klosterman inserting his voice into the story than growing organically from the characters.  At one point Victoria and Y__ have an argument about the ubiquity of The Beatles, and one of Y__’s first experiences watching another person centers on the band Rush.  This didn’t particularly bother me, but I could see narrative purists crying foul.

The most interesting thing, to which I alluded above, is how The Visible Man actually has some sophisticated things to say about human identity.  There’s Y__’s central thesis, which is the importance of viewing people unobserved when they’re alone, but there’s a section later in the book where Y__ talks about how at some point an individual’s identity is fixed, and that person will largely stay true to that personality, even if circumstances change.

The first time I realized I could enter someone’s home, there was this predictable rush of power.  There was an immediate recognition that I could do anything I wanted.  I could kill a man and never be captured.  I could rape a woman and she’d assume it was just a horrific nightmare . . . But the fact of the matter is that I’m not a rapist, and the fact that I suddenly had the means to become a world-class rapist wasn’t going to change that.  We always end up being ourselves, somehow.  I was who I was long before I consciously became the person I am.

And that’s really the question Klosterman is interested in exploring: Who are any of us, really?  The Visible Man is better than I expected and, even more importantly, better than I hoped, and it immediately marks Klosterman as not just a first-class essayist, but a first-class writer in any genre.

*****

Current listening:

Decemberists picaresque

The Decemberists – Picaresque (2005)

An End Has a Start

Shift howeyIf you follow the world of e-publishing even a little bit you likely know the story of Hugh Howey.  He’s one of these rare self-publishing ultra-success stories, an aspiring writer who decided to start releasing his stuff through Amazon’s Kindle Direct store.  It caught on in a big way, and his most well-known book, the Wool omnibus, was selling 20,000-30,000 digital copies a month during its peak popularity in the summer of 2012.  He was offered a seven-figure deal to put the book in print, but he apparently settled for something in the low six figures to maintain e-publishing rights.  Now, if his social media is to believed, he mainly just sails around the world and posts photos to make the rest of us jealous.  So, as much as I hate to admit it, Wool – the story that started it all – lives up to the hype.

It is, first and foremost, a brilliant and astonishing feat of world-building, a vibrant post-apocalyptic imagining where an unnamed catastrophe’s survivors live in a massive underground silo. Their society is rigidly stratified, with the bureaucrats and politicians on the upper levels and things getting decidedly more blue-collar as they descend the massive spiral staircase that is their society’s only mode of transport. You descend through the clinics and labs, through hydroponic chambers where their food is grown, through the IT department, through the Supply rooms, and down and down over a hundred floors until you reach Machinery, the guts of the silo where things are really kept running.  It’s a mystery and a conspiracy thriller, it’s got action and more than a few elements of science fiction.  Generally speaking, it’s a winner.  My only substantial criticism is that it’s too long.  Because it’s a collection of serialized novellas, they become a little unwieldy when consumed as a single work.  There were places when I wanted more momentum, when instead the story would circle back to something only tangentially related to the main narrative (which was so good I wanted Howey to stick with it).

And that brings me to the fundamental problem with Shift, the second omnibus that serves as a prequel to Wool.  Like the first collection, its introductory novella (titled “First Shift: Legacy”) starts off in strong fashion, telling us the story of how the silos came to be built and why people eventually needed to live in them.  It focuses on Donald, a U.S. Senator with architect training; Thurman, an older Senator who’s Donald’s mentor and who initiates the silo project; and Anna, Thurman’s daughter with whom Donald had a college relationship.  It’s tense stuff, especially as we come to realize that Thurman’s motives for creating the silos is sketchy at best.  This narrative is intercut with a second and equally important narrative (which I mention only to make the point that it’s decidedly not a subplot; it’s complementary to the other narrative thread) that takes place in one of the silos years in the future.  It’s here we meet Troy and learn about the shifts: six month periods when survivors are thawed out of a “deep freeze” lasting decades to do one of the jobs that keeps the silo running.  Troy slowly comes to realize that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  Unlike the other residents of the silo, he seems to have memories of the world outside and, in the course of his investigation . . .

SPOILERS ABOUND FOR THE REST OF THIS REVIEW.

IF YOU EVER INTEND TO READ THIS BOOK

YOU MIGHT JUST WANT TO SKIP TO THE FINAL PARAGRAPH

OR GO LOOK AT FUNNY CAT PICTURES INSTEAD.

. . . we come to realize, along with Troy, that he is, in fact, Donald, and the whole silo operates on the necessity of its residents not knowing anything about the world before.  “First Shift” ends with Troy/Donald trying to break free of the silo, only to be captured, given memory suppressing drugs, and cast back into the deep freeze by Thurman, who still runs things, Oz-like, from behind a metaphoric curtain.  It’s powerful, nail-biting stuff, so for the first 157 pages, I was fully on board.

But then some of the old Wool omnibus malaise sets in.  In the second installment, titled “Second Shift: Order,” Howey follows the pattern of the first, cutting back and forth between locations. We get more of Donald and his investigation into the true nature of the silo (which is complicated by the later fact that when he’s awoken from the deep freeze everyone thinks he’s Thurman because, you know, it’s been decades and everyone’s on memory suppressing drugs anyway), including why and how he got separated from his wife, whom he discovers made a life for herself in a different silo. It’s okay. But then we’re introduced to a second, not-so-complementary-this-time narrative about a character named Mission who in his own way is also trying to figure out how things came to be the way they are.

In the third installment (“Third Shift: Pact”) we get the Donald/Thurman thing, and intercut with that is the story of Jimmy, who later adopts the name of Solo when silo rebellion breaks out and he sequesters himself in a sort of panic room for years with only a cat named Shadow for company.  It picks up some steam toward the end when we realize that this is leading up to the events that make up the main plot of Wool, but it’s really too little too late.  I was heavily invested in the first installment, less in the second, and sort of bored with the whole thing by the third.  It’s all resolutely good, really totally fine, but over 600 pages it starts to drag in the same way the Wool omnibus started to drag.  I wanted momentum, but for the last hundred pages or so it was like, “Oh, I guess we have to go see what Donald is up to again.”

So, really, part of the issue might be the format.  Because Howey wrote these to be read in bite-sized pieces, maybe it’s a mistake to plow through all three parts as a single experience.  Maybe.  But I’m not entirely sold on that idea, either.  If it’s a satisfying story, everything should click together like a well-built Lego set, whether it’s a hundred pages or a thousand.  If I had read “Third Shift: Pact” on its own, weeks after reading the other two installments, I don’t think I would’ve cared any more about any of the characters.  The bigger issue might be that Howey just needs to streamline and know when enough is enough.  In my review of Wool I said I really liked it but wished it had been 100 pages shorter.  For Shift, my praise is less effusive and we can increase that number of expendable pages to at least 200.

*****

Current listening:

Yo popular

Yo la Tengo – Popular Songs (2009)

End of Amnesia

Roddy paulaBecause I’ve never been an addict myself, or had to deal with anyone else’s addiction in any meaningful way, it’s always been sort of an abstract concept.  I’ve viewed addiction in much the same way I viewed cancer before my mom was diagnosed with it in 1995 – as a horrible problem that must be terrible to live with but whose various indignities and anxieties never seemed all that real.  But then someone you care about is diagnosed with it, and all the little details that you never had to think about previously (scheduling events as mundane as errands in the “good” window after chemotherapy appointments; adjusting to a bland diet; being embarrassed by and helping others not be embarrassed by wigs and head wraps) suddenly become all too real.  Addiction is, I imagine, much the same in this regard, and it’s to Roddy Doyle’s credit that Paula Spencer  helped me see that in a way I never have before. The book tackles both addiction and cancer (although much more the former than the latter), but it does it in a way that strikes a pretty even balance between humor and pathos, ensuring it’s not just a relentless slog through misery.

Part of that description, though, is a little disingenuous of me.  You hear “addiction story” and most likely think of Trainspotting or Less Than Zero or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or any number of memoirs written by personalities famous and not-famous alike, detailing the way they got hooked and (usually) eventually kicked their habit.  Paula Spencer, by contrast, is very much a victory narrative, albeit a halting, tentative one.  The title character is a 48-year-old recovering alcoholic, four months dry at the start of the book.  She’s also a survivor of spousal abuse (see this book’s predecessor, 1996’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doorsfor all the details), a housecleaner with four children whose husband Charlo was gunned down by the police after robbing a bank and taking a hostage.  At the beginning she’s barely hanging on, still counting the months since her last drink:

The drink is only part of it.  She’s coped well with the drink.  She wants a drink.  She doesn’t want a drink.  She doesn’t want a drink.  She fights it.  She wins.  She’s proud of that.  She’s pleased.   She’ll keep going.  She knows she will.

Two of her children, Leanne (20) and Jack (16), live with her.  Jack is the good kid, quiet and awkward, whose biggest problem is getting suspended for calling a teacher “useless” on ratemyteachers.com; Leanne, she fears (probably rightfully), is joining her in alcoholism.  Her other two children, grown and with children of their own, are Nicola and John Paul.  The heart of the book is watching Paula negotiate her relationships with these four, especially the three oldest, all whom remember her at her worst.  And that’s one thing Doyle does remarkably well, something I’d never actually considered when it comes to addiction: How the recovering addict is essentially split in two to the people who care about him or her.  There’s the “new” person who is trying to set each foot right on the road to recovery, but there’s also the “old” person who was duplicitous or manipulative or cruel or, in Paula’s case, occasionally violent herself.  So while Paula’s family is happy to see her doing better, there’s also the memory of who she was, and the fear that she’ll return to that state.  It’s a constant state of living in two places – two different times, really – at once, which has to be one of the unsettling things to do.

Paula also has two sisters, neither of whom she has ever been close to: Denise, who’s married and having an affair with a married man, and Carmela, around whom the cancer subplot revolves.  The book captures a year in Paula’s life with these people as she struggles to get her life back on track.  It isn’t a story that deals in melodrama or huge, cathartic sequences.  Like life, Paula’s progress is charted hesitantly, in the way her relationship with her sisters improves, in an invitation to visit John Paul’s house, in her buying a stereo and the new U2 album.  In contrast to one of my recent reviews, where I wrote that a bunch of stuff happens and none of it matters, Paula Spencer is a book where not much happens but it’s all important.  And, crucially, sometimes it’s in the not happening that some of the biggest growth happens.  You likely know those moments: the not-so-awkward silences with someone you care about; a meaningful glance; a conversation about music or the weather that carries the subtext of an epic poem.

It’s really just a lovely little book.  It doesn’t have the impact of Doyle’s The Commitments or A Star Called Henry, but as a modest tale of a woman struggling to be good and make things right with the people she loves, Paula Spencer is as real, and as revelatory, as literature gets.

*****

Current listening:

Rocketship certain

Rocketship – A Certain Smile, a Certain Sadness (1996)

Bad Love Is Easy to Do

Boyle womenConsidering how consistently, shockingly good he is, it always surprises me how few people have read T.C. Boyle.  Of his fifteen novels, at least four are stone-cold classics and one of them deserves to be canonized.  The most compelling thing about his work is the way he’s able to graft fairly weighty issues onto narrative engines that develop and maintain some serious momentum; they never get bogged down in their own importance at the expense of telling an entertaining tale.  He’s equally adept at writing purely fictional tales like The Tortilla Curtain (Mexican immigration), A Friend of the Earth (environmental collapse), and Talk Talk (identity theft and digital security) and historical fiction that mines the lives of real people for allegorical heft: World’s End (explorer Mungo Park); The Inner Circle (sex researcher Alfred Kinsey); and The Women (the wives – and loves – of architect Frank Lloyd Wright).  Underlying all these tales is a vague sense of creeping dread: Boyle’s novels rarely end well for any of his characters.  I don’t know how he does it, but his books never fail to make me deeply uncomfortable.  I realize that’s not for everyone.

fallingwater-2This is certainly true of The Women, a book which, I have to admit, seemed overly – and unusually – simplistic for much of its length before deepening and darkening in its final third.  By telling Frank Lloyd Wright’s story (you know his work: Fallingwater, at right; the Guggenheim Museum; Robie House) through his interactions with four women, Boyle almost seems to be angling for an oddly crass subtext that goes something like this: “Bitches be crazy.”  I’ve always known Boyle to imbue his characters with a rich and complex inner life, so the way the characters, and one in particular (whom I’ll discuss in a moment), are drawn left me with some difficult questions.

Before getting to that shortcoming, though, it’s worth talking about the book’s structure, which is kind of brilliant.  Boyle’s novel focuses, as I said, on Wright’s relationships with four women, but it’s told in the form of a novel written by Tadashi Sato, a fictional apprentice of Wright’s at Taliesin (the architect’s Wisconsin compound), and translated by the equally fictional Seamus O’Flaherty.  So it’s Boyle telling Frank Lloyd Wright’s story through the eyes of four women as related by a Japanese architect and translated by an Irish American author.  Oh, and the whole thing is told in reverse chronological order.  In addition to the narrative possibilities afforded by the unconventional structure, Boyle also has fun with the conceit in other ways, commenting on the occasional floridness of his prose by pawning it off on the translator.  At one point Boyle writes, ” . . . he could think of nothing but the excitement of the affair at hand, the old libidinous fires restoked . . .” and footnotes it with an aside from Sato: “One of those curious overheated phrases of O’Flaherty-San, which we will let stand.”  It’s fun watching an author of Boyle’s talent play. I eat this stuff up.

So the novel begins its first proper chapter (after a lengthy introduction where we meet Sato and Wright and are oriented to life at Taliesin) by telling the story of how Wright met third wife Olgivanna while still married to second wife Miriam; then it skips backward to show us how he met Miriam after the tragic (real-life) murder of his lover Mamah and her two children; then goes backward one step further to show us his introduction to Mamah while still married to first wife Kitty.  It’s not really a book about Wright, except in how we see him reflected in the eyes of Sato and the women who love him, so anyone wanting Wright’s biography will be disappointed (although I certainly learned more about Wright from The Women than I expected).

And that brings me to the problem I mentioned earlier.  The women, as related by Boyle through Sato and O’Flaherty, aren’t particularly likable.  I don’t see this as a problem by itself.  I don’t demand likable characters.  Flawed is good.  Flawed is real.  But Olgivanna, his third wife and thirty years his junior, is really the only one who comes off at all positively (although by the time Sato meets her at Taliesin she’s a stern taskmaster, worn down by life).  Kitty is more or less a non-entity, the spurned wife who won’t grant him a divorce.  Mamah is a pretentious, solipsistic Free Spirit™ who views her affair with Wright as a way of thumbing her nose at conventionality and the patriarchy.  And Miriam, an obsessive, drug-addicted Southern belle, takes up much of the narrative in troubling ways.  She’s given to flights of extreme melodrama, picking fights with Wright, leaving him at the drop of a hat, and eventually stalking him (and resorting to threats and vandalism) when he takes up with Olgivanna during one of their separations.

Maybe all this happened.  Maybe Boyle is playing it straight.  But it does trouble me that none of the women are here to defend themselves.  Miriam especially is painted as such a horrible shrew that I simultaneously felt bad for her and wanted Wright to push her in front of a streetcar.  And that’s kind of a shame, because the book really is otherwise excellent.  Wright (as a character) is certainly fascinating, even while it’s still a mystery to me why he was so popular with the ladies (charisma, I guess; some men have it.), and Boyle relates his various struggles (with money, with building Taliesin and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, with – of course – women) in prose that is as evocative as ever.

And the final third is, as I mentioned at the top, painted in Boyle’s typical shades of black.  Ending with Mamah’s murder (and this isn’t a spoiler; it’s alluded to throughout the book and it’s in the historical record, fer cryin’ out loud) seems in some ways to be an indictment of Wright’s relentless philandering.  Her death is what led to his calamitous relationship with Miriam (they met after she wrote to him upon reading of Mamah’s murder in the news), and it cast a pall over Taliesin for years.  I don’t know if it’s technically the moral of the story – keep it in your pants, boys! – but it’s no accident that Boyle ended The Women with one of their deaths.

The copy on the back of the book reads, “Is it easy to live with a genius?”  The definitive answer seems to be “no.”  But Boyle also makes it clear that it takes a particular kind of woman to want to live with a genius . . . and the result is never going to be good.

*****

Current listening:

Smiths louder

The Smiths – Louder Than Bombs (1987)

Set the Tigers Free

Don savagesThere is, I think, a tendency to feel like good literature has to be hard work for the reader.  If you’re not struggling with complexity of plot or density of language or you’re not busily unraveling the complex web of characters the author has spun, it’s just not worth your time. Like medicine, if literature is to be good for you it can’t taste too sweet or be too easy to swallow.  It has to make you scowl and stick out your tongue.

This is the same kind of rule that largely defines the high school canon, where literature that students might actually be interested in reading is viewed as less weighty, less rigorous, less important, and so it’s jettisoned in favor of the old standbys, the books that conventional wisdom claims will turn students into better people at the expense of any interest they might have in ever picking up another book.  If you’re not a regular reader and what you’re given to read does nothing for you, why would you ever think it could be anything else?  Some authors have recently been pushing back on this notion.  Michael Chabon comes most readily to mind, but there are certainly others who have been dabbling in and endorsing genre fiction, elevating its status and reminding us that a conventional story well told has just as much value as whatever weighty tome the critics are currently lauding.  Put the best of Elmore Leonard against the best of Thomas Pynchon, and I can tell you which I’d prefer 100% of the time.

(Pssssst.  It’s Leonard.)

Don Winslow’s Savages is maybe the best recent example of Chabon’s argument I’ve encountered.  It’s genre fiction through and through, but it’s also a pure adrenaline rush with a knowing smirk, a hard-boiled thriller that borrows stylistic tools from Ellroy and a sense of humor from Vonnegut, if Vonnegut spiked his altruism with a bitter vein of nihilism.  It’s better written than any pitch-black revenge story has a right to be, Winslow’s hyper-kinetic prose shuttling the reader effortlessly between Laguna Beach and Mexico. It’s also a story of nuanced characters and complex motivations.  And, important in the context of my first two paragraphs, it’s an incredibly easy read; 300 pages that go down like a glass of lemonade on a sweaty summer day.

We know what we’re in for from the very beginning.  Here’s the sum total, the entire contents, of Chapter 1:

Fuck you.

From there, Winslow puts his foot to the pedal and doesn’t ease up until he reaches his destination.  It’s short chapters and bare bones, almost poetic, description, such as in a passage that sets up the primary difference between the two main characters.  Chon, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Ben, a quasi-hippie world traveler, are also heavy-duty pot dealers – a drugged-up Abbot and Costello, a THC-infused yin and yang – and Winslow establishes the difference in their worldview thusly:

“Don’t fuck with people at all”

Is a central tenet of Ben’s personal as well as business philosophy.

Ben is a self-described Baddhist, i.e., a “bad Buddhist,” because he sometimes eats meat, gets angry, rarely meditates, and definitely does consciousness-altering substances.  But the basics of Buddhism, Ben is down with –

Do no harm

Which Ben articulates as

Don’t fuck with people.

And he doesn’t think the Dalai Lama would argue with that.

***

Ben strives to be nonviolent and honest in a business that is violent and dishonest.

“But it doesn’t have to be,” Ben has argued.

“But it is,” Chon countered.

“But it shouldn’t be.”

“Okay, but so what?”

Well, so what is that Ben has taken 99 percent of the violence and dishonesty out of his business, but that other 1 percent is –

– where Chon comes in.

Ben doesn’t need to know what Ben doesn’t need to know.

“You’re the American public,” Chon tells him.

And Chon has ample experience with that.

The third corner of this triangle is O (short for Ophelia) a free spirit not too far removed from the manic pixie dream girl template – if that template can stretch to include a manic pixie dream girl who’s a shopping-obsessed, sexually voracious, drug-munching layabout.  She loves both Ben and Chon, and both of them love her, and, in a clever twist, there’s no romantic rivalry.  It’s an idyllic little situation they’ve got going for them, making money hand over fist and drifting from day to day in a haze that may or may not (but usually does) involve weed.  And the occasional threesome.

This is all well and good until the Baja Cartel contacts Ben and Chon and lets them know they’re taking over the duo’s trade.  When Ben and Chon tell them they just want out, full stop, the Cartel (in the form of Elena the matriarch and Lado her right-hand goon) kidnap O and tell Ben and Chon they’ll either work for the Cartel for three years (maintaining their current client base and profits) or they’ll kill O.  Ben finagles a deal where they can buy O’s freedom for $20 million (an estimate of what they’d make for the Cartel in three years), if they can come up with the scratch.

For Chon, it’s a simple equation:

Chon divides the world into two categories of people:

Him, Ben, and O

Everybody Else.

He’d do anything for Ben and O.

For Ben and O he’d do anything to Everybody Else.

With this in mind, and realizing that A) they can’t leave O with the Cartel for three years,  and B) they don’t have $20 million, Ben and Chon make the only reasonable choice: use Chon’s military expertise to start hitting the Cartel’s drop houses and stealing their money which they’ll then launder to buy O’s freedom.

(In Winslow’s hands, it makes perfect sense.)

What follows is a brutal, inexorable battle of wills and wits between Ben and Chon and the Cartel.  It doesn’t necessarily tread new ground – part of the conflict is watching the generally peaceful Ben descend into savagery (notice the title) – but Winslow renders it new through the sheer dexterity of his prose.

It does get a little too self-consciously nudge nudge wink wink at times – O befriends one of her Cartel captors, who asks her to friend him on Facebook when she’s released – but it generally fits the knowing smirk that Winslow brings to a story of human brutality that could easily sink into unrelenting bleakness.

The whole thing is, as dark as it gets, consistently fun and undeniably exhilarating.  I know there are some who would dismiss Savages on that basis alone, but I have a sneaking suspicion that even though it’s only January, Savages will be one of the best books I read all year.

*****

Current listening:

Matt kill

Matt Berry – Kill the Wolf

 

The End Is Still Unclear

Sigler contagiousOne book ago I wrote about the problems facing the middle book in any trilogy.  First books get to do all the expositional heavy lifting, introducing characters and building worlds.  Third books move all the pieces into place for what will, with any luck, be a satisfying conclusion.  Second books are sort of in limbo.  They move the story along, but there isn’t necessarily a narrative expectation they need to fulfill that’s as clear-cut as a beginning or an ending.  For that reason, second books run the risk of standing in place, throwing a lot of obstacles at characters without necessarily accomplishing much.  This was a problem that hit the last book I read, Ransom Riggs’ Hollow City, especially hard.  As I wrote in that review, a lot of stuff happened and none of it mattered.  The characters traveled, some things happened to them, they overcame some challenges, and if the events of the last ten pages had been moved to the beginning of Book 3, nothing in Book 2 would have mattered at all.

Scott Sigler’s Contagious, on the other hand, demonstrates what second books can do in the right hands.  Infected, the first book in his trilogy about a heretofore unknown disease, introduced the key players – CIA agent Dew Phillips; CDC doctor Margaret Montoya; Montoya’s CIA bodyguard, Clarence Otto; and “Scary” Perry Dawsey, a hulking ex-college football player who spent most of the first book dealing with his infection by employing various sharp objects on himself – and explored (often in gruesome detail) the truth about this new disease that first manifests itself in tiny blue triangles on victims’ skin before eventually hatching alien crawlers whose sole purpose is building a gateway that will welcome our alien overlords to the planet.  At the end of the book the first gate is destroyed, Dawsey is in Montoya’s custody for research purposes, and it seems as though disaster has been averted.

Fast-forward four months.  At the start of Contagious, Dawsey has escaped and is single-handedly executing anyone still infected with the disease.  Phillips is tracking him down because Dawsey, as a byproduct of his cured infection, has sort of an extraterrestrial homing device embedded in his brain that both leads him to other infected and clues him in to where other gates may be built.  This becomes especially important once the characters realize the intelligence behind the disease has figured out a way to mutate it in a crucial way that puts the entire planet at risk. (Before going any further, let me acknowledge how ridiculous this all sounds.  Trust me that it makes sense in the world Sigler builds; any preposterousness is due to my poor attempt to encapsulate a 400-page book in a single paragraph.)

So how does Contagious succeed as a second book where Hollow City failed?  First, and most important, it’s down to the characters.  Rather than just have Dawsey go on a rampage a second time, Sigler very cannily moves him from the antagonist column in Book 1 to the protagonist column in Book 2.  Phillips understands that Dawsey is more useful as an ally and guide, and the reluctant friendship that develops between the aging CIA agent and the headstrong former football player is one of the book’s high points.  Montoya develops, too, gradually shedding the idealism and altruism she wore as a badge of honor throughout Infected and in the beginning of Contagious as she slowly comes to realize the hard truth of what it will take to cure the disease.  Unlike Hollow City, where the characters seem to exist in a vacuum, unaffected by the various ordeals they endure, Contagious treats its characters as real people – and real people change in the face of adversity, often in unpleasant ways.

Another way Sigler has been smart with his second book is to take a page from cinema’s playbook.  Like second movies, where filmmakers often take the conflict of the first movie and both recast and amplify it (think Terminator 2; think The Dark Knight), Sigler develops his overarching storyline by extending the capability of the disease – it isn’t about more people discovering they have the disease, it’s about the disease mutating in reaction to what happened in the first book.  In Infected, the intelligence behind the disease placed all its money on Dawsey.  When that falls through, it goes to Plan B in Contagious, infecting a young girl named Chelsea, who responds to the mutated infection in potentially world-ending ways.  The story, then, becomes a race against time, as Phillips and his unexpected partner Dawsey attempt to track down Chelsea while the newly clear-eyed Montoya tries to work out a cure.  It’s a logical extension of the events of the first book, and it goes beyond just throwing more obstacles in the characters’ path, which is really all that Hollow City boils down to.  The movie influence comes across even more dramatically in the last fifty pages.  As the book rushes toward its conclusion, the chapters shorten to cut between the various characters.  The result is an almost palpable momentum, and it’s kind of exciting.

In Contagious, a lot happens and all of it matters.  It’s crucial for story and for character. Like The Empire Strikes Back, the events are vital for understanding the arc of the entire series, and also like that movie, the ending is so bleak it makes me wonder where the series will go next.  If Sigler’s writing is occasionally clunky – and it is, especially when his characters try to be clever and jokey; Elmore Leonard he isn’t – he compensates for it in mastery of plot and pacing.  Contagious manages to be both a self-contained story that stands on its own merits and a satisfying extension of the world Sigler created in Infected.

*****

Current listening:

Echobelly everyone

Echobelly – Everyone’s Got One (1994)

I’ve Got it and it’s Not Worth Having

HollowIn Hollow City, Ransom Riggs’ sequel to his hugely popular Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a lot happens and nothing happens.  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say a lot happens and none of it matters.  It is, above all, a tale of high adventure, the titular odd kids fleeing across Wales to London, a fearsome posse of creatures called wights hot on their heels.  They encounter gypsies and talking dogs and survive Nazi bombs and kill many-tongued creepy-crawlies and it’s all irrelevant.  Because, see, this is the second book in a trilogy, and if there’s one thing that often marks second books, it’s that they’re placeholders.  The first book has to do a lot of heavy lifting what with all the exposition-establishing and character-introducing and world-building.  Miss Peregrine does this brilliantly, bringing us into the world of the peculiar through Jacob, a teenager who discovers time traveling “loops,” and in those loops he finds children with mysterious powers and teachers who shapeshift into birds.  There’s a Neil Gaiman-esque fairy tale quality to the first book, and the vintage photographs scattered throughout it help drag this story of the supernatural into the real world.  I think it’s kind of a stupendous feat.  Third books, by contrast, have purpose because they’re all about resolving conflicts and tying up loose ends.  They’re driving things home, so there’s usually a sense of momentum and intentionality.

But those second books.  They’re all about getting from Point A to Point C, which means Point B, in many ways, involves running in place.  That’s absolutely true of Hollow City.  It’s action-packed, but because the characters all end up more or less where they started – in crisis – there’s a weird stasis to the proceedings.  It’s action that mainly serves to maneuver the playing pieces where they need to be for the third book, so in some ways the plot of the second book doesn’t even matter.  The characters do some things and go some places and overcome some challenges, and, until the last twenty pages, none of it really amounts to anything.

That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining.  Quests, told well, will almost always be worth the read.  And the children certainly have a lot on their plate.  At the start of the book . . .

and these are spoilers, I guess, if you have yet to read the first book in the series

. . . Miss Peregrine, the headmistress and nominal matriarch for all these power-wielding children, has been rescued from the wights who kidnapped her, only she’s trapped in her bird form.  The children know they must find a way to help her regain her humanity, and that’s the quest the book is concerned with.  It takes them from Wales to London in 1940, and along the way they meet the talking dogs and gypsies and assorted other creatures – good and bad – that make up the spine of the book.  It’s never less than interesting, but I couldn’t quite escape the feeling that Hollow City was just marking time.  Even though the wights and the creepy-crawlies (called hollowghasts) are a constant danger, it never really felt like anything was at stake, and because the challenges they faced were just hurdles to clear on their way to the book’s climax, nothing ever seemed particularly consequential.

Like I said, a lot of stuff happens, and none of it matters.

Until the end.  In the closing pages we get an important revelation about Miss Peregrine and, more importantly, Jacob discovers something about the nature of his own powers that promises exciting things for the third book.  But in a lot of ways it’s a case of too little too late.  I can’t complain that much about a book that was generally pretty entertaining, but it’s also sort of a bummer to feel like I just spent 400 pages on the literary equivalent of a treadmill.

*****

Current listening:

Underworld second

Underworld – Second Toughest in the Infants (1996)

Tired Angles Make New Shapes

Percy redWerewolves are kind of a snooze, right?  I mean, as far as monsters go, they’re not super exciting.  What are the great werewolf movies?  Lon Chaney’s eponymous Wolf Man got things started.  There’s The Howling, obviously, and Wolfen.  An American Werewolf in London (but not in Paris). Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves is stylish fun, and Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers is the best recent example. After that?  Do I dare mention Teen Wolf?  100 years of cinema, and the wolf man can manage only a measly six quality films.

I think this is because there’s not much to do with the wolf man story.  Unlike zombies,vampires, and ghosts, which, in skilled hands, can do a lot of allegorical heavy lifting, the werewolf is sort of trapped in the “innocent man struggles with the beast within” paradigm.  This is why movies like Wolf and Joe Johnston’s recent Benicio del Toro-starring The Wolfman are such inert belly flops.  It’s just a repackaged story told over and over again in largely similar ways.  I s’pose I could add Ginger Snaps to my first list for using the werewolf story as a metaphor for a teenage girl’s burgeoning sexuality (a phrase which I personally find more horrifying than any werewolf), but it’s otherwise tricky to break out of the established mold.

And are there any classic werewolf books?  I guess Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf comes close.  Beyond that, I’ve got nothing, although Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon comes close.  It’s a werewolf epic, in case you were wondering if such a thing were possible, spanning a period of several years in the lives of a deep cast of characters and, contradicting what I just wrote, actually doing something different with ye olde wolf man story.

The first thing I’ll say about it is I think Percy does a commendable job of world-building.  Red Moon‘s world is our world, with references to Rodney King and Wilco and Che Guevara and Star Wars, only werewolves – lycans, as they’re called in the book – are common knowledge.  Some live among us (the latest census lists the lycan population at 5.2%), taking Volpexx to prevent their transformation from human to wolf; others live in the Lupine Republic: the werewolf homeland, established in 1948, that lies between Russia and Finland.  Recently, despite this relatively peaceful coexistence, tensions between humans and lycans have risen, caused partially by politicians like Chase Marshall, a presidential candidate who exploits anti-lycan sentiment to his own gain (he wants to create a lycan registry – remind you of anyone?), and partially by the Resistance, a group of lycan rebels not afraid of resorting to violence to achieve parity for their race.  The U.S. military, in charge of keeping the peace in the Republic, doesn’t help things with its presence.

It’s pretty fun to see how Percy so effortlessly establishes this world and then sets it spinning.  I don’t use the word epic lightly.  The cast of major characters is extensive:

  • Patrick, a teenage boy (whose father is stationed in the Republic) who is the lone survivor of the lycan attack that sets the “official” lycan rebellion in motion
  • Claire, a teenage lycan on the run from a shadowy government office seeking to wipe out the lycan rebellion
  • Max, leader of an anti-lycan militia called The Americans
  • Miriam, ex-wife of a prominent figure in the lycan rebellion and Claire’s aunt
  • Jeremy, Miriam’s ex-husband
  • Chase, the previously mentioned presidential candidate with a secret of his own
  • Augustus, Chase’s aide-de-camp
  • Neal, a doctor seeking a vaccine for lobos, the prion disease that turns people into lycans

And on and on.  The book also takes place over the course of several years, so in the case of Patrick and Claire, especially, we watch them grow and adapt to the worsening tension between humans and lycans, which eventually takes on potentially world-ending characteristics.  It’s a werewolf story told on a large canvas, and, as I mentioned above, Percy doesn’t shy away from the metaphoric possibilities of his story.  There’s the anti-lycan politicians (which, in 2013, manage to predict Trump and Cruz and their anti-Muslim grandstanding) and the anti-lycan militia; the “closeted” lycans dealing with a stigmatizing disease that can be managed through regular medication; the U.S. military occupation of a foreign land; and the violent lycan minority that believes violence is the only way to achieve equality.  Rather than tread the well-worn path of other werewolf stories, Percy chooses not to focus on an individual but instead adopts the Robert Altman strategy and examines how different lives serve as individual threads of a much larger tapestry.

Most impressively of all, Percy brings a painterly touch to this epic, investing the action with moments of real beauty.  It’s a world where “soot-black clouds occasionally puls[e] with gold-wire lightning” and feet “make chewed-ice sounds along the shoulder,” where a girl is so pale it looks as though “she had been soaking for years in a bath of moonlight” and, in a moment of rare quiet, a tractor “trundl[es] along with a gray scarf of exhaust trailing behind it.”  Rather than just rush from set piece to set piece, Percy takes the time to let his story breathe.  It’s more well-written than it has any right to be.

I said above that Red Moon “comes close” to being  a classic book.  Like many books of its size, scope, and ambition, some plot threads remain unraveled.  It’s probably unfair of me to want satisfactory endings for every character, but at least one key figure’s story just sort of drops off the map, which seems particularly egregious considering the trials he puts her through earlier in the book.  And some conflicts are resolved too easily.  You can’t set up a pursuit between two characters spanning years and much of a continent and end it so anti-climactically, nor can you have one of the characters passing as one of the book’s antagonists wrap up his arc in flashback, offstage.  And yeah, while the resolution is admirably bleak (I do like me a downer of an ending), it’s so open-ended I can’t decide if Percy didn’t know how to wrap things up or if he’s planning a sequel.  I wanted more finality, which may be more a reflection of my selfishness than a true weakness of the book.

Red Moon is, minor complaints aside, an impressive achievement: an exceptionally well-written page-turner that has more on its mind than just giving the reader a good scare.

*****

Current listening:

Four rounds

Four Tet – Rounds (2003)